Stoic Serenity 1.7: Misfortune Exercise

If you’ve been following along in the order of things, the previous post had us complete an exercise where we took our Stoic teachings up until this point and applied them to our individual everyday lives. We identified our activities yesterday and divided them into interests and projects. Then we evaluated whether the projects were going well or poorly and identified our reactions to setbacks. Continue to keep a simple list of interests and projects each day, and continue to identify your reaction to the progress of each. Train yourself to be aware hour-by-hour of which project you are engaged in, and whether you are acting and responding with Virtue.

Today, we look at one of Seneca’s Letters. Letter 91, “On the Lesson to be Drawn from the Burning of Lyons.” Seneca hears the news of the destruction of the city of Lyon, and he feels compelled to write to Lucilius about dealing with misfortune. As previously, I will paraphrase the selection. This one’s a bit long, but has some good points:

Our friend Liberalis is discouraged right now; for he has just heard about the fire that destroyed the city of Lyons. Anyone would be expected to be upset by such a disaster, let alone a man who loves his homeland dearly. But this incident has caused him to consider the strength of his own character. I suppose he has prepared his character up until this point only to handle situations that might cause him fear. But I don’t imagine that he was free from alarm regarding an evil as shocking as this, since an incident of this magnitude is practically unheard of. Fire has damaged many cities, but has annihilated none. Even when the enemy has hurled fire at the walls, the flames die out in many places, and though they hurl more fire, there is usually some part of the city still left for the swords to conquer. Even an earthquake has rarely been violent enough to destroy entire cities! There has never been such a widespread fire that burned so savagely that nothing was left for a single second. Lyon had so many beautiful buildings, even one of them would have made a town famous. And they were all wrecked in one night. In this era of peace, this terrible event, which men would fear even in the time of war, has occurred. Can you believe it? When weapons are laid to rest and peace prevails throughout the world, Lyons, the pride of Gaul, is missing!

Usually Fortune gives people a period of foreboding before she is about to assail them and cause suffering. Every great creation has been given a period of rest before its fall; but in this case, only one night had passed between the city’s greatest moment and the city’s non-existence. So short was the time between that it takes me more time to write this letter to you about the city’s destruction than it took for the city to perish.

All this has affected our friend Liberalis, bending his will, which is usually so strong when he faces personal trials. No one can blame him for being shaken; it’s always the unexpected that puts the heaviest load on us. Unexpectedness adds to the weight of calamities, and every mortal human feels the pain that much greater from calamities that also bring surprise.

Therefore, nothing should be unexpected by us. We should send our minds forward in advance to meet all and any problems that might arise. We should be prepared not for what might happen, but what can happen. We all know that Fortune can drag anything down from the height of its prosperity when she so chooses. She always more violently assails the things that more brilliantly shine. Is anything difficult for Fortune to do? She does not always attack the same way, and she doesn’t even use her full strength all the time. Sometimes she uses our own hands against ourselves; other times she is satisfied with her own powers to cause us enough perils. No time is ever safe from Fortune. In the midst of our pleasures there will appear causes of suffering. War rises up in the midst of peace, and that which we depended on for protection is transformed into a cause of our fear. Friends become enemies, allies become opponents. Summer calm is stirred into sudden storms, wilder than the storms of winter. Even when no enemies are present, we are victims of the same fates that foes would inflict! And if other causes of disaster fail, abundant good fortune would find disaster on its own. The most gentle people are assailed by illness, the strongest are wasted away with disease, the most innocent are punished, the most secluded are assailed by the noisy mob.

Chance chooses some new weapon to bear her strength against us when she thinks we have forgotten her. Whatever has been built up over the years through hard work and the great kindness of the gods, is scattered in a single day. No, whoever says “a day” has granted too much time before swift-coming misfortune. An hour, a single instant of time! is enough to overthrow entire empires! It would be some consolation for our weak selves if all things perished as slowly as they come into being. But we already know that growth is sluggish and ruin is swift. Nothing at all, public or private, is stable. The destinies of men are in a whirl, no less than those of the cities. From the greatest calm, terror arises. Even in the peaceful silence, evils burst forth from sources where they were least expected. Thrones that have withstood the shock of many wars come crashing to the ground, though no one sets them tottering. How rare it is for states to carry their good fortune through to the end!

Let us learn from this and consider any possible future events. Let us strengthen our minds against any evils that may possibly come about. Exile, disease, wars, shipwreck—we must consider these. Chance may tear you from your country, or it may tear your country from you. Chance may banish you to the desert, or this very place where crowds are gathered may become a desert. Let us place before our eyes the entire nature of man’s lot. And if we would not be overwhelmed by the unexpected evils, then let us consider not as great an evil as often happens, but the very greatest evil that can possibly happen! We must reflect upon fortune fully and completely.

How often have cities in Asia and in Achaia been flattened by a single shock of earthquake! How many towns in Syria and Macedonia have been swallowed up! How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins! How often has Paphos collapsed! We often receive news of entire cities brought to ultimate destruction; yet consider how small a part of the world we are, to receive all this terrible news!

Therefore, let us rise up to face the works of Fortune, and whatever may happen, let us have the assurance that it is not so great a calamity as rumor advertises it to be. A rich city has been turned to ashes, the jewel of the provinces, set apart from the rest; although it was a rich city, it fit on a single hill, and not a very large hill at that. But of all those cities, of whose magnificence and grandeur you hear today, the very traces will be blotted out by time. Do you see how in Achaia the foundations of the most famous cities have already crumbled to nothing, so that not even a trace is left to show that they ever existed? Destruction is not even limited to man’s efforts. No! The peaks of mountains dissolve, whole regions have settled, and places which once stood far from the sight of the sea are now covered by the waves. The works of nature herself are harassed; so we ought to bear the destruction of cities with untroubled minds. Cities only stand but to fall! This doom awaits each and every one of them. It may be an enormous calamity, such as an internal force, or blasts of violence will burst forth through the blocked path; or a whirlpool of raging currents, hidden in earth’s bosom, will break through the resistance against it; or forceful flames will burst from the earth’s crust. Or it will be that time, from which nothing is safe, will reduce them little by little; or that a pestilential climate will drive the inhabitants away, or mold will corrode the deserted walls. It would take years to count the different ways fate may come; but I know one thing: all the works of mortal humans have been doomed to mortality, and in the midst of things which have been destined to die, we live!

These are the thoughts and consolation which I’m offering to our friend Liberalis, who burns with a love for his country beyond belief. Perhaps its destruction has been brought about so that it will be raised up again to an even better destiny. Many times destruction has made room for more prosperous fortune. Many structures have fallen only to rise to a greater height. Timagenes, who had a grudge against Rome and her prosperity, used to say that the only reason he was saddened when city fires broke out in Rome was because he knew that even better buildings would be built than those which had gone down in the flames. And that will probably be true of Lyons, as well. All Lyons’ citizens will strive earnestly to rebuild everything better in size and security than that which was lost. May it be built to endure, and under happier fate, for a longer existence! This is the 100th year since the colony’s founding—not even the limit of a man’s lifetime. Led by Plancus, the natural advantages of its location have caused it to become strong and reach its numbers of today; and yet how many calamities of the greatest severity has it endured, all within the space of an old man’s life!

Thus, discipline the mind to understand and endure its own lot. Let the mind know that fortune is willing to do anything—she has the same power over empires as over emperors, the same power over cities as over its citizens. We must not mourn over any of these calamities. We have entered into this kind of world, and we live under its laws. If you like it, obey; if not, go somewhere else. Cry out in anger if any unjust actions are taken against you individually, but if this unavoidable law is binding upon both the highest and the lowest, then exist in harmony with fate, which dissolves all things. Don’t estimate our worth by our funeral mounds or by the monuments of unequal size that line the roads; their ashes level all men! We are unequal at birth, but we are equal in death. And what I say about cities I also say about their inhabitants. Ardea was captured as well as Rome. The great founder of human law has not made distinctions between us based on lineage or illustrious names, except while we live. However, when we come to the end that awaits us, the great founder of human law says: “Depart, ambition! To all creatures that burden the earth let one and the same law apply!” For enduring all things, we are equal; no one is more frail than the other, no one is more certain than the other of what tomorrow holds.

Alexander the Great studied geometry; unhappy man! because that’s how he learned how puny was the earth, of which he had seized only a tiny fraction! Unhappy man, I repeat, because he was bound to understand that his title was false. Who can be “great” by seizing that which is puny? The lessons he was being taught were complicated and could only be learned by persistent application. They were not the kind of lessons that could be understood by a madman, who lets his thoughts go all over the place. “Teach me something easy!” he cries. But his teacher answers: “These things are the same for everyone, as hard for one person as for another.” Imagine that nature is saying to us: “These things you are complaining about are the same for everyone. I can’t give preference to one man over another, giving one man an easier lot than the other. But whoever wishes will make things easier for himself.”  How? By maintaining mental calmness. You must suffer pain, thirst, hunger, and old age as well if you are granted a longer stay among men. You must suffer sickness, loss, and death. But don’t believe the people around you; none of these things is an evil, you have the power to bear each one of them. It’s only by common opinion that there is anything menacing about these things. When you fear death, it’s like fearing gossip. What’s more foolish than a man who is afraid of mere words? Our friend Demetrius puts it cleverly: “To me, the talk of ignorant men is like mere stomach noise. For what difference does it make to me whether the rumblings come from above or from below?  It’s foolishness to be afraid of things held in low esteem by those people who are held in low esteem. You’ve never had reason to have fear caused by the talk of men, and you have no reason now. You would never have feared these things if their talk had not forced fear upon you.

Is a good man actually harmed when he is the target of unwarranted gossip? No, because the gossip does not change the man’s character. Then don’t let this sort of thing damage death either. Remember that no one who talks poorly of death has ever experienced it themselves.

In the meantime, it is recklessly bold to condemn that of which you are ignorant. You do know this—death is helpful to many. It sets many free from tortures, want, sickness, sufferings, and weariness. We are under the power of nothing when we finally have death in our own power! Farewell.

That was a doozy. Ha! There are several quotes in this letter that really strike me.

  • Cities only stand but to fall!
  • and in the midst of things which have been destined to die, we live!
  • We are unequal at birth, but we are equal in death.
  • Who can be “great” by seizing that which is puny?
  • “These things you are complaining about are the same for everyone. I can’t give preference to one man over another, giving one man an easier lot than the other. But whoever wishes will make things easier for himself.”
  • When you fear death, it’s like fearing gossip.

Let’s debrief. The city of Lyons burned to the ground. Liberalis loved Lyons dearly and he’s distraught at the news. Seneca is taking this opportunity to write to Lucilius about how we should deal with misfortune. What are Seneca’s main points?

  • Fate, God, Life, etc. is going to throw whatever it wants to at us.
  • Everything in life will eventually experience its own destruction. We’re surrounded by mortality.
  • To complain about misfortune is foolish, because we are humans of this world and misfortune is part of the law of this world. It’s a fact of life. All humans must endure misfortune and tragedy, but we all have it within our own power to make it easier for ourselves to bear.
  • Those of us who choose to accept reality and live in harmony with it will indeed make it easier on ourselves.
  • Some times good things come about from destruction, such as rebuilding even better than before. Or in death, people are released from pain, torture, and illness. Although we do not see the future that God has in store, that doesn’t mean that the current circumstances are evil.
  • To consider death as something “evil” is just as bad as believing false gossip. The words themselves do not change reality.
  • No one who says that death is a terrible thing has actually experienced death for themselves.

Furthermore, Seneca mentions several times about preparing our minds to face disasters. He tells us to not only anticipate and reflect on what tragedies would most likely happen, but the most devastating disaster that possibly could happen. This is one of the bases for the Stoic method of negative visualization, which we will learn more about in the future. It’s a tool that helps us cope with current problems and prepare us for anything, so that even if the worst ever imagined scenario does strike, we’ve already prepared for it. Then we can “maintain mental calmness” as Seneca mentioned.

There was also a discussion about people talking about death and attributing it to evil. But “When you fear death, it’s like fearing gossip.” Remember our discussion of indifferents or “conventional goods”? We could call death a “conventional evil,” but it still falls in the official Stoic category of indifferents. Wealth and power are conventional goods because society has been teaching us all our lives that these things are considered good by society. Well, death is a conventional evil because society has been teaching us that death is considered bad by society. A Stoic strives to take all these indifferents and rid them of their connotations. That is, take them at their face value without making perceptions or judgements about what they entail. Remember to keep focused on the Virtues! Do you remember all four? self-restraint, justice, courage, wisdom. Memorize them.


If you’ve followed along thus far, I commend your perseverance! Now comes our assignment:

From what you have learned so far, write an imaginary dialogue between Liberalis and Stilpo (“I have all my goods with me!”). Show how Stilpo would have advised Liberalis as they stood overlooking the ruins of the city. Draw on any points you have learned throughout this chapter.

For the content of your dialogue, consider anything from

  • Zeno, if you are able
  • from goods, indifferents, and Virtues
  • from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on misfortune, aiding those suffering loss, and indifferents
  • perhaps including some from the discussion of interests and projects

Please share your composed dialogue in a comment!

One response to “Stoic Serenity 1.7: Misfortune Exercise

  1. kiiks52 March 28, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Ok, I’m going to change my scenario a bit for application’s sake, but it will still touch on the subject of Misfortune. Setting the scene, the private school where Ann has taught for 32 years has run out of funds and is shutting down. She’s lamenting and Stilpo is consoling her. 🙂

    Ann: I’ve taught at that school for 32 years. I put my life’s time and energy into that school! And for what? The school is closing forever!

    Stilpo: Everything is destined to dissolve at some point. Nothing on earth is free from its impending destruction. Didn’t even the ancient civilizations collapse? Everything we build lives but to fall.

    Ann: But I was 3 years away from retirement. There’s no new place to work. Thirty-two years… What a waste. This has ruined me. I have nothing worthwhile.

    Stilpo: “A waste” you say? Nothing worthwhile? What do you consider worthwhile? Do you consider satisfying your employer to be your true Value? Do you consider sitting at a desk or lecturing in front of classes to be your goals? Do the four solid walls of the school give true meaning to your life? Do you strive only to attain money and retirement? Do these things hold any true Value? Can you call them truly “Good?” These were mere outlets for your interests and projects. And you acted on them well. But now God has decided it’s time for these interests and projects to come to an end. That doesn’t mean everything that is good is over. No. These things were not intrinsically good. That which has true Value can never be taken from you.

    Ann: Then what is truly Good? What should be valued?

    Stilpo: The money and career was simply a byproduct of your 32 years. But you are mistaken if you think that’s what you were spending your time working toward. No, your time teaching at the school was 32 years toward developing your character, towards the only true good: Virtue. You spent 32 years developing self-restraint, justice, courage, and wisdom. As seasons pass, politicians rise and fall, employment comes and goes, one thing remains steadfast: your character. No matter what trouble may come, remind yourself and proudly proclaim to others, “I have all my goods with me!”

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