The Sole Good – Seneca

Synopsis:

In letter #76, Seneca underscores the element of reason in human existence. He also surveys the subjects of wisdom, virtue, bravery, and what ingredients aggregate into the human soul.

Excerpts:

“Wisdom is never a windfall. Money may come unsought, office may be bestowed, influence and prestige may be thrust upon you, but virtue is not an accident.”

“What is best in man? Reason, which puts him ahead of the animals and next to the gods. Perfect reason is, then, his peculiar good; his other qualities are common to animals and vegetables.”

“The sole good in man, therefore, is what is solely man’s, for our question does not concern the good but the good of man. If nothing but reason is peculiarly man’s, then reason is his sole good and balances all the rest.”

“Folly may creep toward wisdom, but wisdom does not backslide to folly.”

“…men bear with fortitude, when they have grown accustomed to them, things they had thought very difficult.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

Rhetoric – Aristotle

20

Synopsis:

In his treatise on rhetoric, Aristotle considers the requisite building blocks of rhetoric as well as its existent contemporaneous forms. He also examines the subjects of politics, virtue, happiness, and morality in his customary common-sense way.

Excerpts:

“Justice, courage, self-control, magnanimity, magnificence, and all other similar states of mind, for they are virtues of the soul. Health, beauty, and the life, for they are virtues of the body and produce many advantages…”

“In regard to war and peace, the orator should be acquainted with the power of the State, how great it is already and how great it may possibly become; of what kind it is already and what additions may possibly be made to it; further, what wars it has waged and its conduct of them. These things he should be acquainted with, not only as far as his own State is concerned, but also in reference to neighboring States, and particularly those with whom there is a likelihood of war, so that towards the stronger a pacific attitude may be maintained, and in regard to the weaker, the decision as to making war on them may be left to his own State.”

“…it is useful not only to understand what form of government is expedient by judging in the light of the past, but also to become acquainted with those in existence in other nations, and to learn what kinds of government are suitable to what kinds of people.”

“Let us then define happiness as well-being combined with virtue, or independence of life, or the life that is most agreeable combined with security…”

“Internal goods are those of mind and body; external goods are noble birth, friends, wealth, honor. To these we think should be added certain capacities and good luck; for on these conditions life will be perfectly secure.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Aristotle: Rhetoric, Chios Classics.

The Consolation of Philosophy – Boethius

Synopsis:

The 6th century AD Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius ascended the peak of power and influence amid the post-Roman state of Theoderic the Great. After the dissolution of Roman authority in the late 5th century AD,  Theoderic seized control of Italy and formed a successor state to the Western Roman Empire, which would maintain the ancient traditions, offices, and formal structure of the old Roman heartland. This continuity allowed Theoderic to pacify the Roman population, as well as permitted him to concentrate his power and influence over the Italian peninsula.

Late in the reign of Theoderic, the career of Boethius would come to an abrupt end with the latter being charged with treason by the former. In prison Boethius would go on to write The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting his own execution. The book is written in dialogue form between Lady Philosophy and Boethius. The subjects of the dialogue include: the origin and preservation of happiness, pursuit of virtue, inconstancy of fortune, as well as time and free will.

Excerpts:

“…I shall present you with this corollary: since men become happy by achieving happiness, and happiness is itself divinity, clearly they become happy by attaining divinity. Now just as men become just by acquiring justice, and wise by acquiring wisdom, so by the same argument they must become gods once they have acquired divinity. Hence every happy person is God; God is by nature one only, but nothing prevents the greatest possible number from sharing in that divinity.”

“The outcome of human actions is entirely dependent on two things, will and capability. If one of these two is absent nothing can be accomplished. For if the will is lacking, people do not even embark on action which they have no wish to carry out; on the other hand, if they are incapable of doing it, it is vain to will it. It follows from this that if you observed someone wanting to acquire something but totally failing to get it, you can be certain that what he lacked was the ability to attain what he desired.”

“…he who abandons goodness and ceases to be a man cannot rise to the status of a god, and so is transformed into an animal.”

“Since goodness alone can raise a person above the rank of human, it must follow that wickedness deservedly imposes subhuman status on those whom it has dislodged from the human condition.”

“God must not be visualized as prior to the created world merely in length of time; rather, it is by virtue of possession of his simple nature. This condition of his, unchanging life in the present, is imitated by the perpetual movement of temporal things. Since that movement is unable to achieve and to match that unchanging life, it degenerates from changelessness into change. From the simplicity of the present it subsides into the boundless extent of future and past.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy, Oxford University Press.

On Clemency – Seneca

Synopsis:

In his essay On Clemency, the stoic philosopher Seneca defines the requisite qualities of an ideal ruler relevant to the notions of justice and mercy. The motive for which Seneca wrote the essay was to instruct the young emperor Nero on how the consummate ruler ought to govern. Nero would of course go on to become the antagonist of nearly all the ideas representing virtue in the essay, thereby defining his legacy in history.

Excerpts:

“The true fruit of right deeds is, to be sure, in the doing, and no reward outside themselves is worthy of the virtues…”

“No one can long hide behind a mask; the pretense soon lapses into the true character. But where the basis is truth and where the roots are solidly planted, time itself fosters growth in size and quality.”

“…in full view for all to see is the happiest of administrations in which the only limitation upon the completest liberty is the denial of license for self-destruction.”

“Lightning’s stroke imperils few but frightens all; so chastisement by a mighty power terrifies more widely than it hurts, and with good reason, for where power is absolute men think not of what it has done but of what it might do.”

“It is a mistake to think that the king is safe when nothing is safe from the king; one bargains for security with security.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

Against Fear of Death – Cicero

H

Synopsis:

In the first book of his Tusculan Disputations Cicero examines the idea of death, the quality of the human soul, the pursuit of virtue as an end, as well as the mood of human nature. The essay is conveyed in dialogue form among a teacher and his pupil.

Excerpts:

“And yet a responsible farmer will plant trees, even though he’ll never see them bear a single olive. Won’t a great man plant laws, practices, a commonwealth?”

“But somehow there remains in our minds a vision, as it were, of generations to come: a vision that appears most readily and blazes forth most intensely in those with the greatest talent and the deepest soul.”

“We naturally believe that gods exist, but we discern their qualities through the exercise of reason. Just so, we share a universal feeling that souls live on, but we must use reason to determine where and in what condition.”

“The soul senses its own motion; when it does, it senses that it has been moved by its own power, not by anything else, and that it can never be deprived of itself. Which means it is eternal.”

“Although glory is not to be sought for its own sake, it follows virtue like a shadow.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Cicero: On Living and Dying Well, Penguin Classics.

On the Subjects of Philosophy – Seneca

A

Synopsis:

In letter #89, Seneca considers the state of philosophy present in the culture of his era. He chronicles the foundations of the idea of philosophy itself, as well as the pursuit of virtue.

Excerpts:

“The sage’s mind does indeed comprehend the whole mass, which it scans no less quickly than our vision surveys the sky; but we who must still penetrate the fog and whose vision is deficient even for nearby objects are not capable of comprehending the whole and find explanation of individual parts easier.”

“Wisdom is the perfect good of the human mind; philosophy, love of wisdom, and progress towards it.”

“The subject and the object of the act of seeking cannot be identical.”

“Philosophy is the study of virtue, but virtue is its means, so that virtue cannot exist without study of itself nor the study without virtue itself.”

“Study not to increase your knowledge but to improve it.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.