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The true worth of adversity

Book: Dialogues and Essays by Seneca
Art: Group of Mountain Climbers Beside the Pasterze Glacier by Munsch Leopold
Reading time: 4 mins

When his friend Lucilius asked why good people suffer from misfortune, the Roman philosopher Seneca answered that nothing bad can happen to a good person. Seneca tells Lucilius that a good person is one who lives a virtuous life; and that the virtuous person is one who accepts what fate hands them and is calm and brave in the face of adversity. Rather than being crushed by the tragedies that befall them, the virtuous individual conquers adversity because they possess a particular state of mind. One that turns bad events into good outcomes.

“We may also offer the following definition, that of calling that man happy who recognizes no good and evil apart from a good and an evil mind, who holds honour dear and is content with virtue, who is not the sort of person to let the workings of chance go to his head or crush his spirit, who does not recognize any good greater than the one he alone can confer upon himself, and who will find true pleasure in despising pleasures.”

The virtuous individual is aware that human condition is subject to change. In accepting fate, they view adversity as a training exercise that tests their character. Thus, according to Seneca, a bad thing can not happen to such a person as adversity is, in the end, beneficial. Seneca understood the difficulty in demonstrating how an event such as losing a loved one could be beneficial, but he tells Lucilius to consider the following observations.

“Just as the vast numbers of rivers, all the rain that falls in showers from above, and the massive volume of mineral springs do not alter the taste of the sea, do not even moderate it, so adversity’s onslaughts are powerless to affect the spirit of a brave man.”

First, that is foolish to assume that pleasure is the greatest good life can offer and that a life of good fortune is a good life. This is because living happily and living in luxury is not always connected. Indeed, some things which are considered pleasurable are bad for those who delight in them. For example, a person whom fate has handed a great deal of wealth and food is more more likely to kill themself through over-eating than a person with moderate wealth. Seneca says that there are many people whose existence is unhappy, not because they do not have enough pleasure, but as a result of pleasure itself.

“Why do you seek to join two things that are not alike, indeed opposites? Virtue is something lofty, elevated, regal, unconquerable, and untiring; pleasure is something lowly, slavish, weak and destructible, whose haunt and living-quarters are brothers and taverns.”

Good fortune is also likely to make a person so weak that they are unable to face misfortune. A person who is enamoured by the good things that fate has handed them is unlikely to reflect on the fact that such things may disappear. Seneca believed that excessive good fortune enables a person to pass through life with little or no mental distress, resulting in that individual lacking awareness of hardship and struggling. When such a person loses something that they derive pleasure from, they will be unable to endure it.

“Shun luxury, shun good fortune that makes men weak and causes their minds to grow sodden, and, unless something happens to remind them of their human lot, they waste away, lulled to sleep, as it were, in a drunkenness that has no end. If a man has always been protected from draughts by glazed windows, if his feet have been kept warm by compresses, regularly applied, if his dining-rooms have been controlled by hot air passing below the floor and round all the walls, he will run no small risk if he is brushed by a gentle breeze. Although all things in excess bring harm, the greatest danger comes from excessive good fortune: it stirs the brain, invites the mind to entertain idle fancies, and shrouds in thick fog the distinction between falsehood and truth.”

Excessive good fortune, therefore, does not result in a virtuous life as a person with this type of life has no tragedy to test them and show them what they are capable of. Seneca states that the ‘great man’ is one who triumphs over the tragedy and terror that afflicts their life. Such a person approaches misfortune with acceptance and courage and in attending to it, understands what they are capable of. Thus, adversity enables an individual to gain self-knowledge and understand their true worth.

“It would be just to describe as wretched those who are dulled by excessive good fortune, who remain at rest, as it were, in dead calm upon an untroubled sea: whatever happens to them will come as a change. The cruelty of Fortune bears harder on the inexperienced; it is the tender neck that finds the yoke oppressive; the raw recruit grows pale at the thought of a wound, but fearlessly the veteran looks at his own gore, knowing that blood has often been the price to pay for victory.”

In courageously facing adversity, the virtuous person struggles against all the tragedies life hands them and when repeatedly facing misfortune, they build up a level of endurance. It is because of this that Seneca suggests that nature has done us a good service. As human beings, we can form habits that help us alleviate suffering. Enduring misfortune is the greatest exercise in forming such habits.

“We see wrestlers, who concern themselves with only the strongest opponents, and requiring those who prepare them for a bout to use all their strength against them; they expose themselves to blows and hurt, and if they do not find one man to match them, they take on several at a time. Excellence withers without an adversary…I assure you, good men should do the same: they should not be afraid to face hardships and difficulties, or complain of fate; whatever happens, good men should take it in good part, and turn it to a good end; it is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it.”

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