Thumbing through an old paper I wrote in a humanities class, I found a small quote in which Seneca offers some thoughts on drinking. It is, at least to my mind, really interesting and still rather applicable to a modern age nearly 2000 years after he penned it. So in the next couple of posts I’m going to quote the passage and reflect a little on it.
For now I paste the original paper as an introduction to both Seneca’s thought in particular, and Stoic philosophy in general. It’s a little bit of a read, but if you are interested and not too familiar with Stoicism, it offers some preliminary thoughts.
Connotations of the contemporary philosopher are not particularly flattering. One might envision, perhaps, a socially inept, navel-gazing academic. Immured of his own volition, he sits in a musty prison of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves thumbing esoteric tomes with enervating epigraphs. The suggestion, then, that philosophy has any practical relevance to life is not convincing to 21st century ears. For the ancient world, however, we find a picture that is far removed from our own. Ancient schools of thought were committed to a lifestyle informed by their tenets and presuppositions. As the French scholar Pierre Hadot notes, “All the philosophies of antiquity… shared the aim of establishing an intimate link between philosophical discourse and way of life” (55). Philosophers were interested in eudaimonia – the idea of the good life, or human flourishing. It is within this framework that Lucius Annaeus Seneca penned his many treatises and apologies for the Stoic way of life. For Seneca, eudaimonia can only be achieved by those characterised by tranquility. The tranquil man, he argues, walks in step with Fate, and is able to attend his duties with virtue, navigating the vicissitudes of life with poise and dignity.
To understand the high value placed upon tranquility by Seneca, and to distinguish it from the understanding of the other major philosophical schools, we must first explore the metaphysical framework of Stoicism. The cosmos, says the Stoic, is governed by unity and cohesion within an all-encompassing divine reason, or logoV, which governs it. Since we operate under the governance of this divine reason, Seneca can write, “Fate directs us, and the first hour of our birth determines each man’s span. Cause is linked with cause, and a long chain of events governs all matters public and private. Everything must therefore be borne with fortitude, because events do not, as we suppose, happen but arrive by appointment. What would make you rejoice and what would make you weep was determined long ago” (Hadas 41-2). Seneca seems then to pre-empt our next question, asking, “What [then] is the duty of the good man? To offer himself to Fate” (ibid). Seneca also suggests that God “so loves good men that he wishes for them to attain pre-eminent goodness” (31).
If events are predetermined and outside of our control, how then, is moral choice possible? The Stoics have long been attacked on this seemingly striking dissonance. Hadot summarises the Stoic position thusly, “The price that must be paid in order for morality to be possible is freedom of choice. It is the possibility that human beings, by refusing to accept fate, can revolt against universal order and act or think against universal Reason or against nature… such a refusal would not change anything about the order of the world. According to a saying… taken up by Seneca: “The Fates guide the person who accepts them, and hinder the person who resists them”. Reason includes all resistance, opposition, and obstacles within its plan for the world, and makes them contribute to its success” (130-1).
Operating from this understanding of the cosmos, Seneca can proffer both an answer to the problem of suffering and misfortune, and a pattern of response for the virtuous – tranquility. “Disaster”, he says, “is virtue’s opportunity…It is not cruelty but a contest”. God, he suggests, “hardens and scrutinizes and exercises those he approves and loves”. In fact, that one is experiencing trials is actually evidence that one is favoured in God’s eyes: “It is only the picked men that the general sends to surprise the enemy by a night attack, to reconnoiter the road, or to dislodge a garrison. And no man in such a detachment will say, “The general has treated me badly,” but rather, “The general thinks well of me.”” The logical conclusion, then, is adopting a tranquil mind that, “must not feel losses and must even construe adversity charitably”(100). Such a mind understands that only such things as depend upon one’s self can be labeled good, or bad. All else lies outside of ones control and should subsequently be viewed as indifferent.
While Seneca is convinced that tranquility is prerequisite to living the best life, he is far from naïve concerning the difficulties of acquiring and maintaining such a mindset. His treatise, On Tranquility, is replete with the language of practice and repetition. “Man must habituate himself”, directs Seneca, “to his condition, complain of it as little as possible, and grasp whatever good lies within his reach. No situation is so harsh that a dispassionate mind cannot find some consolation in it”(93). Earlier he notes that, “we must habituate ourselves to reject ostentation and value things by their utility” (91). The one who would be tranquil must train himself to accomplish the same. This training, or askesis, was an essential part of many ancient schools of philosophy. While there is no definitive guide to Stoic exercises of askesis, we find many exhortations toward such by individual Stoic philosophers. Aurelius, for instance, prescribed an exercise consisting of focusing on a reality as it is, without adding value judgments inspired by conventions, prejudices, or the passions (Hadot 136). In one of the better known Stoic exercises Philo has the practitioner imagining in advance various difficulties, reversals of fortune, sufferings, and death, stating that those who practice this “do not flinch beneath the blows of Fate, because they have calculated its attacks in advance”(137). Seneca seems to have this in mind when he posits that “by regarding future possibilities as certainties he softens the shock of disasters, which cannot disconcert men prepared and waiting; they bear heavily on thoughtless men whose view is limited to the agreeable” (Hadas 96).
While holding to a high view of the potential of the human mind, Seneca remains cognizant of the strain that constant attendance to mental exercises and reason can produce. “Just as fertile fields must not be forced (without fallow periods their richness is soon exhausted), so incessant labor will crush the mind’s élan”, he notes. So, “we must be kind to the mind and from time to time give it the leisure which is its sustenance and strength”(104-5). Ever practical, he prescribes activities to ensure the mind retains its vigour. These include pursuits like outdoor walks and carriage rides, to spending time with good friends, and even an occasional inebriation, offering the caveat however, that too frequent imbibition may prove habit forming.
Tranquility is an essential component of the philosophical life. While a natural response to what the Stoics believe is an ordered nature of the cosmos, it must be learnt of man and garnered through practice. For Seneca, tranquility is both the end and means of eudaimonia. Enabling its possessor to act virtuously, it helps fulfill the important Stoic idea of duty. But in itself, tranquility is also a gift – a balm and a lens to re-envisage the slings and arrows of not so outrageous fortune.
 Commonly translated as “happiness”. Literally – prosperity, good fortune, opulence. Liddell and Scott make reference to Democritus for their secondary definition of true, full happiness (708), which is the philosophically connotated sense, and the sense implied by my usage throughout.
 It is often argued, with good reason, that Seneca’s lifestyle and his discourse are not so congruent, particularly in respect to his teaching on money (cf. Hadas 6, 8-9). Several modern scholars have tried to reconcile this, noting occasions when Seneca seemed to follow his own advice. George Strem, for instance, offers this example: “He would, for example, leave his house in Rome and depart in the simple cart of a farmer to his country house, not minding what anyone meeting him on the road would say or think about his traveling in that way. Arriving, he would eat dry bread, drink water, and lie on a simple bed, telling himself that, indeed, man’s basic needs are simple and easy to satisfy” (Strem 130). Others have noted that since Seneca’s style is often marked by absolute statements and hyperbole, there is a danger in accepting some of his stronger statements prima facie, where they are perhaps more clearly nuanced and defined across his broader corpus. For example, one is easily confused by Seneca’s own social and financial position given his advice in On Tranquility (91), and On Providence (38). However, his position is perhaps clarified a little when viewed through the lens of his treatise On Happy Life. As Hadas summarizes, “a wise man will adjust himself to his circumstances… accept[ing] riches as well as poverty. To live wisely with wealth takes a person of strong character; wealth tends to change people’s outlook on life… one should use them the right way… what counts is not what you own but what you are”(130). I do not think Seneca gets off the hook through even an elegant manoeuvre such as this, but I also do not feel the urgency to resolve the tension. As far as I understand, Seneca was still just a man.
 See White 127.
 In his essay Do the Stoics Succeed, Dr. Keith Seddon notes that “logos (reason), fate and god” are regarded by the Stoics as simply, “different aspects of the one principle which creates and sustains the world”.
 For a more indepth discussion of this problem, cf. Stough, Frede, and Seddon.
 This view of indifference is dissimilar to the ancient Skeptic’s, who view all things as indifferent on the basis of arrant epistemic uncertainty.
Frede, Dorothea. “Stoic Determinism.” The Cambridge Companion to The Stoics. Inwood. 179-205.
Hadas, Moses. The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca; Essays and Letters of Seneca. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1968, c1958.
Hadot, Pierre. What is Ancient Philosophy? Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2002.
Inwood, Brad. The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003
Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Seddon, Keith. “Do the Stoics succeed in showing how people can be morally responsible for some of their actions within the framework of causal determinism?” 1999. 15 Nov. 2005. <http://www.wku.edu/~jan.garrett/stoa/seddon1.htm>
Stough, Charlotte. “Stoic Determinism and Moral Responsibility.” The Stoics. Ed. John M. Rist. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1978.
Strem, George G. The Life and Teaching of Lucius Annaeus Seneca. New York, NY: Vantage Press, 1981.
White, Michael J. “Stoic Natural Philosophy (Physics and Cosmology).” Inwood. 124-52.