Despite the title of this essay, virtue ethics is not based on rigid rules, like commandments. However, the Stoics did realize the value of lists of precepts that could help them better navigate through life. A major difference between Stoic precepts and actual commandments is that the Stoics came up with their own personalized lists, which are of course more meaningful since they focus on the things that are important for the individual practitioner of the philosophy.
A few months ago we have taken a look at Marcus Aurelius’ ten “commandments” as found in section 18 of book 11 of the Meditations. Today is Seneca’s turn, from section 20 of On the Happy Life:
I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance: I will submit to labours, however great they may be, supporting the strength of my body by that of my mind: I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not; if they be elsewhere I will not be more gloomy, if they sparkle around me I will not be more lively than I should otherwise be: whether Fortune comes or goes I will take no notice of her: I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.
Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly. I will think that I have no possessions so real as those which I have given away to deserving people: I will not reckon benefits by their magnitude or number, or by anything except the value set upon them by the receiver: I never will consider a gift to be a large one if it be bestowed upon a worthy object.
I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience: whenever I do anything alone by myself I will believe that the eyes of the Roman people are upon me while I do it. In eating and drinking my object shall be to quench the desires of Nature, not to fill and empty my belly. I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honourable men half way.
I will bear in mind that the world is my native city, that its governors are the gods, and that they stand above and around me, criticizing whatever I do or say. Whenever either Nature demands my breath again, or reason bids me dismiss it, I will quit this life, calling all to witness that I have loved a good conscience, and good pursuits; that no one's freedom, my own least of all, has been impaired through me.
Seneca is saying that he needs to maintain an attitude of equanimity toward fortune and misfortune, not just in terms of wealth, but even in the face of death itself. He is recalling that he is a member of a human cosmopolis, and that he therefore has duties toward all other human beings, even his enemies. And he is acknowledging that the best course of action is to do everything as if others were watching, because needing to hide something is a pretty good indication that we probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
None of the above, again, should be taken to be the Stoic equivalent of the Ten Commandments, or of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. When the Stoics talk of rules they don’t mean it in the sense of rigid absolutes, but rather in that of flexible heuristics. And Seneca’s list above is not meant to be exhaustive, but is an effective reminder to himself of what he values and why.
The Stoics talked about the usefulness of “precepts,” i.e., practical rules to keep handy in order to be more likely to do the right thing whenever a given circumstance arises. But these precepts only made sense to them from within their overall philosophical system, which was based on a small number of axioms, from which the precepts themselves could easily be derived.
Take, for instance, what Seneca says about eating and drinking “to quench the desires of Nature,” not in order to “fill and empty” his belly. This is a good example of a rule, or precept. But it is a special application, to the issue of eating, of the cardinal virtue of temperance, which is one of the basic axioms of Stoic philosophy.
As an exercise in practical philosophy, read over Marcus’ and Seneca’s lists, then sit down and write your own rules of life, things that make sense to you and are important to you. And most importantly, really try to live up to them.