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 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 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 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.

Letter XXI. On the Renown which my Writings will Bring you

Sebastiano Conca: Alessandro Magno nel Tempio di Gerusalemme

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.

(image: Alexander the Great in the Temple of Jerusalem by Sebastiano Conca)


XXI. On the Renown which my Writings will Bring you

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[1] 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.[2]

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:[3]

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.[4]

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[5] 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.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Epicurus, Frag. 132 Usener.
  2.  i.e., Cicero’s letters did more to preserve the name of Atticus than such a connexion with the imperial house would have done.
  3.  Aeneid, ix. 446 ff.
  4.  As in the case of Epicurus and Idomeneus, Cicero and Atticus, Vergil and Euryalus and Nisus, and Seneca and Lucilius!
  5.  Frag. 135 Usener.

Letter XX. On Practising what you Preach

Seneca begins his twentieth letter by asking Lucilius to prove his words by his actions. It is a blatant reminder that stoicism is a practical philosophy, destined to be implemented daily during life, and not simply contemplated for a few hours a week, when we can read a book at leisure.

Seneca says that we should strive to maintain “deed and word” according to each other, but also immediately recognises that this is a high standard, difficult to maintain. Why do people behave incoherently? According to Seneca, this is the result of two problems. The first is that many people simply do not bother with the inconsistencies between their actions and their words, that is, they do not take the pursuit of virtue seriously. The second is that even if some people are bothered, they easily return to old habits for lack of wisdom.

Seneca imagines Lucilius objecting that he has a large family to care for and consequently needs a large amount of money. This may be the case, says the philosopher, but his dependents will get around if he stops spoiling them, suggesting that one of the advantages of poverty is that it immediately reveals who his true friends are: the ones who stick around even when there is little material advantage to be gained.

This train of thought leads Seneca to suggest the exercise of moderate self-deprivation:

“…therefore, reserve a few days in which we may prepare ourselves for real poverty by means of fancied poverty. (…) Rather let the soul be roused from its sleep and be prodded, and let it be reminded that nature has prescribed very little for us. No man is born rich. Every man, when he first sees light, is commanded to be content with milk and rags“. (XX, 13)

This practice can take the form of a cold shower (to remind you how good it is to be able to take the hottest ones), a day or two of fasting (to enjoy the next meal better), some time buying anything but food. The deprivation exercises, then, have multiple functions: they test our endurance, they prepare us for possible adversities, they remind us that many things we think we need are not really necessary, and they readjust our hedonic cycle, making us appreciate what we already have.

It is a great advise in Corona times!

Image: Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gérôme


XX. On Practising what you Preach

1. If you are in good health and if you think yourself worthy of becoming at last your own master, I am glad. For the credit will be mine, if I can drag you from the floods in which you are being buffeted without hope of emerging. This, however, my dear Lucilius, I ask and beg of you, on your part, that you let wisdom sink into your soul, and test your progress, not by mere speech or writings, but by stoutness of heart and decrease of desire. Prove your words by your deeds.

2. Far different is the purpose of those who are speech-making and trying to win the approbation of a throng of hearers, far different that of those who allure the ears of young men and idlers by many-sided or fluent argumentation; philosophy teaches us to act, not to speak; it exacts of every man that he should live according to his own standards, that his life should not be out of harmony with his words, and that, further, his inner life should be of one hue and not out of harmony with all his activities. This, I say, is the highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom, – that deed and word should be in accord, that a man should be equal to himself under all conditions, and always the same. “But,” you reply, “who can maintain this standard?” Very few, to be sure; but there are some. It is indeed a hard undertaking, and I do not say that the philosopher can always keep the same pace. But he can always travel the same path.

3. Observe yourself, then, and see whether your dress and your house are inconsistent, whether you treat yourself lavishly and your family meanly, whether you eat frugal dinners and yet build luxurious houses. You should lay hold, once for all, upon a single norm to live by, and should regulate your whole life according to this norm. Some men restrict themselves at home, but strut with swelling port before the public; such discordance is a fault, and it indicates a wavering mind which cannot yet keep its balance.

4. And I can tell you, further, whence arise this unsteadiness and disagreement of action and purpose; it is because no man resolves upon what he wishes, and, even if he has done so, he does not persist in it, but jumps the track; not only does he change, but he returns and slips back to the conduct which he has abandoned and abjured.

5. Therefore, to omit the ancient definitions of wisdom and to include the whole manner of human life, I can be satisfied with the following: “What is wisdom? Always desiring the same things, and always refusing the same things.[1] You may be excused from adding the little proviso, – that what you wish, should be right; since no man can always be satisfied with the same thing, unless it is right.

6. For this reason men do not know what they wish, except at the actual moment of wishing; no man ever decided once and for all to desire or to refuse. Judgment varies from day to day, and changes to the opposite, making many a man pass his life in a kind of game. Press on, therefore, as you have begun; perhaps you will be led to perfection, or to a point which you alone understand is still short of perfection.

7. “But what,” you say, “will become of my crowded household without a household income?” If you stop supporting that crowd, it will support itself; or perhaps you will learn by the bounty of poverty what you cannot learn by your own bounty. Poverty will keep for you your true and tried friends; you will be rid of the men who were not seeking you for yourself, but for something which you have. Is it not true, however, that you should love poverty, if only for this single reason, – that it will show you those by whom you are loved? O when will that time come, when no one shall tell lies to compliment you!

8. Accordingly, let your thoughts, your efforts, your desires, help to make you content with your own self and with the goods that spring from yourself; and commit all your other prayers to God’s keeping! What happiness could come closer home to you? Bring yourself down to humble conditions, from which you cannot be ejected; and in order that you may do so with greater alacrity, the contribution contained in this letter shall refer to that subject; I shall bestow it upon you forthwith.

9. Although you may look askance, Epicurus[2] will once again be glad to settle my indebtedness: “Believe me, your words will be more imposing if you sleep on a cot and wear rags. For in that case you will not be merely saying them; you will be demonstrating their truth.” I, at any rate, listen in a different spirit to the utterances of our friend Demetrius, after I have seen him reclining without even a cloak to cover him, and, more than this, without rugs to lie upon. He is not only a teacher of the truth, but a witness to the truth.

10. “May not a man, however, despise wealth when it lies in his very pocket?” Of course; he also is great-souled, who sees riches heaped up round him and, after wondering long and deeply because they have come into his possession, smiles, and hears rather than feels that they are his. It means much not to be spoiled by intimacy with riches; and he is truly great who is poor amidst riches.

11. “Yes, but I do not know,” you say, “how the man you speak of will endure poverty, if he falls into it suddenly.” Nor do I, Epicurus, know whether the poor man you speak of will despise riches, should he suddenly fall into them; accordingly, in the case of both, it is the mind that must be appraised, and we must investigate whether your man is pleased with his poverty, and whether my man is displeased with his riches. Otherwise, the cot-bed and the rags are slight proof of his good intentions, if it has not been made clear that the person concerned endures these trials not from necessity but from preference.

12. It is the mark, however, of a noble spirit not to precipitate oneself into such things[3] on the ground that they are better, but to practise for them on the ground that they are thus easy to endure. And they are easy to endure, Lucilius; when, however, you come to them after long rehearsal, they are even pleasant; for they contain a sense of freedom from care, – and without this nothing is pleasant.

13. I hold it essential, therefore, to do as I have told you in a letter that great men have often done: to reserve a few days in which we may prepare ourselves for real poverty by means of fancied poverty. There is all the more reason for doing this, because we have been steeped in luxury and regard all duties as hard and onerous. Rather let the soul be roused from its sleep and be prodded, and let it be reminded that nature has prescribed very little for us. No man is born rich. Every man, when he first sees light, is commanded to be content with milk and rags. Such is our beginning, and yet kingdoms are all too small for us![4]

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Seneca applies to wisdom the definition of friendship, Salust, Catiline, 20. 4 idem velle atque idem nolle, ea demum firma amicitia est.
  2.  Frag. 206 Usener.
  3.  i.e., the life of voluntary poverty.
  4.  Adapted from the epigram on Alexander the Great, “hic est quem non capit orbis.” See Plutarch, Alexander, § 6 ὦ παῖ ζήτει σεαυτῷ βασιλείαν ἴσην. Μακεδονια γάρ σε οὐ χωρεῖ, and Seneca, Ep. cxix. 8.

Letter XIX. On Worldliness and Retirement

Sir_Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Daniel_in_the_Lions'_Den

In his 19th letter Seneca warns us about true friendship and once again shows the risks of greed. Knowledge of what is enough is a fundamental aspect of stoicism.

Seneca says that we should choose our friends without thinking about the benefits we will receive from them, or that we will give to them:

“It is, however, a mistake to select your friend in the reception-hall or to test him at the dinner-table. The most serious misfortune for a busy man who is overwhelmed by his possessions is, that he believes men to be his friends when he himself is not a friend to them, and that he deems his favours to be effective in winning friends, although, in the case of certain men, the more they owe, the more they hate. A trifling debt makes a man your debtor; a large one makes him an enemy.” (XIX, 11)

The letter has another quote from Epicurus and follows with a recommendation on true friendship.

“You must reflect carefully beforehand with whom you are to eat and drink, rather than what you are to eat and drink. For a dinner of meats without the company of a friend is like the life of a lion or a wolf.” (XIX, 10)

Points:

  1. Retreat to privacy, everything will be on a smaller scale, but you will be satisfied abundantly; §7
  2. Friendship is important;
  3. Be careful when granting large benefits.

image: Daniel in the Lions’ Den by Sir Peter Paul Rubens

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XIX. On Worldliness and Retirement

1. I leap for joy whenever I receive letters from you. For they fill me with hope; they are now not mere assurances concerning you, but guarantees. And I beg and pray you to proceed in this course; for what better request could I make of a friend than one which is to be made for his own sake? If possible, withdraw yourself from all the business of which you speak; and if you cannot do this, tear yourself away. We have dissipated enough of our time already; let us in old age begin to pack up our baggage.

2. Surely there is nothing in this that men can begrudge us. We have spent our lives on the high seas; let us die in harbour. Not that I would advise you to try to win fame by your retirement; one’s retirement should neither be paraded nor concealed. Not concealed, I say, for I shall not go so far in urging you as to expect you to condemn all men as mad and then seek out for yourself a hiding-place and oblivion; rather make this your business, that your retirement be not conspicuous, though it should be obvious.

3. In the second place, while those whose choice is unhampered from the start will deliberate on that other question, whether they wish to pass their lives in obscurity, in your case there is not a free choice. Your ability and energy have thrust you into the work of the world; so have the charm of your writings and the friendships you have made with famous and notable men. Renown has already taken you by storm. You may sink yourself into the depths of obscurity and utterly hide yourself; yet your earlier acts will reveal you.

4. You cannot keep lurking in the dark; much of the old gleam will follow you wherever you fly. Peace you can claim for yourself without being disliked by anyone, without any sense of loss, and without any pangs of spirit. For what will you leave behind you that you can imagine yourself reluctant to leave? Your clients? But none of these men courts you for yourself; they merely court something from you. People used to hunt friends, but now they hunt pelf; if a lonely old man changes his will, the morning-caller transfers himself to another door. Great things cannot be bought for small sums; so reckon up whether it is preferable to leave your own true self, or merely some of your belongings.

5. Would that you had had the privilege of growing old amid the limited circumstances of your origin, and that fortune had not raised you to such heights! You were removed far from the sight of wholesome living by your swift rise to prosperity, by your province, by your position as procurator,[1] and by all that such things promise; you will next acquire more important duties and after them still more. And what will be the result?

6. Why wait until there is nothing left for you to crave? That time will never come. We hold that there is a succession of causes, from which fate is woven; similarly, you may be sure, there is a succession in our desires; for one begins where its predecessor ends. You have been thrust into an existence which will never of itself put an end to your wretchedness and your slavery. Withdraw your chafed neck from the yoke; it is better that it should be cut off once for all, than galled for ever.

7. If you retreat to privacy, everything will be on a smaller scale, but you will be satisfied abundantly; in your present condition, however, there is no satisfaction in the plenty which is heaped upon you on all sides. Would you rather be poor and sated, or rich and hungry? Prosperity is not only greedy, but it also lies exposed to the greed of others. And as long as nothing satisfies you, you yourself cannot satisfy others.

8. “But,” you say, “how can I take my leave?” Any way you please. Reflect how many hazards you have ventured for the sake of money, and how much toil you have undertaken for a title! You must dare something to gain leisure, also, – or else grow old amid the worries of procuratorships[2] abroad and subsequently of civil duties at home, living in turmoil and in ever fresh floods of responsibilities, which no man has ever succeeded in avoiding by unobtrusiveness or by seclusion of life. For what bearing on the case has your personal desire for a secluded life? Your position in the world desires the opposite! What if, even now, you allow that position to grow greater? But all that is added to your successes will be added to your fears.

9. At this point I should like to quote a saying of Maecenas, who spoke the truth when he stood on the very summit:[3] “There’s thunder even on the loftiest peaks.” If you ask me in what book these words are found, they occur in the volume entitled Prometheus.[4] He simply meant to say that these lofty peaks have their tops surrounded with thunder-storms. But is any power worth so high a price that a man like you would ever, in order to obtain it, adopt a style so debauched as that?[5] Maecenas was indeed a man of parts, who would have left a great pattern for Roman oratory to follow, had his good fortune not made him effeminate, – nay, had it not emasculated him! An end like his awaits you also, unless you forthwith shorten sail and, – as Maecenas was not willing to do until it was too late, – hug the shore!

10. This saying of Maecenas’s might have squared my account with you; but I feel sure, knowing you, that you will get out an injunction against me, and that you will be unwilling to accept payment of my debt in such crude and debased currency. However that may be, I shall draw on the account of Epicurus.[6] He says: “You must reflect carefully beforehand with whom you are to eat and drink, rather than what you are to eat and drink. For a dinner of meats without the company of a friend is like the life of a lion or a wolf.

11. This privilege will not be yours unless you withdraw from the world; otherwise, you will have as guests only those whom your slave-secretary[7] sorts out from the throng of callers. It is, however, a mistake to select your friend in the reception-hall or to test him at the dinner-table. The most serious misfortune for a busy man who is overwhelmed by his possessions is, that he believes men to be his friends when he himself is not a friend to them, and that he deems his favours to be effective in winning friends, although, in the case of certain men, the more they owe, the more they hate. A trifling debt makes a man your debtor; a large one makes him an enemy.

12. “What,” you say, “do not kindnesses establish friendships?” They do, if one has had the privilege of choosing those who are to receive them, and if they are placed judiciously, instead of being scattered broadcast. Therefore, while you are beginning to call your mind your own, meantime apply this maxim of the wise: consider that it is more important who receives a thing, than what it is he receives.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  See the introduction, p. ix.
  2.  The procurator did the work of a quaestor in an imperial province. Positions at Rome to which Lucilius might succeed were such as praefectus annonae, in charge of the grain supply, or praefectus urbi, Director of Public Safety, and others.
  3.  And therefore could speak with authority on this point.
  4.  Perhaps a tragedy, although Seneca uses the word liber to describe it. Maecenas wrote a Symposium, a work De cultu suo, Octavia, some stray verse, and perhaps some history. See Seneca, Epp. xcii. and ci.
  5.  Seneca whimsically pretvrends to assume that eccentric literary style and high political position go hand in hand. See also the following sentence.
  6.  Epicurus, Frag. 542 Usener.
  7.  A slave kept by every prominant Roman to identify the master’s friends and dependants.

Letter XVIII. On Festivals and Fasting

Saturnalia_by_Antoine_Callet

Seneca’s Letters offer something beyond philosophy: you get occasional glimpses of his private life,, as well as life in Rome at the height of imperial power. This is a great bonus beyond philosophical knowledge!

This is one of my favorite letters, where Seneca gives the advice not to abstain from amusement, but simply not to exaggerate:

“It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, – thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.” (XVIII, 4)

This is exactly how I feel at Carnival, Christmas and so on. Of course we want to have fun and share a pleasant moment of life with our family and friends. But do we have to get drunk or sick from eating too much to do that? Seneca then uses the topic in question to present a more general point about a standard stoic exercise, moderate self-privation:

“… follow the custom of these men, and set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from your business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish business relations with poverty…. For he alone is in kinship with God who has scorned wealth. Of course I do not forbid you to possess it, but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you.” (XVIII, 12-13)

Points:

  1. No need to abstain from amusement, but simply do not exaggerate;
  2. Practice moderate self-privation;
  3. Get used to frugality.

image: Antoine-François Callet (1741 – 1823) baroque interpretation of Saturnalia

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XVIII. On Festivals and Fasting

1. It is the month of December, and yet the city is at this very moment in a sweat. Licence is given to the general merrymaking. Everything resounds with mighty preparations, – as if the Saturnalia differed at all from the usual business day! So true it is that the difference is nil, that I regard as correct the remark of the man who said: “Once December was a month; now it is a year.”[1]

2. If I had you with me, I should be glad to consult you and find out what you think should be done, – whether we ought to make no change in our daily routine, or whether, in order not to be out of sympathy with the ways of the public, we should dine in gayer fashion and doff the toga.[2] As it is now, we Romans have changed our dress for the sake of pleasure and holiday-making, though in former times that was only customary when the State was disturbed and had fallen on evil days.

3. I am sure that, if I know you aright, playing the part of an umpire you would have wished that we should be neither like the liberty-capped[3] throng in all ways, nor in all ways unlike them; unless, perhaps, this is just the season when we ought to lay down the law to the soul, and bid it be alone in refraining from pleasures just when the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures; for this is the surest proof which a man can get of his own constancy, if he neither seeks the things which are seductive and allure him to luxury, nor is led into them.

4. It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, – thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.

5. I am so firmly determined, however, to test the constancy of your mind that, drawing from the teachings of great men, I shall give you also a lesson: Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”

6. It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes. Such is the course which those men[4] have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

7. You need not suppose that I mean meals like Timon’s, or “paupers’ huts,”[5] or any other device which luxurious millionaires use to beguile the tedium of their lives. Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.

8. There is no reason, however, why you should think that you are doing anything great; for you will merely be doing what many thousands of slaves and many thousands of poor men are doing every day. But you may credit yourself with this item, – that you will not be doing it under compulsion, and that it will be as easy for you to endure it permanently as to make the experiment from time to time. Let us practise our strokes on the “dummy”;[6] let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard. We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden.

9. Even Epicurus, the teacher of pleasure, used to observe stated intervals, during which he satisfied his hunger in niggardly fashion; he wished to see whether he thereby fell short of full and complete happiness, and, if so, by what amount he fell short, and whether this amount was worth purchasing at the price of great effort. At any rate, he makes such a statement in the well known letter written to Polyaenus in the archonship of Charinus.[7] Indeed, he boasts that he himself lived on less than a penny, but that Metrodorus, whose progress was not yet so great, needed a whole penny.

10. Do you think that there can be fulness on such fare? Yes, and there is pleasure also, – not that shifty and fleeting pleasure which needs a fillip now and then, but a pleasure that is steadfast and sure. For though water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread, are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one’s needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.

11. Even prison fare is more generous; and those who have been set apart for capital punishment are not so meanly fed by the man who is to execute them. Therefore, what a noble soul must one have, to descend of one’s own free will to a diet which even those who have been sentenced to death have not to fear! This is indeed forestalling the spear-thrusts of Fortune.

12. So begin, my dear Lucilius, to follow the custom of these men, and set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from your business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish business relations with poverty.

Dare, O my friend, to scorn the sight of wealth, 
And mould thyself to kinship with thy God.[8]

13. For he alone is in kinship with God who has scorned wealth. Of course I do not forbid you to possess it, but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you.

14. But now I must begin to fold up my letter. “Settle your debts first,” you cry. Here is a draft on Epicurus; he will pay down the sum: “Ungoverned anger begets madness.[9] You cannot help knowing the truth of these words, since you have had not only slaves, but also enemies.

15. But indeed this emotion blazes out against all sorts of persons; it springs from love as much as from hate, and shows itself not less in serious matters than in jest and sport. And it makes no difference how important the provocation may be, but into what kind of soul it penetrates. Similarly with fire; it does not matter how great is the flame, but what it falls upon. For solid timbers have repelled a very great fire; conversely, dry and easily inflammable stuff nourishes the slightest spark into a conflagration. So it is with anger, my dear Lucilius; the outcome of a mighty anger is madness, and hence anger should be avoided, not merely that we may escape excess, but that we may have a healthy mind.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  i.e., the whole year is a Saturnalia.
  2.  For a dinner dress.
  3.  The pilleus was worn by newly freed slaves and by the Roman populace on festal occasions.
  4.  The Epicurians. Cf. § 9 and Epicurus, Frag. 158. Usener.
  5.  Cf. Ep. c. 6 and Martial, iii. 48.
  6.  The post which gladiators used when preparing themselves for combats in the arena.
  7.  Usually identified with Chaerimus, 307-8 B.C. But Wilhelm, Öster Jahreshefte, V.136, has shown that there is probably no confusion of names. A Charinus was archon at Athens in 290-89; see Johnson, Class. Phil. ix. p. 256.
  8.  Vergil, Aeneid, viii. 364 f.
  9.  Frag. 484 Usener.