De Constantia Sapientis or On the Firmness of the Wise Person was written by the Stoic philosopher Seneca to his friend Serenus. It is a moral essay on the challenges of becoming a Stoic. It is necessary to remark that Serenus was the same friend to whom Seneca wrote On Tranquility of Mind. It is evident that Seneca was committed to enlightening his friend, and countless others in turn. For those interested in the teachings of Seneca, we will summarize his text below.
The Difficult Path
In this work, Seneca acknowledges that becoming an ideal Stoic – the wise man – is a hard task, but he emphasizes that it is difficult only in the beginning. In a way, the journey is not meant to be easy, as it should test our will. The ones who are not truly interested in achieving the ideal will give up.
There are many hardships that must be overcome in order to become better versions of ourselves. One cannot improve without facing these difficulties. Seneca doesn’t promise a life without suffering, but he does promise that the wise don’t experience suffering as the everyday person does. In order to be insulted, you have to accept the insult. In order to suffer, one must believe themselves to be suffering. Practicing Stoicism means that harm can come to your physical body, but your soul will remain untouched.
Nothing that is truly yours can be taken by someone else. If something is taken, then it was never really yours to begin with, and therefore you should not grieve its loss. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus knew this better than anyone, as he was a slave. But Epictetus knew that his master may own his body, but he would never own his soul, and therefore, Epictetus was never truly a slave.
When we let strong emotions rule our life, they become our master. If Epictetus had indeed felt enslaved and oppressed, or wanted revenge, then he would have become a slave to his own feelings. Marcus Aurelius similarly believed we are not free until we can control ourselves. This is the same idea Seneca tries to convey in On the Firmness of the Wise Person.
Stoics such as Seneca proved themselves to be wise by becoming invincible against suffering, indifferent to pleasures, and victorious over fear. Wisdom is a highly desired quality, but it is also underappreciated for being too difficult to achieve. Everyone wants to be wise, but most people struggle to reach wisdom and therefore they despise it.
We must explain that invincibility against suffering does not mean a Stoic is never the recipient of insults or aggression. Seneca explains there is no glory to being invincible if you are never hit. His invincibility comes from being attacked and not giving into it. Essentially, we should subject ourselves to suffering, but we must not allow that suffering to control us.
“It matters not, therefore, how many darts be hurled at him, since he can be pierced by none of them.”Seneca
The wise man is also virtuous, and virtue is free, inviolable, firm and unshakable in the face of tough circumstances. If we are virtuous, then we cannot be bent or defeated. As Seneca explained to Serenus, this is the difference between the wise man and the ordinary man.
An insult has no other purpose than to inflict evil, but wisdom leaves no room for evil. As your mind becomes more wise, you won’t be able to recognize evil in the same way. Wisdom sees no evil; it sees a lack of virtue and it sees ignorance, but not evil.
In his text, Seneca offers the same explanation about strength and wisdom in various forms. By repeating the same idea in multiple examples, his core teaching becomes focused on understanding the power others believe they hold over us, and subsequently denying this perceived power.
If you take their poison, it will only kill you. Don’t lower yourself to the insults and ignorance of others. Simply understand that they are blind to the truth, and that the only true power in this world is the power we have over ourselves. This is the main idea Seneca tries to teach his friend and us in On the Firmness of the Wise Person. Hold firm to your own virtue and reason and you will be one step closer on the path to becoming a wise person.