“There is no man to whom a good mind comes before an evil one. It is the evil mind that gets first hold on all of us. Learning virtue means unlearning vice. We should therefore proceed to the task of freeing ourselves from faults with all the more courage because, when once committed to us, the good is an everlasting possession; virtue is not unlearned… the first steps in the approach to them are toilsome, because it is characteristic of a weak and diseased mind to fear that which is unfamiliar.“
This quote comes from the book Letters from a Stoic by the great Roman Stoic philosopher known as Seneca the Younger. This is a book that I highly recommend. The chapter list in the table of contents addresses essentially every and any human problem one could possibly have that reaches across the expands of time, as the book was published in 65 AD. Each chapter is a letter addressed to Seneca’s friend, Lucilius, who is only known through Seneca’s writings. Interestingly enough, Seneca’s first name is Lucius, which sounds very familiar to Lucilius… I have a theory (based on the minimal research I did) that perhaps the letters were addressed to his younger self (either literally or figuratively anyway). The quote is from the chapter entitled, “On our Blindness and its Cure.”
Reading this chapter, and specifically this quote, which encapsulates the chapter well, made me think differently about my approach to the idea of “The Attack,” which I wrote about in my last post. As I mentioned in my introductory post, my blog is not a definitive expression of ideas, but rather an ever-changing and growing expression of ideas. This quote made me think that what I consider “The Attack” perhaps is not quite an attack after all…
The notion that every time we try to do something new and good, something insidious counters it to get in our way, might actually be a little bit backwards. Seneca says here that there is literally no person who can immediately do good without first doing evil. The thing that gets in the way of us trying to do good is our selves. It is all of the bad habits and false beliefs we have developed over the years, but never had to address until we decided to change our trajectory towards a good and productive life.
The very act of doing something new is rejected by our “weak and diseased mind.” It is hard to rewire ourselves and develop new habits. The evil side of our nature wants to continue down the easy path of drifting through life and not having to address itself. But, as Seneca says, “learning virtue means unlearning vice,” meaning in order to make positive change in our selves, we need to address this evil nature. We need to unlearn all the bad habits and replace all the false beliefs. The very act of doing so will make us virtuous, and will allow us to pursue the narrow path to fruitful and positive change in our lives.
To illustrate this point, take a “nice” person, for example. They think they are doing good, but actually may be acting in such a way because they don’t want to address their faults, but at the same time want everybody to like them. This person will eventually be taken advantage of and then become bitter, resentful, and exhausted of being nice and will either close up or lash out in some way. This is an insidious way of being, as this person doesn’t understand their evil nature, so they are not actually being good and virtuous. Now, let’s take the same individual who has lashed out at others and can now see how they can truly cause pain to others and their self. Once this individual is no longer afraid of confronting their evil nature, and in turn can get a better handle on it, they can truly recognize what good is. They can now treat others and their self with respect because they are intentionally choosing to, and will no longer come off as a pushover to everyone they meet.
So don’t be fearful of the supposed notion of “The Attack.” Don’t even be fearful of the dark side of your nature. As painful and difficult as it may be to begin taking stock of your faults, this is what the virtuous path requires. And once you begin, the lessons learned will stick with you forever, as the good side of your nature will be brought out. In order to be good in the first place, we must know what it means to be bad; what it is that we are working against. We need to be “The Attack” against the vices in our lives so that they don’t attack us.
If you have your own interpretation of the quote or on the notion of “The Attack,” please leave a comment below, as I would love to see another perspective on this idea. If you enjoyed this post and would like to read about the cures for your blindness on your path to a virtuous and meaningful life, I highly urge you to read Letters from a Stoic.