Letter XVII. On Philosophy and Riches

Abraham_Janssens The_judgement_of_Midas

Once again Seneca addresses the matter of the little importance of money for happiness and exalts us to place the study of philosophy in the first place, leaving the wealth hoarding in second place.

Such advice, coming from one of the richest men in Rome, may seem hypocritical, and Seneca himself was the target of his critics, who asked, “Why do you talk so much better than you live?” Seneca in his writings discusses the possibility of someone being rich, even extremely rich, and maintaining ethical integrity. There are three main criteria for this, Seneca tells us.

The virtuous rich man must maintain the right attitude, detached and non-slaveful to his wealth, possessing it without obligation and willing to give up everything when necessary: “He is a great man who uses clay dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were clay”.
In the second place, it is important for him to acquire wealth in a morally legitimate manner, so that his money is not “stained with blood.”
In the third place, one must use his riches generously, for the benefit of those less fortunate than himself – a disposition that invites comparison with the charitable work done by rich philanthropists in our own time.


Image: The judgement of Midas by Abraham Janssens


XVII. On Philosophy and Riches

1. Cast away everything of that sort, if you are wise; nay, rather that you may be wise; strive toward a sound mind at top speed and with your whole strength. If any bond holds you back, untie it, or sever it. “But,” you say, “my estate delays me; I wish to make such disposition of it that it may suffice for me when I have nothing to do, lest either poverty be a burden to me, or I myself a burden to others.”

2. You do not seem, when you say this, to know the strength and power of that good which you are considering. You do indeed grasp the all-important thing, the great benefit which philosophy confers, but you do not yet discern accurately its various functions, nor do you yet know how great is the help we receive from philosophy in everything, everywhere, – how, (to use Cicero’s language,[1]) it not only succours us in the greatest matters but also descends to the smallest. Take my advice; call wisdom into consultation; she will advise you not to sit for ever at your ledger.

3. Doubtless, your object, what you wish to attain by such postponement of your studies, is that poverty may not have to be feared by you. But what if it is something to be desired? Riches have shut off many a man from the attainment of wisdom; poverty is unburdened and free from care. When the trumpet sounds, the poor man knows that he is not being attacked; when there is a cry of “Fire,”[2] he only seeks a way of escape, and does not ask what he can save; if the poor man must go to sea, the harbour does not resound, nor do the wharves bustle with the retinue of one individual. No throng of slaves surrounds the poor man, – slaves for whose mouths the master must covet the fertile crops of regions beyond the sea.

4. It is easy to fill a few stomachs, when they are well trained and crave nothing else but to be filled. Hunger costs but little; squeamishness costs much. Poverty is contented with fulfilling pressing needs. Why, then, should you reject Philosophy as a comrade?

5. Even the rich man copies her ways when he is in his senses. If you wish to have leisure for your mind, either be a poor man, or resemble a poor man. Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: “I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy.” And yet this ideal, which you are putting off and placing second to other interests, should be secured first of all; you should begin with it. You retort: “I wish to acquire something to live on.” Yes, but learn while you are acquiring it; for if anything forbids you to live nobly, nothing forbids you to die nobly.

6. There is no reason why poverty should call us away from philosophy, – no, nor even actual want. For when hastening after wisdom, we must endure even hunger. Men have endured hunger when their towns were besieged, and what other reward for their endurance did they obtain than that they did not fall under the conqueror’s power? How much greater is the promise of the prize of everlasting liberty, and the assurance that we need fear neither God nor man! Even though we starve, we must reach that goal.

7. Armies have endured all manner of want, have lived on roots, and have resisted hunger by means of food too revolting to mention. All this they have suffered to gain a kingdom, and, – what is more marvellous, – to gain a kingdom that will be another’s. Will any man hesitate to endure poverty, in order that he may free his mind from madness? Therefore one should not seek to lay up riches first; one may attain to philosophy, however, even without money for the journey.

8. It is indeed so. After you have come to possess all other things, shall you then wish to possess wisdom also? Is philosophy to be the last requisite in life, – a sort of supplement? Nay, your plan should be this: be a philosopher now, whether you have anything or not, – for if you have anything, how do you know that you have not too much already? – but if you have nothing, seek understanding first, before anything else.

9. “But,” you say, “I shall lack the necessities of life.” In the first place, you cannot lack them; because nature demands but little, and the wise man suits his needs to nature. But if the utmost pinch of need arrives, he will quickly take leave of life and cease being a trouble to himself. If, however, his means of existence are meagre and scanty, he will make the best of them, without being anxious or worried about anything more than the bare necessities; he will do justice to his belly and his shoulders; with free and happy spirit he will laugh at the bustling of rich men, and the flurried ways of those who are hastening after wealth,

10. and say: “Why of your own accord postpone your real life to the distant future? Shall you wait for some interest to fall due, or for some income on your merchandise, or for a place in the will of some wealthy old man, when you can be rich here and now. Wisdom offers wealth in ready money, and pays it over to those in whose eyes she has made wealth superfluous.” These remarks refer to other men; you are nearer the rich class. Change the age in which you live, and you have too much. But in every age, what is enough remains the same.

11. I might close my letter at this point, if I had not got you into bad habits. One cannot greet Parthian royalty without bringing a gift; and in your case I cannot say farewell without paying a price. But what of it? I shall borrow from Epicurus:[3] “The acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles.

12. I do not wonder. For the fault is not in the wealth, but in the mind itself. That which had made poverty a burden to us, has made riches also a burden. Just as it matters little whether you lay a sick man on a wooden or on a golden bed, for whithersoever he be moved he will carry his malady with him; so one need not care whether the diseased mind is bestowed upon riches or upon poverty. His malady goes with the man.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Perhaps from the Hortensius; see Müller, Frag. 98, p. 326.
  2.  Literally, “Water!”
  3.  Frag. 479 Usener.

Letter XVI. On Philosophy, the Guide of Life

Philosophy and Christian Art by Daniel Huntington

Would stoicism be useful for religious people? and for atheists and agnostics? Seneca says yes, and for everyone. The basic idea of letter 16 is made clear in its first lines: “no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom” (XVI, 1)

However, the study of philosophy is really a love of wisdom, and should not be pursued for trivial matters, as Seneca makes clear shortly afterwards (this would virtually eliminate much modern academic philosophy):

“Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul;” (XVI.3).

In the fifth paragraph Seneca presents an interesting argument as to why philosophy should be our guide in life, regardless of our (metaphysical) religious positions:

“whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence.” (XVI, 5)

Observe the three possibilities considered: inexorable destiny, or what we would today call determinism; God as the master planner of everything that happens in the universe, similar to the Christian idea of Providence; or chance, the epicurean chaos that typifies a cosmos in which God plays no active role.

This is nothing different from what Marcus Aurelius stated in his Meditations:

“Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why dost thou resist? But if there is a providence which allows itself to be propitiated, make thyself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest thou hast in thyself a certain ruling intelligence. ” (Meditations XII, 14)

Seneca then pulls out one of Epicurus’ not rare positive quotes: “This also is a saying of Epicurus: “If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.“. (XVI.7)

The letter concludes with this agreeable and instructive contrast, which leads to a profound truth:

Suppose that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple, and brings you to such a degree of luxury and wealth that you can bury the earth under your marble floors; … Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. (XVI, 8-9)

Points:

  1. Philosophy is useful for both the atheist and the faithful;
  2. Live according to nature;
  3. Natural desires are limited

image: “Philosophy and Christian Art” by Daniel Huntington

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XVI. On Philosophy, the Guide of Life

1. It is clear to you, I am sure, Lucilius, that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom; you know also that a happy life is reached when our wisdom is brought to completion, but that life is at least endurable even when our wisdom is only begun. This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection; it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones. You must persevere, must develop new strength by continuous study, until that which is only a good inclination becomes a good settled purpose.

2. Hence you no longer need to come to me with much talk and protestations; I know that you have made great progress. I understand the feelings which prompt your words; they are not feigned or specious words. Nevertheless I shall tell you what I think, – that at present I have hopes for you, but not yet perfect trust. And I wish that you would adopt the same attitude towards yourself; there is no reason why you should put confidence in yourself too quickly and readily. Examine yourself; scrutinize and observe yourself in divers ways; but mark, before all else, whether it is in philosophy or merely in life itself[1] that you have made progress.

3. Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind. Countless things that happen every hour call for advice; and such advice is to be sought in philosophy.

4. Perhaps someone will say: “How can philosophy help me, if Fate exists? Of what avail is philosophy, if God rules the universe? Of what avail is it, if Chance governs everything? For not only is it impossible to change things that are determined, but it is also impossible to plan beforehand against what is undetermined; either God has forestalled my plans, and decided what I am to do, or else Fortune gives no free play to my plans.”

5. Whether the truth, Lucilius, lies in one or in all of these views, we must be philosophers; whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence. She will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance.

6. But it is not my purpose now to be led into a discussion as to what is within our own control, – if foreknowledge is supreme, or if a chain of fated events drags us along in its clutches, or if the sudden and the unexpected play the tyrant over us; I return now to my warning and my exhortation, that you should not allow the impulse of your spirit to weaken and grow cold. Hold fast to it and establish it firmly, in order that what is now impulse may become a habit of the mind.

7. If I know you well, you have already been trying to find out, from the very beginning of my letter, what little contribution it brings to you. Sift the letter, and you will find it. You need not wonder at any genius of mine; for as yet I am lavish only with other men’s property. – But why did I say “other men”? Whatever is well said by anyone is mine. – This also is a saying of Epicurus:[2] “If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.

8. Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless. Suppose that the property of many millionaires is heaped up in your possession. Assume that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple, and brings you to such a degree of luxury and wealth that you can bury the earth under your marble floors; that you may not only possess, but tread upon, riches. Add statues, paintings, and whatever any art has devised for the satisfaction of luxury; you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.

9. Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  i.e., have merely advanced in years.
  2.  Frag. 201 Usener.

Letter XV. On Brawn and Brains

Letter 15 recommends that we find a balance between physical and mental training. We must maintain our efforts in mental growth. For there is still a great emphasis on a better body, a more muscular and beautiful body, but we forget the importance of a beautiful and strong mind. Many are stressed by their bodies, sweat in the gym day by day, but forget to exercise their minds.

“you can never be a match, either in strength or in weight, for a first-class bull.” (XV, 2)

However, do not sweat in doubt. According to Seneca, you should still go to the gym, but not spend four hours a day there. In Seneca’s letter he even recommends physical exercises that are in fashion today!

“Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping… Select for practice any one of these, and you will find it plain and easy.” (XV, 4)

Another main idea in the letter is to be grateful for the things we already possess and don’t overestimate the things we want, because everything seems better when you don’t have it:

“if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago; nor do we reflect how pleasant it is to demand nothing, how noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon Fortune.” (XV, 9)

“why should I demand of Fortune that she give, rather than demand of myself that I should not crave?” (XV, 11)

Points:

  1. Do physical exercise;
  2. Give preference to the development of your mind;
  3. Keep control of your desires. Be content with what you have.

image: Marble Relief – Greek Men Wrestling 500 BC.

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XV. On Brawn and Brains

1. The old Romans had a custom which survived even into my lifetime. They would add to the opening words of a letter: “If you are well, it is well; I also am well.” Persons like ourselves would do well to say: “If you are studying philosophy, it is well.” For this is just what “being well” means. Without philosophy the mind is sickly, and the body, too, though it may be very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or a lunatic is strong.

2. This, then, is the sort of health you should primarily cultivate; the other kind of health comes second, and will involve little effort, if you wish to be well physically. It is indeed foolish, my dear Lucilius, and very unsuitable for a cultivated man, to work hard over developing the muscles and broadening the shoulders and strengthening the lungs. For although your heavy feeding produce good results and your sinews grow solid, you can never be a match, either in strength or in weight, for a first-class bull. Besides, by overloading the body with food you strangle the soul and render it less active. Accordingly, limit the flesh as much as possible, and allow free play to the spirit.

3. Many inconveniences beset those who devote themselves to such pursuits. In the first place, they have their exercises, at which they must work and waste their life-force and render it less fit to bear a strain or the severer studies. Second, their keen edge is dulled by heavy eating. Besides, they must take orders from slaves of the vilest stamp, – men who alternate between the oil-flask[1] and the flagon, whose day passes satisfactorily if they have got up a good perspiration and quaffed, to make good what they have lost in sweat, huge draughts of liquor which will sink deeper because of their fasting. Drinking and sweating, – it’s the life of a dyspeptic![2]

4. Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping, – high-jumping or broad-jumping, or the kind which I may call, “the Priest’s dance,”[3] or, in slighting terms, “the clothes-cleaner’s jump.”[4] Select for practice any one of these, and you will find it plain and easy.

5. But whatever you do, come back soon from body to mind. The mind must be exercised both day and night, for it is nourished by moderate labour; and this form of exercise need not be hampered by cold or hot weather, or even by old age. Cultivate that good which improves with the years.

6. Of course I do not command you to be always bending over your books and your writing materials; the mind must have a change, – but a change of such a kind that it is not unnerved, but merely unbent. Riding in a litter shakes up the body, and does not interfere with study; one may read, dictate, converse, or listen to another; nor does walking prevent any of these things.

7. You need not scorn voice-culture; but I forbid you to practise raising and lowering your voice by scales and specific intonations. What if you should next propose to take lessons in walking! If you consult the sort of person whom starvation has taught new tricks, you will have someone to regulate your steps, watch every mouthful as you eat, and go to such lengths as you yourself, by enduring him and believing in him, have encouraged his effrontery to go. “What, then?” you will ask; “is my voice to begin at the outset with shouting and straining the lungs to the utmost?” No; the natural thing is that it be aroused to such a pitch by easy stages, just as persons who are wrangling begin with ordinary conversational tones and then pass to shouting at the top of their lungs. No speaker cries “Help me, citizens!” at the outset of his speech.

8. Therefore, whenever your spirit’s impulse prompts you, raise a hubbub, now in louder now in milder tones, according as your voice, as well as your spirit, shall suggest to you, when you are moved to such a performance. Then let your voice, when you rein it in and call it back to earth, come down gently, not collapse; it should trail off in tones half way between high and low, and should not abruptly drop from its raving in the uncouth manner of countrymen. For our purpose is, not to give the voice exercise, but to make it give us exercise.

9. You see, I have relieved you of no slight bother; and I shall throw in a little complementary present, – it is Greek, too. Here is the proverb; it is an excellent one: “The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears; its course lies wholly toward the future.” “Who uttered these words?” you say. The same writer whom I mentioned before.[5] And what sort of life do you think is meant by the fool’s life? That of Baba and Isio?[6]No; he means our own, for we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago; nor do we reflect how pleasant it is to demand nothing, how noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon Fortune.

10. Therefore continually remind yourself, Lucilius, how many ambitions you have attained. When you see many ahead of you, think how many are behind! If you would thank the gods, and be grateful for your past life, you should contemplate how many men you have outstripped. But what have you to do with the others? You have outstripped yourself.

11. Fix a limit which you will not even desire to pass, should you have the power. At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better to those who hope for them than to those who have attained them. If there were anything substantial in them, they would sooner or later satisfy you; as it is, they merely rouse the drinkers’ thirst. Away with fripperies which only serve for show! As to what the future’s uncertain lot has in store, why should I demand of Fortune that she give, rather than demand of myself that I should not crave? And why should l crave? Shall I heap up my winnings, and forget that man’s lot is unsubstantial? For what end should I toil? Lo, to-day is the last; if not, it is near the last.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  i.e., the prize-ring; the contestants were rubbed with oil before the fight began.
  2.  Cardiacus meant, according to Pliny, N. H. xxiii. 1. 24, a sort of dyspepsia accompanied by fever and perspiration. Compare the man in Juvenal v. 32, who will not send a spoonful of wine to a friend ill of this complaint.
  3.  Named from the Salii, or leaping priests of Mars.
  4.  The fuller, or washerman, cleansed the clothes by leaping and stamping upon them in the tub.
  5.  Epicurus, Frag. 491 Usener.
  6.  Court fools of the period.

Letter XIV. On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World

Death of Cato by Giambettino Cignaroli

The 14th letter is the first in which Seneca explicitly places his political guidance and tells Lucilius that we must often consider a tyrannical ruler in the same way as a storm: a prudent captain diverts his course and does not try to change what he knows to be much stronger.

Stoicism, as opposed to epicurism, advocates participation in politics and civil society. In this letter Seneca warns of the limits of such a strategy using the example of Cato who during the civil war in the end of the republic fought both Julius Caesar and Pompey. 


“… do you regard the philosophy of Marcus Cato as moderate? Cato’s voice strove to check a civil war. Cato parted the swords of maddened chieftains. When some fell foul of Pompey and others fell foul of Caesar, Cato defied both parties at once!”(XIV, 12)

Seneca quotes Epicurus one more time, and finishes the letter with a warning about the risks of wealth seeking: 

He who yearns for riches feels fear for them. No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he is intricate in increasing his wealth, he forgets to use it. He collects his accounts, wears down the floor of the forum, he turns his ledger, in short, he ceases to be a master and becomes a butler”. (XIV, 17)

Points:

  1. Give preference to the development of your mind;
  2. Be part of society, but don’t fight formidable opponents;
  3. Don’t worry much about wealth.

Image: Death of Cato by Giambettino Cignaroli

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XIV. On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World

1. I confess that we all have an inborn affection for our body; I confess that we are entrusted with its guardianship. I do not maintain that the body is not to be indulged at all; but I maintain that we must not be slaves to it. He will have many masters who makes his body his master, who is over-fearful in its behalf, who judges everything according to the body.

2. We should conduct ourselves not as if we ought to live for the body, but as if we could not live without it. Our too great love for it makes us restless with fears, burdens us with cares, and exposes us to insults. Virtue is held too cheap by the man who counts his body too dear. We should cherish the body with the greatest care; but we should also be prepared, when reason, self-respect, and duty demand the sacrifice, to deliver it even to the flames.

3. Let us, however, in so far as we can, avoid discomforts as well as dangers, and withdraw to safe ground, by thinking continually how we may repel all objects of fear. If I am not mistaken, there are three main classes of these: we fear want, we fear sickness, and we fear the troubles which result from the violence of the stronger.

4. And of all these, that which shakes us most is the dread which hangs over us from our neighbour’s ascendancy; for it is accompanied by great outcry and uproar. But the natural evils which I have mentioned, – want and sickness, – steal upon us silently with no shock of terror to the eye or to the ear. The other kind of evil comes, so to speak, in the form of a huge parade. Surrounding it is a retinue of swords and fire and chains and a mob of beasts to be let loose upon the disembowelled entrails of men.

5. Picture to yourself under this head the prison, the cross, the rack, the hook, and the stake which they drive straight through a man until it protrudes from his throat. Think of human limbs torn apart by chariots driven in opposite directions, of the terrible shirt smeared and interwoven with inflammable materials, and of all the other contrivances devised by cruelty, in addition to those which I have mentioned![1]

6. It is not surprising, then, if our greatest terror is of such a fate; for it comes in many shapes and its paraphernalia are terrifying. For just as the torturer accomplishes more in proportion to the number of instruments which he displays, – indeed, the spectacle overcomes those who would have patiently withstood the suffering, – similarly, of all the agencies which coerce and master our minds, the most effective are those which can make a display. Those other troubles are of course not less serious; I mean hunger, thirst, ulcers of the stomach, and fever that parches our very bowels. They are, however, secret; they have no bluster and no heralding; but these, like huge arrays of war, prevail by virtue of their display and their equipment.

7. Let us, therefore, see to it that we abstain from giving offence. It is sometimes the people that we ought to fear; or sometimes a body of influential oligarchs in the Senate, if the method of governing the State is such that most of the business is done by that body; and sometimes individuals equipped with power by the people and against the people. It is burdensome to keep the friendship of all such persons; it is enough not to make enemies of them. So the wise man will never provoke the anger of those in power; nay, he will even turn his course, precisely as he would turn from a storm if he were steering a ship.

8. When you travelled to Sicily, you crossed the Straits. The reckless pilot scorned the blustering South Wind, – the wind which roughens the Sicilian Sea and forces it into choppy currents; he sought not the shore on the left,[2] but the strand hard by the place where Charybdis throws the seas into confusion. Your more careful pilot, however, questions those who know the locality as to the tides and the meaning of the clouds; he holds his course far from that region notorious for its swirling waters. Our wise man does the same; he shuns a strong man who may be injurious to him, making a point of not seeming to avoid him, because an important part of one’s safety lies in not seeking safety openly; for what one avoids, one condemns.

9. We should therefore look about us, and see how we may protect ourselves from the mob. And first of all, we should have no cravings like theirs; for rivalry results in strife. Again, let us possess nothing that can be snatched from us to the great profit of a plotting foe. Let there be as little booty as possible on your person. No one sets out to shed the blood of his fellow-men for the sake of bloodshed, – at any rate very few. More murderers speculate on their profits than give vent to hatred. If you are empty-handed, the highwayman passes you by; even along an infested road, the poor may travel in peace.[3]

10. Next, we must follow the old adage and avoid three things with special care: hatred, jealousy, and scorn. And wisdom alone can show you how this may be done. It is hard to observe a mean; we must be chary of letting the fear of jealousy lead us into becoming objects of scorn, lest, when we choose not to stamp others down, we let them think that they can stamp us down. The power to inspire fear has caused many men to be in fear.[4] Let us withdraw ourselves in every way; for it is as harmful to be scorned as to be admired.

11. One must therefore take refuge in philosophy; this pursuit, not only in the eyes of good men, but also in the eyes of those who are even moderately bad, is a sort of protecting emblem.[5] For speechmaking at the bar, or any other pursuit that claims the people’s attention, wins enemies for a man; but philosophy is peaceful and minds her own business. Men cannot scorn her; she is honoured by every profession, even the vilest among them. Evil can never grow so strong, and nobility of character can never be so plotted against, that the name of philosophy shall cease to be worshipful and sacred. Philosophy itself, however, should be practised with calmness and moderation.

12. “Very well, then,” you retort, “do you regard the philosophy of Marcus Cato as moderate? Cato’s voice strove to check a civil war. Cato parted the swords of maddened chieftains. When some fell foul of Pompey and others fell foul of Caesar, Cato defied both parties at once!”

13. Nevertheless, one may well question whether, in those days, a wise man ought to have taken any part in public affairs, and ask: “What do you mean, Marcus Cato? It is not now a question of freedom; long since has freedom gone to rack and ruin. The question is, whether it is Caesar or Pompey who controls the State. Why, Cato, should you take sides in that dispute? It is no business of yours; a tyrant is being selected. What does it concern you who conquers? The better man may win; but the winner is bound to be the worse man.”[6] I have referred to Cato’s final rôle. But even in previous years the wise man was not permitted to intervene in such plundering of the state; for what could Cato do but raise his voice and utter unavailing words? At one time he was “hustled” by the mob and spat upon and forcibly removed from the forum and marked for exile; at another, he was taken straight to prison from the senate-chamber.

14. However, we shall consider later[7] whether the wise man ought to give his attention to politics; meanwhile, I beg you to consider those Stoics who, shut out from public life, have withdrawn into privacy for the purpose of improving men’s existence and framing laws for the human race without incurring the displeasure of those in power. The wise man will not upset the customs of the people, nor will he invite the attention of the populace by any novel ways of living.

15. “What then? Can one who follows out this plan be safe in any case?” I cannot guarantee you this any more than I can guarantee good health in the case of a man who observes moderation; although, as a matter of fact, good health results from such moderation. Sometimes a vessel perishes in harbour; but what do you think happens on the open sea? And how much more beset with danger that man would be, who even in his leisure is not secure, if he were busily working at many things! Innocent persons sometimes perish; who would deny that? But the guilty perish more frequently. A soldier’s skill is not at fault if he receives the death-blow through his armour.

16. And finally, the wise man regards the reason for all his actions, but not the results. The beginning is in our own power; fortune decides the issue, but I do not allow her to pass sentence upon myself. You may say: “But she can inflict a measure of suffering and of trouble.” The highwayman does not pass sentence when he slays.

17. Now you are stretching forth your hand for the daily gift. Golden indeed will be the gift with which I shall load you; and, inasmuch as we have mentioned gold, let me tell you how its use and enjoyment may bring you greater pleasure. “He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most.”[8] “Author’s name, please!” you say. Now, to show you how generous I am, it is my intent to praise the dicta of other schools. The phrase belongs to Epicurus, or Metrodorus, or some one of that particular thinking-shop.

18. But what difference does it make who spoke the words? They were uttered for the world. He who craves riches feels fear on their account. No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. He collects his accounts, he wears out the pavement in the forum, he turns over his ledger,[9] – in short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Cf. Tacitus, Annals, xv. 44, describing the tortures practised upon the Christians.
  2.  Scylla was a rock on the Italian side of the Straits. Charybdis was a whirlpool on the Sicillian side. Servius on Vergil, Aeneid, iii, 420 defines the dextrum as the shore “to the right of those coming from the Ionian sea.”
  3.  Cf. Juvenal, x. 22 cantabit vacuus coram latrone viator.
  4.  Cf. the proverb necesse est multos timeat quem multi timent, which is found in Seneca, de Ira, ii. 11. 4 and often elsewhere.
  5.  Literally, “is as good as a (priest’s) fillet.”
  6.  Cf. Tac. Hist. i. 50 inter duos quorum bello solum id scires, deteriorem fore vicisset.
  7.  See, for example, Letter xxii.
  8.  Epicurus, Ep. iii. p. 63. 19 Usener.
  9.  Named kalendarium because interest was reckoned according to the Kalends of each month.

Letter XII. On Old Age

Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse

In the 12th letter Seneca deals with an issue that a growing number of people today have to deal with: old age.

He begins by recalling a recent visit to one of his cottages, during which he complained to one of his employees that he was spending a lot of money on maintenance. But his caretaker protested that the house was getting older, and the repairs were therefore fully justified. Seneca writes, “this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?“(XII, 1)

What should be the wise person’s attitude towards old age? Seneca puts very vividly:

Let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say: I have lived; And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. When a man has said: “I have lived!“, every morning he arises he receives a bonus. (XII, 9)

As he often does in his letters, Seneca ends with a “gift,” a meaningful quotation from another author, which in this case is: “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint” (XII, 10). This is another reference to suicide, something to be chosen under certain circumstances according to the stoics.

The above saying is from none other than the master of the main rival of the stoic school. Seneca, then, presumes Lucilius’ protest:

“Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property (XII, 11)

Once again, an appealing expression, an example of true wisdom: no matter where the truth comes from, once learned, it is our collective property.

Points:

  1. Death comes, likewise, to the young and the old.
  2. Live your life, seize the day.
  3. Good ideas are common property.

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Image: Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse


XII. On Old Age

1. Wherever I turn, I see evidences of my advancing years. I visited lately my country-place, and protested against the money which was spent on the tumble-down building. My bailiff maintained that the flaws were not due to his own carelessness; “he was doing everything possible, but the house was old.” And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?

2. I was angry, and I embraced the first opportunity to vent my spleen in the bailiff’s presence. “It is clear,” I cried, “that these plane-trees are neglected; they have no leaves. Their branches are so gnarled and shrivelled; the boles are so rough and unkempt! This would not happen, if someone loosened the earth at their feet, and watered them.” The bailiff swore by my protecting deity that “he was doing everything possible, and never relaxed his efforts, but those trees were old.” Between you and me, I had planted those trees myself, I had seen them in their first leaf.

3. Then I turned to the door and asked: “Who is that broken-down dotard? You have done well to place him at the entrance; for he is outward bound.[1] Where did you get him? What pleasure did it give you to take up for burial some other man’s dead?”[2] But the slave said: “Don’t you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images.[3] My father was Philositus the steward, and I am your pet slave.” “The man is clean crazy,” I remarked. “Has my pet slave become a little boy again? But it is quite possible; his teeth are just dropping out.”[4]

4. I owe it to my country-place that my old age became apparent whithersoever I turned. Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it. Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, – the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness.

5. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline. And I myself believe that the period which stands, so to speak, on the edge of the roof, possesses pleasures of its own. Or else the very fact of our not wanting pleasures has taken the place of the pleasures themselves. How comforting it is to have tired out one’s appetites, and to have done with them!

6. “But,” you say, “it is a nuisance to be looking death in the face!” Death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike. We are not summoned according to our rating on the censor’s list.[5] Moreover, no one is so old that it would be improper for him to hope for another day of existence. And one day, mind you, is a stage on life’s journey. Our span of life is divided into parts; it consists of large circles enclosing smaller. One circle embraces and bounds the rest; it reaches from birth to the last day of existence. The next circle limits the period of our young manhood. The third confines all of childhood in its circumference. Again, there is, in a class by itself, the year; it contains within itself all the divisions of time by the multiplication of which we get the total of life. The month is bounded by a narrower ring. The smallest circle of all is the day; but even a day has its beginning and its ending, its sunrise and its sunset.

7. Hence Heraclitus, whose obscure style gave him his surname,[6] remarked: “One day is equal to every day.” Different persons have interpreted the saying in different ways. Some hold that days are equal in number of hours, and this is true; for if by “day” we mean twenty-four hours’ time, all days must be equal, inasmuch as the night acquires what the day loses. But others maintain that one day is equal to all days through resemblance, because the very longest space of time possesses no element which cannot be found in a single day, – namely, light and darkness, – and even to eternity day makes these alternations[7] more numerous, not different when it is shorter and different again when it is longer.

8. Hence, every day ought to be regulated as if it closed the series, as if it rounded out and completed our existence. Pacuvius, who by long occupancy made Syria his own,[8] used to hold a regular burial sacrifice in his own honour, with wine and the usual funeral feasting, and then would have himself carried from the dining-room to his chamber, while eunuchs applauded and sang in Greek to a musical accompaniment: “He has lived his life, he has lived his life!”

9. Thus Pacuvius had himself carried out to burial every day. Let us, however, do from a good motive what he used to do from a debased motive; let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say:

I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me
Is finished.[9]

And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: “I have lived!”, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.

10. But now I ought to close my letter. “What?” you say; “shall it come to me without any little offering?” Be not afraid; it brings something, – nay, more than something, a great deal. For what is more noble than the following saying[10] of which I make this letter the bearer: “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint.” Of course not. On all sides lie many short and simple paths to freedom; and let us thank God that no man can be kept in life. We may spurn the very constraints that hold us.

11. “Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. And I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  A jesting allusion to the Roman funeral; the corpse’s feet pointing towards the door.
  2.  His former owner should have kept him and buried him.
  3.  Small figures, generally of terra-cotta, were frequently given to children as presents at the Saturnalia. Cf. Macrobius, i. 11. 49 sigila . . . pro se atque suis piaculum.
  4.  i.e., the old slave resembles a child in that he is losing his teeth (but for the second time).
  5.  i.e., seniores, as contrasted with iuniores.
  6.  ὁ σκοτεινός, “the Obscure,” Frag. 106 Diels².
  7.  i.e., of light and darkness.
  8.  Usus was the mere enjoyment of a piece of property; dominium was the exclusive right to its control. Possession for one, or two, years conferred ownership. See Leage, Roman Private Law, pp. 133, 152, and 164. Although Pacuvius was governor so long that the province seemed to belong to him, yet he knew he might die any day.
  9.  Vergil, Aeneid, iv. 653.
  10.  Epicurus, Sprüche, 9 Wokte.

Letter XI. On the Blush of Modesty

Cato's death Pierre Bouillon

In Letter 11 Seneca explains that our body gives us hints that we are not in control using the blushing as an analogy. This is a remarkable insight into the limits of philosophy: wisdom itself, cannot overcome our innate reactions and natural predispositions. When embarrassed we blush, if we feel fear or anger, we cannot avoid the stress. As would Epictetus later teach “not up to us”:

That which is implanted and inborn can be toned down by training, but not overcome.

So, no matter what you do, inborn imperfections, especially the way that your body acts to different situations cannot be controlled. But it doesn’t mean that you are a weak person, it is just the universe telling you “relax, you’re not in control!”

This established, Seneca continues with a bit of good advice, which is to cultivate wisdom despite its limitations. But how do we cultivate wisdom?  Seneca’s answer is archetypal Stoicism:

“Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them” (XI.8)

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit … For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler” (XI.10).

The choice of your personal role model depends on you, but choose well, keep practicing by imagining that he is always looking over your shoulder, and your crooked staff will gradually be straightened out with the help of a straight ruler.

Points:

  1. No matter what we do, inborn imperfections, cannot be controlled.
  2. Nevertheless, cultivate wisdom despite its limitations.
  3. Choose a role model, and act as if the is watching over you.

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Image: Cato’s death by Pierre Bouillon. Cato was the best example of stoic conduct according to Seneca.


XI. On the Blush of Modesty

1. Your friend and I have had a conversation. He is a man of ability; his very first words showed what spirit and understanding he possesses, and what progress he has already made. He gave me a foretaste, and he will not fail to answer thereto. For he spoke not from forethought, but was suddenly caught off his guard. When he tried to collect himself, he could scarcely banish that hue of modesty, which is a good sign in a young man; the blush that spread over his face seemed so to rise from the depths. And I feel sure that his habit of blushing will stay with him after he has strengthened his character, stripped off all his faults, and become wise. For by no wisdom can natural weaknesses of the body be removed. That which is implanted and inborn can be toned down by training, but not overcome.

2. The steadiest speaker, when before the public, often breaks into perspiration, as if he had wearied or over-heated himself; some tremble in the knees when they rise to speak; I know of some whose teeth chatter, whose tongues falter, whose lips quiver. Training and experience can never shake off this habit; nature exerts her own power and through such a weakness makes her presence known even to the strongest.

3. I know that the blush, too, is a habit of this sort, spreading suddenly over the faces of the most dignified men. It is, indeed more prevalent in youth, because of the warmer blood and the sensitive countenance; nevertheless, both seasoned men and aged men are affected by it. Some are most dangerous when they redden, as if they were letting all their sense of shame escape.

4. Sulla, when the blood mantled his cheeks, was in his fiercest mood. Pompey had the most sensitive cast of countenance; he always blushed in the presence of a gathering, and especially at a public assembly. Fabianus also, I remember, reddened when he appeared as a witness before the senate; and his embarrassment became him to a remarkable degree.

5. Such a habit is not due to mental weakness, but to the novelty of a situation; an inexperienced person is not necessarily confused, but is usually affected, because he slips into this habit by natural tendency of the body. Just as certain men are full-blooded, so others are of a quick and mobile blood, that rushes to the face at once.

6. As I remarked, Wisdom can never remove this habit; for if she could rub out all our faults, she would be mistress of the universe. Whatever is assigned to us by the terms of our birth and the blend in our constitutions, will stick with us, no matter how hard or how long the soul may have tried to master itself. And we cannot forbid these feelings any more than we can summon them.

7. Actors in the theatre, who imitate the emotions, who portray fear and nervousness, who depict sorrow, imitate bashfulness by hanging their heads, lowering their voices, and keeping their eyes fixed and rooted upon the ground. They cannot, however, muster a blush; for the blush cannot be prevented or acquired. Wisdom will not assure us of a remedy, or give us help against it; it comes or goes unbidden, and is a law unto itself.

8. But my letter calls for its closing sentence. Hear and take to heart this useful and wholesome motto:[1]Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.

9. Such, my dear Lucilius, is the counsel of Epicurus;[2] he has quite properly given us a guardian and an attendant. We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone whom it can respect, – one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed.[3] Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts! And happy also is he who can so revere a man as to calm and regulate himself by calling him to mind! One who can so revere another, will soon be himself worthy of reverence.

10. Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Epicurus, Frag. 210 Usener.
  2.  Frag. 210 Usener.
  3.  The figure is taken from the ἄδυτον, the Holy of Holies in a temple. Cf. Vergil, Aeneid, vi. 10 secreta Sibyllas.

Letter IX. On Philosophy and Friendship

Gladiators before entering the arena

In the ninth letter, Seneca talks about friendship and its relationship with philosophy. He begins by making a distinction between the epicurean and stoic concepts of Apatheia and Ataraxia:

“There is this difference between ourselves and the other school: our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them. But we and they alike hold this idea, – that the wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself.” (IX, 3)

This explanation could be, mistakenly, considered a Stoic paradox, but, of course, there is no contradiction. One is self-sufficient in the sense that, if need be, one can be happy without externals.  Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that is the preferred way to live. Indeed, Seneca clarifies:

In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say ‘can,’ I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity.” (IX,5)

“The wise man, I say, self-sufficient though he be, nevertheless desires friends if only for the purpose of practising friendship, in order that his noble qualities may not lie dormant. Not, however, for the purpose mentioned by Epicurus in the letter quoted above: “That there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want;” but that he may have someone by whose sick-bed he himself may sit, someone a prisoner in hostile hands whom he himself may set free.”(IX,8)

So while the Epicurean seeks friendships because they are pleasurable and useful, the Stoic seeks them as a way to be helpful and exercise his virtue. The “friendship of utility,” that is, a relationship by reciprocal advantage is dangerous. Seneca clearly states: “He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays. A man will be attracted by some reward offered in exchange for his friendship, if he be attracted by aught in friendship other than friendship itself.” (IX,9)

In the letter, the term “wise man” is repeated numerous times. It is important to understand that for Seneca “sage/wise” is an ideal to be achieved, and not someone real. So, the wise man is equivalent to the gods, the only distinction being the wise man mortal.

Points:

  1. If you would be loved, love (§6)
  2. Friendship based on utility is not real friendship at all. If we want to engage in real friendship, the only valid reason for it is friendship itself
  3. It matters not what one says, but what one feels (§22)

Image: Gladiators before entering the arena by Stepan Bakalovich



IX. On Philosophy and Friendship

1. You desire to know whether Epicurus is right when, in one of his letters,[1] he rebukes those who hold that the wise man is self-sufficient and for that reason does not stand in need of friendships. This is the objection raised by Epicurus against Stilbo and those who believe[2] that the Supreme Good is a soul which is insensible to feeling.

2. We are bound to meet with a double meaning if we try to express the Greek term “lack of feeling” summarily, in a single word, rendering it by the Latin word impatientia. For it may be understood in the meaning the opposite to that which we wish it to have. What we mean to express is, a soul which rejects any sensation of evil; but people will interpret the idea as that of a soul which can endure no evil. Consider, therefore, whether it is not better to say “a soul that cannot be harmed,” or “a soul entirely beyond the realm of suffering.”

3. There is this difference between ourselves and the other school:[3] our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them. But we and they alike hold this idea, – that the wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself.

4. And mark how self-sufficient he is; for on occasion he can be content with a part of himself. If he lose a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left, taking as much pleasure in his impaired and maimed body as he took when it was sound. But while he does not pine for these parts if they are missing, he prefers not to lose them.

5. In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say “can,” I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity. But he need never lack friends, for it lies in his own control how soon he shall make good a loss. Just as Phidias, if he lose a statue, can straightway carve another, even so our master in the art of making friendships can fill the place of a friend he has lost.

6. If you ask how one can make oneself a friend quickly, I will tell you, provided we are agreed that I may pay my debt[4] at once and square the account, so far as this letter is concerned. Hecato,[5] says: “I can show you a philtre, compounded without drugs, herbs, or any witch’s incantation: ‘If you would be loved, love.’” Now there is great pleasure, not only in maintaining old and established friendships, but also in beginning and acquiring new ones.

7. There is the same difference between winning a new friend and having already won him, as there is between the farmer who sows and the farmer who reaps. The philosopher Attalus used to say: “It is more pleasant to make than to keep a friend, as it is more pleasant to the artist to paint than to have finished painting.” When one is busy and absorbed in one’s work, the very absorption affords great delight; but when one has withdrawn one’s hand from the completed masterpiece, the pleasure is not so keen. Henceforth it is the fruits of his art that he enjoys; it was the art itself that he enjoyed while he was painting. In the case of our children, their young manhood yields the more abundant fruits, but their infancy was sweeter.

8. Let us now return to the question. The wise man, I say, self-sufficient though he be, nevertheless desires friends if only for the purpose of practising friendship, in order that his noble qualities may not lie dormant. Not, however, for the purpose mentioned by Epicurus[6] in the letter quoted above: “That there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want;” but that he may have someone by whose sick-bed he himself may sit, someone a prisoner in hostile hands whom he himself may set free. He who regards himself only, and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly. The end will be like the beginning: he has made friends with one who might assist him out of bondage; at the first rattle of the chain such a friend will desert him.

9. These are the so-called “fair-weather” friendships; one who is chosen for the sake of utility will be satisfactory only so long as he is useful. Hence prosperous men are blockaded by troops of friends; but those who have failed stand amid vast loneliness, their friends fleeing from the very crisis which is to test their worth. Hence, also, we notice those many shameful cases of persons who, through fear, desert or betray. The beginning and the end cannot but harmonize. He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays. A man will be attracted by some reward offered in exchange for his friendship, if he be attracted by aught in friendship other than friendship itself.

10. For what purpose, then, do I make a man my friend? In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too. The friendship which you portray is a bargain and not a friendship; it regards convenience only, and looks to the results.

11. Beyond question the feeling of a lover has in it something akin to friendship; one might call it friendship run mad. But, though this is true, does anyone love for the sake of gain, or promotion, or renown? Pure[7] love, careless of all other things, kindles the soul with desire for the beautiful object, not without the hope of a return of the affection. What then? Can a cause which is more honourable produce a passion that is base?

12. You may retort: “We are not now discussing the question whether friendship is to be cultivated for its own sake.” On the contrary, nothing more urgently requires demonstration; for if friendship is to be sought for its own sake, he may seek it who is self-sufficient. “How, then,” you ask, “does he seek it?” Precisely as he seeks an object of great beauty, not attracted to it by desire for gain, nor yet frightened by the instability of Fortune. One who seeks friendship for favourable occasions, strips it of all its nobility.

13. “The wise man is self-sufficient.” This phrase, my dear Lucilius, is incorrectly explained by many; for they withdraw the wise man from the world, and force him to dwell within his own skin. But we must mark with care what this sentence signifies and how far it applies; the wise man is sufficient unto himself for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps towards mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only a sound and upright soul, one that despises Fortune.

14. I should like also to state to you one of the distinctions of Chrysippus,[8] who declares that the wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things.[9] “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool, for he does not understand how to use anything, but he is in want of everything.” The wise man needs hands, eyes, and many things that are necessary for his daily use; but he is in want of nothing. For want implies a necessity, and nothing is necessary to the wise man.

15. Therefore, although he is self-sufficient, yet he has need of friends. He craves as many friends as possible, not, however, that he may live happily; for he will live happily even without friends. The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without, it begins to be subject to the play of Fortune.

16. People may say: “But what sort of existence will the wise man have, if he be left friendless when thrown into prison, or when stranded in some foreign nation, or when delayed on a long voyage, or when cast upon a lonely shore?” His life will be like that of Jupiter, who, amid the dissolution of the world, when the gods are confounded together and Nature rests for a space from her work, can retire into himself and give himself over to his own thoughts.[10] In some such way as this the sage will act; he will retreat into himself, and live with himself.

17. As long as he is allowed to order his affairs according to his judgment, he is self-sufficient – and marries a wife; he is self-sufficient – and brings up children; he is self-sufficient – and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man. Natural promptings, and not his own selfish needs, draw him into friendships. For just as other things have for us an inherent attractiveness, so has friendship. As we hate solitude and crave society, as nature draws men to each other, so in this matter also there is an attraction which makes us desirous of friendship.

18. Nevertheless, though the sage may love his friends dearly, often comparing them with himself, and putting them ahead of himself, yet all the good will be limited to his own being, and he will speak the words which were spoken by the very Stilbo[11] whom Epicurus criticizes in his letter. For Stilbo, after his country was captured and his children and his wife lost, as he emerged from the general desolation alone and yet happy, spoke as follows to Demetrius, called Sacker of Cities because of the destruction he brought upon them, in answer to the question whether he had lost anything: “I have all my goods with me!

19. There is a brave and stout-hearted man for you! The enemy conquered, but Stilbo conquered his conqueror. “I have lost nothing!” Aye, he forced Demetrius to wonder whether he himself had conquered after all. “My goods are all with me!” In other words, he deemed nothing that might be taken from him to be a good. We marvel at certain animals because they can pass through fire and suffer no bodily harm; but how much more marvellous is a man who has marched forth unhurt and unscathed through fire and sword and devastation! Do you understand now how much easier it is to conquer a whole tribe than to conquer one man? This saying of Stilbo makes common ground with Stoicism; the Stoic also can carry his goods unimpaired through cities that have been burned to ashes; for he is self-sufficient. Such are the bounds which he sets to his own happiness.

20. But you must not think that our school alone can utter noble words; Epicurus himself, the reviler of Stilbo, spoke similar language;[12] put it down to my credit, though I have already wiped out my debt for the present day.[13] He says: “Whoever does not regard what he has as most ample wealth, is unhappy, though he be master of the whole world.” Or, if the following seems to you a more suitable phrase, – for we must try to render the meaning and not the mere words: “A man may rule the world and still be unhappy, if he does not feel that he is supremely happy.”

21. In order, however, that you may know that these sentiments are universal,[14] suggested, of course, by Nature, you will find in one of the comic poets this verse:

Unblest is he who thinks himself unblest.[15]

For what does your condition matter, if it is bad in your own eyes?

22. You may say: “What then? If yonder man, rich by base means, and yonder man, lord of many but slave of more, shall call themselves happy, will their own opinion make them happy?” It matters not what one says, but what one feels; also, not how one feels on one particular day, but how one feels at all times. There is no reason, however, why you should fear that this great privilege will fall into unworthy hands; only the wise man is pleased with his own. Folly is ever troubled with weariness of itself.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Frag. 174 Usener.
  2.  i.e., the Cynics.
  3.  i.e., the Cynics.
  4.  i.e., the diurna mercedula; see Ep. vi, 7.
  5.  Frag. 27 Fowler.
  6.  Frag. 175 Usener.
  7.  “Pure love,” i.e., love in its essence, unalloyed with other emotions.
  8.  Cf. his Frag. moral. 674 von Arnim.
  9.  The distinction is based upon the meaning of egere, “to be in want of” something indispensible, and opus esse, “to have need of” something which one can do without.
  10.  This refers to the Stoic conflagration: after certain cycles their world was destroyed by fire. Cf. E. V. Arnold, Roman Stoicism, pp. 192 f.; cf. also Chrysippus, Frag. phys. 1065 von Arnim.
  11.  Gnomologici Vaticani 515ᵃ Sternberg.
  12.  Frag. 474 Usener.
  13.  Cf. above § 6.
  14.  i.e., not confined to the Stoics, etc.
  15.  Author unknown; perhaps, as Buecheler thinks, adapted from the Greek.

Letter VIII. On the Philosopher’s Seclusion

Fortune by Tadeusz Kuntze

In his eighth letter Seneca continues to advise us to avoid the crowd and the things that please the crowd, remembering whatever fortune gives us can also be taken away. “Fortunae” to the Latin author resembles our “luck” or “destiny”, but is also a goddess. In the post’s image, Fortune by Tadeusz Kuntze, the roman goddess Fortuna randomly distributes her favours.

Seneca defends himself from the accusation of living a hidden life of reflection and writing as well as not living up to the demand that a man of stature. Predicts that his writings will be very important to generations of people to come and therefore the best use of his time  (got it right, after all we are discussing it almost 2000 latter). Seneca feels he has identified the right path late in life. He sees avoiding the mob and the gifts of chance as being the key to happy living:

“I point other men to the right path, which I have found late in life, when wearied with wandering. I cry out to them: “Avoid whatever pleases the throng: avoid the gifts of Chance! ” (VIII,3)

This is a familiar stoic mind set – opportunities of chance whether good or bad are to be avoided or at least distrusted as they have nothing to do with our own behaviour. The gifts of chance are not our possessions, for they can be taken away at any stage. We only have our own thoughts and behaviour This is the route to freedom from the Fortuna’s whims. Seneca also recommends frugal life and careful handling of one’ s body:

“Hold fast, then, to this sound and wholesome rule of life; that you indulge the body only so far as is needful for good health. The body should be treated more rigorously, that it may not be disobedient to the mind. Eat merely to relieve your hunger; drink merely to quench your thirst; dress merely to keep out the cold; …. And reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.” (VIII, 5 )

Points:

  1. Avoid whatever pleases the throng: avoid the gifts of Chance;
  2. Understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a thatch as by a roof of gold;
  3. Gifts of Chance are not to be regarded as part of our possessions. 

Also published on Medium (free link).


VIII. On the Philosopher’s Seclusion

1. “Do you bid me,” you say, “shun the throng, and withdraw from men, and be content with my own conscience? Where are the counsels of your school, which order a man to die in the midst of active work?” As to the course[1] which I seem to you to be urging on you now and then, my object in shutting myself up and locking the door is to be able to help a greater number. I never spend a day in idleness; I appropriate even a part of the night for study. I do not allow time for sleep but yield to it when I must, and when my eyes are wearied with waking and ready to fall shut, I keep them at their task.

2. I have withdrawn not only from men, but from affairs, especially from my own affairs; I am working for later generations, writing down some ideas that may be of assistance to them. There are certain wholesome counsels, which may be compared to prescriptions of useful drugs; these I am putting into writing; for I have found them helpful in ministering to my own sores, which, if not wholly cured, have at any rate ceased to spread.

3. I point other men to the right path, which I have found late in life, when wearied with wandering. I cry out to them: “Avoid whatever pleases the throng: avoid the gifts of Chance! Halt before every good which Chance brings to you, in a spirit of doubt and fear; for it is the dumb animals and fish that are deceived by tempting hopes. Do you call these things the ‘gifts’ of Fortune? They are snares. And any man among you who wishes to live a life of safety will avoid, to the utmost of his power, these limed twigs of her favour, by which we mortals, most wretched in this respect also, are deceived; for we think that we hold them in our grasp, but they hold us in theirs.

4. Such a career leads us into precipitous ways, and life on such heights ends in a fall. Moreover, we cannot even stand up against prosperity when she begins to drive us to leeward; nor can we go down, either, ‘with the ship at least on her course,’ or once for all;[2] Fortune does not capsize us, – she plunges our bows under[3] and dashes us on the rocks.

5. “Hold fast, then, to this sound and wholesome rule of life; that you indulge the body only so far as is needful for good health. The body should be treated more rigorously, that it may not be disobedient to the mind. Eat merely to relieve your hunger; drink merely to quench your thirst; dress merely to keep out the cold; house yourself merely as a protection against personal discomfort. It matters little whether the house be built of turf, or of variously coloured imported marble; understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a thatch as by a roof of gold. Despise everything that useless toil creates as an ornament and an object of beauty. And reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.”[4]

6. When I commune in such terms with myself and with future generations, do you not think that I am doing more good than when I appear as counsel in court, or stamp my seal upon a will, or lend my assistance in the senate, by word or action, to a candidate? Believe me, those who seem to be busied with nothing are busied with the greater tasks; they are dealing at the same time with things mortal and things immortal.

7. But I must stop, and pay my customary contribution, to balance this letter. The payment shall not be made from my own property; for I am still conning Epicurus.[5] I read to-day, in his works, the following sentence: “If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of Philosophy.” The man who submits and surrenders himself to her is not kept waiting; he is emancipated[6]on the spot. For the very service of Philosophy is freedom.

8. It is likely that you will ask me why I quote so many of Epicurus’s noble words instead of words taken from our own school. But is there any reason why you should regard them as sayings of Epicurus and not common property? How many poets give forth ideas that have been uttered, or may be uttered, by philosophers! I need not touch upon the tragedians and our writers of national drama;[7] for these last are also somewhat serious, and stand half-way between comedy and tragedy. What a quantity of sagacious verses lie buried in the mime! How many of Publilius’s lines are worthy of being spoken by buskin-clad actors, as well as by wearers of the slipper![8]

9. I shall quote one verse of his, which concerns philosophy, and particularly that phase of it which we were discussing a moment ago, wherein he says that the gifts of Chance are not to be regarded as part of our possessions:

Still alien is whatever you have gained by coveting.[9]

10. I recall that you yourself expressed this idea much more happily and concisely:

What Chance has made yours is not really yours.[10]

And a third, spoken by you still more happily, shall not be omitted:

The good that could be given, can be removed.[11]

I shall not charge this up to the expense account, because I have given it to you from your own stock.

Farewell


Footnotes

  1.  As contrasted with the general Stoic doctrine of taking part in the world’s work.
  2.  See Ep. lxxxv. 33 for the famous saying of the Rhodian pilot.
  3.  cernulat, equivalent to Greek ἀναχαιτίζω, of a horse which throws a rider over its head.
  4.  Cf. the Stoic precept nil admirandum.
  5.  Frag. 199 Usener.
  6.  Literally “spun around” by the master and dismissed to freedom. Cf. Persius, v. 75f.
  7.  Fabulae togatae were plays which dealt with Roman subject matter, as contrasted with adaptations from the Greek, called palliatae. The term, in the widest sense includes both comedy and tragedy.
  8.  i.e., comedians or mimes.
  9.  Syri Sententiae, p. 309 Ribbeck².
  10.  Com. Rom. Frag. p. 394 Ribbeck².
  11.  ibidem.

Image: Fortune by Tadeusz Kuntze