What is Important in Life – Day 4
What is most important? A mind that is brave and defiant in the face of calamity, not just opposed but hostile to luxury, neither courting nor fleeing danger; one that knows not to wait for fortune but to create it, to go to face both forms unafraid and undismayed, unshaken either by the turmoil of the one or the glitter of the other. (NQ III, praef. 13)
Day 4 – A Courageous Mind for Courageous Action
Too often, people mistakenly assume the equanimity of Stoic practice implies passivity. Seneca destroys any such conception of Stoic passivity in this passage. He declares the Stoic is:
- Brave and defiant in the face of calamity
- Hostile to luxury
- Neither courting nor fleeing danger
- One who knows not to wait for fortune but to create it
Let us now take a brief look at the elements individually and see how they add up to the courageous mind Seneca describes.
Brave and defiant in the face of calamity
After we build an inner citadel in our soul (Day 1), take a cosmic viewpoint of events (Day 2), and learn to love fate (Day 3), we can be genuinely defiant in the face of calamity. As practicing Stoics, we know the events in life which are ‘not up to us’ cannot affect our moral character (virtue) nor can they disrupt our genuine well-being (eudaimonia). On Day 6 of this meditation, we will see Seneca’s brave and defiant battle with fortuna (fortune). For today, we will simply focus on how far the practices from the previous three meditations have taken us and how we can further develop those practices.
Hostile to luxury
Both Seneca and Marcus Aurelius turned away from many of the luxuries their wealth and power afforded them. Some criticize Seneca for not doing it soon enough or to a greater degree. Nevertheless, he did turn to a simpler life in his later years and argues,
One who is serious about [philosophy as a way of life] should choose settings that are conducive to sobriety and clean living. Too much comfort makes the spirit unmanly, and even mere location undoubtedly has some power to ruin one’s strength. Draft animals whose hooves have been toughened by hard ground can travel on any road; those that have been fattened in soft meadows quickly go lame. The soldier who has been posted in steep places becomes ever stronger; the urbanite is a lazy fellow. Hands that go directly from plow handle to sword hilt can handle any kind of work, while those that gleam from manicure and massage give up the minute they have to get dirty. The harsher discipline of some places strengthens one’s spirit and renders it fit for great endeavors. (Letters 51.10-11)
In Letters 16.8-9, Seneca argues that our natural needs for life are minimal; however, when we succumb to the opinions of others our desires become ‘unbounded’, and the only thing we learn is “how to desire more.” How true. Consumerism rules the day in modern times; the more we have, the more we desire to have. We need to heed Seneca’s warning:
Everything we need for our welfare is ready and available, but luxuries come only at the cost of misery and trouble. (119.15)
In addition to moderation, Seneca proposes physical training as a part of Stoic practice:
Set yourself a period of some days in which you will be content with very small amounts of food, and the cheapest kinds, and with coarse, uncomfortable clothing, and say to yourself, “Is this what I was afraid of?” (Letters 18.5)
Why do we need physical training? As preparation for what may come; it is the physical counterpart to praemeditatio malorum (contemplating misfortune and death in order to prepare for it). Additionally, according to Seneca, we need physical training because “we are steeped in luxuries, and think everything harsh and difficult.” Physical training helps us “wake the mind from sleep” and serves to “pinch it, and remind it of how little our nature actually requires” (Letters 20.13). Otherwise, we run the risk of drowning ourselves in pleasures, because we have grown so accustomed to them that we “can no longer do without them.” At that point, Seneca suggests, we cease enjoying our pleasures and become “slaves to them.” Seneca closes this passage with an ominous warning: “Once vice becomes a code of conduct, there ceases to be any possibility of cure.” (Letters 39.6)
The Greek word askesis (exercise) is used to describe both spiritual training and physical training; both are a part of Stoic practice. Nevertheless, Stoic askesis is not an extreme form of asceticism, like that of mystics and religious ascetics, designed to mortify the body. Stoic ascetic practices are intended to discipline the body so it is prepared for hardship. They are the physical counterpart to mental practices and is a part of the Stoic spiritual exercises. For the Stoic practitioner, moderation is the key. However, it becomes quite obvious from reading the Stoics that many Westerners have become so decadent that Stoic moderation will seem like asceticism to them.
Neither courting nor fleeing danger
Here, Seneca advocates moderation regarding danger. The Stoic, he suggests, does not seek it out, nor does he run from it. Courage is a virtue for Stoics. Chrysippus defined courage as follows:
“Courage,” he says, “is knowledge as concerns things to be endured” or “a condition of mind which is obedient without fear to the highest law with respect to suffering and endurance.” (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 4.53)
Courage, like each of the other virtues (prudence, justice, and moderation), is difficult to separate and analyze by itself. The virtues are interdependent and entail each other. Therefore, for any act a Stoic would deem virtuous, it is typically easy to see more than one virtue being applied. Moreover, virtue ethics does not offer simple, ready-made rules for action like consequentialist and rule-based ethical theories do. Virtue ethics depend on the wisdom of the person to make the best decision based on all the facts available to them. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that Seneca offers his decision to go on living, in spite of his desire to commit suicide, as an example of courage (Letters 78.2). Then, he offers Cato’s suicide as an example of courage:
Cato’s final and supremely courageous wound through which freedom dispatched his spirit (Letters 96.72)
One who knows not to wait for fortune but to create it
Even if we overlook Cato’s suicide, he provides us with a poignant example of a courageous Stoic mind. Cato did not wait for fortune; he did not succumb to the misconceived que sera sera attitude of love of fate. Cato was the co-creator of his fortune. He devoted his life to saving the Roman Republic. He fought Caesar in the Senate and on the battlefield to prevent his tyrannical ascent to power. However, fate had other plans. Cato struggled against tyranny while living the Stoic virtues, which were in his control, and accepting his fate, which was not in his control, when the time came.
As Stoics we cannot know the outcome of our actions; our good intentions and acts may not succeed from our limited perspective. We must keep in mind that our only responsibility is to act virtuously, allow fate to do what it will, and then love the outcome. To live this way requires a courageous mind willing to commit to courageous action when virtue demands it. Stoics do not sit passively and await their fate; they are co-creators of their fortune.
Some questions to consider today:
- Am I mentally prepared to face financial destitution, physically disability, or an equivalent calamity?
- If not, what am I waiting for?
- Am I addicted to luxury?
- What can I do today to practice moderation?
- What regular physical practices can I implement to prepare myself for physical hardship?
- Do I courageously co-create my fortune, or do I tend to wait for things to happen?
- What action can I take today, even if it is small, that will make me the co-creator of my fortune?