Seneca to Lucilius: 71, what is virtue for?
Ask yourself that question, ponder it, and you’ll discover interesting — or perhaps disturbing — things about yourself.
What is the most important thing in life? The chief good, so to speak? Ask yourself that question, ponder it, and you’ll discover interesting — or perhaps disturbing — things about yourself. For the Stoics the answer is surprisingly straightforward: virtue, a term that various sources use interchangeably with wisdom (Socrates) or sound judgment (Epictetus). Why would sound judgment be the chief good? Because everything else in your life depends on it. It is your judgment that will lead you to act or not to act this way or that. It is your good judgment that will make it possible for you to take advantage of certain things in life (health, money, reputation), and it is bad judgment that will make you squander or badly use those very same things.
Seneca’s 71st letter to his friend Lucilius takes up this very topic. At the beginning of the letter, Seneca explains why it is important to consider the question:
No one can set in order the details unless they have already set before themselves the chief purpose of their life. … The reason we make mistakes is because we all consider the parts of life, but never life as a whole. (LXXI.2)
We do have a tendency to get preoccupied with the details of life as it unfolds. And there are good reasons for this. I need to make sure that I prepare my lectures in time, or I will neglect my duty to my students. I also need to set aside time for my family, in order not to neglect those I love. And of course I have to pay my bills and taxes. But once in a while I follow Seneca and devote some time to reflecting on the big picture. What am I doing, and why? Where do I want to go, and is that really a good idea?
For Seneca, one of the keys to a good life is to cultivate an attitude of equanimity toward what happens to us. We need to understand and internalize the notion that we are mortal creatures, and that what gives our life meaning is precisely the fact that it is finite. He says:
The stars which you see moving above us, and this seemingly immovable earth to which we cling and on which we are set, will be consumed and will cease to exist. There is nothing that does not have its old age; the intervals are merely unequal at which Nature sends forth all these things towards the same goal. … Why then should I be angry or feel sorrow, if I precede the general destruction by a tiny interval of time? (LXXI.13–15)
Why indeed? Let us focus instead on what we are doing here and now, because this is the only place and time where our agency is efficacious. And how should we comport ourselves? In agreement with Nature, say the Stoics, meaning reasonably and prosocially, since Nature endowed us with those two characteristics in order to make our way into the world. This, in turn, has some unexpected implications:
You may be still more surprised at the following — that reclining at a banquet is an evil, while reclining on the rack is a good, if the former act is done in a shameful, and the latter in an honorable manner. (LXXI.21)
To live prosocially means to always comport ourselves in a manner that does not undermine the human cosmopolis. Whenever we behave shamefully, i.e., unvirtuously, we do just that. That’s why the Stoics say that the sage is “happy” even on the rack (i.e., while being tortured), while she will not be caught enjoying a shameful banquet. Okay, but surely that’s a pretty high bar to set, no? Seneca is perfectly aware of this, and further comments:
It is a mistake on our part to make the same demands upon the wise person and upon the learner. I still exhort myself to do that which I recommend; but my exhortations are not yet followed. (LXXI.30)
Seneca, and the rest of us, keep striving to be better human beings, but we are not sages, and very likely we will never be. And that’s okay, it is the will to improve that is crucial. Besides, even the wise person is still a human being:
You must not think that our human virtue transcends nature; the wise person will tremble, will feel pain, will turn pale, for all these are sensations of the body. (LXXI.29)
What makes someone wise is not superhuman strength, but rather knowledge of the things she cannot avoid and of those she can act on, as well as the courage to act in the right manner. What manner, exactly?
The matter can be imparted quickly and in very few words: “Virtue is the only good; at any rate there is no good without virtue; and virtue itself is situated in our nobler part, that is, the rational part.” And what will this virtue be? A true and never-swerving judgment. (LXXI.32)
Notice the phrase “at any rate there is no good without virtue.” The Stoics were somewhat ambiguous on the point of whether virtue is an instrumental or a final good, as well as on whether it is the chief good, or the only one. Let’s begin with the latter question and then backtrack to the first one.
Chief or only good? Seneca is clearly ambiguous about this in the passage quoted above. In general, the Stoic position is that virtue is the only true good, but other things also have value (axia). What is the distinction? Take, for instance, money. It has value in the sense that if you have it you can do things that you couldn’t otherwise do. But money is not good in itself, it is only good to the extent that you use it for good (e.g., helping other people), and it is bad to the extent that you use it for bad (e.g., corrupting the political process). And as I said at the onset, it is virtue that tells you how to properly use something of value.
Instrumental or final good? This is a bit more tricky, as the Stoics talk as if virtue were a final good, and yet there is reasonable doubt about it. Virtue may be considered a final good because while it makes sense to ask why someone would want money, it doesn’t make sense to ask why someone would want to be virtuous. Virtue is in a category of its own, the highest category of goods, precisely because it determines how we use all other goods. But this also makes virtue into an instrumental good, as it literally is the chief instrument by which we make proper use of things that have value. If virtue is instrumental, what is it instrumental for? A eudaimonic life, that is a life worth living. What am I suggesting, therefore is a threefold division of goods, connected by a logical progression:
Things of value (e.g., money, health) > IF used virtuously > THEN eudaimonia
As Seneca says, all of us non sages have a long way to go before we get there. Accordingly:
Let us press on and persevere. There remains much more of the road than we have put behind us; but the greater part of progress is the desire to progress. (LXXI.36)