Letter XL. On the Proper Style for a Philosopher’s Discourse

In letter 40, the continuation a previous one, is discussed how should be the speech of a philosopher. It is a practical letter, with a clear precept on how to behave. According to Seneca, a philosopher must be serene and well-ordered when speaking; his communication must be simple and without artifice.

Therefore, mark my words; that forceful manner of speech, rapid and copious, is more suited to a mountebank than to a man who is discussing and teaching an important and serious subject. But I object just as strongly that he should drip out his words as that he should go at top speed; he should neither keep the ear on the stretch, nor deafen it. For that poverty-stricken and thin-spun style also makes the audience less attentive because they are weary of its stammering slowness; nevertheless, the word which has been long awaited sinks in more easily than the word which flits past us on the wing. Finally, people speak of “handing down” precepts to their pupils; but one is not “handing down” that which eludes the grasp. (XL, 3-4)

Following, Sêneca compares various styles of famous speakers and situations where the speaker should be more or less eloquent. He ends the letter reinforcing the initial argument:

Therefore, the ultimate kernel of my remarks is this: I bid you be slow of speech.” (XL, 14)

(Illustration, Cicero Denounces Catilina, by Cesare Maccari )


XL. On the Proper Style for a Philosopher’s Discourse

1. I thank you for writing to me so often; for you are revealing your real self to me in the only way you can. I never receive a letter from you without being in your company forthwith. If the pictures of our absent friends are pleasing to us, though they only refresh the memory and lighten our longing by a solace that is unreal and unsubstantial, how much more pleasant is a letter, which brings us real traces, real evidences, of an absent friend! For that which is sweetest when we meet face to face is afforded by the impress of a friend’s hand upon his letter, – recognition.

2. You write me that you heard a lecture by the philosopher Serapio,[1] when he landed at your present place of residence. “He is wont,” you say, “to wrench up his words with a mighty rush, and he does not let them flow forth one by one, but makes them crowd and dash upon each other.[2] For the words come in such quantity that a single voice is inadequate to utter them.” I do not approve of this in a philosopher; his speech, like his life, should be composed; and nothing that rushes headlong and is hurried is well ordered. That is why, in Homer, the rapid style, which sweeps down without a break like a snow-squall, is assigned to the younger speaker; from the old man eloquence flows gently, sweeter than honey.[3]

3. Therefore, mark my words; that forceful manner of speech, rapid and copious, is more suited to a mountebank than to a man who is discussing and teaching an important and serious subject. But I object just as strongly that he should drip out his words as that he should go at top speed; he should neither keep the ear on the stretch, nor deafen it. For that poverty-stricken and thin-spun style also makes the audience less attentive because they are weary of its stammering slowness; nevertheless, the word which has been long awaited sinks in more easily than the word which flits past us on the wing. Finally, people speak of “handing down” precepts to their pupils; but one is not “handing down” that which eludes the grasp.

4. Besides, speech that deals with the truth should be unadorned and plain. This popular style has nothing to do with the truth; its aim is to impress the common herd, to ravish heedless ears by its speed; it does not offer itself for discussion, but snatches itself away from discussion. But how can that speech govern others which cannot itself be governed? May I not also remark that all speech which is employed for the purpose of healing our minds, ought to sink into us? Remedies do not avail unless they remain in the system.

5. Besides, this sort of speech contains a great deal of sheer emptiness; it has more sound than power. My terrors should be quieted, my irritations soothed, my illusions shaken off, my indulgences checked, my greed rebuked. And which of these cures can be brought about in a hurry? What physician can heal his patient on a flying visit? May I add that such a jargon of confused and ill-chosen words cannot afford pleasure, either?

6. No; but just as you are well satisfied, in the majority of cases, to have seen through tricks which you did not think could possibly be done,[4] so in the case of these word-gymnasts, – to have heard them once is amply sufficient. For what can a man desire to learn or to imitate in them? What is he to think of their souls, when their speech is sent into the charge in utter disorder, and cannot be kept in hand?

7. Just as, when you run down hill, you cannot stop at the point where you had decided to stop, but your steps are carried along by the momentum of your body and are borne beyond the place where you wished to halt; so this speed of speech has no control over itself, nor is it seemly for philosophy; since philosophy should carefully place her words, not fling them out, and should proceed step by step.

8. “What then?” you say; “should not philosophy sometimes take a loftier tone?” Of course she should; but dignity of character should be preserved, and this is stripped away by such violent and excessive force. Let philosophy possess great forces, but kept well under control; let her stream flow unceasingly, but never become a torrent. And I should hardly allow even to an orator a rapidity of speech like this, which cannot be called back, which goes lawlessly ahead; for how could it be followed by jurors, who are often inexperienced and untrained? Even when the orator is carried away by his desire to show off his powers, or by uncontrollable emotion, even then he should not quicken his pace and heap up words to an extent greater than the ear can endure.

9. You will be acting rightly, therefore, if you do not regard those men who seek how much they may say, rather than how they shall say it, and if for yourself you choose, provided a choice must be made, to speak as Publius Vinicius the stammerer does. When Asellius was asked how Vinicius spoke, he replied: “Gradually”! (It was a remark of Geminus Varius, by the way: “I don’t see how you can call that man ‘eloquent’; why, he can’t get out three words together.”) Why, then, should you not choose to speak as Vinicius does?

10. Though of course some wag may cross your path, like the person who said, when Vinicius was dragging out his words one by one, as if he were dictating and not speaking. “Say, haven’t you anything to say?” And yet that were the better choice, for the rapidity of Quintus Haterius, the most famous orator of his age, is, in my opinion, to be avoided by a man of sense. Haterius never hesitated, never paused; he made only one start, and only one stop.

11. However, I suppose that certain styles of speech are more or less suitable to nations also; in a Greek you can put up with the unrestrained style, but we Romans, even when writing, have become accustomed to separate our words.[5] And our compatriot Cicero, with whom Roman oratory sprang into prominence, was also a slow pacer.[6] The Roman language is more inclined to take stock of itself, to weigh, and to offer something worth weighing.

12. Fabianus, a man noteworthy because of his life, his knowledge, and, less important than either of these, his eloquence also, used to discuss a subject with dispatch rather than with haste; hence you might call it ease rather than speed. I approve this quality in the wise man; but I do not demand it; only let his speech proceed unhampered, though I prefer that it should be deliberately uttered rather than spouted.

13. However, I have this further reason for frightening you away from the latter malady, namely, that you could only be successful in practising this style by losing your sense of modesty; you would have to rub all shame from your countenance,[7] and refuse to hear yourself speak. For that heedless flow will carry with it many expressions which you would wish to criticize.

14. And, I repeat, you could not attain it and at the same time preserve your sense of shame. Moreover, you would need to practise every day, and transfer your attention from subject matter to words. But words, even if they came to you readily and flowed without any exertion on your part, yet would have to be kept under control. For just as a less ostentatious gait becomes a philosopher, so does a restrained style of speech, far removed from boldness. Therefore, the ultimate kernel of my remarks is this: I bid you be slow of speech.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  This person cannot be identified.
  2.  The explanation of Professor Summers seems sound, that the metaphor is taken from a mountain-torrent. Compare the description of Cratinus’ style in Aristophanes, Ach. 526, or that of Pindar in Horace, Od. iv. 2. 5 ff.
  3.  Iliad, iii. 222 (Odysseus), and i. 249 (Nestor).
  4.  Seneca’s phrase, quae fieri posse non crederes, has been interpreted as a definition of παράδοξα. It is more probable, however, that he is comparing with the juggler’s tricks the verbal performances of certain lecturers, whose jargon one marvels at but does not care to hear again.
  5.  The Greek texts were still written without separation of the words, in contrast with the Roman.
  6.  Gradarius may be contrasted with tolutarius, “trotter.” The word might also mean one who walks with dignified step, as in a religious procession.
  7.  Cf. Martial, xi. 27. 7 aut cum perfricuit frontem posuitque pudorem. After a violent rubbing, the face would not show blushes.

Letter XXXIX. On Noble Aspirations

How does a request for philosophical notations lead to a description of the process of moral depravity caused by success? Lucilius asks for a breviarium, that is, a summary of the philosophy, but Seneca sends him a sumarium, that is, a list of authors that he must read in its entirety.

The core of the stoic philosophy is not about learning theories, but about a desire to imitate the good philosophers. The desire is fundamental to this letter:

You will desire eagerly to be one of them yourself. For this is the most excellent quality that the noble soul has within itself, that it can be roused to honourable things. No man of exalted gifts is pleased with that which is low and mean.” (XXXIX, 2)

Seneca exposes stoic visions about excess and pleasures. The stoics believed that excessive and irrational passions or impulses were, or arose from, false judgment. A wise man, that is, a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection, would not experience them for long, because he would have eliminated all false beliefs.

The concern with the risks of success and prosperity was common at the time, but it is not a concern that attracts much attention today. Seneca criticizes ideas about wealth that are still common today. These ideas value material abundance and, as Seneca says of luxury, economic growth has become an end in itself. The system works by increasing consumption. However, the problems this system causes cannot be solved by economic means, but by a change in attitude, however unlikely it is. Seneca advocates:

Utility measures our needs; but by what standard can you check the superfluous? It is for this reason that men sink themselves in pleasures, and they cannot do without them when once they have become accustomed to them, and for this reason they are most wretched, because they have reached such a pass that what was once superfluous to them has become indispensable. And so they are the slaves of their pleasures instead of enjoying them;” (XXXIX, 6)

Image: Benedictine Breviary of the 15th century


XXXIX. On Noble Aspirations

1. I shall indeed arrange for you, in careful order and narrow compass, the notes which you request. But consider whether you may not get more help from the customary method[1] than from that which is now commonly called a “breviary,” though in the good old days, when real Latin was spoken, it was called a “summary.”[2] The former is more necessary to one who is learning a subject, the latter to one who knows it. For the one teaches, the other stirs the memory. But I shall give you abundant opportunity for both.[3] A man like you should not ask me for this authority or that; he who furnishes a voucher for his statements argues himself unknown. 

2. I shall therefore write exactly what you wish, but I shall do it in my own way; until then, you have many authors whose works will presumably keep your ideas sufficiently in order. Pick up the list of the philosophers; that very act will compel you to wake up, when you see how many men have been working for your benefit. You will desire eagerly to be one of them yourself. For this is the most excellent quality that the noble soul has within itself, that it can be roused to honourable things. No man of exalted gifts is pleased with that which is low and mean; the vision of great achievement summons him and uplifts him. 

3. Just as the flame springs straight into the air and cannot be cabined or kept down any more than it can repose in quiet, so our soul is always in motion, and the more ardent it is, the greater its motion and activity. But happy is the man who has given it this impulse toward better things! He will place himself beyond the jurisdiction of chance; he will wisely control prosperity; he will lessen adversity, and will despise what others hold in admiration. 

4. It is the quality of a great soul to scorn great things and to prefer that which is ordinary rather than that which is too great. For the one condition is useful and life-giving; but the other does harm just because it is excessive. Similarly, too rich a soil makes the grain fall flat, branches break down under too heavy a load, excessive productiveness does not bring fruit to ripeness. This is the case with the soul also; for it is ruined by uncontrolled prosperity, which is used not only to the detriment of others, but also to the detriment of itself. 

5. What enemy was ever so insolent to any opponent as are their pleasures to certain men? The only excuse that we can allow for the incontinence and mad lust of these men is the fact that they suffer the evils which they have inflicted upon others. And they are rightly harassed by this madness, because desire must have unbounded space for its excursions, if it transgresses nature’s mean. For this has its bounds, but waywardness and the acts that spring from wilful lust are without boundaries. 

6. Utility measures our needs; but by what standard can you check the superfluous? It is for this reason that men sink themselves in pleasures, and they cannot do without them when once they have become accustomed to them, and for this reason they are most wretched, because they have reached such a pass that what was once superfluous to them has become indispensable. And so they are the slaves of their pleasures instead of enjoying them; they even love their own ills,[4] – and that is the worst ill of all! Then it is that the height of unhappiness is reached, when men are not only attracted, but even pleased, by shameful things, and when there is no longer any room for a cure, now that those things which once were vices have become habits. Farewell.

Footnotes

  1.  The regular method of studying philosophy was, as we infer from this letter, a course of reading in the philosophers. Seneca deprecates the use of the “cram” which is only a memory-help, as a substitute for reading, on the ground that by its use one does not, in the first place, learn the subject, and, in the second place and chiefly, that one loses the inspiration to be derived by direct contact with great thinkers. The request of Lucilius for a cram thus suggests the main topic of the letter, which is taken up in the second paragraph.
  2.  i.e., the word breviarium, “abridgment,” “abstract,” has displaced the better word summarium, “outline of chief points.”
  3.  i.e., to do the reading and to review it by means of the summary. The reading will enable Lucilius to identify for himself the authors of the several passages or doctrines.
  4.  i.e., their pleasures. These ills, by being cultivated, become vices.

Letter XXXVIII. On Quiet Conversation

This letter is very short. The use of text as a teaching medium contrasts Seneca with two of his contemporaries. It is known that Epictetus and Musonius did not write books, but delivered speeches that were recorded by others.

He states that oratory is useful for attracting students, but not for instructing them:
when the aim is to make a man learn, and not merely to make him wish to learn, we must have recourse to the low-toned words of conversation. They enter more easily, and stick in the memory; for we do not need many words, but, rather, effective words.” (XXXVIII,1)

In the second half, Seneca responds indirectly to Plato’s criticism of the written word. He makes use of the image of the teacher as a sower. He first compares words to seeds, then to reason and finally to precepts. Seeds must find a suitable soil in the listener’s mind, they have their own power (you see them) and grow from something small to something big. In fact, in a good mind, they will return more than was invested. Seneca repeatedly says that he is a sower. Seeds must find a suitable soil in the listener’s mind, have their own power and grow from something small to something big.

In fact, in a good mind, they will return more than was invested.

Sêneca repeatedly emphasizes that not many words are necessary, only effective ones, and he reinforces this argument through the short nature of the letter itself.

(image: Cicero denounces Catilina by Cesare Maccari. Cicero was famous for his oratory)


XXXVIII. On Quiet Conversation

1. You are right when you urge that we increase our mutual traffic in letters. But the greatest benefit is to be derived from conversation, because it creeps by degrees into the soul. Lectures prepared beforehand and spouted in the presence of a throng have in them more noise but less intimacy. Philosophy is good advice; and no one can give advice at the top of his lungs. Of course we must sometimes also make use of these harangues, if I may so call them, when a doubting member needs to be spurred on; but when the aim is to make a man learn, and not merely to make him wish to learn, we must have recourse to the low-toned words of conversation. They enter more easily, and stick in the memory; for we do not need many words, but, rather, effective words.

2. Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it has once found favourable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth. Reason grows in the same way; it is not large to the outward view, but increases as it does its work. Few words are spoken; but if the mind has truly caught them, they come into their strength and spring up. Yes, precepts and seeds have the same quality; they produce much, and yet they are slight things. Only, as I said, let a favourable mind receive and assimilate them. Then of itself the mind also will produce bounteously in its turn, giving back more than it has received. Farewell.

Letter XXXVII. On Allegiance to Virtue

In letter 37 Seneca tries to persuade the reader to persevere in the study of philosophy by an emotional element, comparing the disciple to a soldier who enlists voluntarily.
Lucilius must see himself as a soldier fighting for freedom, fighting against the passions. As a philosopher, he enlisted not only to face death, but to do so willingly and with pleasure, without hope of remission:

The gladiator may lower his weapon and test the pity of the people; but you will neither lower your weapon nor beg for life. You must die erect and unyielding. Moreover, what profit is it to gain a few days or a few years? There is no discharge for us from the moment we are born.“(XXXVII, 2)

Seneca concludes the letter stating that wisdom and reason is the way to freedom and happiness:

put yourself under the control of reason; if reason becomes your ruler, you will become ruler over many.”

It is disgraceful, instead of proceeding ahead, to be carried along, and then suddenly, amid the whirlpool of events, to ask in a dazed way: ‘How did I get into this condition?’” (XXXVII, 4 -5)

image: Pollice Verso  (thumb down) – by Jean-Léon Gérôme.


XXXVII. On Allegiance to Virtue

1. You have promised to be a good man; you have enlisted under oath; that is the strongest chain which will hold you to a sound understanding. Any man will be but mocking you, if he declares that this is an effeminate and easy kind of soldiering. I will not have you deceived. The words of this most honourable compact are the same as the words of that most disgraceful one, to wit:[1] “Through burning, imprisonment, or death by the sword.”

2. From the men who hire out their strength for the arena, who eat and drink what they must pay for with their blood, security is taken that they will endure such trials even though they be unwilling; from you, that you will endure them willingly and with alacrity. The gladiator may lower his weapon and test the pity of the people;[2] but you will neither lower your weapon nor beg for life. You must die erect and unyielding. Moreover, what profit is it to gain a few days or a few years? There is no discharge for us from the moment we are born.

3. “Then how can I free myself?” you ask. You cannot escape necessities, but you can overcome them.

By force a way is made.[3]

And this way will be afforded you by philosophy. Betake yourself therefore to philosophy if you would be safe, untroubled, happy, in fine, if you wish to be, – and that is most important, – free. There is no other way to attain this end.

4. Folly[4] is low, abject, mean, slavish, and exposed to many of the cruellest passions. These passions, which are heavy taskmasters, sometimes ruling by turns, and sometimes together, can be banished from you by wisdom, which is the only real freedom. There is but one path leading thither, and it is a straight path; you will not go astray. Proceed with steady step, and if you would have all things under your control, put yourself under the control of reason; if reason becomes your ruler, you will become ruler over many. You will learn from her what you should undertake, and how it should be done; you will not blunder into things.

5. You can show me no man who knows how he began to crave that which he craves. He has not been led to that pass by forethought; he has been driven to it by impulse. Fortune attacks us as often as we attack Fortune. It is disgraceful, instead of proceeding ahead, to be carried along, and then suddenly, amid the whirlpool of events, to ask in a dazed way: “How did I get into this condition?”

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  He refers to the famous oath which the gladiator took when he hired himself to the fighting-master; uri, vinciri, verberari, ferroque necari patior; cf. Petronius, Sat. 117. The oath is abbreviated in the text, probably by Seneca himself, who paraphrases it in Ep. lxxi. 23.
  2.  Awaiting the signal of “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” Cf. Juvenal, iii. 36 verso pollice, vulgus Quem iubet occidunt populariter.
  3.  Vergil, Aeneid, ii. 494.
  4.  In the language of Stoicism, ἀμαθία, stultitia, “folly,” is the antithesis of σοφία, sapientia, “wisdom.”

Letter XXXVI. On the Value of Retirement

In letter 36 Seneca discusses the advantages of being away from business and public life, for what he calls “Otium” an abstract term in Latin, which has a variety of meanings, including the leisure time a person can spend eating, playing, resting, in contemplation or in academic efforts.

Seneca establishes an antithesis at the beginning of the letter between popular success (felicitas), which would be success in the public career, and a life of retirement (otium) being the latter the ideal life. Success is unstable, since it is under Fortuna’s control. Moreover, its effect on those who receive it is not healthy:

Prosperity is a turbulent thing; it torments itself. It stirs the brain in more ways than one, goading men on to various aims, – some to power, and others to high living. Some it puffs up; others it slackens and wholly enervates“. (XXXVI, 1)

The choice between public life and retirement was an important theme for ancient philosophers, about which Seneca wrote with the experience of both styles of life. It is a topic that he presents in several of his dialogues and letters, including Letter VIII, already commented on on the site.

Retirement is closely linked to Seneca’s true success. Theoretically, the internal state of “happy life” is possible, regardless of external circumstances. In practice, however, retirement is a great help to philosophical progress due to the distance of the harmful influence of the mob.

For Seneca, a Happy Life consists of two qualities: Peace of Mind and Freedom from Fear (securitas et perpetua tranquillitas). Retirement is a great help in achieving peace of mind. Freedom from Fear is achieved by accepting death, the theme of the second half of the letter.

From Section 8 Seneca offers a scientific perspective on death:

To what, then, shall this friend of yours devote his attention? I say, let him learn that which is helpful against all weapons, against every kind of foe, – contempt of death” (XXXVI, 8)

He concludes the letter with a strong analogy, showing that it is not rational to fear death:

Infants, and boys, and those who have gone mad, have no fear of death, and it is most shameful if reason cannot afford us that peace of mind to which they have been brought by their folly.” (XXXVI, 12)

(image: Allegory of Fortune, by Salvator Rosa)


XXXVI. On the Value of Retirement

1. Encourage your friend to despise stout-heartedly those who upbraid him because he has sought the shade of retirement and has abdicated his career of honours, and, though he might have attained more, has preferred tranquillity to them all. Let him prove daily to these detractors how wisely he has looked out for his own interests. Those whom men envy will continue to march past him; some will be pushed out of the ranks, and others will fall. Prosperity is a turbulent thing; it torments itself. It stirs the brain in more ways than one, goading men on to various aims, – some to power, and others to high living. Some it puffs up; others it slackens and wholly enervates.

2. “But,” the retort comes, “so-and-so carries his prosperity well.” Yes; just as he carries his liquor. So you need not let this class of men persuade you that one who is besieged by the crowd is happy; they run to him as crowds rush for a pool of water, rendering it muddy while they drain it. But you say: “Men call our friend a trifler and a sluggard.” There are men, you know, whose speech is awry, who use the contrary[1] terms. They called him happy; what of it? Was he happy?

3. Even the fact that to certain persons he seems a man of a very rough and gloomy cast of mind, does not trouble me. Aristo[2] used to say that he preferred a youth of stern disposition to one who was a jolly fellow and agreeable to the crowd. “For,” he added, “wine which, when new, seemed harsh and sour, becomes good wine; but that which tasted well at the vintage cannot stand age.” So let them call him stern and a foe to his own advancement. It is just this sternness that will go well when it is aged, provided only that he continues to cherish virtue and to absorb thoroughly the studies which make for culture, – not those with which it is sufficient for a man to sprinkle himself, but those in which the mind should be steeped.

4. Now is the time to learn. “What? Is there any time when a man should not learn?” By no means; but just as it is creditable for every age to study, so it is not creditable for every age to be instructed. An old man learning his A B C is a disgraceful and absurd object; the young man must store up, the old man must use. You will therefore be doing a thing most helpful to yourself if you make this friend of yours as good a man as possible; those kindnesses, they tell us, are to be both sought for and bestowed, which benefit the giver no less than the receiver; and they are unquestionably the best kind.

5. Finally, he has no longer any freedom in the matter; he has pledged his word. And it is less disgraceful to compound with a creditor than to compound with a promising future. To pay his debt of money, the business man must have a prosperous voyage, the farmer must have fruitful fields and kindly weather; but the debt which your friend owes can be completely paid by mere goodwill.

6. Fortune has no jurisdiction over character. Let him so regulate his character that in perfect peace he may bring to perfection that spirit within him which feels neither loss nor gain, but remains in the same attitude, no matter how things fall out. A spirit like this, if it is heaped with worldly goods, rises superior to its wealth; if, on the other hand, chance has stripped him of a part of his wealth, or even all, it is not impaired.

7. If your friend had been born in Parthia, he would have begun, when a child, to bend the bow; if in Germany, he would forthwith have been brandishing his slender spear; if he had been born in the days of our forefathers, he would have learned to ride a horse and smite his enemy hand to hand. These are the occupations which the system of each race recommends to the individual, – yes, prescribes for him.

8. To what, then, shall this friend[3] of yours devote his attention? I say, let him learn that which is helpful against all weapons, against every kind of foe, – contempt of death; because no one doubts that death has in it something that inspires terror, so that it shocks even our souls, which nature has so moulded that they love their own existence; for otherwise[4] there would be no need to prepare ourselves, and to whet our courage, to face that towards which we should move with a sort of voluntary instinct, precisely as all men tend to preserve their existence.

9. No man learns a thing in order that, if necessity arises, he may lie down with composure upon a bed of roses; but he steels his courage to this end, – that he may not surrender his plighted faith to torture, and that, if need be, he may some day stay out his watch in the trenches, even though wounded, without even leaning on his spear; because sleep is likely to creep over men who support themselves by any prop whatsoever. In death there is nothing harmful; for there must exist something to which it is harmful.[5]

10. And yet, if you are possessed by so great a craving for a longer life, reflect that none of the objects which vanish from our gaze and are re-absorbed into the world of things, from which they have come forth and are soon to come forth again, is annihilated; they merely end their course and do not perish. And death, which we fear and shrink from, merely interrupts life, but does not steal it away; the time will return when we shall be restored to the light of day; and many men would object to this, were they not brought back in forgetfulness of the past.

11. But I mean to show you later,[6] with more care, that everything which seems to perish merely changes. Since you are destined to return, you ought to depart with a tranquil mind. Mark how the round of the universe repeats its course; you will see that no star in our firmament is extinguished, but that they all set and rise in alternation. Summer has gone, but another year will bring it again; winter lies low, but will be restored by its own proper months; night has overwhelmed the sun, but day will soon rout the night again. The wandering stars retrace their former courses; a part of the sky is rising unceasingly, and a part is sinking.

12. One word more, and then I shall stop; infants, and boys, and those who have gone mad, have no fear of death, and it is most shameful if reason cannot afford us that peace of mind to which they have been brought by their folly.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  i.e., they are no more correct now, when they called him a trifler, than they were before, when they called him happy.
  2.  Aristo of Chios, Frag. 388 von Armin.
  3.  As a Roman, living in an age when philosophy was recommended and prescribed.
  4.  i.e., if death inspired no terror.
  5.  And since after death we do not exist, death cannot be harmful to us. Seneca has in mind the argument of Epicurus (Diogenes Laertius, x. 124-5): “Therefore the most dread-inspiring of all evils, death, is nothing to us; for when we exist; death is not present in us, and when death is present, then we do not exist. Therefore it does not concern either the living or the dead; for to the living it has no existence, and the dead do not themselves exist.” Lucretius uses this argument, concluding it with (iii. 830): Nil igitur mors est ad nos neque pertinet hilum.
  6.  For example, in Ep. lxxvii.

Letter XXXV. On the Friendship of Kindred Minds

In the short letter 35 Seneca discusses the relationship between love and true friendship.

The message is especially important for those who have children, as we can already notice in the first paragraph:

… a friend loves you, of course; but one who loves you is not in every case your friend. Friendship, accordingly, is always helpful, but love sometimes even does harm. Try to perfect yourself, if for no other reason, in order that you may learn how to love“. (XXXV, 1)

According to Seneca, perfect love is one in which all selfishness is removed, becoming equal to true friendship. He concludes the letter by reminding us that constancy of mind is a sign of wisdom:

A shifting of the will indicates that the mind is at sea, heading in various directions, according to the course of the wind. But that which is settled and solid does not wander from its place“. (XXXV, 4)

(Image: Cornelia, by Joseph-Benoît Suvée, Louvre. Cornelia is remembered as a prototypical example of a virtuous Roman woman. She was the mother of the Gracchi brothers, and the mother-in-law of Scipio Aemilianus.)


XXXV. On the Friendship of Kindred Minds

1. When I urge you so strongly to your studies, it is my own interest which I am consulting; I want your friendship, and it cannot fall to my lot unless you proceed, as you have begun, with the task of developing yourself. For now, although you love me, you are not yet my friend. “But,” you reply, “are these words of different meaning?” Nay, more, they are totally unlike in meaning.[1] A friend loves you, of course; but one who loves you is not in every case your friend. Friendship, accordingly, is always helpful, but love sometimes even does harm. Try to perfect yourself, if for no other reason, in order that you may learn how to love.

2. Hasten, therefore, in order that, while thus perfecting yourself for my benefit, you may not have learned perfection for the benefit of another. To be sure, I am already deriving some profit by imagining that we two shall be of one mind, and that whatever portion of my strength has yielded to age will return to me from your strength, although there is not so very much difference in our ages.

3. But yet I wish to rejoice in the accomplished fact. We feel a joy over those whom we love, even when separated from them, but such a joy is light and fleeting; the sight of a man, and his presence, and communion with him, afford something of living pleasure; this is true, at any rate, if one not only sees the man one desires, but the sort of man one desires. Give yourself to me, therefore, as a gift of great price, and, that you may strive the more, reflect that you yourself are mortal, and that I am old.

4. Hasten to find me, but hasten to find yourself first. Make progress, and, before all else, endeavour to be consistent with yourself. And when you would find out whether you have accomplished anything, consider whether you desire the same things to-day that you desired yesterday. A shifting of the will indicates that the mind is at sea, heading in various directions, according to the course of the wind. But that which is settled and solid does not wander from its place. This is the blessed lot of the completely wise man, and also, to a certain extent, of him who is progressing and has made some headway. Now what is the difference between these two classes of men? The one is in motion, to be sure, but does not change its position; it merely tosses up and down where it is; the other is not in motion at all.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  The question of Lucilius represents the popular view, which regards love as including friendship. But according to Seneca it is only the perfect love, from which all selfishness has been removed, that becomes identical with friendship.

Letter: XXXIV. On a Promising Pupil

In letter 34 Sêneca talks about the joy that a good student provides to his master. It is a short letter, but accurate and deep. In ethical and moral matters, Seneca asserts that the desire to be righteous is practically enough:

A task once begun is half done.” It is more than half, for the matter of which we speak is determined by the soul. Hence it is that the larger part of goodness is the will to become good.” (XXXIV, 3)

The letter is closed with a strong sentence:

If a man’s acts are out of harmony, his soul is crooked.
(XXXIV, 4)

(Image: Master and his pupils by Daniel Huntington)


XXXIV. On a Promising Pupil

1. I grow in spirit and leap for joy and shake off my years and my blood runs warm again, whenever I understand, from your actions and your letters, how far you have outdone yourself; for as to the ordinary man, you left him in the rear long ago. If the farmer is pleased when his tree develops so that it bears fruit, if the shepherd takes pleasure in the increase of his flocks, if every man regards his pupil as though he discerned in him his own early manhood, – what, then, do you think are the feelings of those who have trained a mind and moulded a young idea, when they see it suddenly grown to maturity?

2. I claim you for myself; you are my handiwork. When I saw your abilities, I laid my hand upon you,[1] I exhorted you, I applied the goad and did not permit you to march lazily, but roused you continually. And now I do the same; but by this time I am cheering on one who is in the race and so in turn cheers me on.

3. “What else do you want of me, then?” you ask; “the will is still mine.” Well, the will in this case is almost everything, and not merely the half, as in the proverb “A task once begun is half done.” It is more than half, for the matter of which we speak is determined by the soul.[2] Hence it is that the larger part of goodness is the will to become good. You know what I mean by a good man? One who is complete, finished, – whom no constraint or need can render bad.

4. I see such a person in you, if only you go steadily on and bend to your task, and see to it that all your actions and words harmonize and correspond with each other and are stamped in the same mould. If a man’s acts are out of harmony, his soul is crooked.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  A reference to the act (iniectio) by which a Roman took possession of a thing belonging to him, e.g., a runaway slave, – without a decision of the court
  2.  i.e., the proverb may apply to tasks which a man performs with his hands, but it is an understatement when applied to the tasks of the soul.

Letter XXXIII. On the Futility of Learning Maxims

In letter 33 Seneca addresses our responsibility regarding the legacy we shall leave. It prescribes a thorough study of the wisdom of our distinguished ancestors:

For this reason, give over hoping that you can skim, by means of epitomes, the wisdom of distinguished men. Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole. Examine the separate parts, if you like, provided you examine them as parts of the man himself. She is not a beautiful woman whose ankle or arm is praised, but she whose general appearance makes you forget to admire her single attributes.” (XXXIII,5)

However, after a certain point, we must ourselves create new knowledge, using as a foundation the knowledge acquired from renowned masters:

But what is your own opinion? How long shall you march under another man’s orders? Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember. Put forth something from your own stock“. (XXXIII,7)

I very much like the last section, which represents the synthesis of the conservative thought, that is, we must broaden and improve society by always preserving the fundamental traditions:

What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.” (XXXIII,11)

(image: La Tache noire by Albert Bettannier)


XXXIII. On the Futility of Learning Maxims

1. You wish me to close these letters also, as I closed my former letters, with certain utterances taken from the chiefs of our school. But they did not interest themselves in choice extracts; the whole texture of their work is full of strength. There is unevenness, you know, when some objects rise conspicuous above others. A single tree is not remarkable if the whole forest rises to the same height.

2. Poetry is crammed with utterances of this sort, and so is history. For this reason I would not have you think that these utterances belong to Epicurus: they are common property and are emphatically our own.[1]They are, however, more noteworthy in Epicurus, because they appear at infrequent intervals and when you do not expect them, and because it is surprising that brave words should be spoken at any time by a man who made a practice of being effeminate. For that is what most persons maintain. In my own opinion, however, Epicurus is really a brave man, even though he did wear long sleeves.[2] Fortitude, energy, and readiness for battle are to be found among the Persians,[3] just as much as among men who have girded themselves up high.

3. Therefore, you need not call upon me for extracts and quotations; such thoughts as one may extract here and there in the works of other philosophers run through the whole body of our writings. Hence we have no “show-window goods,” nor do we deceive the purchaser in such a way that, if he enters our shop, he will find nothing except that which is displayed in the window. We allow the purchasers themselves to get their samples from anywhere they please.

4. Suppose we should desire to sort out each separate motto from the general stock; to whom shall we credit them? To Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Panaetius, or Posidonius? We Stoics are not subjects of a despot: each of us lays claim to his own freedom. With them,[4] on the other hand, whatever Hermarchus says, or Metrodorus, is ascribed to one source. In that brotherhood, everything that any man utters is spoken under the leadership and commanding authority [5] of one alone. We cannot, I maintain, no matter how we try, pick out anything from so great a multitude of things equally good.

Only the poor man counts his flock.[6]

Wherever you direct your gaze, you will meet with something that might stand out from the rest, if the context in which you read it were not equally notable.

5. For this reason, give over hoping that you can skim, by means of epitomes, the wisdom of distinguished men. Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole. Examine the separate parts, if you like, provided you examine them as parts of the man himself. She is not a beautiful woman whose ankle or arm is praised, but she whose general appearance makes you forget to admire her single attributes.

6. If you insist, however, I shall not be niggardly with you, but lavish; for there is a huge multitude of these passages; they are scattered about in profusion, – they do not need to be gathered together, but merely to be picked up. They do not drip forth occasionally; they flow continuously. They are unbroken and are closely connected. Doubtless they would be of much benefit to those who are still novices and worshipping outside the shrine; for single maxims sink in more easily when they are marked off and bounded like a line of verse.

7. That is why we give to children a proverb, or that which the Greeks call Chria,[7] to be learned by heart; that sort of thing can be comprehended by the young mind, which cannot as yet hold more. For a man, however, whose progress is definite, to chase after choice extracts and to prop his weakness by the best known and the briefest sayings and to depend upon his memory, is disgraceful; it is time for him to lean on himself. He should make such maxims and not memorize them. For it is disgraceful even for an old man, or one who has sighted old age, to have a note-book knowledge. “This is what Zeno said.” But what have you yourself said? “This is the opinion of Cleanthes.” But what is your own opinion? How long shall you march under another man’s orders? Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember. Put forth something from your own stock.

8. For this reason I hold that there is nothing of eminence in all such men as these, who never create anything themselves, but always lurk in the shadow of others, playing the rôle of interpreters, never daring to put once into practice what they have been so long in learning. They have exercised their memories on other men’s material. But it is one thing to remember, another to know. Remembering is merely safeguarding something entrusted to the memory; knowing, however, means making everything your own; it means not depending upon the copy and not all the time glancing back at the master.

9. “Thus said Zeno, thus said Cleanthes, indeed!” Let there be a difference between yourself and your book! How long shall you be a learner? From now on be a teacher as well! “But why,” one asks,[8] “should I have to continue hearing lectures on what I can read?” “The living voice,” one replies, “is a great help.” Perhaps, but not the voice which merely makes itself the mouthpiece of another’s words, and only performs the duty of a reporter.

10. Consider this fact also. Those who have never attained their mental independence begin, in the first place, by following the leader in cases where everyone has deserted the leader; then, in the second place, they follow him in matters where the truth is still being investigated. However, the truth will never be discovered if we rest contented with discoveries already made. Besides, he who follows another not only discovers nothing but is not even investigating.

11. What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Stoic as well as Epicurean.
  2.  Contrasted with alte cinctos. The sleeveless and “girt-up” tunic is the sign of energy; cf. Horace, Sat. i. 5. 5, and Suetonius, Caligula, 52: the effeminate Caligula would “appear in public with a long-sleeved tunic and bracelets.”
  3.  Who wore sleeves.
  4.  i.e., the Epicureans.
  5.  For the phrase ductu et auspiciis see Plautus, Amph. i. 1. 41 ut gesserit rem publicam ductu imperio auspicio suo; and Horace, Od. i. 7. 27 Teucro duce et auspice Teucro. The original significance of the phrase refers to the right of the commander-in-chief to take the auspices.
  6.  Ovid, Metamorphosis, xiii. 824. 
  7.  Either “maxims” or “outlines,” “themes.” For a discussion of them see Quintilian, Inst. Orat. i. 9. 3 ff.
  8.  The objector is the assumed auditor. The answer to the objection gives the usual view as to the power of the living voice; to this Seneca assents, provided that the voice has a message of its own.

Letter XXXII. On Progress

Letter 32 is short but its teaching is deep and simple. Seneca asks us to continue in the course of progress and not to divert to fads, new beginnings or less important activities. He reminds us that for the really important things we don’t have a deadline set by others and we make a mistake thinking that we have a lot of time left, we waste it and end up not accomplishing what matters.

We break up life into little bits, and fritter it away. Hasten ahead, then, dearest Lucilius, and reflect how greatly you would quicken your speed if an enemy were at your back, or if you suspected the cavalry were approaching and pressing hard upon your steps as you fled. It is true; the enemy is indeed pressing upon you;” (XXXII, 2-3)

So let’s think of the famous phrase of composer Duke Ellington: “I don’t need time, I need a deadline“.

(Image: Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David)


XXXII. On Progress

1. I have been asking about you, and inquiring of everyone who comes from your part of the country, what you are doing, and where you are spending your time, and with whom. You cannot deceive me; for I am with you. Live just as if I were sure to get news of your doings, nay, as if I were sure to behold them. And if you wonder what particularly pleases me that I hear concerning you, it is that I hear nothing, that most of those whom I ask do not know what you are doing.

2. This is sound practice, – to refrain from associating with men of different stamp and different aims. And I am indeed confident that you cannot be warped, that you will stick to your purpose, even though the crowd may surround and seek to distract you. What, then, is on my mind? I am not afraid lest they work a change in you; but I am afraid lest they may hinder your progress. And much harm is done even by one who holds you back, especially since life is so short; and we make it still shorter by our unsteadiness, by making ever fresh beginnings at life, now one and immediately another. We break up life into little bits, and fritter it away.

3. Hasten ahead, then, dearest Lucilius, and reflect how greatly you would quicken your speed if an enemy were at your back, or if you suspected the cavalry were approaching and pressing hard upon your steps as you fled. It is true; the enemy is indeed pressing upon you; you should therefore increase your speed and escape away and reach a safe position, remembering continually what a noble thing it is to round out your life before death comes, and then await in peace the remaining portion of your time, claiming[1] nothing for yourself, since you are in possession of the happy life; for such a life is not made happier for being longer.

4. O when shall you see the time when you shall know that time means nothing to you, when you shall be peaceful and calm, careless of the morrow, because you are enjoying your life to the full? Would you know what makes men greedy for the future? It is because no one has yet found himself. Your parents, to be sure, asked other blessings for you; but I myself pray rather that you may despise all those things which your parents wished for you in abundance. Their prayers plunder many another person, simply that you may be enriched. Whatever they make over to you must be removed from someone else.

5. I pray that you may get such control over yourself that your mind, now shaken by wandering thoughts, may at last come to rest and be steadfast, that it may be content with itself and, having attained an understanding of what things are truly good, – and they are in our possession as soon as we have this knowledge, – that it may have no need of added years. He has at length passed beyond all necessities, – he has won his honourable discharge and is free, – who still lives after his life has been completed.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  The text seems to be corrupt. Hense thinks that expectareis to be supplied with nihil sibi – “To expect nothing for oneself”; but the use of the verb in two meanings would be harsh. The thought seems to be “asking for no added years”; and one suspects that the loss of a word like adrogantembefore nihil.

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