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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ideals of Senecan Progress

Seneca’s concept of progress is rooted in the stoic philosophy advocating for the pursuit of virtue and knowledge. He maintains that it is the study of philosophy that gives life its greater meaning, and that it is our duty to prepare ourselves for the reception of virtue through the liberal arts. In Seneca’s Epistles he writes, “Hence the idea that our debt to philosophy is greater than our debt to the gods, in proportion as a good life is more of a benefit than mere life… “(395). He continues to say that this knowledge of virtue is not given to us by the gods, but only the means to acquire it. His idea of progress, it seems, is more of an intellectual and spiritual pursuit that we are all capable of, and yet, not as many actually pursue.
Seneca lived almost 2000 years ago, indeed a time lacking in the modern pleasures we so eagerly enjoy today, but in his doctrine, he even denounces the simple pleasures that his era was able to afford. In fact, he scorns athletes, cooks, artisans, and other merchants for their corporeal pursuits, shaming them of their greed and vanity. He says, “If mankind were willing to listen to this sage, they would know that the cook is as superfluous to them as the soldier… The things that are indispensable require no elaborate pains for their acquisition; it is only the luxuries that call for labour.” (405) However, it seems as if Seneca is writing to an audience who is still living in the Golden Age, when everything was supplied for them. In this case, yes, it seems like the pursuit of knowledge and virtue would be a noble one, and in this surreal world, materialism would be superfluous. Concerning this ideal world, he writes, “Beneath such dwellings they lived, but they lived in peace. A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.” (403) However, we must take Seneca’s philosophy with a grain of salt considering that he has been widely accused as an adulterer and embezzler and overall hypocrite.
Instead, his philosophy seems more appropriate for our modern world today, where we are inundated with advertisements for the newest cut of denim, or the most advanced age defying moisture cream. Our world today would benefit much more from Seneca’s philosophy of the greater pursuit of virtue and knowledge since we are not responsible for tilling the land in order to eat. In this way, virtue, it seems, relies on the very technological advances it so quick to disparage in order to reach a wider audience. We as people need certain luxuries in order to study the liberal arts and “prepare ourselves for the reception of virtue.” But even today, the importance of the liberal arts is not widely recognized by the general public because most people rely on their skills and trade value to support themselves. Thus, Seneca’s stoic philosophy of virtue and knowledge is beautiful and idyllic, but lives in a vacuum, absent of poverty and the constant need to support oneself.
Seneca was, by some philosophers, namely Francis Bacon, considered to be the champion of progressive thinking. However, what he writes in the Epistles appears as if he is not exactly in touch with the real world, and instead, his teachings exist in a more idyllic setting. I also think too, that he is given to much credit as an advocate for progress since Plato, roughly 400 years before Seneca, advocated for the same ideals of the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and what it means to be a responsible citizen. In this way, it seems like Seneca is not really saying anything new.

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