Seneca’s 21st letter is very peculiar. While stoics do not seek fame, Seneca promises Lucilius to keep his name known after his death. He even seems to boast of the scope and importance of his own writings. This makes it a rather “non-stoic” letter. Yet the promise has been fully kept!
“I shall find favour among later generations; I can take with me names that will endure as long as mine”. (XXI, 5)
Interestingly, what is most valuable in this epistle is not taught directly by Seneca, but the repetition of Epicurus: if you seek happiness, don’t try to increase it, try instead to diminish your desire. And it’s the same with everything you fight for: don’t run after it, but control your desire.
“If you wish,” said he, “to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires. …. There is, however, one point on which I would warn you, – not to consider that this statement applies only to riches; its value will be the same, no matter how you apply it. “If you wish to make Pythocles honourable, do not add to his honours, but subtract from his desires”; “if you wish Pythocles to have pleasure for ever, do not add to his pleasures, but subtract from his desires”; (XXI, 7-8)
While the epicurean school and the stoic school are at odds on many points, there is also great common ground.Often, in error, we think of the stoics as emotionless, rational beings and of the epicureans as hedonistic pleasure seekers. The truth is as always, more nuanced. Perhaps that’s what you can learn from this letter.
1. Do you conclude that you are having difficulties with those men about whom you wrote to me? Your greatest difficulty is with yourself; for you are your own stumbling-block. You do not know what you want. You are better at approving the right course than at following it out. You see where the true happiness lies, but you have not the courage to attain it. Let me tell you what it is that hinders you, inasmuch as you do not of yourself discern it.
2. You think that this condition, which you are to abandon, is one of importance, and after resolving upon that ideal state of calm into which you hope to pass, you are held back by the lustre of your present life, from which it is your intention to depart, just as if you were about to fall into a state of filth and darkness. This is a mistake, Lucilius; to go from your present life into the other is a promotion. There is the same difference between these two lives as there is between mere brightness and real light; the latter has a definite source within itself, the other borrows its radiance; the one is called forth by an illumination coming from the outside, and anyone who stands between the source and the object immediately turns the latter into a dense shadow; but the other has a glow that comes from within. It is your own studies that will make you shine and will render you eminent, Allow me to mention the case of Epicurus.
3. He was writing to Idomeneus and trying to recall him from a showy existence to sure and steadfast renown. Idomeneus was at that time a minister of state who exercised a rigorous authority and had important affairs in hand. “If,” said Epicurus, “you are attracted by fame, my letters will make you more renowned than all the things which you cherish and which make you cherished.”
4. Did Epicurus speak falsely? Who would have known of Idomeneus, had not the philosopher thus engraved his name in those letters of his? All the grandees and satraps, even the king himself, who was petitioned for the title which Idomeneus sought, are sunk in deep oblivion. Cicero’s letters keep the name of Atticus from perishing. It would have profited Atticus nothing to have an Agrippa for a son-in-law, a Tiberius for the husband of his grand-daughter, and a Drusus Caesar for a great-grandson; amid these mighty names his name would never be spoken, had not Cicero bound him to himself.
5. The deep flood of time will roll over us; some few great men will raise their heads above it, and, though destined at the last to depart into the same realms of silence, will battle against oblivion and maintain their ground for long. That which Epicurus could promise his friend, this I promise you, Lucilius. I shall find favour among later generations; I can take with me names that will endure as long as mine. Our poet Vergil promised an eternal name to two heroes, and is keeping his promise:
Blest heroes twain! If power my song possess,
The record of your names shall never be
Erased from out the book of Time, while yet
Aeneas’ tribe shall keep the Capitol,
That rock immovable, and Roman sire
Shall empire hold.
6. Whenever men have been thrust forward by fortune, whenever they have become part and parcel of another’s influence, they have found abundant favour, their houses have been thronged, only so long as they themselves have kept their position; when they themselves have left it, they have slipped at once from the memory of men. But in the case of innate ability, the respect in which it is held increases, and not only does honour accrue to the man himself, but whatever has attached itself to his memory is passed on from one to another.
7. In order that Idomeneus may not be introduced free of charge into my letter, he shall make up the indebtedness from his own account. It was to him that Epicurus addressed the well-known saying urging him to make Pythocles rich, but not rich in the vulgar and equivocal way. “If you wish,” said he, “to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.“
8. This idea is too clear to need explanation, and too clever to need reinforcement. There is, however, one point on which I would warn you, – not to consider that this statement applies only to riches; its value will be the same, no matter how you apply it. “If you wish to make Pythocles honourable, do not add to his honours, but subtract from his desires”; “if you wish Pythocles to have pleasure for ever, do not add to his pleasures, but subtract from his desires”; “if you wish to make Pythocles an old man, filling his life to the full, do not add to his years, but subtract from his desires.”
9. There is no reason why you should hold that these words belong to Epicurus alone; they are public property. I think we ought to do in philosophy as they are wont to do in the Senate: when someone has made a motion, of which I approve to a certain extent, I ask him to make his motion in two parts, and I vote for the part which I approve. So I am all the more glad to repeat the distinguished words of Epicurus, in order that I may prove to those who have recourse to him through a bad motive, thinking that they will have in him a screen for their own vices, that they must live honourably, no matter what school they follow.
10. Go to his Garden and read the motto carved there: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” The care-taker of that abode, a kindly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with barley-meal and serve you water also in abundance, with these words: “Have you not been well entertained?” “This garden,” he says, “does not whet your appetite; it quenches it. Nor does it make you more thirsty with every drink; it slakes the thirst by a natural cure, – a cure that demands no fee. This is the ‘pleasure’ in which I have grown old.”
11. In speaking with you, however, I refer to those desires which refuse alleviation, which must be bribed to cease. For in regard to the exceptional desires, which may be postponed, which may be chastened and checked, I have this one thought to share with you: a pleasure of that sort is according to our nature, but it is not according to our needs; one owes nothing to it; whatever is expended upon it is a free gift. The belly will not listen to advice; it makes demands, it importunes. And yet it is not a troublesome creditor; you can send it away at small cost, provided only that you give it what you owe, not merely all you are able to give.
- ↑ Epicurus, Frag. 132 Usener.
- ↑ i.e., Cicero’s letters did more to preserve the name of Atticus than such a connexion with the imperial house would have done.
- ↑ Aeneid, ix. 446 ff.
- ↑ As in the case of Epicurus and Idomeneus, Cicero and Atticus, Vergil and Euryalus and Nisus, and Seneca and Lucilius!
- ↑ Frag. 135 Usener.