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Philosophy and the search for a good life

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Isn’t the search for a good life also the purpose of religion?

Guided by what we see in our universities nowadays (that is, scholars writings papers and attending seminars and conferences), we tend to think of philosophy as mainly a speculative endeavor, as an intellectual discipline mainly focused on the elucidation of theoretical problems and the formulation of different theories regarding this or that more or less obscure matter. But this manner of understanding philosophy is quite recent.

Other civilizations and societies have elaborated different conceptions of philosophy, which flourished way before philosophy became a thing for experts searching for a tenured-track position anywhere they could find it. For Seneca, the Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist and humorist born in Córdoba, Spain, who belonged to the school of Roman Stoicism, philosophy was predominantly a matter of personal ethics. That is, its main purpose was not the search for solutions to theoretical problems but, in a nutshell, the search for the good life. In one of his moral letters to Lucilius, Seneca wrote:

Who can doubt, my dear Lucilius, that life is the gift of the immortal gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy? Hence the idea that our debt to philosophy is greater than our debt to the gods, in proportion as a good life is more of a benefit than mere life, would be regarded as correct, were not philosophy itself a boon which the gods have bestowed upon us. They have given the knowledge thereof to none, but the faculty of acquiring it they have given to all. For if they had made philosophy also a general good, and if we were gifted with understanding at our birth, wisdom would have lost her best attribute – that she is not one of the gifts of fortune. For as it is, the precious and noble characteristic of wisdom is that she does not advance to meet us, that each man is indebted to himself for her, and that we do not seek her at the hands of others. (Moral Letters to Lucilius, 90)

But isn’t the search for a good life also the purpose of religion? What difference, if any, is there between Seneca’s form of Stoicism and the quest of a religious man? Much has been written on the matter, and it’s hard to give a straightforward, definite answer to this question in a brief article. But one thing can be indeed said: Seneca conceived the good life as life free from the onslaught of passions and emotions. This is, indeed, a conception that closely resembles that found in the thought of many religious men, from the early Fathers of the Desert to Loyola and St. John of the Cross, among other of the great mystics of the Spanish Baroque.

But the difference lies in the methods of reaching that good life. While the Christian man, for instance, puts the cornerstone of that good life in the faith in Jesus Christ ー this is what Saint Paul is actually saying in those famous passages from his first epistle to the Corinthians ー for Seneca, the Stoic, the cornerstone of that good life is increasing self-awareness and the constant discipline of looking into ourselves. Needless to say, there is indeed a great deal of discipline and self-awareness in Christian life as well. As Christianity does, Séneca understands we all have natural impulses, emotions and passions. But, for the Stoic, the only way of reaching the good life is keeping them in their proper place by constant reasoning and emotional discipline. A beautiful, yet difficult, task indeed.

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