Nassim on robustness, i.e. strength at times of adversity:
Seneca was the great teacher and practitioner of Stoicism, who transformed Greek-Phoenician Stoicism from metaphysical and theoretical discourse into a practical and moral program of living, a way to reach the summum bonum, an untranslatable expression depicting a life of supreme moral qualities, as perceived by the Romans.
But, even apart from this unreachable aim, he has practical advice, perhaps the only advice I can see transfer from words to practice.
Seneca is the one who (with some help from Cicero) taught Montaigne that to philosophize is to learn how to die.
Seneca is the one who taught Nietzsche the amor fati, “love fate,” which prompted Nietzsche to just shrug and ignore adversity, mistreatment by his critics, and his disease, to the point of being bored by them.
For Seneca, Stoicism is about dealing with loss, and finding ways to overcome our loss aversion—how to become less dependent on what you have. Recall the “prospect theory” of Danny Kahneman and his colleagues: if I gave you a nice house and a Lamborghini, put a million dollars in your bank account, and provided you with a social network, then, a few months later, took everything away, you would be much worse off than if nothing had happened in the first place. Seneca’s credibility as a moral philosopher (to me) came from the fact that, unlike other philosophers, he did not denigrate the value of wealth, ownership, and property because he was poor. Seneca was said to be one of the wealthiest men of his day. He just made himself ready to lose everything every day. Every day.
Although his detractors claim that in real life he was not the Stoic sage he claimed to be, mainly on account of his habit of seducing married women (with non-Stoic husbands), he came quite close to it. A powerful man, he just had many detractors—and, if he fell short of his Stoic ideal, he came much closer to it than his contemporaries. And, just as it is harder to have good qualities when one is rich than when one is poor, it is harder to be a Stoic when one is wealthy, powerful, and respected than when one is destitute, miserable, and lonely.
In Seneca’s Epistle IX, Stilbo’s country was captured by Demetrius, called the Sacker of Cities. Stilbo’s children and his wife were killed. Stilbo was asked what his losses were.
Nihil perditi, I have lost nothing, he answered. Omnia mea mecum sunt! My goods are all with me. The man had reached the Stoic self-sufficiency, the robustness to adverse events, called apatheia in Stoic jargon. In other words, nothing that might be taken from him did he consider to be a good. Which includes one’s own life.
Seneca’s readiness to lose everything extended to his own life. Suspected of partaking in a conspiracy, he was asked by the emperor Nero to commit suicide. The record says that he executed his own suicide in an exemplary way, unperturbed, as if he had prepared for it every day.
Seneca ended his essays (written in the epistolary form) with vale, often mistranslated as “farewell.” It has the same root as “value” and “valor” and means both “be strong (i.e., robust)” and “be worthy.” Vale.