In the early years of the first century of our era a popular playwright and politician named Seneca lectured and wrote about a philosophy called stoicism. Here in one of his many letters to a young friend he sums it up: “The only safe harbor in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.”
This outlook is not only life fulfilling, he assured readers and listeners, but the road to happiness. He wrote at a time of political upheaval as Rome changed uneasily from republic to empire at the cost of many lives and social disorder. Thus, he chose as an example of stoicism the champion of the republic Marcus Cato who, confronted with two warring parties for control of the empire, stood his ground against both and fought to the last at the cost of his life. Content with empire, Seneca nevertheless paid tribute to the man who more than any other symbolized the esteemed republic.
On the Grecian sides there was famed philosopher Socrates, who spent his life under various wars and was eventually sentenced to death for poisoning the young with his opinions. He was appropriately executed by poison. Seneca writes that this brutal end had “so little effect this on Socrates’ spirit that it did not even affect the expression on his face. To the very last no one ever saw Socrates in any particular mood of gaiety or depression. Through all the ups and downs of fortune his was a level temperament.” If this was the behavior of a man in extreme stress, stoicism can support those in far less trouble.
Seneca’s stoicism was sorely tested by his times. A popular figure in Rome, he aroused the envy of the violent emperor Caligula, who sentenced him to death, then had second thoughts. The following emperor, the more subdued Claudius, considered execution but decided on an eight-year exile to the island of Corsica, where Seneca wrote some of his plays depicting the horrors of excess passion. Then suddenly came a change in fortune. Agrippina, the ambitious mother of the newly installed emperor, sixteen-year-old Nero, chose Seneca to be his tutor. In that post he failed to tame unruly Nero, who eventually killed his mother along with innumerable others. At the same time, aided by a military commander, Burrus, Seneca skillfully captained the ship of state through perilous times, enacting various legal and fiscal reforms. The later great emperor Trajan commented that Seneca’s five years in charge were among the finest in Roman history.
This abruptly changed when Nero went on a murderous rampage after learning of a plot to overthrow him in which Seneca was involved. Massive executions followed with Seneca drawing the blood from his veins to end his life. Some of the plotters had wanted to elevate him to emperor with the overthrow of hated Nero. Considering the centrality of Rome, that could have effected a change in world history – a dedicated stoic in command of events.
Today’s passions are also intense, though hardly matching the lethality of ancient Rome, at least not yet. One full scale war is under way between Russia and Ukraine, amply supplied by the U.S. Others are threatened, with smaller wars taking place in Syria, Somalia and elsewhere. Stoicism would suggest damping down the passions that lead to these wars as well as staying in self-control as they continue. Stoics are not pacifists, but they want to act rationally, not emotionally. Passions undo us, says Seneca. A good life can be maintained by not giving into emotion. Stoicism to the rescue.