One characteristic prized by Seneca’s philosophical art of living is consistency in your values, actions and desires. He thought you could achieve that by learning to form good desires and sound judgements through reflection, rather than using your psychological experience as the basis for your judgements.
When we read Stoicism their worldview appears to be at odds with trying to live an authentic life. Authenticity, for those who grew up in English speaking nations, is nearly always derived from a philosophical concept articulated by the Existentialists. Even a book like Charles Taylor’s The Ethic of Authenticity is centrally concerned with an existential concept of authentic identity.
Existentialism, like Stoicism, often focuses on our emotions, especially angst and the fear of death. Yet their approach to these emotion could not be more disparate. Existentialism takes these emotions to be a source of learning, and a fact of everyday life. The Stoics think of these emotions as something that must be extirpated from our human experience in order to live a good life.
So can we follow the work of a Stoic philosopher like Seneca and live authentically? Perhaps, although it would be a stretch to think it is possible to live as an authentic Stoic in the twenty-first century.
The task of philosophy
The task of a philosophical art of living is to grow confidence in our beliefs, judgements and desires. Usually the way Seneca uses philosophy is to reflect on arguments grounded in personal experience to work towards more consistency in his actions and thinking. Confidence in our judgement develops through the work done reflecting on beliefs, and investigating the assumptions that go into shaping the way we see the world. Seneca is clear about the importance of consistency, it is the sign of a good character. For Seneca it doesn’t take much change to start looking fickle, which for him always signals a bad character, especially with those who make changes merely for the sake of change. Which doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to change; philosophy encourages change in pursuit of the good.
Reflection on philosophical arguments can seem different to the way of authenticity, which is often seen as weighing psychological experiences to identify our desires, and make judgements that shape the way we think about the world. Authenticity too is about creative change. However, artistic change is not change for the sake of doing things differently.
Radical change in the pursuit of authenticity
Picasso’s Cubism was driven by the need to express new ways of seeing, new meanings, it wasn’t change for the sake of change. The stream of consciousness novels created early in the 20th century were not written just to be different from the novels of the 19th century. They sought to express human existence in a more meaningful way than previous literary models. They were changes in pursuit of a higher purpose. Seneca’s demand that good character is consistent is not about stopping change, it is about working towards change in the pursuit of a higher good.
Some people think change has to be dramatic to achieve profound results. This is not necessarily the case. When we are trying to change our life small changes can have profound effects, positively and negatively. Following up on small changes like a new interest or friendship can lead, step by step to a large innovation that fundamentally changes the way we experience our existence on the blue marble.
Seneca and authenticity
If you did make a sudden ‘conversion’ to Stoicism, your efforts to live authentically might be threatened. But then, a sudden conversion to almost anything is likely to do that. Seneca’s Stoicism has many ideas that we need to carefully consider, reflect upon, and a then make a decision about. It is a philosophy that works best through a gradual, mindful integration into our lives. Which is what makes it one of the best philosophical guides to a framework we can use to lead a good life. That framework is communicated in Seneca’s letters, and with application can be readily deduced. In my experience the way philosophy develops judgement only deepens the capacity to live life authentically.
We live in societies where we are bombarded daily with advertising shot through with references to authenticity. But those messages rarely remind us authenticity is a philosophical position about a moral ideal; and that it can never only be about which whims we feel are the most and truest us. Authenticity too requires reflection on our values. In some ways it can support an art of living like Stoicism. An authentic life requires detailed reflection on our desires and goals, and the growth of an affinity towards those values we have established are both good and our own. So it is possible to embark on a journey through Seneca’s philosophy and maintain (and even deepen) our authenticity, it just won’t be a Stoic journey. Which, on the whole, is a good thing.
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