Stoic Holiness

Seneca (ca. 4 B.C. to 65 A.D.), a Stoic “wise man,” believes that neither himself nor anything he has is truly his own, but belongs to, another, Dame Fortune, who has allowed him to hold it for a short time:

[The wise man] does not have to walk nervously or cautiously, for he has such self-confidence that he does not hesitate to make a stand against Fortune and will never give ground to her. He has no reason to fear her, since he regards as held on sufferance not only his goods and possessions and status, but even his body, his eyes and hand, and all that makes life more dear, and his very self; and he lives as though he were lent to himself and bound to return the loan on demand without complaint. Nor is he thereby cheap in his own eyes because he knows he is not his own, but he will act in all things as carefully and meticulously as a devout and holy man guards anything entrusted to him. And whenever he is ordered to repay his debt he will not complain to Fortune, but he will say ‘I thank you for what I have possessed and held. I have looked after your property to my great benefit, but at your command I give and yield it with gratitude and good will. If you want me still to have anything of yours, I shall keep it safe; if you wish otherwise, I give back and restore to you my silver, both coined and plate, my house and my household.’ - “On Tranquillity of Mind,” in Seneca: Dialogues and Letters, ed. and trans. C.D.N. Costa (New York: Penguin Classics, rep. 2005), pp. 47-48

Hopefully, however, as one goes to die one will be able to say to Fortune and to Nature that one has, through a lifetime of virtuous living, made better the thing one is giving back – “Should Nature demand back what she previously entrusted to us we shall say to her too: ‘Take back my spirit in better shape than when you gave it. I do not quibble or hang back: I am willing for you to have straightway what you gave me before I was conscious – take it.’ What is the harm in returning to the point whence you came? He will live badly who does not know how to die well” (ibid., pg. 48).

And speaking of life and death:

So we must first strip off the value we set on this thing and reckon the breath of life as somethign cheap….for often the cause of dying is the fear of it. Dame Fortune, who makes sport with us, says, ‘Why should I preserve you, base and fearful creature? You will only receive more severe wounds and stabs, as you don’t know how to offer your throat. But you will both live longer and die more easily, since you receive the blade bravely, without withdrawing your neck and putting your hands in the way. He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man. But he who knows that this was the condition laid down for him at the moment of his conception will live on those terms, and at the same time he will guarantee with a similar strength of mind that no events take him by surprise. For by foreseeing anything that can happen as though it will happen he will soften the onslaught of all his troubles, which present no surprises to those who are ready and waiting for them, but fall heavily on those who are careless in the expectation that all will be well….’What can happen to one can happen to all.’ If you let this idea sink into your vitals, and regard all the ills of other people (of which every day shows an enormous supply) as having a clear path to you too, you will be armed long before you are attacked.- Ibid., pp. 48-49

It’s interesting to me to compare this portrayal of Fortune by a pagan with the use of the same basic concept by a Christian living centuries later. I’ve already quoted these passages in my Dante entry called “An Eschatology To Which History Itself is Subservient (II),” but I think they are worth requoting here for the purpose of contrast. In Inferno VII.67-96, Dante inquires of Virgil:

“Master,” I asked of him, “now tell me too:
this Fortune whom you’ve touched upon just now -
what’s she, who clutches so all the world’s goods?”

And he to me: “O unenlightened creatures,
how deep – the ignorance that hampers you!
I want you to digest my word on this.

Who made the heavens and who gave them guides
was He whose wisdom transcends everything;
that every part may shine unto the other,

He had the light apportioned equally;
similarly, for worldly splendors, he
ordained a general minister and guide

to shift, from time to time, those empty goods
from nation unto nation, clan to clan,
in ways that human reason can’t prevent;

just so, one people rules, one languishes,
obeying the decision she has given,
which, like a serpent in the grass, is hidden.

Your knowledge cannot stand against her force;
for she foresees and judges and maintains
her kingdom as the other gods do theirs.

The changes that she brings are without respite:
it is necessity that makes her swift;
and for this reason, men change state so often.

She is the one so frequently maligned
even by those who should give praise to her -
they blame her wrongfully with words of scorn.

But she is blessed and does not hear these things;
for with the other primal beings, happy,
she turns her sphere and glories in her bliss.:”(Trans. Allen Mandelbaum [New York: Bantam Dell reissue, 2004], pp. 62-63.)”:

Dante rejects the notion that Fortune is an independent goddess, dealing with men in an arbitrary fashion – rather, she is a created minister of God, carrying out His plans, plans which the reason of man cannot fathom. The theme is further developed in Purgatorio XVI.67-81, in Marco Lombardo’s discourse on free will, the relevant part of which is this:

You living ones continue to assign
to heaven every cause, as if it were
the necessary source of every motion.

If this were so, then your free will would be
destroyed, and there would be no equity
in joy for doing good, in grief for evil.

The heavens set your appetites in motion -
not all your appetites, but even if
that were the case, you have received both light

on good and evil, and free will, which though
it struggle in its first wars with the heavens,
then conquers all, if it has been well nurtured.

On greater power and a better nature
you, who are free, depend; that Force engenders
the mind in you, outside the heavens’ sway.:”(Trans. Allen Mandelbaum [New York: Bantam Dell reissue, 2004], pp.148-149.)”:

Dante refutes pagan determinism with the theologically-pregnant notion of human free will which, though truly free, is yet somehow mysteriously derived from and accountable to a “Force” outside of itself so that human beings, though resident within space and time, are, like their Creator Himself, not determined by space and time. The theme of Fortune / Providence / Predestination culminates in Paradiso XIX-XXI, from which three Cantos this excerpt from XIX seems the most important to me:

therefore, the vision that your world receives
can penetrate into Eternal Justice
no more than eye can penetrate the sea;

for though, near shore, sight reaches the sea floor,
you cannot reach it in the open sea;
yet it is there, but hidden by the deep.

Only the light that shines from the clear heaven
can never be obscured – all else is darkness
or shadow of the flesh or fleshly poison.

Now is the hiding place of living Justice
laid open to you – where it had been hidden
while you addressed it with insistent questions.

For you would say: ‘A man is born along
the shoreline of the Indus river; none
is there to speak or teach or write of Christ.

And he, as far as human reason sees,
in all he seeks and all he does is good:
there is no sin within his life or speech.

And that man dies unbaptized, without faith.
Where is this justice then that would condemn him?
Where is his sin if he does not believe?’

Now who are you to sit upon the bench,
to judge events a thousand miles away,
when your own vision spans so brief a space?

of course, for him who would be subtle with me,
were there no Scriptures to instruct you, then
there would be place for an array of questions.

O earthly animals, o minds obtuse!
The Primal Will, which of Itself is good,
from the Supreme Good – Its Self – never moved.

So much is just as does accord with It;
and so, created good can draw It to
itself – but It, rayed forth, causes such goods.:”(Trans. Allen Mandelbaum [New York: Bantam Dell reissue, 2004], pp. 170-171.)”:

Seneca’s capricious goddess Fortune is transformed by Dante into an obedient servant of God, human reason is told the limits beyond which it cannot penetrate, and in the end, Stoic holiness is shown up as a sham. Not an entirely worthless sham, of course – Seneca got some things right here and there, and occasionally manages to sound like the Apostle Paul or some of the Old Testament writers. For the Christian, too, “every condition can change, and whatever happens to anyone can happen to you too” (“On Tranquillity of Mind,” ibid., pg. 49). But for the Christian, unlike for Seneca, “the hiding place of living Justice,” God Himself, guarantees that although all is vanity and chasing after the wind, yet all works together for the good of those who love Him.


This entry was posted in Ancient Rome, Stoicism - Roman. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>