A Roman Amphitheatre

Living a Virtuous Life

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In today’s Friday Philosophy post we’ll be looking at the Roman statesman, philosopher, and dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who had some interesting advice to offer concerning the way in which we should live our lives.

Who Was He?

Lucius, son of Seneca the elder, was born in Cordoba in Spain, and lived from 4 BC – 65 AD. From an early age he was educated in philosophy in Rome. Various Roman emperors, including Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, plotted against his life, but he was able to escape on each occasion, and actually had a successful career as a lawyer and became very wealthy.

Seneca wrote many works, including essays, letters, and plays, and could be described as a Stoic philosopher who was a pragmatist, emphasising a practical approach to philosophy. The Stoics advocated the living of a simple life dedicated to the pursuit of virtue and reason.

What’s the Big Idea?

Expressing himself mostly via the composition of sermons offering practical advice to his readers, Seneca’s work was less theoretical philosophy and more a guide to living. Unlike the Epicureans, who pursued a hedonistic lifestyle, Seneca insisted that the only good is virtue. That’s a word that is unavoidable when studying the philosophers of antiquity, which is interesting because it’s not a word that we employ very often in modern times.

Seneca’s approach to virtue could be described thus: Do the right thing and show indifference to all else.

My Reflections

It’s interesting that many of the philosophers of antiquity spent time pondering what virtue is and how to live a virtuous life. I suppose that when considering why the term has fallen out of fashion in the West we might look to the influence of the Christian Scriptures. As Christianity flourished in the centuries following Seneca, virtue took on a whole new meaning, as for the first time we had the prescriptive teachings of Jesus, claiming to be God Himself. The New Testament writers taught us what goodness is in the eyes of God, rather than simply using rational argument to try to discern how to be virtuous.

We can look at these two different approaches to virtue – rational enquiry into how to live justly, and revelation from God concerning how to live justly, and we might see this as an evolution in thought. There is much value that the atheist philosophers of today might find in Seneca’s approach to virtue, but those of a religious inclination will always argue that virtue which is absent of divine command isn’t virtue at all.


In next week’s philosophy post, we’ll be looking at the thought of Marcus Aurelius, who as well as having a spell as Roman Emperor, also produced some writing relaying his take on Stoicism. If you’d like to ensure you never miss a post, please consider subscribing!

15 comments

  1. Another good job, Steven. Regarding your statement, “but those of a religious inclination will always argue that virtue which is absent of divine command isn’t virtue at all.” I would see this slightly differently. I think that virtue apart from God is of value in this very real and practical world and that virtuous people who don’t believe in God definitely contribute to the betterment of this world. From a spiritual perspective regarding the soul, I suppose I would refer to it as “unsaving virtue” … as something that has much value in this world, but not in eternity. And of course this is a Bible-influenced perspective. Have a great weekend, Steven.

    1. Hi David! You make some good points, and thanks for expanding on the different kinds of virtue – as you described them, ‘unsaving virtue’ (or worldly virtue), and Christian virtue.

      I suppose when writing the sentence you quoted I was mindful of Christian resistance to ‘works’ (or good deeds) as a means of being right with God. I think many Christians would say trying to be virtuous aside from being born again and following Jesus is impossible. I think that’s what I was getting at. But your broader and more inclusive perspective is refreshing.

      Hope all is well with you and have a great weekend too!

  2. I would take rational enquiry every time. Virtue whether god or man inspired is a good thing. Personally I do not need to think beyond that. I am a strict atheist but I do not throw out the baby with the bath water.

  3. I enjoyed reading this post. Came to mind a comment Ravi Zacharias (Christian Apologist) said : in some cultures they love their neighbour and in other cultures they eat their neighbour.
    What is “good” is dependent on the culture of the tiny point in history that we live in, is what I think.
    Didn’t Nietzsche (who influenced Hitler and Stalin tremendously) say : Β All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.

    Obviously my comments are from a Christian perspective..hope you will not hold it against me. Cheers!

    1. Hi Varuni! Thanks so much for your comment and your insights. There is indeed an interesting debate concerning whether objective ‘goodness’ exists, or whether (as you imply) all goodness is subjective. I think I would agree with you that power comes into it, and a Christian might argue that because God has all power He has the right to define good and evil (which many would say He does through Scripture).

      Interesting!

    1. Thanks for reading, Kristian! I hope I did okay with my Marcus Aurelius post, you’re welcome to add any thoughts in the comments. As you know my brief philosophy posts can only give a taster 😊

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