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The Ultimate Criteria for Wisdom is how you feel - not what you know

In many ways the point Seneca is making here is one of the most important in Stoicism: since we are striving to be happy - and wisdom is knowledge about how we become happy - it's easy to focus too much on knowledge and think that the basic criteria for when we are wise is how much we know. It's not. The basic criteria for wisdom is whether we are happy.

"Now I will tell you how you may know that you are not wise. The wise person is filled with joy, cheerful and calm, unalarmed; he lives on equal terms with gods. Now look at yourself. If you are never downcast; if your mind is not bothered by any hopes concerning the future; if your mental state is even and consistent night and day, upright and content with itself, then you have indeed attained the fullness of the human good. But if you seek pleasure in every direction and of every kind, then be aware that you are as far removed from wisdom as you are from joy. Joy is your aim, but you are off course: you think that you will get there amid riches and accolades; in other words, you seek joy in the midst of anxiety! You go after those things on grounds that they will bestow happiness and pleasure, but in reality they are causes of pain."

- Seneca, Letters 59.14


  1. "let wisdom sink into your soul, and test your progress, not by mere speech or writings, but by stoutness of heart and decrease of desire"

    - Seneca , Letters 20.1

  2. "A man has caught the message of wisdom, if he can die as free from care as he was at birth"

    - Seneca, Letters 22.16

  3. This super-important passage from On Benefits is highly relevant as well:

    "If you ask me, I do not think it contributes much to the topic, once you have dealt with the instructions concerning character, to chase down other themes that have been worked up not tho heal the mind but only to give our intellect some exercise. Demetrius the Cynic makes the point very well - he is in my judgment a great man even when set beside the greatest - when he says that it is more beneficial if you possess just a few philosophical precepts, but keep them readily available for rapid use, than if you learn many things but do not have them to hand. He says:

    "The great wrestler is not the one who has mastered all the moves and holds, the ones that you rarely need when confronting an opponent; rather, the great westler is the one who has trained himself well and thoroughly in one or two moves and watches and watches carefully for the chance to use them. (For it does not matter how many he knows, providing he knows enough to get the win). Similarly, in philosophical study there are many moves that entertain, but few that bring success. Though you may be ignorant of the causes of the ebb and flow of the tides, why every seventh year marks a new stage of life, why a colonnade does not maintain a constant width when viewed from a distance but te further end gets narrower until evetually the gap between the columns disappears, how twins are conceived separately but born together (does one act of intercourse produce two embryos or are there distinct atcs of conception for each?), why the fates of those born under the same circumstances are different and those whose births are extremely close nevertheless face very different outcomes - it will not to you much harm to skip over such topics, which are neither possible nor useful to know. Truth is concealed, hidden in the depths. And we cannot complain about nature's hostility, since the only things it is difficult to discover are the ones from whose discovery the only profit is the very act of discovery. Everything that will make us better or happier people is either out in the open or nearly so. If our mind has come to treat chance events with disdain; if it has risen above its fears and does not grasp with greedy ambition for what is boundless but instead has learned to seek riches from itself; if the mind has elimanted the fear of gods and men and knows that we have little to dread from humans and nothing from god; if it disdains everything that brings torment to our life while "enriching" it, and has reached the point of seeing that death is not the source of anything bad, but rather puts an end to many bad things; if he has dedicated his mind to virtue and thinks of any pathway to which virtue summons him as being smooth and level; if, being by nature a social animal and born for the common good, he looks upon the world as a common home for all and has opened up his private thoughts to the gods, living always as though under public scrutiny and more in fear of himself than of others - then this man has escaped the storms and taken a stand on firm ground under a clear sky; he has reached the summit of all useful and necessary knowledge. Everything else is but an amusement for his leisure""

    - Seneca, On Benefits, 7.1.2-7

  4. I find it's actually incredibly difficult to master even just one thing in life. =)

    There's a reason why a simple portrait, the Mona Lisa, has somehow become the most famous painting. In order to perfect painting a smile, Leonardo Da Vinci had to first become a master in biomechanics and human anatomy. So one could say Leonardo was only really good with his paint brush, but he was seriously quite good. =)


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