Valuable Stoic Insights About Hope

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Starting several months back, we have been publishing a monthly set of answers from a panel of Stoicism experts responding to a given question or a suggested passage. This month the passage we responded to is:

Other people are taken from us, but at the same time we are being stolen imperceptibly from ourselves. You will not be conscious of these changes, nor will you be able to remedy the afflictions, but you will nonetheless make trouble for yourself by hoping for some things and despairing of others. Wisdom lies in combining the two: you should neither hope without doubting nor doubt without hoping.

Seneca, Letters on Ethics, 104, 12

Answers were provided by Christopher Gill, Chuck Chakrapani, Massimo Pigliucci, and Greg Lopez. Here’s Massimo’ response to that passage:

This passage is in the context of the broader theme of Letter CIV: why traveling does not set us free from our troubles. The overall argument that Seneca makes is that if we travel in order to resolve our problems we are seriously mistaken, since we travel in the company of ourselves, and our problems will follow us, if we haven’t addressed them already.

One of these problems is our inability to accept the fact that everything is impermanent: other people, including our loved ones, will some day die (they are “taken from us”), and we ourselves change continuously, if little by little (“we are being stolen imperceptibly from ourselves”).

As the section immediately preceding this one makes clear, Seneca thinks that we should accept these changes as an inevitable, natural part of life, and not being troubled by them, not wishing they did not happen. In a beautiful turn of phrase he says: “Look on everything that pleases you the same way as you look at verdant leaves: enjoy them while they last” (CIV.11).

Moreover, just as the leaves that fall off a tree are soon replaced by others, so it is with people around us. We lose our parents, and yet gain a spouse or partner, or children. We lose one friend, and yet make another. As the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, a major influence on the Stoics, put it: panta rhei, everything changes. The wise person, therefore, does not resist change, she embraces it.