by Alberto Frigo
In this essay I present what I believe to be the 10 Stoic precepts. These precepts are recurrent topics found in the letters that Seneca wrote to his friends. These precepts bring forward the figure of a stoic. They are meant to generally address him towards virtue. In this respect, while a law dissuades us from committing a crime, a precept invites us to accomplish our duty as humans. Following these precepts, one is likely to be able to organize his moral life and live honestly. This article elaborates on the various precepts and ultimately reflects on what it is to be a stoic today, where many tendencies of self-examination are emerging, like life-logging and Quantified Self.
Different from a Christian, the stoic is not afraid of god, but is like one. Different from a modern philosopher, the stoic focuses on ethics. Different from an academic, the stoic does not waste his time debating notions. Different from a politician, the stoic promotes a sober life closer to nature. Different from a Marxist, the stoic sees time as his only real capital. Different from a democrat, the stoic sees the crowd as irrational turmoil to keep below himself. Different from an Epicurean, the stoic is careless about his body and pleasures.
What is a stoic then? I think that now is a good time to reconsider the stoic movement since it helps the individual to face the inevitable crisis that comes with the rise of economic, political and intellectual empires. While in Asia we have Taoism, in America we have Transcendentalism, in Russia we have Tolstoyanism, Stoicism should be reconsidered, in dialogue with the former tendencies, as the European answer for an ethical life-style. The following ten precepts can provide a rudimentary toolbox:
-I- STAY ACTIVE
The major stoic precept is to carry out an active life. The most used metaphor in Seneca’s epistolary is the sea. Life is a sea that ought to be crossed. Moreover, it is mountain that ought to be climbed. It is not crossing or climbing per se that it is important. Seneca writes to a friend, who finds himself in Sicily, that he should climb a volcano for the sole reason of elevating himself among those wise people who have already investigated the mystery behind it. Daring, in other words, is the principle stoic form of knowledge.
Along with daring to explore life, the stoic is encouraged to actively participate with the forum and social life. But there are several conditions. Firstly, he should see that the circumstances are not too corrupt, for example avoiding the opulent life of the rich. Secondly, he should see that the circumstances are not too agitated. Seneca suggests to take an active part in the senate in order to revive the spirit of the ancient founder of Rome. The political role of the stoic is that of the healer, prescribing medicine to the sick soul of a society that is too rich, sophisticated and therefore corrupt.
It is stressed several times by Seneca that the active role in society should not be administrative. He writes for example to another of his pupils high up in the state career, not to lose anytime counting the grains of the state when there is so much he should account for within himself. The active role of the stoic in the public is a moral one. The stoic, particularly during the Roman empire, ought to restrain people from focusing exclusively on their properties and on their physical bodies. In this respect, Seneca advises to do some physical exercise everyday but not to obsess himself with going to the gym or paying too much to the last fashion . The activity of the stoic should be focused on being virtuous, a state which can only be obtained through self-examination.
A good idea about a perfect stoic approach to public life is given by Cato Uticensis. He is admired as probably the most rigorous stoic, not only because he contents himself with a simple life, but mostly because of his honesty. Even when he is exiled from Rome to govern a province, he does not take advantage of the gold mines there to increase his wealth. He is mostly known for his fierce opposition towards Cesar and the empire. In his stoic belief in the Roman Republic, he dies by his own hands.
It is relevant here to say that politics per se is not the aim of a stoic. HIs task is mainly moral and morality is placed at the forefront of his life-style. As Seneca explains, stoicism comprises morality, physics and logic, however one should not waste too much time with the latter and make sure that the decaying morality of the Roman folk is addressed. Politics as such is taken into consideration by other philosophical groups, like the peripatetics. However, the political activity of the stoic is mainly an anti-establishment one, inviting to maintain the old and smaller republic, giving up all the treasures and sophistication that is corrupting its people.
-II- DO NOT FEAR
The second stoic precept is central to the stoic discussion and perhaps conflicts most with Christians beliefs. According to Seneca, in fact, the only distinction between a stoic and a god is that the latter is immortal. A stoic ought not to fear, particularly he ought not to fear death. In this respect, if life becomes only an extension of death, as it is often the case with elders vegetating in hospitals, suicide should be considered. The stoic ought to prepare himself for death and be ready to die at any time. This death should, however, never be dictated by fear or fanaticism, as in the case of terrorists. Fear and rage are considered vicious passions that ought to be suppressed from the start.
Three examples come to mind here. First is Socrates, who, sentenced to death, kept preaching till the day he died. Second is again Cato Uticensis, possibly the highest example of stoic virtue and honesty, who opposed the transition from the Roman republic to the Roman empire, and finally, surrounded by Cesar, took his life. The third example is that of Seneca himself, committing suicide after been accused by his emperor and former pupil Neron. Seneca declares, in his intimate writings, that he is himself unsure whether there is an afterlife, but what is important is to live the present without fear of the future.
Oftentimes, to understand how a stoic should behave, Seneca makes use of gladiators as examples. As opposed to an Epicurean who shows off his wounds to the public, the stoic gladiator dies silently. As extreme examples of stoic deaths, Seneca uses two Germanic gladiators. Deprived of their liberties, gladiators were followed by guards to prevent them from committing suicide. In one instance, on the way to the Coliseum one manages to lean his head out of the cart transporting them. He sticks it into a wheel and dies, putting an end to the procrastination of his death.
-III- LIVE MODESTLY
The third stoic precept proposes what the Romans defined as parsimony, or modesty. Seneca’s point on the subject is clear: it is not a problem to be rich, on the contrary, through richness one is able to express more virtues. It is a problem however when an individual becomes a slave of his or her own wealth, or when the wealth beings to own the individual, rather than the contrary. Stoic parsimony is a reaction to the tendency of the rich Romans to embrace the epicurean lifestyle. While not following the precepts of Epicurus entirely, this lifestyle encourages the rich to indulge in a life of pleasure and excess.
Stoicism is, in this respect not as extreme as Cynicism, with Diogenes living in a barrel and contenting himself with only the sun. Stoicism is a way of life that accepts social complexity but encourages maintaining a certain inner virtue, in an otherwise corruptible environment. Besides Cato Uticensis, another example used by Seneca to describe a modest life is Scipio. On one occasion, Seneca visits the villa of this great Roman general and is impressed to see how modestly he lived. Stoicism is an attempt to recover the ancient customs of the Roman ancestors who were both politically active and cultivated the land in their free time. Throughout their career, the great Roman ancestors only wished to retire to their humble farmsteads, like Scipio.
Seneca is infuriated with the vanity of his time. He sees how gold has made the Roman population become addicted to commodities. He describes how people living during his time (right after Christ), could not take a bath unless the water was boiling, unless they could contemplate beautiful views, unless they could sit on the most precious marble or sun-bathe at the same time. Interestingly, none of these richly decorated baths remain. It is clear that Seneca saw in the many properties and treasures of his contemporary folk, the very decadence that would bring Rome to collapse.
-IV- BE GRATEFUL
The wisest of stoics, says Seneca, is always grateful, above all to god. While declaring that the stoic is like a god with the only exception that he doesn’t live forever, god intended as the creator of the universe is highly respected. At the lower level comes the authorities. If it is clear by now that Seneca despises the rich class and the new empire, but authorities should be respected for the sole reason that they allow him to maintain his virtue. Maintianing this sense of respect however, the stoic should not refrain to fight against authorities that, through their worldly ambitions, corrupt society. Nonetheless a stoic is also grateful to anyone, even if the have done something against him. He should never complain or take revenge, as that is the attitude of the ignorant. The ignorant complains, in particular after having received a favor. The ignorant is always dissatisfied and looks for something bigger, remaining ungrateful to his benefactors.
-V- KEEP ABOVE THE CROWD
In many instances stoicism is anti-democratic. On one hand, the stoic ought to avoid popularity. Fame steals time to pursue virtue and, like richness, it disappears overnight. On the other hand, the masses are seen as a threat, a cluster of clouds ready to storm at anytime. According to Seneca, the stoic ought to be like a clear and steadfast star above the crowd. Most importantly, the stoic ought not to assimilate any of the opinions of the crowd. He ought to see things for what they truly are, like a ray of sun falling on an object. Seneca goes as far as advising his mates not to blend with the crowd. The crowd is vulgar, the crowd goes to festivities and gladiator shows. The crowd goes to hear famous musicians and too few devote themselves to virtue. Additionally, and many passages reveal this in Seneca’s letters, experiencing the crowd brings a sense of corruption to the spirit.
-VI- FOLLOW NATURE
Following nature should not be taken in a literal sense. One can also look within oneself in a city environment, without having to seek the seclusion of mountains or the sea. Having said this, one should see things for what they are, and most of all know oneself, to understand what his nature is mostly inclined to. Only through this process can one reach a “directive principle”, a way to act and make decisions based on an objective understanding of one’s own will.
Seneca’s idea of a real philosopher is the wise person who follows nature. In order to do so, it is natural for the stoic to choose a leader. Differently from animals, human leaders were once chosen for their spiritual superiority. Once greediness and other vices entered human communities, laws had to be written and authorities established. According to Seneca, philosophers, following their nature, should be human leaders. These philosophers are more like Indian gurus than contemporary philosophers. They content themselves with what nature gives them and conduct a simple life.
The role of the stoic philosopher is thus to liberate folk enslaved by richness and sophistication, pointing to nature as the way to simplicity and freedom. In this respect, Seneca writes that complex jobs and human hardship were invented along with luxury and that stepping back to poorer living, closer to nature, will free humanity. Ironically, he writes that by going back to nature human communities will no longer need cooks nor soldiers. He adds that, the more complex humans become, the sicker they get and the more complex the stoic philosophy ought to be to cure them.
-VII- VALUE TIME
Marx and Marxists would be quite shocked to find that the only capital for a stoic is time. Money can be gained or lost to be gained again, yet time remains the only real capital that cannot be brought back to us. It is in this respect that a stoic must fully live his life and commit himself to be wise, without losing time with economical issues and generally any issue that does not contribute to the formation of the soul. Life should be fully lived rather than long lived.
Recurrently, Seneca and his colleagues do not waste time studying what he defines as liberal arts. To argue about how many rowers were on Ulysses boat when he left Troy, to debate about minor, sophisticated details is just a waste of time. A stoic ought to use his time to elevate his soul morally above all. While liberal arts and similar studies can prepare the soul for elevation, they are not necessarily do so.
Seneca advises to see our soul as a room. This room should be tidy and not too crowded with notions. Only what is most essential should be retained from the liberal arts, but even that is not necessary or strictly a precondition of becoming wise. In fact, to become wise, one needs self-examination and an objective study of the reality. The teaching of other sages should not be kept subdivided, but should be considered as food to be fully digested and integrated into one’s own self, without credit them unecessarly. Time should be then regarded as, in the first place, a self-formative activity.
-VIII- BEHOLD VIRTUE
From Seneca’s writings, it is clear that, once obtained, virtue never disappears. A virtuous man is like a god standing on top of a mountain. In that state, he is perfect; he ought not to develop further since anything that is under development is not perfect. Often times, we read that virtue corresponds to honesty. Therefore the stoic man, having seized virtue, lives an honest life and acts accordingly. Elsewhere we read that virtue is to be in full control of oneself, even in the most dreadful circumstances.
The stoic man ought to have a goal so as not to disperse himself. This higher objective in life, this goal should be of guidance for him in any situation, good or bad. This objective should be firm and always present. It is the result of an arduous spiritual development which has positioned the stoic in the position of a god, on a summit.
Moreover, the stoic should always have a guardian within him. He should choose a virtuous man and always retain his figure, as a model to guide him. This virtuous man ought to be chosen not for what he wrote or said; words alone bring no real credit. He ought to be chosen merely based on his actions and Cato Uticensis is again a good example.
-IX- BLOCK VICES
Seneca does not even accept moderation. Any kind of vice ought to be blocked all together, even if only practiced sporadically. The soul of the stoic ought to be fully at work and work itself diminishes the risk for vice, which ought to be blocked as soon as it emerges. Seneca reasons that relaxation is sometimes needed, however it should not take the lead and should be applied only when strictly necessary, to recharge for more undertakings.
There are several vices enumerated by Seneca. At one time he calls rage the worst vice, confuting Aristotle who thought of rage as a secret weapon to be used in extraordinary circumstances. Seneca sees that the initial instinct towards a certain vice cannot be blocked. However stoics can train themselves to prevent falling further. It is impossible to block one’s first reaction, but our soul should learn not to procrastinate about our nature towards a certain vice.
-X- EXAMINE YOURSELF
Seneca writes that at night he revisits his day as if he was in a tribunal, identifying what he did well and where he was weak. He claims that prayers should be made as if we were before a wide audience. In this Seneca was inspired by Socrates; we ought to know the monster within us before even daring to try to extend our knowledge elsewhere.
Seneca sees his contemporaries getting busier and busier with the administration of a bigger and bigger empire. He sees social duties as a yoke prohibiting the ox from looking back at the past, only allowing it to continue into the abyss of the future. In this respect, at his time when there was no more hope of re-establishing a republic, Seneca recalls his pupils from the agitated waters and invites them to retreat to safer shores and dedicate themselves to themselves.
Seneca points out to the existence of two republics. There is the republic we are usually acquainted with, with its global scopes and affairs, turning inevitably into a corrupted empire, and there is a more intimate republic constituted by a person and his private domain. When public affairs get too entangled and dishonest, it is better for the wise person to put his operosity toward the minor republic. It is here that his work lead by his practice of virtue can inspire others for eternity, becoming the lantern for obscures times ahead.
Now that I have presented my synthesis of stoicism in what I believe to be the 10 main precepts, I want to reflect on stoicism today. When Micheal Foucalt, prior his death, wrote about the “Technology of the Self” as an alternative to the “Technology of Power”, he used stoicism as an example. Similarly, when talking about early forms of self-tracking (quantified-self and life-logging practices), several contemporary authors have pointed again at stoicism. If we are to think of life-logging and quantified-self technologies and the hype connected to them, we come to realize that they are mostly devised for future oriented consumers who have a busy life and therefore are quite in contrast with stoic precepts.
In the first place, Seneca despises the busy men of Rome running from one meeting to another and caring about the last fashion. To me, it is clear that wearable gadgets are this fashion. More importantly, Seneca despises those who takes too much care of their body, of their corporal appearance and of their health. Stoics see their bodies as a temporary host of the soul. I would say then that Quantified Self appliances are very much based on the body and too little on the soul. Popular tendencies of self-tracking are thus quite far from stoic precepts.
To enforce my conviction that contemporary self-tracking at large, as conceived by the industry, is not a form of stoicism but quite its opposite, let’s focus on the main goal of a stoic, his virtue. If virtue is a result of laboriousness, Seneca hints that, in order to invest our time without waste, we ought to be fatigued. Self-examination in Seneca is therefore conceived as a form of fatigue and in contrast, the self-tracking devices offered by the industry promise zero-effort capturing, retrieving and analysis devices.
In addition, it is vital not to forget the anti-imperialistic spirit permeating stoicism. It is clear that the drive of the self-tracking industry at large is to get a better grip on users, selling their souls and enslaving them to a mere corporal life without much intellect. Like the greatest of stoics, we ought to oppose this imperialistic vision and attempt to cultivate our own stoic framework, to keep up a minor republic of our own.
Then how can we define a modern stoic? What is his or her love and practice of virtue in the digital age? It is an effortful self-examination, avoiding the use of the pre-configured systems developed by the industry, an examination that must be self-crafted with effort and using a process. This effortful self-examination is, I believe, at the base of modern virtue, a virtue that gives insights on life, but also prepares for a death that is feared by consumers buying wearable gadgets.
What Seneca calls the minor republic , what Jacques Ellul calls magic and what Michel Foucalt calls technology of the self, I call the personal framework. To cultivate virtue then, it is necessary to develop a framework of self-examination that is not provided by anyone, but ought to be conceived and constructed following one’s own nature. Marco Aurelio, as well as Benjamin Franklin and Mahatma Gandhi were all important political figures who developed schemes to enforce their virtue prior to turning to the social at large.
A personal framework is therefore a frame designed by an individual to dedicate himself to a laborious self-examination of which he is in full control. In a digital age then, the individual who aims for virtue and freedom ought not, in my opinion, to utilize frameworks provided by the industry;they hinder they laboriousness and take full control away.
The personal framework ought to be conceived as a system to achieve what Aurelio defined as holiness. It is not a selfish device but rather a means to become a shaman, guiding humanity after the inevitable catastrophes that imperialism will inevitably bring along. My ultimate invitation here is to set forth crafting and cultivating your own personal frameworks!