You are on page 1of 5

Hello everyone, Justin Vacula here with another episode in my Stoic Philosophy series.

Today's episode
is titled 'A Positive Sense of Self.' I'll talk about cultivating positive character traits, virtue, and a strong
mindset in order to have a solid personal foundation and purpose in life. Please follow me on
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Soundcloud, Stitcher, Instagram, Twitch and my website at
justinvacula.com where you can find links to my social portals and past Stoic Philosophy content.

My Stoic Philosophy series explores the philosophical tradition of Stoicism with goals to inform,
empower, and help others benefit from the practical wisdom of Ancient Greek, Roman, and modern
thinkers. I tackle many topics including handling adversity, finding meaning in life, working toward
contentment, dealing with change, anger, and gratitude.

What kind of person do you want to be when you grow up? This is a common question many of us
have heard, but have we sat down and thought about this deeply? Might we have good internal self-
esteem and a solid foundation from which to work with or might we lack a positive image of ourselves
perhaps relying on the consensus, the approval of others? Might your identity, your values be shaped by
those around you? Do you know yourself well – your strengths, your weaknesses, your skills, your
boundaries, and your goals in life? Are you living a good life? What might the good life look like?
What steps can we take toward improving ourselves?

Stoic writers such as Seneca focus on pursuing virtue as a main goal in life, working on self-
improvement, and seeking to aspire to greatness as a fulfilled individual who has clear goals, a sense of
purpose, and a strong foundation of values from which to draw upon. Seneca notes that circumstances
around us may change, an element of chance or fortune is outside of our control, but wherever we go
and in all things we can apply virtue and have a positive mindset in which to endure hardship and
bravely face challenges.

We can strive to live a good active considered life of quality and take control over our current situation
where possible. What is the alternative anyway? Surely a passive, unexamined life simply acting upon
whims and being reactive rather than proactive and going along with the flow isn't optimal. Seneca
writes in his letter 'On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable,' “For mere living is not a good, but living
well. Accordingly the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can. He will mark in
what place, with whom , and how he is to conduct his existence and what he is about to do. He always
reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life.” Within this passage are key recurring
themes in stoic texts – that we can take charge of our own lives and make wise decisions to live a better
quality of life – aspiring to live a good life and taking action through what we learn from Philosophical
thought – this is in our power.

Perhaps we're realizing later in life that we lack purpose, that we are now willing to make some
changes to better our quality of life and start to form a positive sense of self, Maybe we've had a
troubled past, made some decisions we wish we could take back, or found a poor sense of self as a
result of interactions with others who have led us astray. Seneca writes in his letter titled 'On Wisdom
and Retirement,' “But even now let us have no delay. For now we can take the world of experience
which tells us that there are many hostile and superfluous things for this we should long since have
taken the word of reason. Let us do what men are wont to do when they are late in setting forth and
wish to make up for lost time by increasing their speed – let us ply the spur. Our time of life is the best
possible for these pursuits, for the period of boiling and foaming is now past. The faults that were
uncontrolled in the first fierce heat of youth are now weakened, and but further little effort is needed
top extinguish them.”
No matter what age you may happen to be, you can reflect on your past, accept that it happened, and
make steps to improve now in the present for the future. You can make up for lost time as Seneca
mentions and make some positive steps today toward cultivating virtue and forming a positive sense of
self.

What are some virtues we can reflect upon and apply by which we can form a positive sense of self, a
foundation? Endurance, courage, and bravery are common themes within Stoic texts. Stoic writers
recognize that hardships are inevitable, sometimes outside of our control, things we cannot change, but
with a proper mindset we can reform ways we think about events in the world and not be crushed or
downtrodden especially by that which is subject to chance.

Seneca writes about characteristics of a strong person and explains the benefit of these virtues in his
letter 'On Various Aspects of Virtue'. Here are some excerpts, “An absolutely strong and happy mind
can lie hidden under any exterior.” “a modest gait, a calm and honest countenance, and a bearing that
suits the man of wisdom” Self-reflection, Seneca suggests, can lead to a “soul that gazes upon truth that
is skilled in what should be sought and what should be avoided, establishing standards of value not
according to opinion, but according to nature paying strict attention to thoughts and actions equally
great and forceful superior alike to hardships and blandishments yielding itself to neither the extreme of
fortune rising above all blessings and tribulations, absolutely beautiful, perfectly equipped with grace
as well as with strength, healthy and sinewy, unruffled, undismayed, one which no violence can shatter
- one which acts of chance can neither exalt nor depress.” Here we have a Stoic model of what a strong
person may look like facing the suffering in the world and overcoming it – this is something we can
strive for.

I talk more in-depth about finding meaning in life, having a sense of purpose, in a previous clip I have
uploaded on this channel, but I will talk more about this here. Having goals in life, a clear purpose, a
direction, a reason for living can help us have a positive sense of self and be an antidote, even, from
conforming to the needs and wants of others, deriving a sense of self from others' approval or by what
others think of us. Ultimately, Stoic writers seem to converge upon the conclusion that reputation is
largely outside of our control and we should be most concerned with our own self-image, our virtuous
life, our good character, even if others do not like us – after all, others may have different values and
place tremendous worth in vice rather than virtue. We can apply virtue in many situations depending on
the roles we can fulfill in life and find meaning in this pursuit, this application of virtue and self
improvement.

Seneca writes in his letter 'On the Philosopher's Task' about reading the works of a philosopher Quintus
Sextius that he is filled with confidence and welcomes challenges by which he can seek a fulfilled life
and apply virtue – something that is within our reach. “I want something to overcome, something on
which I may test our endurance. For this is another remarkable quality that Sextius possesses: he will
show you the grandeur of the happy life and yet will not make you despair of attaining it. You will
understand that it is on high, but that it is accessible to him who has the will to seek it. And virtue
herself will have the same effect on you, of making you admire her and yet hope to attain her.”

Maybe your role model won't be Sextius, or maybe it will be, but one thing is for sure – that
surrounding ourselves with people of high quality and values can be a great benefit to us while being
around negative influences, people who may try to drag us down and even harm us, bad examples will
be counterproductive. We can draw upon positive models of living, perhaps even drawing upon past
teachers we have had. Surely we can, as I am doing here, look to ancient wisdom we can apply this to
everyday living.
Seneca writes in the same letter about drawing upon solid examples and building upon this foundation
to improve our lives, “I worship the discoveries of wisdom and their discoverers to enter as it were into
the inheritance of many predecessors is a delight. It was for me that they laid up this treasure , it was
for me that they toiled. But we should play the past of a careful householder, we should increase what
they have inherited.”

Seneca, in his letter 'On choosing our teachers,' talks about the character of role models we can seek.
He writes, “men who tell us what we ought to do and prove it by practice, who show us what we should
avoid and then are never caught doing that which they have ordered us to avoid. Choose as a guide one
whom you you will admire more when you see him act than when you hear him speak.” Here, note that
Seneca is not talking about forming a sense of identity through approval or praise from others, but
rather looking for positive examples of how to live – he laments seeking approval from people who are
not good role models. He continues writing, “Why do you take pleasure in being praised by men whom
you yourself cannot praise?” It's clear here that approval from base individuals is not valuable. Strive
for the good rather than acceptance from those who really don't provide a good example for living. In
his letter 'On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus,' Seneca writes, “What you think of yourself is
much more to the point than what others think of you – prefer to please yourself rather than the
populace.'

In order to aspire to greatness we must rid ourselves of bad habits, bad influences, and dedicate
ourselves to self-improvement, a righteous life – surely this can be the foundation of good esteem – a
positive sense of self. We can be the change we want to see in the world, show others by example –
have something worthwhile to work on, to improve ourselves in order to make this world a better place
even if a simple act of kindness will brighten someone's day – a sense of purpose, too, can be had in
achieving a societal good. Seneca writes, “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. For opposites find
difficulty in clinging where they do not belong, therefore they can be driven out and hustled away, but
qualities that come to a place which is rightfully theirs abide faithfully. Virtue is according to nature,
vice is opposed to it and hostile. But although virtues when admitted cannot depart and are easy to
guard.”

Focusing on externals, things outside of our control, things liable to change as a foundation for our self-
esteem, our sense of self is dangerous because of the instability so as too looking toward physical
appearance, beauty. Indeed, we can work on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and losing weight if this is
fitting – surely this can improve our self-image – but ultimately, as Stoic writers urge us, character
should be our foundation and focus. Seneca writes in his letter 'On the god within us,' “For what is
more foolish to praise in a man the qualities which come from without? And what is more insane than
to marvel at characteristics which may at the next moment be passed on to someone else?” Status, too,
wealth, class, fame, good fortune – these things should not be the grounding for a positive self-image.
Good fortune, bad fortune, well, we can have good character regardless of circumstances Seneca and
other Stoic writers argue.

Perhaps it will be more difficult to have a strong character amid hardships such as disability, mental
illness, or a negative environment – but we can endure and not be subject to the whims of chance,
instead maintain a good character and even be prepared for hardships so that when we face them we
can better endure, not be taken off guard. Let's not resign to our misfortune in life. Seneca writes in his
letter 'On the value of retirement,' “Fortune has no jurisdiction over character. Let him so regulate his
character that in perfect peace he may bring to perfection that spirit within him which feels neither loss
nor gain, but remains in the same attitude no matter how things fall out. A spirit like this if it is heaped
with worldly goods rises superior to its wealth if, on the other hand, chance has stripped him of a part
of his wealth, or even all, it is not impaired.”

In his letter, 'On the friendship of kindred minds' Seneca writes more on this idea, “Make progress, and,
before all else, endeavor to be consistent with yourself.” This constancy of mind, this stability, this is
the benefit of Philosophy which Seneca talks about – these practical applications of wisdom to live a
good life rather than being subject to the turbulence and change around us, being pushed and pulled,
and living with no clear vision. Seneca also writes in his letter 'On Siren Songs,' “Make yourself happy
through your own efforts.”

Seneca, throughout his letters, urges us to take action, to make changes to our life now by employing
self-reflection; recognizing and admitting our faults; identifying areas in which we can improve; and
having right focuses in life – a worthwhile mindset in pursuit of virtue. We shouldn't feel shame in
wanting to improve or seek help, but rather should view change as a positive thing when done for good
reasons. Seneca writes in his letter 'On the faults of the spirit,' “a confession of sin is a proof of sound
mind. If you were ill, you would stop caring for your personal concerns and forget your business
duties; you would not think highly enough of any client to take active charge of his case during a slight
abatement of your sufferings. You would try your hardest to be rid of the illness as soon as possible.
What, then? Shall you not do the same thing now? Throw aside all hindrances and give up your time to
getting a sound mind; for no man can attain it if he is engrossed in other matters.”

Finally, another quick word of wisdom from Seneca about making the most of our lives in appreciating
the time we have in this life – making a conscious effort to be productive, use our time well, and being
content – not squandering the time we have in being negative, complaining, not taking action – having
a good life with the foundation of a good character. I talk more about making the most of this life in my
clip titled 'On the shortness of life' which you can listen to. Seneca writes in his letter, 'On meeting
death cheerfully,' “I am endeavoring to live every day as if it were a complete life. I do not indeed
snatch it up as if it were my last. I do regard it, however, as if it might even be my last. To have lived
long enough depends neither upon our years nor upon our days, but open our minds.”

To recap, having a positive sense of self is something within our control which is built from a strong
inner foundation of personal values, purpose, and applying virtue. We should take action and
accountability to live a fulfilled life and grow our self-esteem. A strong, steadfast mindset is something
we should strive for which will improve our quality of life and allow us to endure suffering so that we
can maintain our character. We can look for examples of what the good life looks like by carefully
choosing good role-models and drawing upon wisdom from others while making sure to distance
ourselves from negative people, bad habits, and not live to please others who are unpraiseworthy – bad
influences upon us or people who really aren't important in our lives. In order to improve, to progress,
we need to be honest with ourselves recognizing and admitting our faults so that we can live better.

Thanks for watching and stay tuned for more content.

Please follow me on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Soundcloud, Stitcher, Instagram, Twitch and my
website at justinvacula.com. Links are in the description of this clip.

Listen to earlier content in which I explore perspectives within Stoic Philosophy that can help improve
your quality of life. Consider donating if you support my work and would like to see more for this takes
time, money, and effort to produce content. Have a good day.