Everyone knows that it is vastly easier to counsel fortitude than to exemplify it. But what was the counsel that made some of the sterling figures of Roman antiquity so sterling? The answer is Stoicism. The two greatest figures of late Stoicism were, respectively, an emperor and a slave: Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. They share the top table of their outlook with Seneca, Cato the Younger, and Gaius Rufus. We have Seneca's writings still; none of the works of Rufus survive, but his influence does; and though Cato did not write, his manner of life served as a model for others of his time.
The essence of the Stoic outlook is this: As regards what you cannot influence – earthquakes, tsunamis, ageing – you must face it with courage. As regards what you can influence – your fears, appetites, desires – you must seek self-mastery. To live with courage towards the outer and self-mastery over the inner is to live, said the Stoics, nobly.
This view has filtered down to us in the form of 'being philosophical' about something. I like to illustrate this be recounting the story of the old lady heard saying to her friend, 'My dear, you must be philosophical about this: don't give it another thought!'
Seneca had eight increasingly difficult years as one of Nero's chief advisors, twice trying to retire from service as this notorious emperor's reign diverged more and more from its early promise of legal and orderly rule (a promise made in Nero’s accession speech, which Seneca wrote). Nero refused to let him go; eventually Seneca was caught up in the Pisonian plot to assassinate the emperor, and Nero ordered him to commit suicide. He complied.
Although controversially entangled in the political in-fighting of the Nero period, Seneca made time to write both philosophical works, mainly in the form of letters, and dramatic works for the theatre. His writings are accessible, graceful, and full of wisdom. The chief of them from the point of view of their Stoic teaching is his Letters to Lucilius. In these, and in his consolatory writings and reflections on the respective merits of an active versus a contemplative life, he argues as follows.
We should not see practice and theory as disjoint, nor therefore the active and contemplative lives as opposed, but instead see that they compose a single whole, each aspect contributing to the good we can achieve. We are all citizens of the world – cosmopolitans – and we are all connected; through the two greatest gifts we have, reason and our natural inclination to friendship, we can benefit each other and foster sentiments of clemency and mutual understanding. We must seek self-knowledge, and must reflect on what is truly good in human life so that we can work with others to promote it. By self-examination we can educate our emotions appropriately to achieve the character of fortitude and self-mastery that distinguishes Stoic wisdom. In the process we can distinguish what is of value, such as health, wealth and love, from what is good in itself: the Stoic life, which we can live even if we lose or do not have the things we value.
Seneca is credited with being among the first to develop ideas about introspection and the will that proved influential among later thinkers such as St Augustine. He was realistic enough to acknowledge that the endeavour to live according to the Stoic conception of a good life is a counsel of perfection; but like others before and after him, he extolled the effort itself as a major part of what it is to live such a life.
Even in times that are more than usually challenging, there are opportunities: to reflect on what matters, on genuinely worthwhile goals, on valued relationships, and on who and what we personally are. The Stoic principles of being courageous and mastering oneself are helpful in this. The real trick is to continue to abide by these principles when the bad times end and the quick-acting human propensity to forget and relapse kicks in.
Which suggests a thought: that Stoicism might be even more necessary then, when the bad times are over, than during them.
Perspectives is a series of essays from Penguin authors offering their response to the Covid-19 crisis. A donation of £10,000 towards booksellers affected by Covid-19 has been made on behalf of the participants. Read more of the essays here.