Remember: You Can Lead a Horse to Water, But You Can’t Make It Drink

There is a fascinating statue of Seneca and Nero done by the Spanish sculptor Eduardo Barrón in 1904. Even though it depicts a scene centuries after the fact, it manages to capture the timeless elements of the two men’s characters. Seneca, well into old age, sits with his legs crossed, draped in a beautiful toga but otherwise unadorned. Spread across his lap and onto the simple bench is a document he’s written. Maybe it’s a speech. Maybe it’s a law being debated by the Senate. Maybe it’s the text of his essay and warning to Nero, Of Clemency. His fingers point to a spot in the text. His body language is open. He is trying to teach.  He is wisdom embodied, hoping to instill in his young charge the seriousness of the tasks before him. 

Nero, sitting across from Seneca, is nearly the opposite of his advisor in every way. He is hooded, sitting in a throne-like chair. A fine blanket rests behind him. He’s wearing jewelry. His expression is sullen—both fists are clenched and one rests on his temple as if he can’t bring himself to pay attention. He is looking down at the ground. His feet are tucked behind him, crossed at the ankles. He knows he should be listening, but he isn’t. He’d rather be anywhere else. Soon enough, he is thinking, I won’t have to endure these lectures. Then I’ll be able to do whatever I want. 

Seneca can clearly see this body language, and yet he proceeds. He proceeded for many years, in fact. Why? Because he hoped some of it—any of it—would get through. Because he knew the stakes were high. Because he knew his job was to try, and he was going to die trying (indeed, he did) to teach Nero to be good. 

In the end, Seneca made only minimal impact on Nero, a man who was clearly deranged and had little interest in being a good emperor. Seneca lost much of his reputation in the process of working for Nero (criticism which has merit). But another way to see this exchange—and perhaps that’s what Eduardo Barron intended—is that it’s an illustration of a Stoic lesson: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. You control what you do and say, not whether people listen. 

All a Stoic can do is show up and do our work. And we have to keep showing up, even if we are rebuffed, scorned, or ignored. Because the work is important.

P.S. This was originally sent on December 20, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.