On Vice: Will You Devote Yourself to What Is Right?

What Seneca tells us about vice and about devotion to right and wrong

Hand feeding a bird
Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

“Vices are manifold, take countless different forms and are incapable of classification. Devotion to what is right is simple, devotion to what is wrong is complex and admits of infinite variations.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

How many vices can you think of in 30 seconds? Here are the ones I managed to write down in that many seconds: drugs, smoking, alcohol, finger picking, eating, using laxatives, aggression, bullying, caffeine. Vices are indeed manifold.

Vices, addictions and compulsions are in fact so numerous that, just when you think you’ve seen them all, you come across a new one. Which brings me to my one visible vice at the moment: finger picking, aka Dermatillomania or excoriation disorder.

We all crave pleasure, gratification, and being free from pain -both physical and psychological. Vices often stem from our desire to escape the psychological kind of pain: regret, shame, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety.

And so we fall into vices which, by their very nature, compound our suffering. I can’t think of a better example than the drunk in Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince, who drank to forget that he was ashamed of drinking.

I finger pick because it gives me momentary relief from anxiety. Some time after the finger picking episode’s over, though, the picking itself causes me shame and further anxiety.

The same applies to most vices. We bully because we feel insecure. We eat to ease our hurt. We drink to forget our shame. We accumulate (shoes, money, lovers, gold) to feel important. Yet we’re never satisfied.

What is right? The Stoics delineated certain virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. You may espouse others.

Devotion to the virtues you view as supreme may be simple in that the path is straight, narrow and clear. It doesn’t, however, mean that it’s easy or achievable.

This is why we devote ourselves to what is right. We don’t achieve it.

What virtues are important to you? How are you pursuing them?

This is my third piece for a 30-day writing challenge on a single topic.

Topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them. 

Share Article