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What Is Important in Life? Day 6 – Episode 22


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The Good Fight Against Fortuna What is most important? Raising your spirits high above chance events; remembering your human status, so that if you are fortunate, you know that will not last long, and if you are unfortunate, you know you are not so if you do not think so. (Natural Questions III, praef. 15) Fortuna—fortune in English—is a prevalent theme in Seneca’s writing. He uses some form of the word more than two hundred times in his Letters and more than twenty times in Natural Questions. As one scholar notes, If we were to search for Seneca’s language that at one and the same time captured the nature of the world and human experience within it, the main word upon which we would land would doubtless be Fortuna. Fortuna and all that it invokes provide the organizing grammar of Seneca’s world. It is the overarching cosmological context in which all human life is lived.[1] Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Seneca acknowledges the “Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” However, Seneca denies that these constitute “a sea of troubles.” How? By applying the dichotomy of control and trusting in a providentially ordered cosmos as a defense against the vicissitudes of fortune. Seneca declared, The wise person is still not harmed by the storms of life— poverty, pain, and the rest. For not all his works are hindered but only those that pertain to others. He is himself, always, in his actions, and in the doing of them he is greatest when opposed by fortune. For it is then that he does the business of wisdom itself, which as we just said is his own good as well as that of others. (Letters 85.37) However, we must keep in mind the fact that the dichotomy of control is not just a promise; it is also a warning. Whenever we desire those things that are “not up to us” we risk becoming a victim of Epictetus’ poignant warning: You’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind, and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings. (Enchiridion 1) Seneca offers a similar warning for those who chase things that are “not up to us.” As he admits, he came to this realization late in life, after he had chased “those things that please the many” until they made him weary. The right path, which I myself discovered late in life when weary from wandering, I now point out to others. My cry is this: “Avoid those things that please the many, the gifts that fortune brings. Be suspicious; be timid; resist every good that comes by chance. It is by the allurements of hope that the fish is caught, the game snared. Do you think these are the blessings of fortune? They are traps. Any one of you who wants to live in safety must make every effort to shun those baited favors amidst which we, poor creatures, are deceived. We think we have hold of them, when in fact they have hold of us. (Letters 8.3) As noted in the previous episode, the life-transforming power of Stoicism lies in the application of two fundamental Stoic doctrines: the dichotomy of control and a love of fate engendered by trust in a providentially ordered cosmos. Stoic philosophy teaches us that virtue is the only good, and therefore, vice is the only bad. Everything else is morally indifferent. In Stoicism, virtue (excellence of character) is measured by our thoughts and intentions alone. When the Stoics famously declare that the wise person can experience well-being even while being tortured on the rack, they do not deny the reality of physical pain and suffering. They are simply pointing out the profound truth that physical well-being is not a necessary element of the moral well-being derived from virtue. Seneca admonishes, Stop saying, therefore: “Will the wise person not receive an injury, then, if he is cut, if his eye is gouged out? Will he not receive an insult if he is jostled through the forum with abusive taunts by foul-mouthed men; if, at a king’s banquet, he is ordered to recline beneath the table and to eat with the slaves who are responsibl...

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