By Ashwini Mokashi, Ph.D.
In this article, I would like to discuss the idea of the wise person in Stoicism, with a focus on Seneca’s writings and the origin of the concept in Plato’s writings. The article will discuss (a) who is a Sapiens, (b) the process of becoming a Sapiens and (c) philosophical critique of this concept. At each stage, the article shows the connection to Plato and Platonic tradition. The critique of the concept also evaluates pitfalls of the concept of the wise person and the pitfalls of Stoic attachment with Platonic idealism, which suffers similar setbacks.
- Who is a Sapiens
The concept of a wise person, also known as Sapiens in Latin or ‘ho sophos’ in Greek first entered Graeco-Roman culture when the Delphic Oracle declared Socrates to be the wisest man of all. Although Socrates tried his best to refute that statement by pointing to weaknesses and lapses in his own life, the sobriquet never left him and he came to symbolize the ideal of life in that society. His influence was so great that even a century after his death, Zeno of Citium was found recommending the ideals of Socrates as standards of life for everyone. The life of a sapiens and that of Socrates became interchangeable terms. Every citizen was urged to be like Socrates. Hence it became important to arrange the Socratic values into a system to serve as a design for training and guidance. Zeno codified these norms and other Stoics including Seneca followed suit.
- The process of Becoming a Sapiens
Comprehending the Sapiens as an embodiment of Stoic ethics entails understanding Stoic ethical notions. Stoic scholars listed them separately, commented upon them individually and made some attempts at defining them. Some of the common features of the ethics include the concepts of kathekonta (appropriate actions), oikeiosis (what belongs to oneself), eudaimonia (happy life), arête (virtue) and the Sapiens (wise person), in whom all the ethical terms find their apotheosis. Stoic dialectics plays a key role in understanding how the wise person acquires the expertise to match different situations with suitable arguments, to resist his impulsive responses, and to give his assent to the right judgment. The Stoic theory of indifferents, divided between preferable and less preferable indifferents, sheds some light on the essential and inherent sense of detachment or apatheia in the Sapiens. The telos of a human life, living in accordance with nature, contributes to virtue and wisdom and thereby leads to happiness.
- Philosophical Critique of this Concept
Stoic theories seem to fall in the same trap, as does Plato’s idealism including his theory of Ideas. Stoics take inspiration from Platonic philosophy. They ape his philosophical positions and are open to similar charges as Platonic philosophy. Stoic or Platonic theories are idealistic and attractive, but neither pragmatic nor detail oriented. As a result, it enables their critiques to call in question their holistic understanding without showing inconsistencies in their detailed footwork. The charges of creating a utopian concept of a wise person or supporting the elitist culture throughout their philosophies are aimed at the root of Stoic agenda of virtue.
Society upheld Plato’s dialogue ‘Apology’ as a good defense of Socrates’s viewpoint, after Socrates paid the price for his philosophical perspectives with his life. Seneca certainly gained a good following in the later literature, probably because of his unfair death at the hands of Nero or because of being one of the few Stoic writers, whose original writing had survived through the ages. Nevertheless, looking at the philosophical conception of Seneca’s Sapiens, one can derive certain similarities in the fate of this theory with that of Platonic theory of Ideas. Both the theories make an attempt to grapple with some colossal issues of human understanding, namely how to attain human perfection or how to understand reality. They come very close to having solutions. But in the attempt to have perfect solutions, both create utopian structure – Seneca by creating a perfect wise person and Plato by creating an idea of the essence of an object. Nonetheless, neither Plato nor Seneca see this charge as fatal and here is why. It is important to understand a philosophical position in its own conceptual make-up. Given the ideological background of both philosophies, it is a little wonder that they understood the world in terms of perfection. If Aristotle had flourished prior to Plato, Plato would have been able to refute his theories. What is significant for Stoics is that they offer a perfect package of an ideal human being to the world and let everyone strive for perfection, so that the world will be a better place. The only way to make it possible was to create a theory, which was faultless.
Kurt Goedel proved that no mathematical system is both complete and consistent. The same principle would apply to a philosophical theory as well. Both Platonic theory of ideas and Seneca’s Sapiens are beautifully designed ‘consistent’ theories, but whether they are complete or not, depends on how well we can interpret them and learn to apply those principles in our lives.