If there is one thing that Seneca understood better than the other Stoics, it was forgiveness and tolerance. His own moral failings, his own ambition and the mistakes he made in the pursuit of it, gave him a keen sense of what normal people were also going through, in a way that the natural excellence of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus could not comprehend.
As Seneca wrote, “Let’s be kind to one another. We’re just wicked people living among wicked people. Only one thing can give us peace, and that’s a pact of mutual leniency.”
More recently, the columnist David French of the National Review, spoke similarly of the need for this kind of leniency in the modern world, where we seem to love nothing more than an online shaming of wicked people.
Human beings need forgiveness like we need oxygen—a nation devoid of grace will make its people miserable, and misery isn’t confined to the famous subjects of shame storms. It spreads to the micro-bursts of rage that impact normal folks across the land.
The truth is that we are all more like Seneca than Epictetus (though if you recall, Jesus—who was pretty perfect—spoke of the need for forgiveness and leniency too).
To be sure, ‘wicked’ is quite a strong word. But it is an apt one. We are often selfish and, because of this selfishness, we do things that are wrong and that hurt other people. Yet if we brand ourselves and other people as irredeemable because of this, where does that leave us? How can we function? How can we get any better? As individual people, as a society. We will all be miserable and angry and bitter.
Forgiveness is a way to move forward. It’s a form of grace and empathy and understanding. We must practice it, today and always, big and small—with other people and ourselves.