Seneca to Lucilius: 66, on the nature of virtue

[image: Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), The Choice of a Boy between Virtue and Vice, Wikimedia Commons; this is essay #258 in my “Philosophy as a Way of Life” series]

What is virtue? There is a lot of renewed talk about virtue these days, not just within the Stoic community, but from op-ed writers who tell us that what is wrong with contemporary society is that we no longer care for virtue, no longer cultivate it, no longer make it the centerpiece of our existence. Seneca, in his 66th letter to his friend Lucilius, gives this apparently cryptic answer:

“Virtue is nothing else than right reason.” (LXVI.32)

So virtue has a lot to do with reason, but it is not simply equivalent to reason. It has to be “right” reason. What does that mean? The notion that virtue is linked with the ability to reason derives from the fact that we praise or criticize actions only if they result from deliberation, which requires the ability to reason. We don’t say, for instance, that a lion is immoral because he kills another lion’s cubs when he takes over a harem. That’s natural instinct, not reason, and it would be a category mistake to say that the lion is immoral (pace, of course, endless Disney movies in which animals are shamelessly anthropomorphized).

Then again, we don’t say that everything done by a creature endowed with reason is virtuous. Cheating — at whatever activity and in whatever situation — is a deliberate action of betrayal of another person’s trust, carried out by a fellow human being capable of reason. And yet we call the action vicious, not virtuous.

The “right” qualifier in the above quote comes from the Stoic notion that a good human life is one lived “in agreement with nature,” meaning human nature. And since for the Stoics the two fundamental aspects of human nature are our ability to reason and our high degree of sociability, “right reason” means social reason: virtuous actions are those that improve the human cosmopolis.

Stoic ethics, then, is a type of naturalistic ethics, akin to the one put forth by modern philosophers such as Philippa Foot in her “Natural Goodness.” Foot rejects the two prevalent contemporary notions of morality: on the one hand, it makes little sense to talk about moral truths as if they existed “out there,” independently of the human mind (moral realism); on the other hand, it is highly unhelpful to say that moral judgments are just expressions of opinions without any normative force (moral relativism and moral emotivism), analogous to saying “I like chocolate gelato.”

The idea of a naturalistic ethics should not be particularly surprising or controversial. Essentially, says Foot, just in the same way in which there is a range of good and bad lives for a plant, or a frog, or a lion, so there is a range of good and bad lives for a human being. And we discover what is and is not good for us by a combination of reflection (i.e., philosophy) and empirical evidence (i.e., science). The Stoics and other Hellenistic philosophers simply anticipated this notion by a couple of millennia.

Back to letter 66. Seneca says something that appears to be rather bizarre, but then qualifies it so to get across a crucial point of Stoic philosophy:

“Joy and a brave unyielding endurance of torture are equal goods; for in both there is the same greatness of soul relaxed and cheerful in the one case, in the other combative and braced for action. … ‘What then,’ you say; ‘is there no difference between joy and unyielding endurance of pain?’ None at all, as regards the virtues themselves; very great, however, in the circumstances in which either of these two virtues is displayed. (LXVI.12, 14)

Stoics are not as crazy as to claim that there is no difference between joy and pain, and when they famously say that the wise person is happy even on the rack (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, X.117-118) they mean precisely what Seneca is explaining here. Joy is, obviously, preferable. But it needs to be handled virtuously. Pain is, equally obviously, not welcome. But if it comes, it just the same needs to be handled virtuously.

For instance, the pleasure brought by a good meal requires temperance (e.g., eating small portions, savoring the dishes slowly, etc.), or it becomes an excuse for gluttony and something that is actually not good for your health. Likewise, the pain you endure when you are sick requires the fortitude to bear it (because it’s in the nature of sickness to be unpleasant) and the willingness to still treat others with fairness, especially your caretakers (because it’s not their fault that you are sick). Seneca is explicit on this count:

“There is great difference between joy and pain; if I am asked to choose, I shall seek the former and avoid the latter. The former is according to nature, the latter contrary to it. So long as they are rated by this standard, there is a great gulf between; but when it comes to a question of the virtue involved, the virtue in each case is the same, whether it comes through joy or through sorrow.” (LXVI.19)

This may come as a surprise, if you have been laboring under the spell of a number of common stereotypes about Stoicism. But yes, Stoics seek pleasure and avoid pain! The (big) caveat is that we do this always while keeping in mind that the top priority is to act virtuously. Which sometimes will require us to forgo some pleasures and to endure some pain.

Another aspect of virtue touched upon by Seneca in his 66th letter concerns a controversial doctrine the Stoics inherited from Socrates: the so-called unity of virtue:

“Tranquillity, simplicity, generosity, constancy, equanimity, endurance. For underlying them all is a single virtue — that which renders the soul straight and unswerving.” (LXVI.13)

We normally talk of virtues in the plural. The four cardinal ones in Stoicism are practical wisdom (the knowledge of what is truly good or bad for us), courage (in the moral sense), justice (i.e., fairness toward others), and temperance (doing things in right measure). Other schools of thought regard these and other virtues as distinct character traits, so that there is no contradiction, say, in someone being both courageous and unjust.

For the Stoics, though, the virtues are really different manifestations of one underlying aspect of human thought and action: wisdom in the broad sense. That is why the Stoics often use the terms wisdom and virtue (as well as [right] reason, as explained above) as synonyms. So one cannot — on penalty of logical contradiction — be courageous and yet unjust, because courage is understood as the courage to do the right, meaning the just thing.

Virtue also has no regard for the external attributes of people:

“Come now, contrast a good man who is rolling in wealth with a man who has nothing, except that in himself he has all things; they will be equally good, though they experience unequal fortune.” (LXVI.22)

Wealth is a preferred indifferent for the Stoics, meaning that — by itself — it is morally neutral. Being wealthy doesn’t make you a good person, just as being poor doesn’t make you a bad person. You would think this to be blindingly obvious, and yet we live in a society, in the 21st century, where still a lot of people equate good luck with moral worth and, even more perniciously, bad luck with moral failing. It is worth noting that though the Stoic take is different from the Christian one — check out, for instance, Matthew 6:24 — Seneca himself says elsewhere (Letter CXIX.9) that being rich poses a threat to virtue, because someone will constantly have the temptation to increase his wealth in unethical manners (e.g., by exploiting his workers and depriving them of benefits), or to use his wealth in an unvirtuous fashion (e.g., by bribing politicians to write laws favorable to his company).

In the end, it all comes down, again, to [right] reason:

“It requires the same use of reason, I am fully aware, for someone to endure prosperity well and also to endure misfortune bravely.” (LXVI.50) 
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 18 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 18 exclusive posts