What is Important in Life – Day 6
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. (NQ III, praef. 15)
Day 6 – The Good Fight Against Fortuna
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.
Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Seneca acknowledges the “Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” However, Seneca denies that these constitute what, for Hamlet, is “a sea of troubles.” How? By applying the dichotomy of control (Day 5) as a defense against the vicissitudes of fortune. Seneca declares,
Fortune is at war with me, yet I will not do its bidding; I will not bear its yoke. (51.8)
Seneca continues the passage above by pointing out that our quest for pleasure entails pain, toil, and poverty. When we seek those things which are ‘not up to us’ we fall victim to what Epictetus warned us of (Day 5):
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 it 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… Fortune does not only overturn us: it upends us, and then smashes us. (Letters 8.3-4)
The power of Stoic practice is revealed in the radical application of the dichotomy of control (Day 5) and the perspective obtained from the cosmic viewpoint (Day 2). Stoic philosophy teaches us that virtue is the only good, and therefore, vice is the only bad. Everything else is a moral 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 be happy (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 moral well-being (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 responsible for the most humiliating chores; if he is compelled to endure any other contrivance that is offensive to the sensibilities of a freeborn person?” (On the Constancy of the Wise Person 15.1)
Seneca is declaring that such questions miss the point of Stoic practice altogether. Physical pain, suffering, and public humiliation are real events, and a Stoic will experience real sensations of physical pain. However, none of them can touch the soul of the Stoic unless he or she allows it. Seneca concluded the admonishment above with this profound statement:
We do not deny that being beaten, being struck, or losing a limb is an unfortunate thing, but we deny that all these things are injuries. We remove from these not the sensation of pain but only the name injury, which cannot be sustained with virtue intact. (On the Constancy of the Wise Person, 16.1)
Fortuna may bring great pain and misfortune into our lives; that is ‘not up to us.’ What is ‘up to us’ is our mental attitude as we face Fortuna’s challenges. We get to choose whether those trials we face in life make us bitter or make us better. As I wrote previously,
Providence requires our willing participation so we can become what Nature intends. As Epictetus points out in Discourses 1.6, Hercules was molded by his challenges. Without the lion, hydra, boar, and the unjust and brutal men, Hercules’ true nature would never have been known; those trials revealed his greatness. Likewise our trials will mold us and reveal our excellence of character. That is, if we focus on what is ‘up to us’ and trust the rest to a providential cosmos.
The trials we face in life are the very impetus for us to develop excellence of character. Without such trials, we cannot know, nor live up to, our true potential. As Seneca points out:
To fashion a [Stoic] who can genuinely be called a [Stoic], a stronger fate is needed. For him, the way will not be flat: he must go up and down, he must be tossed by waves, and must guide his vessel on a stormy sea. He must hold his course against fortune. Many things will happen that are hard and rough— but things he can soften and smooth out himself. Fire proves gold; misery, brave men [and women]. (Seneca, On Providence 5.9)
I conclude with an incredibly profound passage from Seneca’s Letters. This passage is worthy of memorization and or keeping close at hand. It truly summarizes what it means to be a Stoic.
The happy person is not the one ordinary people call happy, not the one who has been showered with money, but rather the one whose every good resides in the mind. That one is upright and exalted; he spurns underfoot the objects of wonder; he would not trade his life for any other that he sees. He assesses a person only by that part which makes him a human being. He takes nature for his teacher, regulates his life by nature’s laws, lives as nature has directed. His goods are those no power can strip away; whatever is bad, he turns to good. He is sure in judgment, unshaken, undismayed. There are forces that move him, but none that alarm him. The sharpest, deadliest blows that fortune can inflict do not wound him: he feels but a sting, and that rarely. As for those other darts that assail the human race, those bounce off him like hail hitting a roof, that rattles and then melts without hurting the one inside. (Letters 45.9)
Fortuna is our sparring partner in life; she is not a lightweight, and she will knock us out if we are not prepared. However, as practicing Stoics, we can learn to stand, undaunted, amongst the vicissitudes of fortune. To do so, we must come to understand that externals cannot touch our soul. Through the continued practice of the Stoic spiritual exercises, our inner citadel (Day 1) can truly become impenetrable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
 Rowe, K. (2016) One True Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 22
 Fisher, C. (2015) Providence or Atoms – a very brief defense of the Stoic worldview. http://www.collegeofstoicphilosophers.org/show_book/curriculum/Providence_or_Atom_a_very_brief_defense_of_the_Stoic_worldview20150215