This article is part of the weekly Seneca series. New articles will be published every Thursday.
Stoicism is in large part a practical philosophy: it doesn’t concern itself too much with theoretical debates and abstract ideas – even though some of this is necessary – but provides actual guidelines for actually living a good life. A such, the philosophy of Stoicism can be extremely useful and benificial for our lives. In his sixteenth moral letter to Lucilius, Seneca stresses the value of philosophy, starting with this unambiguous statement:
It is clear to you, I am sure, Lucilius, that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom
He continues to glorify philosophy as the ultimate guide of life:
Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind. Countless things that happen every hour call for advice; and such advice is to be sought in philosophy.
After reading this, there can be no doubt that Seneca is convinced that to live a good life, one must study and practise philosophy. Personally, I think the paragraph above is a true work of art – both in form and content. But a good philosopher always questions himself. Seneca starts the next paragraph with a critical question:
Perhaps someone will say: “How can philosophy help me, if Fate exists? Of what avail is philosophy, if God rules the universe? Of what avail is it, if Chance governs everything? For not only is it impossible to change things that are determined, but it is also impossible to plan beforehand against what is undetermined; either God has forestalled my plans, and decided what I am to do, or else Fortune gives no free play to my plans.”
To be honest, this is an objection towards Stoicism that I’ve heard more often and that I have still not been able to completely refute. But by thinking about it, you reach an important point in Stoic philosophy. On the one hand, Stoics believe in a world determined by Nature. On the other, it is up to us to either follow the course of Nature or deviate from it. It may sound contradictory, but one of the main theses of Stoicism is this: we have a free will in a determined world. We have a choice to follow Nature. We have a choice to be bothered by external events. We have a choice to remain calm in the face of adversity and enjoy a happy, peaceful and prosperous life. In the words of Seneca:
[Philosopy] will teach us to follow God and endure Chance.
And that’s valuable! If we keep this in our minds, we may be able to think and act even better than before. If we understand the value of philosophy, then we can be succesful in its practice.
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