by David Fideler
While the early Greek Stoics spoke of the perfect sage, the later Roman Stoics focused on Stoicism as a path, in which you make small amounts of progress each day.
In Search of the Perfect Sage
One of the biggest ironies of the Stoic tradition is that the early Greek Stoics spoke of the perfect sage or wise person, a perfectly virtuous individual.
Such a sage does not hold opinions but is constant in his or her knowledge, which makes it possible for the sage to make perfect judgments.
The irony of the sage is that none of the real-life Stoic philosophers actually claimed to be one, and the later Roman Stoics played the idea down, or at least softened it.
Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius hardly even mention the idea of the sage, and while Seneca does draw on it extensively, he says that the sage is as rare as the “Egyptian Phoenix,” which appears every five-hundred years.
Stoicism Is a Path of Daily Progress
Seneca did not consider himself to be a sage, but presents himself in his Letters to Lucilius as someone who is still making progress each day, at an advanced age, which he urges Lucilius to strive for as well.
The Stoics considered philosophy to be akin to a kind of therapy or medicine, and in a telling passage Seneca writes to Lucilius, describing himself as a fellow patient in a hospital ward, who is just a bit farther along the path, and sharing some remedies he himself has found to be helpful:
I am not such a hypocrite as to offer cures while I am sick myself. No, I am lying in the same ward, as it were, conversing with you about our common ailment and sharing remedies. So listen to me as if I were talking to myself: I am letting you into my private room and giving myself instructions while you are standing by.
The idea of the perfect sage can be useful, however, if we simply understand it to be an ideal construct, or an intelligent thought experiment, rather than something that actually exists.
Similarly, it can be helpful to reflect on what your ideal morning, your ideal lifestyle, or your ideal spouse might actually resemble, because it gives you something to aim for.
But in the real world, Stoicism is a kind of path that focuses on making small, incremental amounts of progress each day, one step at a time. No one is perfect and that’s why Stoicism is a practice: and it’s not just a practice that you undertake, but it’s something that you practice at — in the same way a musician or an athlete practices — in order to get better at what you do.
Each day new situations arise that test our characters in small ways or large ways, giving us ongoing opportunities to be mindful, virtuous, and to make the best (or wisest) judgments possible.
The fact that Stoicism is a daily, incremental practice is shown in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: over the course of many days, Marcus reflects in his private journal on how to live a better life.
Progress is also shown to be incremental by many other Stoic exercises, like the daily review of one’s activities before bedtime, described by both Seneca and Epictetus.
Each night, before falling asleep, Epictetus would ask:
- Where did I go wrong?
- What did I do right?
- What did I leave undone?
In conclusion, one of Seneca’s most frequently used terms in his Letters is progress, or making progress towards wisdom. And as he notes in the end, “most of progress consists in the desire to make progress.”
David Fideler holds a PhD in philosophy, is the editor of Stoic Insights, and the author of Breakfast with Seneca, published by W. W. Norton, which is the first clear and faithful guide to the practical teachings of the Stoic philosopher Seneca. You can read more about his work here.