Through The Glass Darkly

Almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca addressed many of the same difficulties and flukes of fate with which we are now ourselves grappling.

Seneca, born in Spain and educated at Rome, where he lived most of his life, had the misfortune to be appointed tutor to the young emperor Nero, until, suspected of plotting to overthrow one of the most vicious of Roman emperors, he was forced to take his life. Seneca was not a speculative philosopher; he did not devote himself to puzzling out the nature of being. He was a practical philosopher, a thoughtful man who, drawing on his own experience, tried to pass on his insights to others, whom he thought might find them helpful in negotiating the sometimes perilous course of life.

Seneca's central insight is quite a simple one, but one, which, taken to heart, provides us – especially in difficult times – with a way of coping with whatever bad luck or misfortune brings. "Nothing, whether public or private, is stable," he said, "the destinies of men (and women ), no less than those of nations, are in a whirl." What Seneca referred to as fate or fortune, we would call luck, good or bad. He pointed out: "You should take whatever fortune has given you, but realise its security is not guaranteed."

All of this, if we give it a moment's thought, is so true it seems hardly worth saying – unless, of course, we have forgotten it. Seneca's method involves first reminding us of what we have forgotten, and then advising us how to carry on with life. First, Seneca asks us to acknowledge the basic truth that a great deal of what happens to us is subject to chance or fate or fortune or fluke. Whatever freedom we possess is constantly running up against implacable, intractable, indifferent reality. Nature is not kind. Other people can and do hurt us, either through what they do directly, or indirectly through decisions they take that affect us. We are, in other words, in control of very little that happens to us. But - and here is Seneca's luminously simple insight - what we are in control of is how we respond to what happens to us. When we encounter misfortune or bad luck, we are, usually, caught off guard. But, he notes: "An attack we foresee in plenty of time hits us with less impact." Seneca's point is twofold. First, since we are obliged to admit we are very often at the mercy of the unexpected (stock market collapses, earthquakes, plane crashes, the fickleness of the human heart ), our best strategy is to be ready for the unexpected. "Reckon on everything, expect everything," he writes:"Be aware that every human condition is subject to change, and that whatever mishap can befall anyone can also happen to you." More poetically: "Let us prepare for a shipwreck in the port and for a tempest in a calm."

His second point is crucial. Since we are so often victims of fate or caprice or brute reality, our best hope of dealing with it lies in the response we make. We can, says Seneca, give way to spasms of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness, or even galloping paranoia, but this will get us nowhere and make us even more miserable, or we can live with the awareness that the wheel of fortune turns as it will, but that our peace of mind rests entirely in how we respond to what the world throws at us.

Instead of raging, we "turn our hand to the plough" and carry on. "There is no defence in walls and fortifications against the power of fortune. We must provide ourselves within, and when we are safe there, we may be battered, but we will not be taken." Alongside Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, if there is one figure whose work underlies the rise of modern Stoicism, it would be the French philosopher, Pierre Hadot, especially in his book, Philosophy as a Way of Life, in which he develops the argument that ancient philosophers were above all “spiritual directors” - counsellors, models and living guides for students, more concerned with forming the latter’s characters than in dazzling by their conceptual creations or rhetorical finery.

Hadot’s stress on the idea of attention to the present moment as a defining dimension of stoic ethical or spiritual practice, coincidentally brings him close to that other neglected 20th century French philosopher, Simone Weil, who wrote that attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. Philosophy as a way of life.

Barnaby French

Next Week: How Stoicism trumps Mindfulness


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