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If anyone says that the best life of all is to sail the sea, and then adds that I must not sail upon a sea where shipwrecks are a common occurrence and there are often sudden storms that sweep the helmsman in an adverse direction, I conclude that this man, although he lauds navigation, really forbids me to launch my ship.

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  • 5
    Don't spout off in front of a Stoic?
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 31, 2022 at 13:07
  • I find the quote too short. As written, the context of what Seneca writes as well seems to be missing quite badly. I am familiar with Stoicism, and I concur with the currently top-voted answer, but the quote as stated could support the exact opposite statement as well. IMO, not a native speaker, and all of that. This is probably the reason why you got some Close votes. @luciel, would you mind giving context?
    – AnoE
    Nov 2, 2022 at 11:17

2 Answers 2

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If I am to ever live a virtuous and happy life, I need to walk the paths even if there are potential perils, since if I concentrate on and spend my time dealing with pondering these perils (no matter whether in anticipation or hindsight), I will never be able to actually see the happiness and positive sides this path provides, and thus I will never take them.

That is a core idea of Stoicism: If bad things can or do happen that are beyond my powers to prevent, I should never burden my thought with them, as that is what will prevent my happiness from ever manifesting.

Thus, Seneca says that it does not make sense to laud going to sea as a way to happiness and pointing out the potential dangers at the same time, as that way, nobody will get the first message and everybody will be rather deterred from going to sea in the first place.

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  • Thank you Philip, you're very helpful 👍
    – Luciel
    Oct 31, 2022 at 12:27
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    This is a nitpick, but I think a sensible one. The quote, and Seneca in general, do not suggest that it is wrong to point out potential dangers at the same time. The quote and Seneca suggest that it is wrong to use potential dangers as a reason to desist from a path that could lead to what is best in life. The stoics did not believe in walking blindfolded, they believed in going forward despite potential dangers. Nov 1, 2022 at 16:58
  • @TimothyAWiseman -- the bigger issue with this interpretation is that Seneca was not making an ethical point at all, but a hermeneutical one. He is analogizing "this man" with Chrysippus, who Seneca claims is agreed with himself. Nov 1, 2022 at 21:25
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To use the terminology of modern economics, Seneca was distinguishing between stated preferences and revealed preferences. Many people tell others and even tell themselves that they desire certain objectives (glory, adventure, virtue, serenity, etc). But their actions, and the impossible constraints they place on the pursuit of these things, tell a different story. Seneca is saying that one does not truly desire something if one is unwilling to accept the costs necessary to attain it.

Edit: After studying further, I think the first answer and my above answer (and even the question) are somewhat mistaken. The mistake we all made is that, because Seneca is most prominently known for Stoic philosophy, we assumed that the quote is telling us how to be more Stoic. But this is a simplistic way to interpret quotes, as it ignores the actual context of the quote, and assumes that someone known for X never said anything about Y.

In this case, the context is Seneca's essay On Leisure (https://trisagionseraph.tripod.com/Texts/Leisure.html). And he's actually not arguing so much about his own opinion of leisure, but about the views of Chrysippus. The Stoic school of philosophy (or at least, those affiliated with Seneca) opposed attaching oneself to a state, while Chrysippus stated it permissible under certain circumstances. Seneca is arguing a technical point: that since those circumstances never hold, Chrysippus had more truly yet not overtly reached the same conclusion as the Stoics of Seneca's day. (For context, Chrysippus was a Stoic philosopher who lived two centuries before Seneca.)

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