What should you focus on?

Stoic “indifferent” by Zeno (founder of the school)

“Indifferent” has two meanings. In one sense [used by the Stoics] it signifies the things that contribute neither to happiness [eudaimonia] nor unhappiness, like wealth, fame, health, strength, and the like; for it is possible to be happy even without these things, though depending on how they are used they contribute to happiness or unhappiness. But in another [non-Stoic] sense “indifferent” signifies things that excite neither attraction nor aversion, as is the case with having an odd or even number of hairs on one’s head, or with extending or bending one’s finger. But it was not in this sense that the things mentioned above [such as health] are called “indifferent” [by the Stoics], since they are able to excite attraction and aversion. This is why some of the indifferent things are selected and others rejected, whereas indifference in the other sense provides no grounds for choosing or avoiding.

Diogenes Laertius, Life of Zeno

Letter XXXI. On Siren Songs

In letter 31 Seneca challenges us to reject, even actively challenge, other people’s good intentions, because they tend to wish us the wrong kinds of things (success, beauty, money, etc.). Instead, what we should wish for is to become the kind of person who does honourable and lasting things while others tend not to pray for it on our behalf:

“Be deaf to those who love you most of all; they pray for bad things with good intentions. And, if you would be happy, entreat the gods that none of their fond desires for you may be brought to pass… What they wish to have heaped upon you are not really good things; there is only one good, the cause and the support of a happy life, – trust in oneself”. (XXXI, 2-3)

This letter is more complex and dense than most of those already published, so it is best to read it calmly and draw your own conclusions, without being influenced by this interpreter.

I would like to point out however that this is the first letter in which Seneca conveys his idea of God:

“Your money, however, will not place you on a level with God; for God has no property. Your bordered robe will not do this; for God is not clad in raiment; nor will your reputation, nor a display of self, nor a knowledge of your name wide-spread throughout the world; for no one has knowledge of God; many even hold him in low esteem, and do not suffer for so doing. The throng of slaves which carries your litter along the city streets and in foreign places will not help you; for this God of whom I speak, though the highest and most powerful of beings, carries all things on his own shoulders. Neither can beauty or strength make you blessed, for none of these qualities can withstand old age. … What we have to seek for, then, is that which does not each day pass more and more under the control of some power which cannot be withstood. And what is this? It is the soul, – but the soul that is upright, good, and great. What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in a human body? (XXXI, 10-11)

(image Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel)


XXXI. On Siren Songs

1. Now I recognize my Lucilius! He is beginning to reveal the character of which he gave promise. Follow up the impulse which prompted you to make for all that is best, treading under your feet that which is approved by the crowd. I would not have you greater or better than you planned; for in your case the mere foundations have covered a large extent of ground; only finish all that you have laid out, and take in hand the plans which you have had in mind.

2. In short, you will be a wise man, if you stop up your ears; nor is it enough to close them with wax; you need a denser stopple than that which they say Ulysses used for his comrades. The song which he feared was alluring, but came not from every side; the song, however, which you have to fear, echoes round you not from a single headland, but from every quarter of the world. Sail, therefore, not past one region which you mistrust because of its treacherous delights, but past every city. Be deaf to those who love you most of all; they pray for bad things with good intentions. And, if you would be happy, entreat the gods that none of their fond desires for you may be brought to pass.

3. What they wish to have heaped upon you are not really good things; there is only one good, the cause and the support of a happy life, – trust in oneself. But this cannot be attained, unless one has learned to despise toil and to reckon it among the things which are neither good nor bad. For it is not possible that a single thing should be bad at one time and good at another, at times light and to be endured, and at times a cause of dread.

4. Work is not a good.[1] Then what is a good? I say, the scorning of work. That is why I should rebuke men who toil to no purpose. But when, on the other hand, a man is struggling towards honourable things, in proportion as he applies himself more and more, and allows himself less and less to be beaten or to halt,[2] I shall recommend his conduct and shout my encouragement, saying: “By so much you are better! Rise, draw a fresh breath, and surmount that hill, if possible, at a single spurt!”

5. Work is the sustenance of noble minds. There is, then, no reason why, in accordance with that old vow of your parents, you should pick and choose what fortune you wish should fall to your lot, or what you should pray for; besides, it is base for a man who has already travelled the whole round of highest honours to be still importuning the gods. What need is there of vows? Make yourself happy through your own efforts; you can do this, if once you comprehend that whatever is blended with virtue is good, and that whatever is joined to vice is bad. Just as nothing gleams if it has no light blended with it, and nothing is black unless it contains darkness or draws to itself something of dimness, and as nothing is hot without the aid of fire, and nothing cold without air; so it is the association of virtue and vice that makes things honourable or base.

6. What then is good? The knowledge of things. What is evil? The lack of knowledge of things. Your wise man, who is also a craftsman, will reject or choose in each case as it suits the occasion; but he does not fear that which he rejects, nor does he admire that which he chooses, if only he has a stout and unconquerable soul. I forbid you to be cast down or depressed. It is not enough if you do not shrink from work; ask for it.

7. “But,” you say, “is not trifling and superfluous work, and work that has been inspired by ignoble causes, a bad sort of work?” No; no more than that which is expended upon noble endeavours, since the very quality that endures toil and rouses itself to hard and uphill effort, is of the spirit, which says: “Why do you grow slack? It is not the part of a man to fear sweat.”

8. And besides this, in order that virtue may be perfect, there should be an even temperament and a scheme of life that is consistent with itself throughout; and this result cannot be attained without knowledge of things, and without the art[3] which enables us to understand things human and things divine. That is the greatest good. If you seize this good, you begin to be the associate of the gods, and not their suppliant.

9. “But how,” you ask, “does one attain that goal?” You do not need to cross the Pennine or Graian[4] hills, or traverse the Candavian[5] waste, or face the Syrtes,[6] or Scylla, or Charybdis, although you have travelled through all these places for the bribe of a petty governorship; the journey for which nature has equipped you is safe and pleasant. She has given you such gifts that you may, if you do not prove false to them, rise level with God.

10. Your money, however, will not place you on a level with God; for God has no property. Your bordered robe[7]will not do this; for God is not clad in raiment; nor will your reputation, nor a display of self, nor a knowledge of your name wide-spread throughout the world; for no one has knowledge of God; many even hold him in low esteem, and do not suffer for so doing. The throng of slaves which carries your litter along the city streets and in foreign places will not help you; for this God of whom I speak, though the highest and most powerful of beings, carries all things on his own shoulders. Neither can beauty or strength make you blessed, for none of these qualities can withstand old age.

11. What we have to seek for, then, is that which does not each day pass more and more under the control of some power which cannot be withstood.[8] And what is this? It is the soul, – but the soul that is upright, good, and great. What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in a human body? A soul like this may descend into a Roman knight just as well as into a freedman’s son or a slave. For what is a Roman knight, or a freedman’s son, or a slave? They are mere titles, born of ambition or of wrong. One may leap to heaven from the very slums. Only rise

And mould thyself to kinship with thy God.[9]

This moulding will not be done in gold or silver; an image that is to be in the likeness of God cannot be fashioned of such materials; remember that the gods, when they were kind unto men,[10] were moulded in clay.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  The argument is that work is not, in itself, a good; if it were, it would not be praiseworthy at one time and to be deprecated at another. It belongs, therefore, to the class of things which the Stoics call ἀδιάφορα, indifferentiares mediae; cf. Cicero, de Fin.iii. 16.
  2.  Literally, “come to the end of his furrow.”
  3.  i.e., philosophy.
  4.  The Great St. Bernard and Little St. Bernard routes over the Alps.
  5.  A mountain in Illyria, over which the Via Egnatia ran.
  6.  Dangerous quick-sands along the north coast of Africa.
  7.  The toga praetexta, badge of the official position of Lucilius.
  8.  For example, Time or Chance.
  9.  Vergil, Aeneid, viii. 364 f.
  10.  In the Golden Age, described in Ep. xc., when men were nearest to nature and “fresh from the gods.”

Letter XXX. On Conquering the Conqueror

Once again, Seneca approaches death and how should we deal with it, this time illustrating his teachings with the real case of Aufidius Bassus, the Roman historian contemporaneous with his father, Seneca the Elder. Bassus is very old and weak, but he is lucid and courageous in the face of death:

“Philosophy bestows this boon upon us; it makes us joyful in the very sight of death, strong and brave no matter in what state the body may be, cheerful and never failing though the body fail us. A great pilot can sail even when his canvas is rent; if his ship be dismantled, he can yet put in trim what remains of her hull and hold her to her course. ” (XXX, 3)

Seneca then defends the natural order:

“it is as foolish to fear death as to fear old age; for death follows old age precisely as old age follows youth. He who does not wish to die cannot have wished to live. For life is granted to us with the reservation that we shall die; to this end our path leads. Therefore, how foolish it is to fear it, since men simply await that which is sure, but fear only that which is uncertain!” (XXX, 10)

He ends the letter with his frequent good humor and remarkable ending:

“But what I really ought to fear is that you will hate this long letter worse than death itself; so I shall stop. Do you, however, always think on death in order that you may never fear it.” (XXX, 18)

(image, Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, St Peter’s Treasure Museum, Vatican)


XXX. On Conquering the Conqueror

1. I have beheld Aufidius Bassus, that noble man, shattered in health and wrestling with his years. But they already bear upon him so heavily that he cannot be raised up; old age has settled down upon him with great, – yes, with its entire, weight. You know that his body was always delicate and sapless. For a long time he has kept it in hand, or, to speak more correctly, has kept it together; of a sudden it has collapsed.

2. Just as in a ship that springs a leak, you can always stop the first or the second fissure, but when many holes begin to open and let in water, the gaping hull cannot be saved; similarly, in an old man’s body, there is a certain limit up to which you can sustain and prop its weakness. But when it comes to resemble a decrepit building, – when every joint begins to spread and while one is being repaired another falls apart, – then it is time for a man to look about him and consider how he may get out.[1]

3. But the mind of our friend Bassus is active. Philosophy bestows this boon upon us; it makes us joyful in the very sight of death, strong and brave no matter in what state the body may be, cheerful and never failing though the body fail us. A great pilot can sail even when his canvas is rent; if his ship be dismantled, he can yet put in trim what remains of her hull and hold her to her course. This is what our friend Bassus is doing; and he contemplates his own end with the courage and countenance which you would regard as undue indifference in a man who so contemplated another’s.

4. This is a great accomplishment, Lucilius, and one which needs long practice to learn, – to depart calmly when the inevitable hour arrives. Other kinds of death contain an ingredient of hope: a disease comes to an end; a fire is quenched; falling houses have set down in safety those whom they seemed certain to crush; the sea has cast ashore unharmed those whom it had engulfed, by the same force through which it drew them down; the soldier has drawn back his sword from the very neck of his doomed foe. But those whom old age is leading away to death have nothing to hope for; old age alone grants no reprieve. No ending, to be sure, is more painless; but there is none more lingering.

5. Our friend Bassus seemed to me to be attending his own funeral, and laying out his own body for burial, and living almost as if he had survived his own death, and bearing with wise resignation his grief at his own departure. For he talks freely about death, trying hard to persuade us that if this process contains any element of discomfort or of fear, it is the fault of the dying person, and not of death itself; also, that there is no more inconvenience at the actual moment than there is after it is over.

6. “And it is just as insane,” he adds, “for a man to fear what will not happen to him, as to fear what he will not feel if it does happen.” Or does anyone imagine it to be possible that the agency by which feeling is removed can be itself felt? “Therefore,” says Bassus, “death stands so far beyond all evil that it is beyond all fear of evils.”

7. I know that all this has often been said and should be often repeated; but neither when I read them were such precepts so effective with me, nor when I heard them from the lips of those who were at a safe distance from the fear of the things which they declared were not to be feared. But this old man had the greatest weight with me when he discussed death and death was near.

8. For I must tell you what I myself think: I hold that one is braver at the very moment of death than when one is approaching death. For death, when it stands near us, gives even to inexperienced men the courage not to seek to avoid the inevitable. So the gladiator, who throughout the fight has been no matter how faint-hearted, offers his throat to his opponent and directs the wavering blade to the vital spot.[2] But an end that is near at hand, and is bound to come, calls for tenacious courage of soul; this is a rarer thing, and none but the wise man can manifest it.

9. Accordingly, I listened to Bassus with the deepest pleasure; he was casting his vote concerning death and pointing out what sort of a thing it is when it is observed, so to speak, nearer at hand. I suppose that a man would have your confidence in a larger degree, and would have more weight with you, if he had come back to life and should declare from experience that there is no evil in death; and so, regarding the approach of death, those will tell you best what disquiet it brings who have stood in its path, who have seen it coming and have welcomed it.

10. Bassus may be included among these men; and he had no wish to deceive us. He says that it is as foolish to fear death as to fear old age; for death follows old age precisely as old age follows youth. He who does not wish to die cannot have wished to live. For life is granted to us with the reservation that we shall die; to this end our path leads. Therefore, how foolish it is to fear it, since men simply await that which is sure, but fear only that which is uncertain!

11. Death has its fixed rule, – equitable and unavoidable. Who can complain when he is governed by terms which include everyone? The chief part of equity, however, is equality. But it is superfluous at the present time to plead Nature’s cause; for she wishes our laws to be identical with her own; she but resolves that which she has compounded, and compounds again that which she has resolved.

12. Moreover, if it falls to the lot of any man to be set gently adrift by old age, – not suddenly torn from life, but withdrawn bit by bit, – oh, verily he should thank the gods, one and all, because, after he has had his fill, he is removed to a rest which is ordained for mankind, a rest that is welcome to the weary. You may observe certain men who crave death even more earnestly than others are wont to beg for life. And I do not know which men give us greater courage, – those who call for death, or those who meet it cheerfully and tranquilly, – for the first attitude is sometimes inspired by madness and sudden anger, the second is the calm which results from fixed judgment. Before now men have gone to meet death in a fit of rage; but when death comes to meet him, no one welcomes it cheerfully, except the man who has long since composed himself for death.

13. I admit, therefore, that I have visited this dear friend of mine more frequently on many pretexts, but with the purpose of learning whether I should find him always the same, and whether his mental strength was perhaps waning in company with his bodily powers. But it was on the increase, just as the joy of the charioteer is wont to show itself more clearly when he is on the seventh round[3] of the course, and nears the prize.

14. Indeed, he often said, in accord with the counsels of Epicurus:[4] “I hope, first of all, that there is no pain at the moment when a man breathes his last; but if there is, one will find an element of comfort in its very shortness. For no great pain lasts long. And at all events, a man will find relief at the very time when soul and body are being torn asunder, even though the process be accompanied by excruciating pain, in the thought that after this pain is over he can feel no more pain. I am sure, however, that an old man’s soul is on his very lips, and that only a little force is necessary to disengage it from the body. A fire which has seized upon a substance that sustains it needs water to quench it, or, sometimes, the destruction of the building itself; but the fire which lacks sustaining fuel dies away of its own accord.”

15. I am glad to hear such words, my dear Lucilius, – not as new to me, but as leading me into the presence of an actual fact. And what then? Have I not seen many men break the thread of life? I have indeed seen such men; but those have more weight with me who approach death without any loathing for life, letting death in, so to speak, and not pulling it towards them.

16. Bassus kept saying: “It is due to our own fault that we feel this torture, because we shrink from dying only when we believe that our end is near at hand.” But who is not near death? It is ready for us in all places and at all times. “Let us consider,” he went on to say, “when some agency of death seems imminent, how much nearer are other varieties of dying which are not feared by us.”

17. A man is threatened with death by an enemy, but this form of death is anticipated by an attack of indigestion. And if we are willing to examine critically the various causes of our fear, we shall find that some exist, and others only seem to be. We do not fear death; we fear the thought of death. For death itself is always the same distance from us; wherefore, if it is to be feared at all, it is to be feared always. For what season of our life is exempt from death?

18. But what I really ought to fear is that you will hate this long letter worse than death itself; so I shall stop. Do you, however, always think on death in order that you may never fear it.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  i.e., exeas e vita, “depart from life.”
  2.  The defeated gladiator is supposed to be on his back, his opponent standing over him and about to deliver the final blow. As the blade wavers at the throat, searching for the jugular vein, the victim directs the point.
  3.  i.e., when on the home stretch.
  4.  Frag. 503 Usener.

Letter XXIX. On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus

In letter 29 Seneca teaches us that we should not try to help those who have not requested help or those who are not interested in our teachings. It it about avoiding helping those not interested: “one must not talk to a man unless he is willing to listen“. (XXIX, 1)

According to Seneca, when we distribute our help indiscriminately it is diluted and weakened:

“The archer ought not to hit the mark only sometimes; he ought to miss it only sometimes. That which takes effect by chance is not an art. Now wisdom is an art; it should have a definite aim, choosing only those who will make progress, but withdrawing from those whom it has come to regard as hopeless, – yet not abandoning them too soon, and just when the case is becoming hopeless trying drastic remedies.”(XXIX, 3)

He concludes the letter with another sentence from Epicurus: “I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know, they do not approve, and what they approve, I do not know.” (XXIX, 10)

(Image Plato and Aristotle in “School of Athens” by Raphael)


XXIX. On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus

1. You have been inquiring about our friend Marcellinus and you desire to know how he is getting along. He seldom comes to see me, for no other reason than that he is afraid to hear the truth, and at present he is removed from any danger of hearing it; for one must not talk to a man unless he is willing to listen. That is why it is often doubted whether Diogenes and the other Cynics, who employed an undiscriminating freedom of speech and offered advice to any who came in their way, ought to have pursued such a plan.

2. For what if one should chide the deaf or those who are speechless from birth or by illness? But you answer: “Why should I spare words? They cost nothing. I cannot know whether I shall help the man to whom I give advice; but I know well that I shall help someone if I advise many. I must scatter this advice by the handful.[1] It is impossible that one who tries often should not sometime succeed.”

3. This very thing, my dear Lucilius, is, I believe, exactly what a great-souled man ought not to do; his influence is weakened; it has too little effect upon those whom it might have set right if it had not grown so stale. The archer ought not to hit the mark only sometimes; he ought to miss it only sometimes. That which takes effect by chance is not an art. Now wisdom is an art; it should have a definite aim, choosing only those who will make progress, but withdrawing from those whom it has come to regard as hopeless, – yet not abandoning them too soon, and just when the case is becoming hopeless trying drastic remedies.

4. As to our friend Marcellinus, I have not yet lost hope. He can still be saved, but the helping hand must be offered soon. There is indeed danger that he may pull his helper down; for there is in him a native character of great vigour, though it is already inclining to wickedness. Nevertheless I shall brave this danger and be bold enough to show him his faults.

5. He will act in his usual way; he will have recourse to his wit, – the wit that can call forth smiles even from mourners. He will turn the jest, first against himself, and then against me. He will forestall every word which I am about to utter. He will quiz our philosophic systems; he will accuse philosophers of accepting doles, keeping mistresses, and indulging their appetites. He will point out to me one philosopher who has been caught in adultery, another who haunts the cafes, and another who appears at court.

6. He will bring to my notice Aristo, the philosopher of Marcus Lepidus, who used to hold discussions in his carriage; for that was the time which he had taken for editing his researches, so that Scaurus said of him when asked to what school he belonged: “At any rate, he isn’t one of the Walking Philosophers.” Julius Graecinus, too, a man of distinction, when asked for an opinion on the same point, replied: “I cannot tell you; for I don’t know what he does when dismounted,” as if the query referred to a chariot-gladiator.[2]

7. It is mountebanks of that sort, for whom it would be more creditable to have left philosophy alone than to traffic in her, whom Marcellinus will throw in my teeth. But I have decided to put up with taunts; he may stir my laughter, but I perchance shall stir him to tears; or, if he persist in his jokes, I shall rejoice, so to speak, in the midst of sorrow, because he is blessed with such a merry sort of lunacy. But that kind of merriment does not last long. Observe such men, and you will note that within a short space of time they laugh to excess and rage to excess.

8. It is my plan to approach him and to show him how much greater was his worth when many thought it less. Even though I shall not root out his faults, I shall put a check upon them; they will not cease, but they will stop for a time; and perhaps they will even cease, if they get the habit of stopping. This is a thing not to be despised, since to men who are seriously stricken the blessing of relief is a substitute for health.

9. So while I prepare myself to deal with Marcellinus, do you in the meantime, who are able, and who understand whence and whither you have made your way, and who for that reason have an inkling of the distance yet to go, regulate your character, rouse your courage, and stand firm in the face of things which have terrified you. Do not count the number of those who inspire fear in you. Would you not regard as foolish one who was afraid of a multitude in a place where only one at a time could pass? Just so, there are not many who have access to you to slay you, though there are many who threaten you with death. Nature has so ordered it that, as only one has given you life, so only one will take it away.

10. If you had any shame, you would have let me off from paying the last instalment. Still, I shall not be niggardly either, but shall discharge my debts to the last penny and force upon you what I still owe: “I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know, they do not approve, and what they approve, I do not know.”[3]

11. “Who said this?” you ask, as if you were ignorant whom I am pressing into service; it is Epicurus. But this same watchword rings in your ears from every sect, – Peripatetic, Academic, Stoic, Cynic. For who that is pleased by virtue can please the crowd? It takes trickery to win popular approval; and you must needs make yourself like unto them; they will withhold their approval if they do not recognize you as one of themselves. However, what you think of yourself is much more to the point than what others think of you. The favour of ignoble men can be won only by ignoble means.

12. What benefit, then, will that vaunted philosophy confer, whose praises we sing, and which, we are told, is to be preferred to every art and every possession? Assuredly, it will make you prefer to please yourself rather than the populace, it will make you weigh, and not merely count, men’s judgments, it will make you live without fear of gods or men, it will make you either overcome evils or end them. Otherwise, if I see you applauded by popular acclamation, if your entrance upon the scene is greeted by a roar of cheering and clapping, – marks of distinction meet only for actors, – if the whole state, even the women and children, sing your praises, how can I help pitying you? For I know what pathway leads to such popularity.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  The usual expression is plena manu spargere, “with full hand,” cf. Ep. cxx. 10. In the famous saying of Corinna to Pindar: “Sow with the hand and not with the sack,” the idea is “sparingly,” and not, as here, “bountifully.”
  2.  The essedarius fought from a car. When his adversary forced him out of the car, he was compelled to continue the fight on foot, like an unhorsed knight.
  3.  Epicurus, Frag. 187 Usener.

Letter XXVIII. On Travel as a Cure for Discontent

In letter 28 Seneca takes up Socrates’ teaching that traveling or changing the environment is not the solution to our problems, that’s because:

“Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.” (XXVIII, 2)

But once inner peace is achieved, any place or environment will be pleasant:

“If you saw this fact clearly, you would not be surprised at getting no benefit from the fresh scenes to which you roam each time through weariness of the old scenes. For the first would have pleased you in each case, had you believed it wholly yours. As it is, however, you are not journeying; you are drifting and being driven, only exchanging one place for another, although that which you seek, – to live well, – is found everywhere.” (XXVIII, 5)

In the conclusion Seneca says “but what does it matter how many masters a man has? “Slavery” has no plural; and he who has scorned it is free” (XXVIII, 8)

(Image Mercury and Argos by Velazquez, Mercury was the protector god of travelers)


XXVIII. On Travel as a Cure for Discontent

1. Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.[1] Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, and though, as our Vergil[2] remarks,

Lands and cities are left astern,

your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.

2. Socrates made the same remark to one who complained; he said: “Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.” What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.

3. Reflect that your present behaviour is like that of the prophetess whom Vergil describes:[3] she is excited and goaded into fury, and contains within herself much inspiration that is not her own:

The priestess raves, if haply she may shake
The great god from her heart.

You wander hither and yon, to rid yourself of the burden that rests upon you, though it becomes more troublesome by reason of your very restlessness, just as in a ship the cargo when stationary makes no trouble, but when it shifts to this side or that, it causes the vessel to heel more quickly in the direction where it has settled. Anything you do tells against you, and you hurt yourself by your very unrest; for you are shaking up a sick man.

4. That trouble once removed, all change of scene will become pleasant; though you may be driven to the uttermost ends of the earth, in whatever corner of a savage land you may find yourself, that place, however forbidding, will be to you a hospitable abode. The person you are matters more than the place to which you go; for that reason we should not make the mind a bondsman to any one place. Live in this belief: “I am not born for any one corner of the universe; this whole world is my country.”

5. If you saw this fact clearly, you would not be surprised at getting no benefit from the fresh scenes to which you roam each time through weariness of the old scenes. For the first would have pleased you in each case, had you believed it wholly yours.[4] As it is, however, you are not journeying; you are drifting and being driven, only exchanging one place for another, although that which you seek, – to live well, – is found everywhere.[5]

6. Can there be any spot so full of confusion as the Forum? Yet you can live quietly even there, if necessary. Of course, if one were allowed to make one’s own arrangements, I should flee far from the very sight and neighbourhood of the Forum. For just as pestilential places assail even the strongest constitution, so there are some places which are also unwholesome for a healthy mind which is not yet quite sound, though recovering from its ailment.

7. I disagree with those who strike out into the midst of the billows and, welcoming a stormy existence, wrestle daily in hardihood of soul with life’s problems. The wise man will endure all that, but will not choose it; he will prefer to be at peace rather than at war. It helps little to have cast out your own faults if you must quarrel with those of others.

8. Says one: “There were thirty tyrants surrounding Socrates, and yet they could not break his spirit”; but what does it matter how many masters a man has? “Slavery” has no plural; and he who has scorned it is free, – no matter amid how large a mob of over-lords he stands.

9. It is time to stop, but not before I have paid duty. “The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation.” This saying of Epicurus[6] seems to me to be a noble one. For he who does not know that he has sinned does not desire correction; you must discover yourself in the wrong before you can reform yourself.

10. Some boast of their faults. Do you think that the man has any thought of mending his ways who counts over his vices as if they were virtues? Therefore, as far as possible, prove yourself guilty, hunt up charges against yourself; play the part, first of accuser, then of judge, last of intercessor. At times be harsh with yourself.[7]

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Cf. Horace, Ep. i. 11, 27 caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt.
  2.  Aeneid, iii. 72.
  3.  Aeneid, vi. 78 f.
  4.  i.e., had you been able to say patria mea totus mundus est.
  5.  Cf. Horace, Ep. i. 11, 28 – navibus atque Quadrigis petimus bene vivere; quod petis, hic est.
  6.  Frag. 522 Usener.
  7.  i.e., refuse your own intercession.

Letter XXVII. On the Good which Abides

In the letter 27, Seneca talks about the problems that fleeting pleasures cause and the uncomfortable guilt that they leave long after the pleasure has ended.

“Away with those disordered pleasures, which must be dearly paid for; it is not only those which are to come that harm me, but also those which have come and gone. Just as crimes, even if they have not been detected when they were committed, do not allow anxiety to end with them; so with guilty pleasures, regret remains even after the pleasures are over. They are not substantial, they are not trustworthy; even if they do not harm us, they are fleeting. “(XXVII, 2)

Always relevant, Seneca speaks of the little value given to wisdom: “No man is able to borrow or buy a sound mind; in fact, as it seems to me, even though sound minds were for sale, they would not find buyers. Depraved minds, however, are bought and sold every day.” (XXVII, 8)

He concludes the letter with another saying of Epicurus: “Real wealth is poverty adjusted to the law of Nature” (XXVII, 9)

Image: Silver Denarius of Metellus Scipio, example of stoic conduct according to Seneca.


XXVII. On the Good which Abides

1. “What,” say you, “are you giving me advice? Indeed, have you already advised yourself, already corrected your own faults? Is this the reason why you have leisure to reform other men?” No, I am not so shameless as to undertake to cure my fellow-men when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital. Listen to me, therefore, as you would if I were talking to myself. I am admitting you to my inmost thoughts, and am having it out with myself, merely making use of you as my pretext.

2. I keep crying out to myself: “Count your years, and you will be ashamed to desire and pursue the same things you desired in your boyhood days. Of this one thing make sure against your dying day, – let your faults die before you die. Away with those disordered pleasures, which must be dearly paid for; it is not only those which are to come that harm me, but also those which have come and gone. Just as crimes, even if they have not been detected when they were committed, do not allow anxiety to end with them; so with guilty pleasures, regret remains even after the pleasures are over. They are not substantial, they are not trustworthy; even if they do not harm us, they are fleeting.

3. Cast about rather for some good which will abide. But there can be no such good except as the soul discovers it for itself within itself. Virtue alone affords everlasting and peace-giving joy; even if some obstacle arise, it is but like an intervening cloud, which floats beneath the sun but never prevails against it.”

4. When will it be your lot to attain this joy? Thus far, you have indeed not been sluggish, but you must quicken your pace. Much toil remains; to confront it, you must yourself lavish all your waking hours, and all your efforts, if you wish the result to be accomplished. This matter cannot be delegated to someone else.

5. The other kind of literary activity[1] admits of outside assistance. Within our own time there was a certain rich man named Calvisius Sabinus; he had the bank-account and the brains of a freedman. [2] I never saw a man whose good fortune was a greater offence against propriety. His memory was so faulty that he would sometimes forget the name of Ulysses, or Achilles, or Priam, – names which we know as well as we know those of our own attendants. No major-domo in his dotage, who cannot give men their right names, but is compelled to invent names for them, – no such man, I say, calls off the names[3] of his master’s tribesmen so atrociously as Sabinus used to call off the Trojan and Achaean heroes. But none the less did he desire to appear learned.

6. So he devised this short cut to learning: he paid fabulous prices for slaves, – one to know Homer by heart and another to know Hesiod; he also delegated a special slave to each of the nine lyric poets. You need not wonder that he paid high prices for these slaves; if he did not find them ready to hand he had them made to order. After collecting this retinue, he began to make life miserable for his guests; he would keep these fellows at the foot of his couch, and ask them from time to time for verses which he might repeat, and then frequently break down in the middle of a word.

7. Satellius Quadratus, a feeder, and consequently a fawner, upon addle-pated millionaires, and also (for this quality goes with the other two) a flouter of them, suggested to Sabinus that he should have philologists to gather up the bits.[4] Sabinus remarked that each slave cost him one hundred thousand sesterces; Satellius replied: “You might have bought as many book-cases for a smaller sum.” But Sabinus held to the opinion that what any member of his household knew, he himself knew also.

8. This same Satellius began to advise Sabinus to take wrestling lessons, – sickly, pale, and thin as he was, Sabinus answered: “How can I? I can scarcely stay alive now.” “Don’t say that, I implore you,” replied the other, “consider how many perfectly healthy slaves you have!” No man is able to borrow or buy a sound mind; in fact, as it seems to me, even though sound minds were for sale, they would not find buyers. Depraved minds, however, are bought and sold every day.

9. But let me pay off my debt and say farewell: “Real wealth is poverty adjusted to the law of Nature.[5] Epicurus has this saying in various ways and contexts; but it can never be repeated too often, since it can never be learned too well. For some persons the remedy should be merely prescribed; in the case of others, it should be forced down their throats.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  i.e., ordinary studies, or literature, as contrasted with philosophy.
  2.  Compare with the following the vulgarities of Trimalchio in the Satire of Petronius, and the bad taste of Nasidienus in Horace (Sat. ii. 8).
  3.  At the salutatio, or morning call. The position of nomenclator, “caller-of-names,” was originally devoted more strictly to political purposes. Here it is primarily social.
  4.  i.e., all the ideas that dropped out of the head of Sabinus. The slave who picked up the crumbs was called analecta.
  5.  Epicurus, Frag. 477 Usener.

Letter XXVI. On Old Age and Death

In Letter 26, Seneca once again addresses death and how to face it.

When he wrote his letters, Seneca was living the last years of his life although he was obviously unaware that those years would come to an abrupt end with the suicide order imposed by Nero. Yet he is grateful that his mind is still sharp, even if his body is decaying, as is fitting for a stoic who values his mental faculty and considers the body a preferred indifferent.

‘you say, “it is the greatest possible disadvantage to be worn out and to die off, or rather, if I may speak literally, to melt away! For we are not suddenly smitten and laid low; we are worn away, and every day reduces our powers to a certain extent.” But is there any better end to it all than to glide off to one’s proper haven, when nature slips the cable? ‘ (XXVI, 4)

A quick and sudden death is easy and preferable, but the reality is that most of us will slowly decline, losing both our physical and mental strength in the process. This is the difficult challenge of approaching death, and that is the reason the way we approach death is the final test of our character. How will we react to our growing dependence on others? Is it better to stay here until the last minute, or walk through the open door, as Epictetus says, while we are still in control?

It makes good practice to ask ourselves the same question, not only about death, but about how we behave every day: are we really trying, even imperfectly, to live the stoic life, or is it just talk? Seneca places limited value on theoretical learning. The evidence is in practice:

“You are younger; but what does that matter? There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.”(XXVI, 7)

This is a crucial point, and so commonly underestimated. We often talk about someone dying “prematurely.” But we rely on statistical expectations. From the Logos’ point of view, the cosmic web of cause and effect, there is no such thing as too early or too late. Things happen when they happen. And this theoretical knowledge has the potential to be of enormous practical interest, don’t waste time, for the simple reason that you don’t know how much time you have left.

(Image: Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill by Pieter Claesz)


XXVI. On Old Age and Death

1. I was just lately telling you that I was within sight of old age.[1] I am now afraid that I have left old age behind me. For some other word would now apply to my years, or at any rate to my body; since old age means a time of life that is weary rather than crushed. You may rate me in the worn-out class, – of those who are nearing the end.

2. Nevertheless, I offer thanks to myself, with you as witness; for I feel that age has done no damage to my mind, though I feel its effects on my constitution. Only my vices, and the outward aids to these vices, have reached senility; my mind is strong and rejoices that it has but slight connexion with the body. It has laid aside the greater part of its load. It is alert; it takes issue with me on the subject of old age; it declares that old age is its time of bloom.

3. Let me take it at its word, and let it make the most of the advantages it possesses. The mind bids me do some thinking and consider how much of this peace of spirit and moderation of character I owe to wisdom and how much to my time of life; it bids me distinguish carefully what I cannot do and what I do not want to do. . . .[2] For why should one complain or regard it as a disadvantage, if powers which ought to come to an end have failed?

4. “But,” you say, “it is the greatest possible disadvantage to be worn out and to die off, or rather, if I may speak literally, to melt away! For we are not suddenly smitten and laid low; we are worn away, and every day reduces our powers to a certain extent.” But is there any better end to it all than to glide off to one’s proper haven, when nature slips the cable? Not that there is anything painful in a shock and a sudden departure from existence; it is merely because this other way of departure is easy, – a gradual withdrawal. I, at any rate, as if the test were at hand and the day were come which is to pronounce its decision concerning all the years of my life, watch over myself and commune thus with myself:

5. “The showing which we have made up to the present time, in word or deed, counts for nothing. All this is but a trifling and deceitful pledge of our spirit, and is wrapped in much charlatanism. I shall leave it to Death to determine what progress I have made. Therefore with no faint heart I am making ready for the day when, putting aside all stage artifice and actor’s rouge, I am to pass judgment upon myself, – whether I am merely declaiming brave sentiments, or whether I really feel them; whether all the bold threats I have uttered against fortune are a pretence and a farce.

6. Put aside the opinion of the world; it is always wavering and always takes both sides. Put aside the studies which you have pursued throughout your life; Death will deliver the final judgment in your case. This is what I mean: your debates and learned talks, your maxims gathered from the teachings of the wise, your cultured conversation, – all these afford no proof of the real strength of your soul. Even the most timid man can deliver a bold speech. What you have done in the past will be manifest only at the time when you draw your last breath. I accept the terms; I do not shrink from the decision.”

7. This is what I say to myself, but I would have you think that I have said it to you also. You are younger; but what does that matter? There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.

8. I was just intending to stop, and my hand was making ready for the closing sentence; but the rites are still to be performed and the travelling money for the letter disbursed. And just assume that I am not telling where I intend to borrow the necessary sum; you know upon whose coffers I depend. Wait for me but a moment, and I will pay you from my own account;[3] meanwhile, Epicurus will oblige me with these words:[4] “Think on death,” or rather, if you prefer the phrase, on “migration to heaven.”

9. The meaning is clear, – that it is a wonderful thing to learn thoroughly how to die. You may deem it superfluous to learn a text that can be used only once; but that is just the reason why we ought to think on a thing. When we can never prove whether we really know a thing, we must always be learning it.

10. “Think on death.” In saying this, he bids us think on freedom. He who has learned to die has unlearned slavery; he is above any external power, or, at any rate, he is beyond it. What terrors have prisons and bonds and bars for him? His way out is clear. There is only one chain which binds us to life, and that is the love of life. The chain may not be cast off, but it may be rubbed away, so that, when necessity shall demand, nothing may retard or hinder us from being ready to do at once that which at some time we are bound to do.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  See the twelfth letter. Seneca was by this time at least sixty-five years old, and probably older.
  2.  This passage is hopelessly corrupt. The course of the argument requires something like this: For it is just as much to my advantage not to be able to do what I do not want to do, as it is to be able to do whatever gives me pleasure.
  3.  i.e., the money will be brought from home, – the saying will be one of Seneca’s own.
  4.  Epicurus, Frag. 205 Usener.

Letter XXV. On Reformation

In Letter XXV Seneca discusses change and the hard work it always requires. He writes to Lucilius about two friends in common: an old man and a young man, both needing some correction to get their lives back on track. Should we try to or could we change someone else?

Seneca says it depends: the context is everything and the same approach will not work in every case. So what are the most important settings to consider, and when is the right time to force change rather than wait?

“I do not know whether I shall make progress; but I should prefer to lack success rather than to lack faith”. (XXV, 2)

This is one of those phrases that describe or better frame stoicism and its way of thinking. It is more important to have faith and to strive toward your goal than to actually achieve it.

In the text, Seneca returns to the theme of moving away from the mob, as in letters VII and XI where he mentions that it is bad to be alone if you are not virtuous enough. In this letter he clarifies everything.

“The time when you should most of all withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd.” Yes, provided that you are a good, tranquil, and self-restrained man; otherwise, you had better withdraw into a crowd in order to get away from your self. Alone, you are too close to a rasca”l. (XXV, 7)

(Image: Reformation Wall, Geneva)

XXV. On Reformation

1. With regard to these two friends of ours, we must proceed along different lines; the faults of the one are to be corrected, the other’s are to be crushed out. I shall take every liberty; for I do not love this one[1] if I am unwilling to hurt his feelings. “What,” you say, “do you expect to keep a forty-year-old ward under your tutelage? Consider his age, how hardened it now is, and past handling!

2. Such a man cannot be re-shaped; only young minds are moulded.” I do not know whether I shall make progress; but I should prefer to lack success rather than to lack faith. You need not despair of curing sick men even when the disease is chronic, if only you hold out against excess and force them to do and submit to many things against their will. As regards our other friend I am not sufficiently confident, either, except for the fact that he still has sense of shame enough to blush for his sins. This modesty should be fostered; so long as it endures in his soul, there is some room for hope. But as for this veteran of yours, I think we should deal more carefully with him, that he may not become desperate about himself.

3. There is no better time to approach him than now, when he has an interval of rest and seems like one who has corrected his faults. Others have been cheated by this interval of virtue on his part, but he does not cheat me. I feel sure that these faults will return, as it were, with compound interest, for just now, I am certain, they are in abeyance but not absent. I shall devote some time to the matter, and try to see whether or not something can be done.

4. But do you yourself, as indeed you are doing, show me that you are stout-hearted; lighten your baggage for the march. None of our possessions is essential. Let us return to the law of nature; for then riches are laid up for us. The things which we actually need are free for all, or else cheap; nature craves only bread and water. No one is poor according to this standard; when a man has limited his desires within these bounds, he can challenge the happiness of Jove himself, as Epicurus says. I must insert in this letter one or two more of his sayings:[2]

5. “Do everything as if Epicurus were watching you.” There is no real doubt that it is good for one to have appointed a guardian over oneself, and to have someone whom you may look up to, someone whom you may regard as a witness of your thoughts. It is, indeed, nobler by far to live as you would live under the eyes of some good man, always at your side; but nevertheless I am content if you only act, in whatever you do, as you would act if anyone at all were looking on; because solitude prompts us to all kinds of evil.

6. And when you have progressed so far that you have also respect for yourself, you may send away your attendant; but until then, set as a guard over yourself the authority of some man, whether your choice be the great Cato or Scipio, or Laelius, – or any man in whose presence even abandoned wretches would check their bad impulses. Meantime, you are engaged in making of yourself the sort of person in whose company you would not dare to sin. When this aim has been accomplished and you begin to hold yourself in some esteem, I shall gradually allow you to do what Epicurus, in another passage, suggests:[3] “The time when you should most of all withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd.”

7. You ought to make yourself of a different stamp from the multitude. Therefore, while it is not yet safe to withdraw into solitude,[4] seek out certain individuals; for everyone is better off in the company of somebody or other, – no matter who, – than in his own company alone. “The time when you should most of all withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd.” Yes, provided that you are a good, tranquil, and self-restrained man; otherwise, you had better withdraw into a crowd in order to get away from your self. Alone, you are too close to a rascal.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  The second friend, whose faults are to be crushed out. He proves to be some forty years old; the other is a youth.
  2.  Frag. 211 Usener.
  3.  Frag. 209 Usener.
  4.  Because “solitude promts to evil,” § 5.

Letter XXIV. On Despising Death

Seneca’s theme is suggested by the fear which possesses Lucilius as to the issue of a lawsuit. This fear is taken as typical of all fears, and Seneca devotes most of his letter to the greatest fear of all: fear of death.

June 6 celebrates D-Day when more than 150,000 soldiers from the Allied forces landed in Normandy to face the Nazis, suffering casualties of more than 4,000 men. Seneca’s 24th letter addresses this issue. It is a great help to people who need to do what must be done, even at personal risk. Seneca points out something paradoxical at the beginning of his letter:

“Why, indeed, is it necessary to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is indeed foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.” (XXIV, 1)

But the future never comes and therefore you can never be totally unhappy. We should not get upset about future problems, making them a problem of the present. Don’t worry about things ahead of time.

“I may become a poor man; I shall then be one among many. They may put me in chains. What then? Am I free from bonds now? Behold this clogging burden of a body, to which nature has fettered me! ‘I shall die’, you say; you mean to say ‘I shall cease to run the risk of sickness; I shall cease to run the risk of imprisonment; I shall cease to run the risk of death.'” (XXIV, 17)

This is an interesting line because if you look at death from this point of view, it doesn’t sound that bad, you just have to start worrying about death if you think about what’s going to happen next.

(photo: landing of E company troops on Omaha beach by Robert F. Sargent. During the initial landing, two-thirds of the company were killed. )


XXIV. On Despising Death

1. You write me that you are anxious about the result of a lawsuit, with which an angry opponent is threatening you; and you expect me to advise you to picture to yourself a happier issue, and to rest in the allurements of hope. Why, indeed, is it necessary to summon trouble, – which must be endured soon enough when it has once arrived, – or to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is indeed foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.[1]

2. But I shall conduct you to peace of mind by another route: if you would put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen will certainly happen in any event; whatever the trouble may be, measure it in your own mind, and estimate the amount of your fear. You will thus understand that what you fear is either insignificant or short-lived.

3. And you need not spend a long time in gathering illustrations which will strengthen you; every epoch has produced them. Let your thoughts travel into any era of Roman or foreign history, and there will throng before you notable examples of high achievement or of high endeavour. If you lose this case, can anything more severe happen to you than being sent into exile or led to prison? Is there a worse fate that any man may fear than being burned or being killed? Name such penalties one by one, and mention the men who have scorned them; one does not need to hunt for them, – it is simply a matter of selection.

4. Sentence of conviction was borne by Rutilius as if the injustice of the decision were the only thing which annoyed him. Exile was endured by Metellus with courage, by Rutilius even with gladness; for the former consented to come back only because his country called him; the latter refused to return when Sulla summoned him, – and nobody in those days said “No” to Sulla! Socrates in prison discoursed, and declined to flee when certain persons gave him the opportunity; he remained there, in order to free mankind from the fear of two most grievous things, death and imprisonment.

5. Mucius put his hand into the fire. It is painful to be burned; but how much more painful to inflict such suffering upon oneself! Here was a man of no learning, not primed to face death and pain by any words of wisdom, and equipped only with the courage of a soldier, who punished himself for his fruitless daring; he stood and watched his own right hand falling away piecemeal on the enemy’s brazier,[2] nor did he withdraw the dissolving limb, with its uncovered bones, until his foe removed the fire. He might have accomplished something more successful in that camp, but never anything more brave. See how much keener a brave man is to lay hold of danger than a cruel man is to inflict it: Porsenna was more ready to pardon Mucius for wishing to slay him than Mucius to pardon himself for failing to slay Porsenna!

6. “Oh,” say you, “those stories have been droned to death in all the schools; pretty soon, when you reach the topic ‘On Despising Death,’ you will be telling me about Cato.” But why should I not tell you about Cato, how he read Plato’s[3] book on that last glorious night, with a sword laid at his pillow? He had provided these two requisites for his last moments, – the first, that he might have the will to die, and the second, that he might have the means. So he put his affairs in order, – as well as one could put in order that which was ruined and near its end, – and thought that he ought to see to it that no one should have the power to slay or the good fortune to save[4] Cato.

7. Drawing the sword, – which he had kept unstained from all bloodshed against the final day, – he cried: “Fortune, you have accomplished nothing by resisting all my endeavours. I have fought, till now, for my country’s freedom, and not for my own, I did not strive so doggedly to be free, but only to live among the free. Now, since the affairs of mankind are beyond hope, let Cato be withdrawn to safety.”

8. So saying, he inflicted a mortal wound upon his body. After the physicians had bound it up, Cato had less blood and less strength, but no less courage; angered now not only at Caesar but also at himself, he rallied his unarmed hands against his wound, and expelled, rather than dismissed, that noble soul which had been so defiant of all worldly power.

9. I am not now heaping up these illustrations for the purpose of exercising my wit, but for the purpose of encouraging you to face that which is thought to be most terrible. And I shall encourage you all the more easily by showing that not only resolute men have despised that moment when the soul breathes its last, but that certain persons, who were craven in other respects, have equalled in this regard the courage of the bravest. Take, for example, Scipio, the father-in-law of Gnaeus Pompeius: he was driven back upon the African coast by a head-wind and saw his ship in the power of the enemy. He therefore pierced his body with a sword; and when they asked where the commander was, he replied: “All is well with the commander.”

10. These words brought him up to the level of his ancestors and suffered not the glory which fate gave to the Scipios in Africa[5] to lose its continuity. It was a great deed to conquer Carthage, but a greater deed to conquer death. “All is well with the commander!” Ought a general to die otherwise, especially one of Cato’s generals?

11. I shall not refer you to history, or collect examples of those men who throughout the ages have despised death; for they are very many. Consider these times of ours, whose enervation and over-refinement call forth our complaints; they nevertheless will include men of every rank, of every lot in life, and of every age, who have cut short their misfortunes by death. Believe me, Lucilius; death is so little to be feared that through its good offices nothing is to be feared.

12. Therefore, when your enemy threatens, listen unconcernedly. Although your conscience makes you confident, yet, since many things have weight which are outside your case,[6] both hope for that which is utterly just, and prepare yourself against that which is utterly unjust. Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear.

13. What you see happening to boys happens also to ourselves, who are only slightly bigger boys: when those whom they love, with whom they daily associate, with whom they play, appear with masks on, the boys are frightened out of their wits. We should strip the mask, not only from men, but from things, and restore to each object its own aspect.

14. “Why dost thou[7] hold up before my eyes swords, fires, and a throng of executioners raging about thee? Take away all that vain show, behind which thou lurkest and scarest fools! Ah! thou art naught but Death, whom only yesterday a manservant of mine and a maid-servant did despise! Why dost thou again unfold and spread before me, with all that great display, the whip and the rack? Why are those engines of torture made ready, one for each several member of the body, and all the other innumerable machines for tearing a man apart piecemeal? Away with all such stuff, which makes us numb with terror! And thou, silence the groans, the cries, and the bitter shrieks ground out of the victim as he is torn on the rack! Forsooth thou are naught but Pain, scorned by yonder gout-ridden wretch, endured by yonder dyspeptic in the midst of his dainties, borne bravely by the girl in travail. Slight thou art, if I can bear thee; short thou art if I cannot bear thee!”

15. Ponder these words which you have often heard and often uttered. Moreover, prove by the result whether that which you have heard and uttered is true. For there is a very disgraceful charge often brought against our school, – that we deal with the words, and not with the deeds, of philosophy. What, have you only at this moment learned that death is hanging over your head, at this moment exile, at this moment grief? You were born to these perils. Let us think of everything that can happen as something which will happen.

16. I know that you have really done what I advise you to do; I now warn you not to drown your soul in these petty anxieties of yours; if you do, the soul will be dulled and will have too little vigour left when the time comes for it to arise. Remove the mind from this case of yours to the case of men in general. Say to yourself that our petty bodies are mortal and frail; pain can reach them from other sources than from wrong or the might of the stronger. Our pleasures themselves become torments; banquets bring indigestion, carousals paralysis of the muscles and palsy, sensual habits affect the feet, the hands, and every joint of the body.

17. I may become a poor man; I shall then be one among many. I may be exiled; I shall then regard myself as born in the place to which I shall be sent. They may put me in chains. What then? Am I free from bonds now? Behold this clogging burden of a body, to which nature has fettered me! “I shall die,” you say; you mean to say “I shall cease to run the risk of sickness; I shall cease to run the risk of imprisonment; I shall cease to run the risk of death.”

18. I am not so foolish as to go through at this juncture the arguments which Epicurus harps upon, and say that the terrors of the world below are idle, – that Ixion does not whirl round on his wheel, that Sisyphus does not shoulder his stone uphill, that a man’s entrails cannot be restored and devoured every day;[8] no one is so childish as to fear Cerberus, or the shadows, or the spectral garb of those who are held together by naught but their unfleshed bones. Death either annihilates us or strips us bare. If we are then released, there remains the better part, after the burden has been withdrawn; if we are annihilated, nothing remains; good and bad are alike removed.

19. Allow me at this point to quote a verse of yours, first suggesting that, when you wrote it, you meant it for yourself no less than for others. It is ignoble to say one thing and mean another; and how much more ignoble to write one thing and mean another! I remember one day you were handling the well-known commonplace, – that we do not suddenly fall on death, but advance towards it by slight degrees; we die every day.

20. For every day a little of our life is taken from us; even when we are growing, our life is on the wane. We lose our childhood, then our boyhood, and then our youth. Counting even yesterday, all past time is lost time; the very day which we are now spending is shared between ourselves and death. It is not the last drop that empties the water-clock, but all that which previously has flowed out; similarly, the final hour when we cease to exist does not of itself bring death; it merely of itself completes the death-process. We reach death at that moment, but we have been a long time on the way.

21. In describing this situation, you said in your customary, style (for you are always impressive, but never more pungent than when you are putting the truth in appropriate words):

Not single is the death which comes; the death 
Which takes us off is but the last of all.

I prefer that you should read your own words rather than my letter; for then it will be clear to you that this death, of which we are afraid, is the last but not the only death.

22. I see what you are looking for; you are asking what I have packed into my letter, what inspiriting saying from some master-mind, what useful precept. So I shall send you something dealing with this very subject which has been under discussion. Epicurus[9] upbraids those who crave, as much as those who shrink from, death: “It is absurd,” he says, “to run towards death because you are tired of life, when it is your manner of life that has made you run towards death.”

23. And in another passage:[10] “What is so absurd as to seek death, when it is through fear of death that you have robbed your life of peace?” And you may add a third statement, of the same stamp:[11] “Men are so thoughtless, nay, so mad, that some, through fear of death, force themselves to die.”

24. Whichever of these ideas you ponder, you will strengthen your mind for the endurance alike of death and of life. For we need to be warned and strengthened in both directions, – not to love or to hate life overmuch; even when reason advises us to make an end of it, the impulse is not to be adopted without reflection or at headlong speed.

25. The brave and wise man should not beat a hasty retreat from life; he should make a becoming exit. And above all, he should avoid the weakness which has taken possession of so many, – the lust for death. For just as there is an unreflecting tendency of the mind towards other things, so, my dear Lucilius, there is an unreflecting tendency towards death; this often seizes upon the noblest and most spirited men, as well as upon the craven and the abject. The former despise life; the latter find it irksome.

26. Others also are moved by a satiety of doing and seeing the same things, and not so much by a hatred of life as because they are cloyed with it. We slip into this condition, while philosophy itself pushes us on, and we say: “How long must I endure the same things? Shall I continue to wake and sleep, be hungry and be cloyed, shiver and perspire? There is an end to nothing; all things are connected in a sort of circle; they flee and they are pursued. Night is close at the heels of day, day at the heels of night; summer ends in autumn, winter rushes after autumn, and winter softens into spring; all nature in this way passes, only to return. I do nothing new; I see nothing new; sooner or later one sickens of this, also.” There are many who think that living is not painful, but superfluous.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Seneca’s theme is suggested by the fear which possesses Lucilius as to the issue of a lawsuit. This fear is taken as typical of all fears, and Seneca devotes most of his letter to the greatest fear of all, – fear of death.
  2.  The foculus in this version of the story was evidently a movable fire, a brazier.
  3.  The Phaedo on the immortality of the soul.
  4.  i.e., to save and bring back to Rome as prisoner.
  5.  Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal at Zama in 202 B.C. Scipio Aemilianus, also surnamed Africanus, was by adoption the grandson of Hannibal’s conqueror. He captured Carthage in the Third Punic War, 146 B.C. The Scipio mentioned by Seneca died in 46 B.C.
  6.  He refers to the lawsuit, as again in § 16.
  7.  An apostrophe to Death and Pain.
  8.  As mythology describes the treatment of Tityus or of Prometheus.
  9.  Frag. 496 Usener.
  10.  Frag. 498 Usener.
  11.  Frag. 497 Usener.

Letter XXIII. On the True Joy which Comes from Philosophy

Letter 23 discusses the distinction between false and true joy. Seneca begins by telling Lucilius that he wants to write to him about the things that matter, without wasting time talking about the weather or other trivialities that people talk about when they have nothing to say. He then goes straight to the point:

“Do you ask what is the foundation of a sound mind? It is, not to find joy in useless things. I said that it was the foundation; it is really the pinnacle. We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in the control of externals. ” (XXIII, 1-2)

This is his version of the stoic dichotomy of control: we do not control the externals, so it is foolish to deposit our happiness in them. Seneca’s phrase, “I said it was the foundation; it really is the pinnacle,” actually highlights the idea that finding joy in the solidity of one’s own judgments, as opposed to the acquisition of things, is an important goal of stoic training and, indeed, the summit to be reached.

“Above all, my dear Lucilius, make this your business: learn how to feel joy. ” (XXIII, 3)

Normally, we wouldn’t need to learn to feel joy, it’s a natural human emotion. The fact that we have to “learn” how to feel joy, however, is perfectly in accordance with the stoic principle that basic feelings have neutral value and should be evaluated by our power of judgment, which has the ability to give or withdraw consent to such feelings. This seems quite severe, Seneca admits that pleasure is a good thing (in the sense of being a preferred indifferent), but is also warning that pleasure has a tendency to take over, distracting us from more important activities. What should we look for?

“Do you ask me what this real good is, and whence it derives? I will tell you: it comes from a good conscience, from honourable purposes, from right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path. ” (XXIII, 7)

The thing is that many of us take a long time to realize this, and some of us never realize it. That is why Seneca concludes the letter with these remarkable words:

“Some men, indeed, only begin to live when it is time for them to leave off living. … Some men have left off living before they have begun.”(XXIII, 11)

(image: Antoine-François Callet, baroque interpretation of Saturnalia)


XXIII. On the True Joy which Comes from Philosophy

1. Do you suppose that I shall write you how kindly the winter season has dealt with us, – a short season and a mild one, – or what a nasty spring we are having, – cold weather out of season, – and all the other trivialities which people write when they are at a loss for topics of conversation? No; I shall communicate something which may help both you and myself. And what shall this “something” be, if not an exhortation to soundness of mind? Do you ask what is the foundation of a sound mind? It is, not to find joy in useless things. I said that it was the foundation; it is really the pinnacle.

2. We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in the control of externals. The man who is goaded ahead by hope of anything, though it be within reach, though it be easy of access, and though his ambitions have never played him false, is troubled and unsure of himself.

3. Above all, my dear Lucilius, make this your business: learn how to feel joy. Do you think that I am now robbing you of many pleasures when I try to do away with the gifts of chance, when I counsel the avoidance of hope, the sweetest thing that gladdens our hearts? Quite the contrary; I do not wish you ever to be deprived of gladness. I would have it born in your house; and it is born there, if only it be inside of you. Other objects of cheer do not fill a man’s bosom; they merely smooth his brow and are inconstant, – unless perhaps you believe that he who laughs has joy. The very soul must be happy and confident, lifted above every circumstance.

4. Real joy, believe me, is a stern matter. Can one, do you think, despise death with a care-free countenance, or with a “blithe and gay” expression, as our young dandies are accustomed to say? Or can one thus open his door to poverty, or hold the curb on his pleasures, or contemplate the endurance of pain? He who ponders these things[1] in his heart is indeed full of joy; but it is not a cheerful joy. It is just this joy, however, of which I would have you become the owner; for it will never fail you when once you have found its source.

5. The yield of poor mines is on the surface; those are really rich whose veins lurk deep, and they will make more bountiful returns to him who delves unceasingly. So too those baubles which delight the common crowd afford but a thin pleasure, laid on as a coating, and every joy that is only plated lacks a real basis. But the joy of which I speak, that to which I am endeavouring to lead you, is something solid, disclosing itself the more fully as you penetrate into it.

6. Therefore I pray you, my dearest Lucilius, do the one thing that can render you really happy: cast aside and trample under foot all those things that glitter outwardly and are held out to you[2]by another or as obtainable from another; look toward the true good, and rejoice only in that which comes from your own store. And what do I mean by “from your own store”? I mean from your very self, that which is the best part of you. The frail body, also, even though we can accomplish nothing without it, is to be regarded as necessary rather than as important; it involves us in vain pleasures, short-lived, and soon to be regretted, which, unless they are reined in by extreme self-control, will be transformed into the opposite. This is what I mean: pleasure, unless it has been kept within bounds, tends to rush headlong into the abyss of sorrow. But it is hard to keep within bounds in that which you believe to be good. The real good may be coveted with safety.

7. Do you ask me what this real good is, and whence it derives? I will tell you: it comes from a good conscience, from honourable purposes, from right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path. For men who leap from one purpose to another, or do not even leap but are carried over by a sort of hazard, – how can such wavering and unstable persons possess any good that is fixed and lasting?

8. There are only a few who control themselves and their affairs by a guiding purpose; the rest do not proceed; they are merely swept along, like objects afloat in a river. And of these objects, some are held back by sluggish waters and are transported gently; others are torn along by a more violent current; some, which are nearest the bank, are left there as the current slackens; and others are carried out to sea by the onrush of the stream. Therefore, we should decide what we wish, and abide by the decision.

9. Now is the time for me to pay my debt. I can give you a saying of your friend Epicurus[3] and thus clear this letter of its obligation: “It is bothersome always to be beginning life.” Or another, which will perhaps express the meaning better: “They live ill who are always beginning to live.”

10. You are right in asking why; the saying certainly stands in need of a commentary. It is because the life of such persons is always incomplete. But a man cannot stand prepared for the approach of death if he has just begun to live. We must make it our aim already to have lived long enough. No one deems that he has done so, if he is just on the point of planning his life.

11. You need not think that there are few of this kind; practically everyone is of such a stamp. Some men, indeed, only begin to live when it is time for them to leave off living. And if this seems surprising to you, I shall add that which will surprise you still more: Some men have left off living before they have begun.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Death, poverty, temptation, and suffering.
  2.  By the various sects which professed to teach how happiness is to be obtained.
  3.  Frag. 493 Usener.