The wisdom of stoic gratitude
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage,” said the Roman senator Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who rose to the pinnacle of power and wealth from the peripheries of a sprawling empire, thanks to his sheer determination and unparalleled intellect.
Seneca would spend the final years of his life in one of the most terror-stricken eras in the ancient world. Eventually, he was forced to commit suicide by his own pupil, the Roman Emperor Nero, who revolted against all conventions and values. However, far from succumbing to, first, the temptations of Roman power and, later, to the unparalleled terror under Nero’s reign, Seneca instead embraced stoicism as his ultimate philosophy in life.
Stoicism, which emphasizes genuine humility before fate and spiritual strength before earthly temptations, allowed the famed senator to embrace his death sentence with Socratic equanimity. To leave material life was less painful, precisely because of his profound gratitude for all his moments of joy, triumph and, above all, love.
Perhaps no person better captured the spirit of stoic gratitude than one of the greatest leaders in human history, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Though born into a royal household, and later placed on the imperial throne, Aurelius struggled with never-ending tragedy, including the early loss of his parents, the deaths of nine children, as well as a lifelong ailment.
The Roman emperor also struggled with self-doubt and a persistent search for meaning and purpose as reflected in his “Meditations,” a personal journal that has become a philosophical classic. Against the backdrop of death, war and personal tragedy, Marcus Aurelius never abandoned the power of pure, unsullied gratitude. “When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love…” he wrote.
In the same spirit, Seneca emphasized the centrality of gratitude not only to overcoming tragedy and difficulties but also to finding happiness. “True happiness,” he said, “is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.”
“The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not,” he added.
Ancient Stoics, especially the Romans, also had practical advice, since, unlike the Athenians, they lived in an imperial society where merit was fundamentally measured by earthly success. And here, Seneca provided great advice on how gratitude is essential in making the most out of the most precious gift given to us by The Almighty — time: “[I]t is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.”
The problem, however, arises “when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity… we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.”
His conclusion: “We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” For Seneca, gratitude meant making the most out of our time on earth, especially with loved ones.
In my case, this year was beyond difficult. It began with my father in a state of coma for almost two weeks and, just earlier this month, the passing away of my paternal grandmother, Maryam. Both were and remain dear to my heart—two pillars of kindness and warmth in my life.
But, with stoic gratitude, and faith in a higher cause, I have sought not only to overcome the tragic difficulties, but also to make the most out of this long year, from finishing an almost 400-page academic book to holding public lectures around the world. Gratitude is the bridge to living a good life despite all our mortal suffering. Let’s strive to be grateful, stoically.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.