It has been a while since I last took a look at Seneca the Younger. It is time, after all, for the phrase we will take a look at today is most appropriate for things that catch up to us all, with the passing of time.
Iniqua raro maximis virtutibus
Fortuna parcit; nemo se tuto diu
Periculis offerre tam crebris potest;
Quem saepe transit casus, aliquando invenit.
The Unrighteous one rarely the highest of virtue,
That Fortune, spares; none without risk is long
So Frequently able to offer himself by means of danger;
He who often transits accidents, eventually invites her.
I am not familiar with Seneca’s poetry. Seneca’s work on Hercules, Heracules Furens (the Fury of Hercules – usually translated as the Madness of Hercules because fury was induced by the Furies, goddesses of revenge) is a rare example of his poetic ability. However, we are here for the Stoic belief system. How does this passage of The Fury of Hercules describe stoic ideas of life? Consider Fortuna, that “unrighteous one.” To Romans, Fortune is a goddess that blesses men. It causes them to gain power and strength, although only through the action of the individual who seeks her. The phrase from Virgil says it best:
Fortuna audaces iuvat.
Fortune aids the audacious (‘Fortune favors the bold’ is better sounding, but not quite accurate).
In Virgil’s Aeneid the main character understands that in order to make Fortune come to him, he has to behave in a way worthy of the goddess. It is clear that, to Seneca, Fortune also comes to men uninvited. In fact, Seneca states, it is rare that even the best of men is not eventually visited by Unrighteous Fortune. Fortuna is a dualistic character that harms as much as aids, at least in the minds of the Stoics. One can summon the good side of the goddess by doing virtuous things, but one can also summon the evil side by doing the opposite. In this case, Seneca states that no one can offer himself to dangerous things without falling into actual danger. Isn’t it true that sometimes we think ourselves so powerful that we actually go looking for problems? Seneca is warning that we should not offerre tam crebris (to offer [ourselves] so frequently) because fortune will eventually notice us. When we are noticed, she will come, and she will come upset that we tempted her.
In the spirit of the previous three lines of the poem, Seneca, lastly, delivers an Aesopian moral. Quem saepe transit casus, aliquando invenit. He who often passes through (transits) accidents, at some time will invite [her, an accident, problems – fill it in]. I love the idea that transit conveys here. The 3rd Person Singular verb comes from a preposition made verbial, trans. The individual is crossing through danger carelessly, seemingly unaware that even he, mighty one, can fall to the clutches of Unrighteous Fortune. What is interesting as well, as this individual, high and mighty, probably knows, is that it was Fortune herself who brought power and riches to him, not himself. What do you think will happen next? More fortune? Are you really so stuck up that you don’t see you will upset the balance of blessings and curses? Of course! Often, after fortune strikes, misfortune happens; we just tend to forget that. The individual thus tempting fortune is doubly wrong for, having been blessed by the goddess, he is seeking further blessings when he should not. Carelessly transiting the scene of an accident may cause you to become accidented (made that word up) yourself. The fact is emphasized by Invenit, which is quite self-explanatory. The verb, quite literally, means ‘to invite.’ It is a preposition (in) alongside a verb (venio – to come). You make fortune come in, and in forcing her, you end up with her bad side.
There is the Stoic in Seneca; who while speaking of Hercules and his might sees nothing more than a life of pain inflicted upon the super-human because of his overbearing confidence. Fortune has blessed you, warns Seneca, do not tempt it further with your carelessness. The Ancient Greek idea of this system was a bit more elegant. If you showed overbearing pride (ὑβρις – hubris), righteous anger (νέμεσις – nemesis) would come to get you. When Hercules murdered his family, it was the ἐρυνες that pursued him, the goddesses of revenge that drove men mad. However, what we have all come to know and love is not the Latin form of the idea, but the Greek one. Why? Consider this, when a comic book hero attempts to restore balance to the world as it was mandated by the gods, revealing his overbearing pride, what happens to him? He gets a nemesis. Heroes are always plagued by their guilt and ghosts of things they had done (or not done) before, such as saving his uncle in the case of Spiderman, his parents in the case of Batman, his planet in the case of Superman, etc. Also, heroes are blessed by fortune with money, superpowers, a will to win. Why would then they tempt fortune further by using it to combat crime? It cannot be avoided, fortune deals as she sees fit. To tempt her by walking in dangerous circles will only attract her bad side. To the Greeks, a hero was a person who tempted fortune by helping others. Remember Prometheus? He had everything that he wanted, he was actually a god, and then threw all that away for us little humans. Who saved him? Hercules! There is no end to this hero-cycle in Greek mythology.
So despite the Roman idea of nemesis, we love superhero stories. We love to see the conflicted Bruce Wayne use his immense fortune to overcome all odds. We love to see Superman use his superpowers to save humanity time and time again despite the fact that his nemesis knows exactly how to kill him. Why? Because stoic common sense dictates these people (and extraterrestrials) should not care about us lowly beings. Hercules should not have cared about saving Prometheus, he was basically a god himself. However, the humanity of heroes brings them back. Back to the poor, the suffering, and the needy. Their heroism is built upon the fact that they could have ignored the world and live happy and fruitful lives, but they chose not to. To Seneca, that may have been madness; we think of it as heroism. Nothing says hero more than a man or woman who could live in peace at home, surrounded by family and friends, and who instead chooses to go to war in service of country. Heroes are those who choose to forsake their blessings to bless the lives of others. However, do not despair, Seneca wasn’t actually against heroism in the Greek way, he was merely stating that if you want to be a hero, you should expect more pain that happiness. That is what made Hercules a hero. We should be aware, Seneca says, that if we walk amidst dangers we will run into them eventually, and have to suffer for a while.
Be a hero, you most definitely can; but do remember: when you are in the midst of suffering, you are doing so for the sake of someone else, because you chose to step into that role. Remember that your pain is the result of someone else’s healing thanks to your determination to help. No one said heroism was painless. No one said heroism was easy. Everyone agreed that heroes suffer most.