The Inevitable Gap Between Theory And Practice

There is a gulf between theory and practice. It can be a simple matter to know how to do something in the abstract, but actually implementing the ideal is quite different. We try to adjust ourselves to this tension as best we can, and trudge forward. There will always be some degree of difference between what we say, and what we do. The matter is one of degree.

When the gap becomes too wide, we fall into the yawning sinkhole of hypocrisy. But at what point does the gap between theory and practice become unbridgeable? At what point does the label “hypocrite” attach? It is an interesting moral question. The life and career of the philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca may provide us with some answers.

Seneca remains a controversial figure. He hailed the virtues of a simple life, yet collected mansions and mountains of money. He advised the quiet of country living, yet craved the intrigue of the palace. He advised sexual restraint, yet took full advantage of his position for his extramarital gratification. He praised honesty and sincerity, yet flattered the emperor Nero and his cronies as often as he could. To this balance sheet we must add his many positive traits: he did his best to mitigate Nero’s worst excesses, he was generous with his friends, he had the courage eventually to resist his tyrant employer, and he had a first-rate mind. The best way of exposing the contradictions in his character is to present his best qualities first, and then describe his less savory ones. We may then venture some conclusions.


Seneca owned many estates in the Italian countryside

Seneca The Man Of Virtue

He was born at Corduba (modern Cordova, Spain) around 4 B.C. His father, a noted rhetor, saw to it that the boy received the finest education possible. He practiced law in Rome, and served in a minor office as quaestor around 33 B.C. A timely inheritance from his father enabled him to pursue writing and palace politics in Rome. He tutored the young regent Nero for five years, and turned out moral essays (On Anger, On the Brevity of Life, On Benefits, etc.) that are beautiful exemplars of Stoic thought. But being in proximity to a tyrant was ultimately an impossible position. Slowly he became a prisoner of the palace, unable to do much good, and yet unable to leave. He begged Nero to let him resign, but the tyrant would not permit it.

Seneca was able to do some good. He donated a significant percentage of his fortune to the imperial treasury to help rebuild Rome after the great fire of 64 A.D. Yet he could not escape the paranoia of the mad sovereign. Nero accused him of complicity in a plot to dethrone him, and ordered him to take his own life. This he did with quiet dignity. His beloved wife Paulina tried to follow him, but Nero forcibly prevented her suicide.

His essays and letters are masterpieces of the Stoic creed’s admonition to live a virtuous life. Wisdom should be the art of living, a skill to be practiced daily. He points out the ideal road, but does not demand it; he is too practical to advocate perfection. There is more wisdom in a few of his pages than in the reams of nonsense penned by most modern writers.

Seneca The Hypocrite

Yet the picture is not quite complete. Even sages have dark sides, and Seneca was no exception. He was exiled to Corsica early in his life for scandalous relations with the daughter of a powerful Roman general named Germanicus. He was lucky to escape from that indiscretion with his neck. His writings from exile, like those of the poet Ovid from his own exile near the Black Sea, do not show him at his Stoic best.

He took full advantage of his official position to enrich himself. He lent money at crushing rates of interest, and counted his fortune at about three hundred million sesterces (at least five hundred million modern US dollars). He had numerous country estates, while at the same time never tiring of denouncing luxury. He posed to scorn imperial courtiers, while occupying a key position as premier. Accusations of sexual impropriety seemed to follow him wherever he went, leaving us to wonder if there must be more than a bit of truth to them. All in all, it is hard to square the beauty of his writings with the realities of how he lived his life. What are to think of a man who could write the following, while at the same time maintaining himself in opulence:

An atrium full of antique marble busts does not indicate nobility. No one in the past has lived for our glory. And neither does what preceded us belong to us.  Only the soul makes for nobility, which may rise from whatever condition above Fortune. [Epistulae 44.5].


All men are figures of contradiction. It is only a matter of degree. Those who seek and serve power inevitably find themselves forced to make daily compromises that erode their ideals. Undoubtedly, Seneca falls short of his professed doctrines. Yet which of us can claim to be any better? Is there anything wrong with seeking and enjoying material success, while at the same time appreciating the ideals of Stoic virtue?

Serving a tyrant is an impossible position, and he probably sensed he was a marked man no matter what he did. Seneca never claimed to be perfect; he only points for us the road to virtue. Despite his flaws, there is something endearing about this sly old teacher. We recognize ourselves in him, and forgive him his faults. His death and his writings redeemed him for posterity, and washed away the memory of his avarice and pride.


A nearly impossible job:  trying to please Nero

One gets the sense that Seneca was acutely aware of the divergence between what he wrote and how he lived. I imagine that all men who occupy positions of power feel some sort of inner conflict. To translate high ideals into practice: is this not the most difficult thing in history? How many leaders have been able to do this? More than anything else, he is a tragic figure. He was caught between two tensions: the desire for power and wealth, and the desire to live an uncorrupted, virtuous life. He was tormented by his inability to reconcile these two conflicting impulses.

Perhaps this is why he, despite his paganism, was such a revered figure to early Christian writers. Tertullian and St. Augustine practically considered him one of their own, calling him “our Seneca.” His writings (if not his example) molded some of the greatest statesman and minds of later centuries.

Life is not black and white. We will fall short of our ideals more often than we will attain them. What matters is a consistent, sincere effort. The gap between theory and practice is only bearable by our honest attempts to bridge the intervening space. To ask for more would be to set ourselves up for failure. If we accept man as he is, and not as he ought to be, then we must love Seneca.

Read More:  How To Forgive Your Family

73 thoughts on “The Inevitable Gap Between Theory And Practice”

  1. I saw it was a Quintus article and then I relaxed and enjoyed the prose. Like listening to a lullaby under a blanket.
    Great stuff, I’ll have to check out some of these essays. Have you read them?
    I love the stoics.

    1. Well, Asdsada, I’m glad you asked. I have read all of his Epistles (“Letters”) which are in 3 volumes (Latin text plus English translation) in the Loeb Library series. I have only read one of his Essays (“On Benefits”), and skipped the rest. I’ve also recently bought his tragic plays, believe it or not, but have not touched them.
      If I had to recommend anything by Seneca, it would be his “Letters” (Epistulae). They are like a collection of mini-essays on dozens of different real-life topics. This is about as good as Stoic thought gets. Nobody can turn a pretty phrase like Seneca. He may have been a wily old hypocrite, but he could sure as hell write. Highly recommended.
      So I recommend his Letters. But his “Essays” are not as good. They begin to feel monotonous after a while. Even the most wise writings begin to tire us with their wisdom, and invite us to misbehave.
      He also wrote some consolatory essays and his famous “Natural Questions”, neither of which I have read.

    2. If you want a “Stoicism 101”, you can’t go wrong with Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale’s two short lectures, “The Stoic Warrior’s Triad” and “Master of My Fate”. Google finds them easily.
      Short bio: “Shot down on his third combat tour over North Vietnam, he was the senior naval prisoner of war in Hanoi for seven and one-half years -tortured 15 times, in solitary confmement for over four years, in leg irons for two”. Stockdale credited Stoic philosophy with saving his life, and that of the men with him in the Vietnamese prison.
      For Seneca specifically, my advice is to start with “On the shortness of life” (De brevitate vitae. It should be required reading for every young man out there. It’s also short, some 15 pages at most. I recommend Basore’s translation, available at the Forum Romanum website.

  2. When Arthur Schopnehauer’s students accused him that he teaches others how to live right, while he gets drunk and goes to brothels himself, he replied: “does a signpost need to go to the city?”.
    That’s a funny anegdote this article reminded me about.
    To lead a virtuous life you need two things: wisdom and strength. If you’re strong but not wise, your actions will have great impact, but their result might be evil. If you’re wise, but not strong, you will not have the ability to do what is right, when it will be hard. Instead you will be tormented by feelings of guilt and shame, from which you will either run away into stimulants, or you’ll degenerate your conscience and thus lose your wisdom.
    I think it was the latter case with Seneka – he wasn’t strong enough to do what is right, and because of it he pursuited pleasures and degenerated.
    The virtuous teaching is good, it can be inspirational to some men, but what is the most inspirational is giving an example. Take Buddha for an example – how many people would believe that the Enlightenment is attainable if He didn’t attain it and shown it is possible?
    An example of hero speaks stronger than the sole idea of a virtue he represents and making an example of people who didn’t live up to their words, is just giving everyone an excuse to not pursue virtue.

    1. ” Take Buddha for an example – how many people would believe that the Enlightenment is attainable if He didn’t attain it and shown it is possible? ”
      Did Buddha ever attain enlightenment? I got the impression it was similar to Maslow’s self actualization that the closest to attaining it is simply constantly striving for it.

      1. Yes, He did. Of course you can question it, as any spiritual matter, but when it comes to how the buddhist canon describes it, He did.

        1. If you took any effort to find out what you are talking about, you would know that Buddha wasn’t fat. The fat monk depicted by many statues is the monk Hotei, not Buddha.

    1. Actually, Your Excellency, it’s funny you should appear with us today. I
      am currently listening to an audiobook in my car called “The
      Illustrious Dead”, which is about how your Grand Armee was decimated by
      typus in the invasion of Russia.

        1. You simply can’t take that great frozen land. Oh, many have tried over the course of history, only to return with their tails between their legs (if they managed to return at all). No wonder the Russian eagle is two-headed and looking in opposite directions. One head keeps a lookout to the West, and the other to the East. Guess which head is most alarmed by what it’s seeing right now?

        2. What happened to us manly French guys? We used to be warriors, and now… it’s against the law to have a paternity test. WTF.

        3. It’s called the institutionalized validation and endorsement of cuckoldery by the republic. It’s not by chance that you guys have the rooster as your unofficial national symbol (le “cock” gaulois). Well, now it’s quite official indeed.

        4. I think it’s since the departure of De Gaulle in 1968.
          Since then, no one to stand up against our cultural colonization.
          The traditional France was killed, and replaced by U.S liberalism and political correctness, which create weak men wherever it goes (weaker men being easier to rule)

        5. That, and France’s very own version of the NiceGuy(tm) trend taking hold. I have never seen such soft, effete, docile, and self-feminized males as the representatives of that peculiar wave (makes your NA metrosexual look like a raging macho). A truly direct contrast to men still raised back under De Gaulle’s time.

        6. What is NA ?
          If you want to know how low we have gotten, you should take a look at this picture.

          The government recently allowed and encouraged highschool boys to come in class wearing a skirt to “protest against sexism”.
          The “gender neutral” education is also making its way in pre-school, feminists realizing that they have to go totalitarian to keep sustaining their lies.
          This is a general weakening of France identity.
          Our army is being completely dismanteled (our soldiers buy almost all their equipment, some 500 years old regiments are being shut down , while being sent in africa fighting for oil companies).
          The immigration is out of control.
          The wealth inequality has never been that high.
          The national self-hatred is deliberately being pushed by the governement, who keeps apologizing to minorities for things that happened 60 years ago in extreme circonstances.
          The good news, is that we are historically good at resistance and revolutions.

        7. The pussification of the Western Male. Who will do the fighting when they turn all the men into women?

        8. a common joke about the rooster being our unofficial symbol : The rooster is the only animal who can sing with his legs in the shit..

  3. Once again, reading this article and then scrolling to see who write this beautiful piece, Quintus once again, nothing to be surprised of.
    I am currently reading the Life of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, however there isn’t much details about Nero’s reign. What reading do you suggest on the topic???

    1. Tacitus and Suetonius are pretty much the only reasonably accurate Roman sources, and they were writing about 50 years after Nero. They were also rich senators who hated the emperors. Actually, Nero’s crimes and vices may have been exaggerated. He was no angel, but whether he was as bad as he was made out to be is still debatable.

      1. This is true. Most of the histories of Rome were written by senators, who usually hated the emperors.

  4. The Modern English act of translating the Ancient Greek “theoria” into “theory” is problem number one. Our “theory” allows any krass voice or vulgar sensation-oriented ideology to enter a conversation or dialogue regarding the Divine…

  5. It seems necessary to have more hypocrisy as a man of power. Just like narcissism allows you the ability to trust yourself implicitly, hypocrisy allows for a sense of “rightness” essential to decisiveness. It gives you the moral high ground but enables you to do what is necessary.

    1. Necessary by what standard – of your own interest?
      There is no moral high ground except for the one that is achieved by moral acts and decisions. If you don’t act virtuous, than there thinking you are moral is delusional.
      As for the sense of righteousness essential for decisivness, funny you mention that as just today I’ve read a quote that comments on that matter perfectly:
      “A good man is never sure if he is good, because the measure with which he judges himself is Perfection. An evil men is always certain he is good becaue the only measure for him is himself.”

      1. I’m saying that self-righteousness is directly related to self-trust and therefore decisiveness. As far as morality, I was referring to a personal sense of morality. Whether society judges you to be moral is based off the quality (however that is determined) of your decisions.

        1. I’m fairly sure may North Korean communist officials feel self-righteous when they kill the whole family of someone who escaped the country or they have a personal sense of morality when they see people dying in concentration camps.
          Decisiveness is just one of the factors of power.
          Having power without wisdom is just being a demon efficient at turning the earth into hell.

        2. …Okay. So lets maybe define our arguments here. I’m saying that regardless of rightness or wrongness, high levels of self-trust are needed for the trait of decisiveness.
          I also believe (though I’m not sure) that self-righteousness is needed for self-trust.
          I don’t see how that equates to north korean communist death-squads or exactly what you’re implying with that. Yeah, I’m sure they may have, who knows. I’m sure Abraham Lincoln also had a high level of self-righteousness when he brokered a war between the states.

        3. Seems my reply didn’t post…trying again…
          What exactly are you implying? I don’t understand what north korean commie death squads have to do with this.
          I’m saying self-righteousness -> Self-trust -> decisiveness. that’s it. I’m also implying, I guess, that’s it’s a good thing to have.
          I mean, I’m sure Abraham Lincoln felt it was “right” to broker a war of unification that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and pitted many families against each other. I tend to agree with him. Also, just because you condemn certain people’s actions doesn’t make them universally right or wrong.

  6. good read. I always feel like people expect people in positions of power to be something more than human, after a while it seems like they buy into it themselves and start speaking from an unattainable moral high ground.
    they almost forget that the only difference between them and the people that look up to them are the projections that have been placed upon them by those same ppl, that no one could ever live up to. this is one reason why I feel that asceticism is unrealstic and always results in that large disconnect. we’re only human.

  7. Great informative read. Seneca interests me because my first introduction to him was his ‘walk-on’ part in Robert Grave’s ‘I, Claudius’, which portrays the time in question (prior to Nero) through Claudius’ eyes, and for this reason Seneca gets a hard time (there seems to have been no love lost between them as reflected in Seneca’s banishment and his revenge in satirising Claudius’ mediocrity / cruelty when he died.
    Only recently though I came across a little book by John Bowman on Stoicism, which is mainly about Seneca and the concept of Enkrasia, which I believe is a quite ancient one. Enkrasia is basically the ability to act according to the rational will or something like that, while its opposite is to have some kind of idea of what is good / good living according to rational principles but to not have the will power / strength to put those things into practice (basically what another commenter mentions below).
    Clearly Seneca’s short-comings in this respect, and with respect to the gulf between his theory and his practice of how to live a good life must be seen in terms of this duty to the self to act in accordance with its rational understanding.
    Here though I would suspect that some kind of speculative dynamic psychology might be called for. I don’t know enough about Seneca or his life let alone his writings to say anything much with confidence, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to suppose that such a gulf between theory / practice (otherwise known as hypocrisy) can be explained dynamically in terms of frailty / weakness that seeks to overcome / transcend itself. That’s to say just as some suggest that Napoleon (who is currently hanging around these boards it seems) was driven to conquer the world to compensate on account of his short stature (i.e. some kind of inferiority complex, those of us who have a particular weakness, vulnerability, or even inability, may be roused through coming to look honestly at ourselves to seek to improve or better ourselves.
    As anyone who has ever studied or worked in psychology knows its a field dominated by psychological fuck-ups. The imperative ‘healer, heal thyself’ flows naturally from the idea that it is quite natural for the healer to in some sense be wounded, and for that wound / vulnerability / weakness to motivate the quest to repair / overcome.
    The key here though is the need to be honest about this, and maybe – again I’m speculating – this is where Seneca fails. As I understand it Stoicism, including Seneca’s stoicism, requires that one be reality oriented and honest in the first instance as a condition of trying to improve and better ones self. I do find myself wondering if Seneca actually violates this rule, either with regard to being honest about who he is, or at least with regard to his own ability to change himself and his circumstances. This latter, which is a part of the honesty that stoics seem to believe in has been made famous in the eternal dictum that one should accept what one cannot change, and seek to change what one can (or something like that). The failure of honesty, which probably applies to many or most of us insofar as we are a community of those who seek to improve ourselves in one form or another, is precisely with respect to identifying what he could / could not hope to change i.e. in himself and in his circumstances.
    So in that sense maybe the theory here really is sound, but the problem with the practice is the temptation (a stoic sin by definition) to be over-ambitious in seeking to change one’s circumstances too much. That’s to say there is a tension between the idea that unmoderated desire is something that causes evil / personal unhappiness and Seneca’s apparently overwhelmingly desire to seek the good life, act enkratically, overcome his vices, temptations, weaknesses etc.

      1. thanks, it was one of your earlier articles I think that got me interested enough to read more about seneca / stoicism

  8. Another interesting and enlightening article.
    The title reminds me of something Nassim Taleb wrote that Roosh quoted in a review of one of his books:
    “Don’t put theory into practice, derive theory from practice.”

  9. Being put on a pedestal can feel great and make you powerful but inevitably you can never live up to the expectations thrust upon you by whomever put you on this pedestal. On a much smaller scale in my own life, I’ve had girlfriend’s put me on a pedestal-and it is great to be adored in such a way. The problem resides in falling short of what type of man they think you are. You’re a human being, flawed and prone to mistakes. They see it as a huge letdown and see you almost as a living lie when you fail. They’ve applied a perception to you that you’re perfect and would never hurt them or disappoint them. I’d much rather a girl just like me enough to bang me on the regular, make me some home cooked meals and travel with me on occasion.

  10. Great article here by Quintus. There is so much to learn from history’s exemplary writers if we only bother to devote sufficient time from our oh-so important lives and mundane schedules to peruse the wisdom they so graciously decided to bestow upon us. What’s more, given today’s technological means to access these texts almost anywhere and practically instantaneously, there is no more valid excuse whatsoever to avoid this most delightful of mankind’s activities. What’s your excuse for keeping yourself back?

    1. The list of great books and treatise from history’s greats are filling up my list of books to read. Thanks to Quintus Curtius, ROK and the internet, I’ve got 40+ fantastic books and I now never have the excuse of being bored.

  11. This is hilarious coming from a group as utterly dogmatic as the manosphere. I still remember when that bloke Minter got married and you all had a fit. Half of you even spend half your time on twitter arguing about who is the most alpha.

    1. We’re only dogmatic about dogs
      And what’s with that ‘you all’….. very reductive

      1. OK, you all may be a bit far and I actually can’t speak for Quintus specifically but if certain key manosphere figures were to read this and stop the alpha male pissing contest it might do the whole movement some good.

        1. we are all unique and individual snowflakes in the manosphere. There are many different shades of piss in that contest

  12. In theory, there is no gap between theory and practice. But in practise, there often is.

  13. He sounds like a typical politician. Publicly telling us all to act in virtuous ways while behaving the opposite in private.
    Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  14. Based on the article, I would say that Seneca’s biggest problem was that he was full of shit.
    The reason that he could not hold to the so-called virtues he discussed is that he had no logical reason to do so. Having a bunch of marble busts does not indicate nobility but this is a truism. Not only that, there is no reason not to have a room full of marble busts if you can afford it. In a way, he sounds like the guilty rich today who loudly complain that money doesn’t make you happy yet would never think to give it away.
    The trouble is that at this point in time, ethics had not progressed to a point where it was non-contradictory. In the 2000 years since then philosophers have tackled this question quite well and so now it is possible to own a country mansion without feeling guilty about it.
    I would recommend that any reading of ancient philosophy be balanced by reading modern philosophy, economics and science. I would suggest that reading ancient philosophy be treated as a leisurely pastime or historical interest but try not to draw too many conclusions from it.

    1. “I would say that Seneca’s biggest problem was that he was full of shit…. Having a bunch of marble busts does not indicate nobility”…that made me laugh.
      He does appear to be hypocritical about his wealth but the issue here I think is less about capital accumulation (etc) being inherently bad as what it may do to us. If we accumulate lots of marble busts because we really desire them, or something that they represent for us (e.g. power / status / pussy) then the problem is that we may become controlled by the desire, that is the psychological need for power / status / pussy. Thus if you get those things, without really bothering about them, and are prepared to lose them without it gutting you to the core, then there’s no real reason for you not to enjoy those things – you are not governed by your appetites in this scenario which is the evil thing. Its quite similar to the idea that one shouldn’t be ‘thirsty’ when it comes to women, or devastated if they leave you on account of ‘oneitis’. Maybe as a philosophy its a bit craven in basically saying ‘have low expectations and you will be happier because you won’t be disappointed’ something that could be seen as a bit of a cop out if you actually want to achieve something

      1. “the problem is that we may become controlled by the desire”.
        Indeed. Much like money itself is not evil but “the love of money is the root of all evil.”
        The important thing, for all of us, is to have an ethical framework against which to judge our actions. If it is logical, then the reasonable man will have no trouble keeping to it. If it is illogical then all manner of crimes will be excused by it. Witness the “welfare state”.
        The non-aggression principle is key here.

        1. That’s pretty much it I think. The ethical framework succeeds or fails to the extent it is reality oriented

  15. Makes me think of the Walt Whitman line from “Song of Myself” where he writes “I contain multitudes”. As humans, these “multitudes” we contain include our sometimes hypocritical ways of living and thinking. To put it in a ROK way of thinking; how some guys who have yet to shed their Beta tendencies acknowledge the disparity in how behaving like an Alpha can get girls but how these behaviors blatantly contradicts everything they have learned to be culturally true about finding a woman (i.e. you should wait for her, there is only one true soulmate, frequency of sex after marriage declining is natural, etc.) What I think is important to understand, is that as a man (or human being for that matter), so long as your are leading a life that is in full congruence with what you believe in at the time, then you can find your own degree of fulfillment. That being said it is extremely important to have YOUR OWN moral compass, virtues, goals, etc. that amount to a lifestyle that is uniquely your own and shows an awareness of how individual it is to you.
    A Beta who is living his life at “full Beta capacity” (doing everything he has been taught about women) is a larger metaphor for being unfulfilled, simply because he is living in accordance with cultural concepts that have been engrained into him and not his own firsthand experience; he is reactive as opposed to active which is his true downfall.

  16. There are two common features among (almost) all philosophers. Firstly, they all came from rich background and had the luxury of idleness to philosophy and secondly they rarely did what they preached.
    It was only the Hellenic philosophers who made some true discoveries in terms of thought and science. Having said that Seneca had one very useful advice on how to be happy – lower your expectations.

  17. A bit late to the party, but nice job on this one. I’m sure any reader of the 48 Laws of Power would appreciate the concluding paragraphs.
    The best you can probably do is come close enough to your ideal and close enough to theory.

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