The debate amongst philosophers for centuries has been whether the philosopher–whether the sage–who has achieved happiness will be able to maintain that happiness even in horrible circumstances. Could the philosopher smile while on the rack? Could the philosopher’s contentment endure the loss of loved ones?
It is fitting, as Stoics ourselves, to find an answer from Epicurus, who Seneca loved to quote so much:
“Even if the wise man is tortured he is happy. Nonetheless he will moan and groan under those conditions.”
The purpose of Stoicism is to teach us how to become indifferent to the pains and pleasures that enslave other people. In this indifference lies true happiness and joy, because it makes one independent to everything but the present moment, because indifference is indifferent to fate. If one can achieve this, has one not then become a kind of superhuman?
Think of Julius Canus, happily playing a game even as he stared down an imminent death sentence from Caligula. How incredible is that? Yet as superhuman as it was, we need to remember that he was still huan. As are we.
Think of Antoninus telling Marcus’s tutors to let the boy be human, to let him weep over the loss of one of his favorite teachers. Seneca still missed his mother while he was in exile (and wrote her a beautiful essay about it). A Stoic still gets cold when it’s snowing, would still go into shock if they were gravely injured, still gets a pit in their stomach when they stare over the edge of a cliff. And guess what? That’s ok. Because they are human. As are we.
No one is asking you to relinquish your humanness. No one is demanding that you feel nothing, or even that you pretend that you do. If you’re being tortured, you’ll moan and groan and scream, because pain is a physiological response, not an emotional one. It is something you cannot help (the same goes for lots of situations). But there is still a lot you can help in that situation: how you react to the looming threat of that torture, what betrayals you might or might not make to prevent it, what standards you might hold yourself to when there are offers to end it, how you direct your mind while your body reacts to the torture being visited upon it.
You’re a human. You have limitations. We all do. What matters is what we do within those limits.