What they find honorable

Good people will do what they find honorable to do, even if it requires hard work; They’ll do it even if it will bring danger. Again, they won’t do what they find base, even if it brings wealth, pleasure, or power. Nothing will deter them from what is honorable, and nothing will lure them into what is base.

~ Seneca

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Virtue and adversity

I may wish to be free from torture, but if the time comes for me to endure it, I’ll wish to bear it courageously with bravery and honor. Wouldn’t I prefer not to fall into war? But if war does befall me, I’ll wish to carry nobly the wounds, starvation, and other necessities of war. Neither am I so crazy as to desire illness, but if I must suffer illness, I’ll wish to do nothing rash or dishonorable. The point is not to wish for these adversities, but for the virtue that makes adversities bearable.

~ Seneca

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Not fortuitous

If [the gods] had made philosophic knowledge also a common attribute and we were all born wise, then wisdom would have forfeited its principal quality, which is that it is not fortuitous. What is precious and magnificent about it is that it does not merely happen to people but that the individual is himself responsible for it and cannot obtain it from others.

~ Seneca, from letter on Philosophy and Progress

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Be your own prosecutor

You must catch yourself. Some people boast of their failings; Do you suppose a man who counts his vices as virtues can take thought for remedying them? So far as you can, then, be your own prosecutor, investigate yourself, function first as accuser, then as judge, and only in the end as advocate. And sometimes you must overrule the advocate.

~ Seneca

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Temper one another

Another reprehensible pair is the man who is never at ease and the man who is always at ease. Bustle is not briskness but the agitation of a turbulent mind. And disdaining all activity as a nuisance is not ease but enervation and inertia. … The two attitudes should temper one another: the easy going man should act, the active man take it easy. Consult nature: she will tell you that she created both day and night.

~ Seneca

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Adverse fortune

No one is crushed by adverse Fortune who has not first been beguiled by her smile. Only those who become enamored of her gifts as if they were their own forever, and expect deference because of them are prostrated by grief when the deceitful and ephemeral baubles abandon empty and childish minds ignorant of every abiding satisfaction.

~ Seneca, from Consolation of Helvia

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Uneasy pleasures

Why are their pleasures uneasy? Because the motives upon which they are founded are not stable and they totter with the frivolity which gave them birth. … Laboriously they attain what they desire, anxiously they hold what they have attained, and in the meanwhile irrecoverable time is not taken into consideration.

~ Seneca

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More reason to worry

For even peace itself will supply more reason for worry. Not even safe circumstances will bring you confidence once your mind has been shocked—once it gets in the habit of blind panic, it can’t provide for its own safety. For it doesn’t really avoid danger, it just runs away. Yet we are exposed to greater danger with our backs turned.

~ Seneca

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He who is not even looking

Don’t expect, then, that you can sample the masterpieces of great minds by way of summaries; you must examine the whole, work over the whole. Their structure is a totality fitted together according to the outlines of their special genius, and if any member is removed the whole may collapse.

That is why we give boys apothegms, what the Greeks call chriai, to learn by heart, because the childish mind, which cannot comprehend more, is able to grasp them. But for a man advanced in study to hunt such gem is disgraceful; he is using a handful of clichés for a prop and leaning on his memory; by now he should stand on his own feet. He should be producing bons mots, not remembering them. It is disgraceful for an old man or one in sight of old age to be wise by book. “Zeno said this.” What do you say? “This Cleanthes said.” What do you say? How long will you be a subaltern? Take command and say things which will be handed down to posterity. Produce something of your own. All those men who never create but lurk as interpreters under the shadow of another are lacking, I believe, in independence of spirit. They never venture to do the things they have long rehearsed. They exercise their memories on what is not their own. But to remember is one thing, to know another. Remembering is merely overseeing a thing deposited in the memory; knowing is making the thing your own, not depending on the model, not always looking over your shoulder at the teacher. “Zeno said this, Cleanthes that”—is there any difference between you and a book? How long will you learn? Begin to teach! One man objects, “Why should I listen to lectures when I can read?” Another replies, “The living voice adds a great deal.” It does indeed, but not a voice which merely serves for another’s words and functions as a clerk.

There is another consideration. First people who have not rid themselves of leading-strings follow their predecessors where all the world has ceased to follow them, and second, they follow them in matters still under investigation. But if we rest content with solutions offered, the real solution will never be found. Moreover, a man who follows another not only finds nothing, he is not even looking. What is the upshot? Shall I not walk in the steps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old path, but if I find a shorter and easier way I shall make a new path. The men who made the old paths are not our suzerains but our pioneers. Truth is open to all; it has not been pre-empted. Much of it is left for future generations.

~ Senece, from Letter 33, Maxims

This is Seneca at his mic-drop best. (Unlike the borderline torturous silver point style you also see quoted from on occasion.) Here he’s writing a personal letter to one of his long-time students.

If it’s made you perk up, I recommend digging into this letter further by reading, On the Futility of Learning Maxims, overs on the Stoic Letters web site. That’s also a great introduction to the nuance of translating these very old works; there are significant differences between M. Hadas’s translation circa 1958 and whatever translation Stoic Letters is using, (I looked, but it’s not clear to me.)

Obviously the thread I’m tugging on here is meta: It’s one thing to nod along in the audience of a performance— “yes yes yes I agree I’m doing that yes.” It’s quite another to stand up, and ask to speak next. It was about 10 years ago that I began this blog, and about 5 years ago that I began seriously devoting intentional effort to creating something here.

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I’m not sure that I’m setting much of an example. But trying to walk-the-walk has definitely helped me.

In the spirit of the season: Go read this next, What do you do for fun?

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All that will be

Let me tell you, then, how you must think of me. I am as happy and lively as in my best days. Indeed, these days are my best, for my mind is now free of preoccupations and has leisure for its own concerns; now it amuses itself with lighter studies and now, pressing keenly after truth, it rises to the contemplation of its own nature and the nature of the universe. First it investigates the continents and their position, then the laws which govern the sea which surrounds them with its alternate ebb and flow, and then it examines the stretch which lies between heaven and earth and teems with such tumultuous and terrifying phenomena as thunder and lightning and gales and the precipitation of rain and snow and hail. Finally, when it has traversed the lower reaches, it bursts through to the realms above where it enjoys the fairest spectacle of things divine and, mindful of its eternity, moves freely among all that was and all that will be world without end.

~ Seneca, from Consolation of Helvia (20)

This type and period of writing is referred to as “silver point.” It’s highly polished, almost performance art in itself. Some pieces of silver point—including in my opinion swaths of Seneca’s writing—are tortuous to the language. (As I understand it, tortuous in the original as well as the English.)

What I’ve quoted is the ending of his letter. 2,000 years later, sounds to me like the human experience remains identical.

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