Seneca: The Wellspring of Goodness
As I write, the world is gripped by its biggest crisis since the Second World War.
A self-replicating organism is rampaging through the bodies of human beings all over the world. People are dying, millions are isolated in their apartments, separated by the threat of this invisible menace.
But while we may have a lot of concern and worry, we are reassured by the goodness of other people in this time of crisis. Selfless medical professionals, volunteers and civil workers are working tirelessly, sometimes at great risk to themselves, to help the sick and anxious get through each day.
We know virtue when we see it. We’re seeing a lot of it now — among all the different cultures of the world from Wuhan to Washington State. We speak many languages but goodness is something we understand instinctively.
What’s easy to spot can be hard to explain. What makes an act good? Is it possible to define virtue without describing it?
Where does “goodness” come from? It’s been debated for thousands of years. There are explanations from the religious to the evolutionary, from the objective to the relativistic.
A religious person may say that acts of virtue are in accordance with a divine law and rewarded in the afterlife. Evolutionists may say that “reciprocal altruism” benefits advanced species like ours.
Seneca’s explanation has endured among Stoics: “virtue is nothing else than right reason.” When we are called to do what is right, we are called by wisdom.
Seneca the Younger was a powerful statesman, a member of the Roman ultra-wealthy elite and a Stoic philosopher. He matured into adulthood in the first century under the emperors Gaius (aka Caligula), Claudius and Nero.
Despite probably being the richest man in the Roman Empire, Seneca had his share of catastrophic lows. The philosopher was given a death sentence by each of these emperors.
Caligula sentenced him to death supposedly out of jealousy, Seneca was so ill that the emperor was informed that execution wasn’t necessary. Claudius commuted a death sentence for adultery to banishment, Seneca spent eight years on the island of Corsica until he was invited back to Rome to tutor the young Nero.
Twice Seneca escaped capital punishment but the third time proved unlucky. Seneca was ordered to kill himself (the typical method of execution among the Roman elite) by his former student. The philosopher — by then an old man — calmly cut his own wrists in a steam bath. He dictated his last words, but they have been lost to time.
Seneca the philosopher
Seneca is one of the most famous philosophers today thanks largely to the letters he sent to encourage fellow Stoics. Most notable of these are the dozens of letters he sent to Lucilius, a good friend. These letters took the form of philosophical essays written with the tacit understanding that they would be made public.
Stoicism already had a rich history by the time Seneca was writing. The philosophy emerged in ancient Athens around 300 years before Seneca was born when Zeno of Citium, a Phoenician (Lebanese) immigrant, began to teach his philosophy under the Stoa Poikile (painted porch) beside the Athenian marketplace (the Agora).
The central tenets of Stoicism were set by Zeno of Citium and the Ancient Greek philosophers that followed him and inherited by the Romans. As a member of the elite class, Seneca was well-schooled in Greek literature and philosophy.
Stoicism was particularly popular among the Roman aristocracy since being made popular in the Republican era (509–27 B.C.). The philosophy in its Roman guise emphasises a selfless dedication to the homeland and its people.
A Stoic maxim Seneca was fond of was “we hide our grey hair with our helmets.” Retirement from civic and military life was not an option for Stoics. A sense of duty was drilled into young Stoics from adolescence.
The appeal of Stoicism to the Roman elite classes was its purpose of finding “Apatheia” — a balanced state of mind — in the midst of life’s setbacks and trials. Apatheia literally means “without passions”, but should not be confused with the modern word “apathy”, which has only negative connotations.
The Greek Stoics inherited the notion from Socrates that reason is the cardinal of all virtues. Put simply, reason is our rational capacity to make sense of the world by thinking and applying logic.
It is in the human being’s nature to reason, the Stoics believed, and it is a trait exclusive to us among animals. Reason was defined by the Stoics as a dialogue of the mind or “internal speech” — the ability to deliberate as if from different perspectives.
Virtue as Reason
As a practising Stoic, Seneca believed philosophy and the application of reason were balms for the wounds of life and the means to find true happiness. This is expounded upon in Seneca’s sixty-sixth letter to Lucilius, given the title “On Various Aspects of Virtue.”
Virtues fall into many broad categories: doing good works and showing fortitude in the face of danger or suffering are category examples under which many kinds of virtue can arise. In the former category are voluntary acts, in the latter category we are responding to whatever crises ourselves and others may find ourselves in.
If different acts of virtue emerge from different situations, are they more or less important? Seneca makes the point that all virtues spring from one source: reason.
What is good in the eyes of reason is intrinsically good. Seneca understands all virtues, from fidelity to fortitude, to be the same since they spring from reason. Virtuous acts are the most rational acts in a given situation.
Moreover, all acts of virtue are equally good, argues Seneca, no matter what circumstances they arise from. This is because all virtue springs from reason and what is rational can be no more or less rational. He wrote:
“The power and the greatness of virtue cannot rise to greater heights, because increase is denied to that which is superlatively great…. What can be added to that which is perfect? Nothing.”
Virtue cannot diminish but is instead “transformed, now into one quality and now into another, shaping itself according to the part which it is to play.”
All acts of virtue, of goodness, are the same since they are the acts that are rational and there are no degrees of rational in the same way that there is “nothing straighter than straight, nothing truer than truth.” There is only one rational decision or course of action given the information available.
This rational perfection as explained by Seneca derives from Stoic spiritual belief. “Reason,” according to Seneca, “is nothing else than a portion of the divine spirit set in a human body.”
Since the divine spirit of God (as a pagan, Seneca calls God “Jupiter”) is perfect, reason is perfect when it realised in action. The Stoics believed that the entire universe has divinity flowing through it in the form of God’s “logos” — meaning logic or speech. The universe is ruled by “providence” — a divine plan. In other words, the universe is rational.
Reason applied by human beings is “copying nature”. To act rationally is to conduct yourself according to how nature is intended to be and since nature is ruled by a divine plan, it is perfection.
Even if we were to strip out the Stoic belief in the divine “logos” of the universe, it’s hard to deny that what is rational is right. Emotions and intuition can be beneficial for the good of ourselves and our community, but they are not consistently beneficial. What is rational is consistently beneficial for the greater good. By showing that acts of virtue are the same, Seneca hoped to demonstrate that virtuous acts spring from reason and reason alone.
As millions around the globe step up to help others, when we are faced with new and novel crises, the ideas of philosophers like Seneca help us understand what virtue is and how we can assess and improve our conduct as citizens of the world.
In the Stoic view the selfless and brave are not given honours in another life. Instead, virtuous acts are rewards unto themselves. To be good is to be reasoned and to be reasoned is to be in harmony with our nature.
The Chinese company
When we are tired and scared as we do good deeds we can take solace in the good itself.
Reason was therefore the wellspring of all acts that are good. By even attempting to understand that, we can hope to do more of it.
Thank you for reading. Stay safe, take care of those who are vulnerable.
If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy my article about Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher: