Satyagraha

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Seneca – Quotes on Adversity

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HE Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) knew a thing or two about adversity.  He was beset by adversity even when he tried to commit suicide after Nero turned against him. Here are some of his quotes on the topic I’ve collected over the years.  Seneca’s Moral Epistles make for great reading. Especially to recommend are On Anger and On Providence.

Unimpaired prosperity cannot withstand a single blow; but he who has struggled constantly with his ills becomes hardened through suffering, and yields to no misfortune.
~ Seneca, On Providence 2.6

Do you wonder if that God, who most dearly loves the good, who wishes them to become supremely good and virtuous, allots to them a fortune that will make them struggle? For my part, I do not wonder if sometimes the gods are moved by the desire to behold great men wrestle with some calamity.
~ Seneca, On Providence 1.2.7

It is the unexpected that puts the heaviest load upon us. Strangeness adds to the weight of calamities, and every mortal feels the greater pain as a result of that which also brings surprise.  Therefore, nothing ought to be unexpected by us.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.3-4

Chance chooses some new weapon by which to bring her strength to bear against us, thinking we have forgotten her.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.5-6

Oftentimes a reverse has but made room for more prosperous fortune. Many structures have fallen only to rise to a greater height. [Multa ceciderunt, ut altius surgerent.]
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.13

Let the mind be disciplined to understand and to endure its own lot, and let it have the knowledge that there is nothing which Fortune does not dare.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.15

Nevertheless, you should not believe those whose noisy clamour surrounds you; none of these things is an evil, none is beyond your power to bear, or is burdensome. It is only by common opinion that there is anything formidable in them.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.19

Beware of aggravating your troubles yourself, and of making your position worse by your complaints.  Grief is light when not exaggerated by the idea, and if we encourage ourselves, saying “it is nothing,” or at least, “it is of small moment; let us endure it, it is about to stop,” we render pain light by thinking it so.  Yes; pain becomes light when we are able so to look at it, when we do not draw concentric circles around it, such as my patient ingeniously described; when we do not multiply it by fear.
~ Seneca, Epistle 68

Virtue alone affords everlasting and peace-giving joy; even if some obstacle arise, it is but like an intervening cloud, which floats beneath the sun but never prevails against it.
~ Seneca, Epistle 27.3

Allow any man who so desires to insult you and work you wrong; but if only virtue dwells with you, you will suffer nothing.
~ Seneca, Epistle 71

The wise man, indeed, overcomes Fortune by his virtue.
~ Seneca, Epistle 71

But no wall can be erected against Fortune which she cannot take by storm; let us strengthen our inner defences.
~ Seneca, Epistle 74

Call it Nature, Fate, Fortune; all these things are names of the one and the self-same god.
~ Seneca, On Benefits 4.8

So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, — for the reward is not a garland or a palm or a trumpeter who calls for silence at the proclamation of our names, but rather virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time, if Fortune has once been utterly vanquished in any combat.
~ Seneca, Epistle 78

The acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles.
~ Seneca, Epistle 17

If a man is to know himself, he must be tested.
~ Seneca, On Providence

God hardens, reviews, and disciplines those whom he approves, whom he loves.  Those, however, whom he seems to favour, whom he seems to spare, he is really keeping soft against ills to come.
~ Seneca, On Providence

There is no such thing as good or bad fortune for the individual; we live in common.  And no one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbour, if you would live for yourself.
~ Seneca, On Quibbling

What was grievous to endure is sweet to  remember.
~ Seneca. Hercules Furens, Act 3, 656.

Shall I tell you what the real evil is? To cringe to the things that are called evils, to surrender to them our freedom, in defiance of which we ought to face any suffering.

There are more things to alarm us than to harm us, and we suffer more often in apprehension than reality.

He who is brave is free.

It is more fitting for a man to laugh at life than to lament over it.

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.

When the odds are matched, blows fall light;

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.

A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.

Brave men rejoice in adversity.

Constant exposure to dangers will breed contempt for them.

No untroubled day has ever dawned for me.

Nothing is so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness is it to be expecting evil before it comes.

The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity.

The pressure of adversity does not affect the mind of the brave man… It is more powerful than external circumstances.

There is nothing in the world so much admired as a man who knows how to bear unhappiness with courage.

We become wiser by adversity; prosperity destroys our appreciation of the right.

You learn to know a pilot in a storm.

 

Written by John Uebersax

January 23, 2020 at 1:20 am

Plato Not a Moral Absolutist (or a Relativist)

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PLATO is often wrongly associated in people’s minds with moral absolutism — that is, with the position that there are definite, absolute rights and wrongs, and, as a result, that human morality involves universal rules for things we should always or never do. However this view is mistaken. Plato’s moral theory, in fact, relies intimately on the principles of balance and proportion. Although Aristotle is usually considered the originator or populizer of the concept of virtue as a golden mean between opposite extremes, this principle is prominently featured earlier in the works of Plato, his teacher.

In the Republic, Plato’s magnificent and magisterial work on personal morals (civil politics is by no means its central theme), he supplies an important summary at the end of Book 9.  The entire preceding discussion was aimed at answering two questions: (1) who is the righteous person? and (2) is the righteous person happier than the unrighteous?  In his summary Plato supplies this key principle:

When the entire soul accepts the guidance of the wisdom-loving part and is not filled with inner dissension, the result for each part is that it in all other respects keeps to its own task and is just, and likewise that each enjoys its own proper pleasures and the best pleasures and, so far as such a thing is possible, the truest. (Republic 9.586e−587a; tr. Shorey; italics added; cf. Philebus 64d−e).

What he means is that, for example, if one emphasizes sensory pleasures or gratification of biological appetites too much at the cost of, say, work or intellectual activity, one creates inner disharmony and strife.  To illustrate this is the whole point of the elaborate city-soul analogy of the Republic; the idea is that our soul is like a city with many factions, and if one faction is overindulged, strife results.

Besides being bad in itself, inner strife has the result, Plato tells us here, of diminishing all pleasure.  Disproportionate indulgence has the effect of blunting and dulling ones experience of the pleasure.  For example, although drinking a small glass of rare wine may be a genuine pleasure, to consume half a bottle dulls the senses, lessening or eliminating the pleasure.  But on top of that, intentional overindulgence may produce inner, mental strife, and this agitation, which reduces our clear and focused attention, will further lessen the pleasure.  On the other hand, if we make a discerning choice to indulge an appetite to the exact right measure, then we may experience the best and truest form of the associated pleasure.

Hence our goal at all times should be to reach and maintain a state of harmony and balance within our soul, so that we may both (1) have the fullest level of mental integrity and clarity, meting out pleasures with wisdom and discernment, and (2) then to enjoy well-measured pleasures fully.  Seeking pleasures is natural and normal, provided they not subvert the more fundamental need to maintain a healthy-minded and virtuous disposition of ones psyche:

The entire soul, returning to its nature at the best, attains to a much more precious condition in acquiring sobriety [sound-mindedness; sophrosyne] and righteousness [dikaiosyne] together with wisdom [phronesis] . . . Then the wise man will bend all his endeavors to this end throughout his life; he will, to begin with, prize the studies that will give this quality to his soul and disprize the others . . . but he will always be found attuning the harmonies of his body for the sake of the concord in his soul . . . He will . . . keep his eyes fixed on the constitution in his soul, and taking care and watching lest he disturb anything there either by excess or deficiency. (Republic 9.591 b−e; tr. Shorey; italics added)

Nor is Plato a Relativist

Nevertheless, neither can it be said that Plato is a moral relativist. His ethics, in fact, offer a third alternative (tertium quid) to moral absolutism and moral relativism.

What is non-relative is his overriding principle that harmony and sound-mindedness, and other such things which promote clear perception of justness and rightness, are absolute and objective criteria for right action.  While the same action (e.g., to drink a glass of wine) may be righteous or unrighteous in different circumstances, the overriding principle by which it may be deemed just and right — i.e., the promotion of inner harmony and ability to see truth, justice and beauty relative to circumstance — does remain the same. And this is much different than moral relativism.  Justice as harmony for Plato is understood as an objective and immutable cosmic principle.

This fits generally with Plato’s marvelous integrality, such that he is able to resolve and find answers to life’s pressing existential questions by transcending dichotomies.