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On the Hardships of Life: The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca
One of the common psychological attitudes of modern life is the belief that the world should generally be a place of fulfillment, enjoyment, and contentment. When, as is often the case, the inescapable tragedy of life cuts against these expectations, we experience it not just as a bitter pill that we must swallow but as a mortal injustice and violation of the natural order of things. If, on the other hand, one believes that one is put on Earth to suffer, and that this pain has an ultimate purpose, it makes the suffering inevitably contained in life less shocking and hurtful. It also makes it easier to treasure the good aspects of existence that one does experience, rather than considering them merely our due and quickly forgetting them after they occur. The widespread belief, implicitly held by most people today, that a broken world should be perfect, is almost certainly a major cause of depression in our time.
People in the past often lived with different assumptions. Seneca the Younger was a Roman statesman and philosopher who was one of the lights of what can be called the Stoic school of thought. So much has changed in the thousands of years that separate the Roman world from today. Yet the same cycle of growth, decay, suffering, gain and ultimate mortality, that face every human being are ultimately the same today as they were then. To the perennial question, “How must I live?,” Seneca had advice every bit as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Seneca taught that one should treat existence as a trial that is intended to toughen the spirit and soul rather than as an abode of enjoyment and pleasure. Taken to an extreme this view could seem fatalistic. But some measure of tragic thinking is probably necessary to live with any satisfaction. Seneca did not want people to bury their hurts too deeply in the inhospitable soil of this world, but instead to think of their existence as a journey through which they would gain vital experience and pass. Although he lived before Christianity and was what you could call a pagan, Seneca did not think that the world was meaningless. Rather, he believed that it was dependent on a higher power outside the material world. All our experiences, good and ill, ultimately emanate from that source, which people have at times called God, and which is training us for the next stage of our existence – whether it be for our own good in this world or in one beyond.
A Stoic does not bewail fortune but accepts and even embraces it. "Let them be harassed by toil and sorrow and loss, so that they can acquire true strength," Seneca wrote. It is not that we should necessarily seek out hardships, but hardships are an inevitable part of existence and so we must have a healthy and accepting attitude to them. An ethical person thinks often of their ultimate fate, which is death. In doing so, they are motivated not to feel gloomy but to focus clearly on their actions to ensure that they are oriented towards lasting things rather than transient ones that will turn to ash in our hands. In case its unclear, really “Thinking like a Stoic” is not some kind of feel-good Silicon Valley/MBA philosophy for toughing it out on your startup funding or having an upbeat attitude towards getting laid off by your job. It’s about keeping a clear eye focused on the ultimate end of ones existence, while accepting suffering as part of the human condition that has some clear or hidden wisdom. So many people live oriented towards ephemera and only discover at the end of their lives how pitifully their time had been wasted. It is entirely possible to gain a headful of white hairs without receiving an ounce of wisdom.
Seneca articulated all this beautifully, though I've heard it before from others in later centuries. Despite his hypocrisies as a Roman elite he also seemed like a decent man from his letters, which contained an implicit message of human equality that one could call egalitarian for its time. From reading his letters it became clear to me how much of Stoic and Roman/Greek philosophy in general carried over into Islam and Christianity through the route of neo-Platonism (I am sure it has resonances in other traditions, including Judaism and the Indic traditions that I am less well-read on). You could call Seneca a religious man, but one major difference between his beliefs and monotheism was the acceptance of suicide by the Stoics. While religious people believe that the soul is harmed by such an act, Seneca found it acceptable to exit life on ones own terms if it became too much to bear.
Until modernity, poetry was the predominant means of learning religion in much of the world, particularly in Islamic countries. There is a poem by Mawlana which I have memorized in the original Persian and which has often been a comfort to me in difficult times that I will share below in translation. Although it was written many centuries after his passing, I believe that Seneca would have approved:
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you outfor some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sentas a guide from beyond.
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