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
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 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.” 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. 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, – 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.
- ↑ 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.
- ↑ i.e., the word breviarium, “abridgment,” “abstract,” has displaced the better word summarium, “outline of chief points.”
- ↑ 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.
- ↑ i.e., their pleasures. These ills, by being cultivated, become vices.