Seneca’s Stages of Progress

After a careful reading of letters 72 and 75 in Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius (trans. Graver & Long), my mind went to work trying to reconcile two lists that Seneca provides of different categories of “progressors” (proficientes) ––those who are making progress towards wisdom, but who are not yet wise. This is not meant to be a formal or comprehensive list ––far from it. But it does reveal some insights into the task we face as philosophers. You might draw your own insights or questions; if you do, please share them here or in our Discord server (see the bottom of the page for a link to join).

First, here are some important notes about the terminology Seneca uses. I think they’re important to fully appreciate what he’s saying.

  • Emotion” is the translation of the term “adfectus” (pl. of adfectus) ––This is Seneca’s preferred Latin translation of the Greek term pathê (pl. of pathos). Although Cicero preferred to use the term passiones (pl. of passio), Seneca is using a less common Latin term (according to the Lewis & Short dictionary, it’s an alternate spelling of the more common “affectus” used by Seneca and Pliny to describe a “low, ignoble passion or desire”). So where the texts use the word “emotion,” this does not imply all emotions, but only the unhealthy emotions which are the products of irrational value judgments. They occur whenever we fall prey to a judgment that an external thing (a thing/circumstance not in our power) is either good or bad, when in fact it is indifferent.
  • Infirmities” is the translation of the term morbi (pl. of morbus)––This is the Latin translation of the Greek term nosêmata (pl. of nosêma) or arrôstêmata (pl. of arrôstêma). Margaret Graver provides a detailed description of them in Ch. 6 of her Stoicism and Emotion (2007), but Seneca does a fine job at Letters 75.11-12 (along with the distinction between them and “emotions”). Note that though an emotion is a judgment, an infirmity is a “persistent judgment” (pertinax iudicium):

The infirmities are faults that have become ingrained and hard, like greed and ambition. These are conditions that bind the mind much more tightly and have begun to be permanent afflictions. To give a brief definition, an infirmity is a persistent judgment in a corrupted person that certain things are very much worth pursuing that in fact are only slightly worth pursuing. Or, if you prefer, we can define it this way: it is being overly concerned with things that one ought to pursue either casually or not at all, or considering something to be of great value when in fact it is either of some lesser value or of no value at all. The emotions are unjustifiable movements of the mind that are abrupt and agitated. These, when they occur frequently and do not receive any treatment, cause the infirmity, just as a single cold in the head, if it is not protracted, brings on nothing more than a cough; but if it happens repeatedly for a long time, it brings on the wasting disease.

With these two conditions in mind (emotions and infirmities), you may guess what Seneca thinks should be addressed first. Faced with a temporary––though perhaps acute––affliction and with a persistent disease, we should free ourself from the disease first. Here, Seneca is assuming that we are suffering from both and that they are both within our abilities to cure. But, of course, before treatment, we must set the intention to actually get better.

Enough prologue. Here are the “stages of progress” (genera profectus) or “categories of progressors” (genera proficientium) described by Seneca in Letters 72 and 75 combined into one list:

STAGE 1 (Suffering from emotions and infirmities and absent of good intentions): “Novices (imperiti) devoid of training plummet downward without end; they fall into the chaos of Epicurus, a boundless void.” (72.9)

STAGE 2 (Suffering from emotions and infirmities, but with the intention to improve): “A person who has good intentions (bona voluntas) and is making progress (habet profectum), but who is still a long way from the summit, moves alternately upward and downward: now he mounts to the sky; now he is brought back down to earth.” (72.9)

STAGE 3 (Suffering from some infirmities and some emotions, but free from others): “[Those who are] beyond many serious faults (multa et magna vitia), but not all. They have escaped greed, but still experience anger; they are not troubled by lust, but are still subject to ambition. They no longer experience desire, but they still experience fear. Even in fear they are steadfast against some things but yield to others: they are unconcerned about death but still terrified of pain.” (75.14)

STAGE 4 (Suffering from some emotions, but free from all infirmities / liable to backslide): “[T]hose who have put aside both the worst of the mind’s failings (maxima mala animi) and the emotions (et adfectus), but not in such a way as to have a secure grasp on their tranquility (securitas): they are still liable to relapse.” (75.13)

STAGE 5 (Suffering from some emotions [perhaps], but free from all infirmities / NOT liable to backslide): “[T]ose who do not yet possess wisdom but have set their feet in that vicinity, for being nearby is still being outside. … They are those who have put aside their emotions (adfectus) and their faults (vitia), but whose loyalty is still untried. They do not yet possess their good in such a way as to use it; nonetheless, it is no longer possible for them to fall back into those things they have left behind. They are now in that place from which there is no backsliding, but they do not yet realize this about themselves. … Already it is their lot to enjoy their good, but not yet to be confident of it. … [Some] assert that they have now rid themselves of the infirmities of mind (morbi animi) but not yet of the emotions (adfectus) …” (75.9-10)

STAGE 6 (Free from all infirmities and emotions [but not yet wise]): “[They] who are on the verge of wisdom (adludunt sapientiae; lit. “they play/frollic with wisdom”). Although they have not yet reached it, they have it in sight—within striking distance, as it were. No longer are they buffeted by the waves; no longer do they even feel an undertow. Though not yet landed, they are already within the harbor.” (72.10).

So, in summary, it’s important to start training ourselves by fostering an intention to become better; then we should start dismantling our inclinations towards external things that we personally get worked up over; then we must proceed to eradicate the unhealthy emotions piecemeal until they’ll all gone. The more we progress, the more confidence we can place on our good character. Again, it makes sense: the infirmities are unhealthy ‘conditions’ (habitus/hexeis) of the mind that are described as stable, persistent, or habitual. They need to be addressed before we can hope to rid ourselves of any isolated case of unhealthy emotion.

You may ask, “Where are you on this list, Justin?” … Well, I can say without shame that I am at Stage 2. I am certainly afflicted with more than one infirmity, but perhaps I have less than others. Sometimes I think I am at Stage 3, but I shouldn’t presume. Here’s what Seneca says on the matter:

Let us give some thought to this matter. It will be well for us if we can join [Stage 5]. By great natural gifts and constant studious application, one may attain to [Stage 4]; [Stage 3], however, is not to be despised. Think how many ills you see around you—how no wrong is unexampled, how much depravity advances each day, what misdeeds are committed both publicly and in private-and you will realize that it is sufficient achievement for us if we are not among the worst… “I hope I can gain a higher rank,” you say. That would be my wish for us; but it is a wish, not a promise. We have already been taken over: we are in the grip of faults even as we strive for virtue. I am ashamed to say it, but we seek honorable conduct only in our spare time. And yet if we make a clean break from the things that preoccupy us and from our faults that cling so closely, how great is the reward that awaits us!

Letters 75.15-16 (modified for clarification)

Where are you? How far have you progressed?

[Note for those familiar with Graver: I noticed that Seneca does not mention the proclivities (euemptôsiai)—the tendency or habit of experiencing specific emotions. For example, if you easily experience anger (orgê/ira), then you have a distinct condition of the mind called irascibility (orgilotês/iracundia) that needs to be dismantled before you move to eradicate anger itself. Seneca may not have mentioned proclivities because I don’t think some people have them (though I’m sure many people do) and maybe he thought his mild-mannered friend Lucilius didn’t need to worry about it. People don’t automatically foster them though; Seneca seems to think they are forged through repeatedly giving into unhealthy emotions over time (he discusses this in more detail in his treatise On Anger (De Ira). All that being said, if you think you have a proclivity towards a particular emotion, then you should start addressing them ASAP along with any infirmities]


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