Letter XXXVI. On the Value of Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Section 8 Seneca offers a scientific perspective on death:

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

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

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

(image: Allegory of Fortune, by Salvator Rosa)


XXXVI. On the Value of Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell

Footnotes

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

Letter XXXV. On the Friendship of Kindred Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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


XXXV. On the Friendship of Kindred Minds

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

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

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

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

Farewell

Footnotes

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

Review: Seneca, Of Clemency

De ClementiaOf Clemency”, also translated as “On Mercy”, is an essay of originally three volumes of which only the first and part of the second survived. It was written in 55-56 AD, dedicated to Emperor Nero in his first (or second) year of reign.

In “Of Clemency” Seneca he develops his reflections on the power of the state and on the difference between the tyrant and the good king. He traces the image of a ruler who reigns, as representative of the gods. He explains that absolute power can be legitimised and justified by the practice of clemency, thus maintaining order and establishing consensus among men. By being clement, by being virtuous, the emperor becomes useful to the public good, behaves according to Nature, conforms to the Logos, to Fortune.

In the work we see how clemency should be exercised mainly by those who can wield power over others: princes, teachers, military, parents, considering that the damage caused by an error of judgment by them, when affected by any passion, will be deeply harmful to those who receive the punishment and to those who order it. For the prince, the practice of clemency, besides avoiding the creation of oppositions, legitimate his power and guarantee him the right of succession, provides stability and security in power. While the tyrant, the bad emperor is persecuted and lives without tranquility, the philosopher king, the good and clement emperor lives in peace, because he counts on love and not on the fear of his subjects:

… to be powerful only for mischief is the power of a pestilence. That man’s greatness alone rests upon a secure foundation, whom all men know to be as much on their side as he is above them, of whose watchful care for the safety of each and all of them they receive daily proofs, at whose approach they do not fly in terror, as though some evil and dangerous animal had sprung out from its den, but flock to him as they would to the bright and health-giving sunshine. They are perfectly ready to fling themselves upon the swords of conspirators in his defence, to offer their bodies if his only path to safety must be formed of corpses: they protect his sleep by nightly watches, they surround him and defend him on every side, and expose themselves to the dangers which menace him.” (I,iii)

Clemency therefore, as I said before, naturally befits all mankind, but more especially rulers, because in their case there is more for it to save, and it is displayed upon a greater scale. Cruelty in a private man can do but very little harm; but the ferocity of princes is war” (I,v)

The instructional contrast between the good ruler and the tyrant is made initially in a theoretical way, then moving on to examples of tyrannical rulers, such as Sulla and Caligula as a warning; Augustus as an example to be followed. An extensive illustration of Augustus’ clemency with the rebel Cinna next to an example from Nero’s own life is intended to encourage the aspiring emperor to also show clemency. (Book I, chapters ix-xvi). Seneca also states that excessive punishment is bad for the morale of the nation:

A proposal was once made in the Senate to distinguish slaves from free men by their dress: it was then discovered how dangerous it would be for our slaves to be able to count our numbers. Be assured that the same thing would be the case if no one’s offence is pardoned: it will quickly be discovered how far the number of bad men exceeds that of the good.” (I,xxiv)

In Book II Seneca he reminds Nero of an episode in which he had shown clemency and thereby achieved his goals and demonstrated a clear reasoning and benevolence. He then explains that Clemency is a virtue that requires balance in its application: it is not opportune to have a promiscuous and banal clemency, nor an inaccessible clemency, because it is as cruel to forgive everyone as it is to forgive no one. 

There are four definitions of clemency to Seneca:  (II, iii)

  •  Mercy is a restraining of the mind from vengeance when it is in its power to avenge itself.
  • Gentleness shown by a powerful man in fixing the punishment of a weaker one.
  • …self-restraint, which remits some part of a fine which it deserves to receive and which is due to it.
  • …a tendency towards mildness in inflicting punishment.

Seneca considers pity to be a vice, and defines it as the corruption of the clemency:

At this point it is useful to inquire into what pity is; for many praise it as a virtue, and say that a good man is full of pity. This also is a disease of the mind. Both of these stand close to mercy and to strictness, and both ought to be avoided, lest under the name of strictness we be led into cruelty, and under the name of mercy into pity.” (II,iv)

Pardon is the remitting of a deserved punishment. …  A man grants pardon to one whom he ought to punish: now the wise man does nothing which he ought not to do, and omits to no nothing which he ought to do: he does not, therefore, remit any punishment which he ought to exact.  (II,vii)

Therefore, clemency would be closer to a correction of the law whose universal nature makes it fail. It would be a kind of justice exercised by a higher authority, of a humanitarian character, which allows the sovereign to override the laws written by men.

This work influenced important thinkers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. One example is the reformer John Calvin. Shortly after finishing his law studies, the young John Calvin wrote his first book, a commentary on De Clementia that consists mainly of philological notes interspersed with impressions on Seneca’s style and ideas. In his work Institutas de Religia Christi, Calvino addresses the role of civil authorities in punishment and the importance of revisiting concepts of this book.

Unfortunately the essay came to us incomplete, the text would have been written in three books. Of the three parts, the manuscripts offer only book I and the first seven chapters of book II. Book III is totally lost. As a matter of fact, it is not known for certain whether part of the work has been lost or whether Seneca has never finished it. From Book I, we have the complete text and the theme. From Book II, the summary announces that it will deal with the nature of clemency and the signs that distinguish it from vices. Even unfinished, the subject and the summary agree. Book III, still according to the summary, shall try to teach, through practical advice, how the human spirit can be led to the exercise of clemency. Nothing remains of this book.

The work summarizes the concept of authority according to stoic philosophy: the aristocratic authority that dominates the people, retaining their anarchic tendencies, contributing to order and development, is derived from their own greatness and power, which, in turn, belong to the gods whom the ruler represents.

Book on sale at AmazonApple and Kobo .

Letter: XXXIV. On a Promising Pupil

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

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

The letter is closed with a strong sentence:

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

(Image: Master and his pupils by Daniel Huntington)


XXXIV. On a Promising Pupil

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

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

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

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

Farewell

Footnotes

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

Letter XXXIII. On the Futility of Learning Maxims

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

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

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

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

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

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

(image: La Tache noire by Albert Bettannier)


XXXIII. On the Futility of Learning Maxims

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

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

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

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

Only the poor man counts his flock.[6]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell

Footnotes

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

Review: Seneca, On the shortness of life

Seneca wrote On the shortness of life in 49, the year he returned to Rome from his exile in Corsica. The twenty sections were written as a moral essay addressed to his friend Paulinus. It begins: “The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.” (I, 1)

Seneca immediately argues that it is not really the case that human life is short, but that the majority of people waste much of it.  “The part of life we really live is small. For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.” (II, 3)

In section III he observes that we tend to carefully safeguard goods that can be exchanged for money, and yet we are incredibly wasteful of the one thing that people cannot give us back: time: “Look back in memory and consider when you ever had a fixed plan, how few days have passed as you had intended, when you were ever at your own disposal, when your face ever wore its natural expression, when your mind was ever unperturbed, … how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire; you will perceive that you are dying before your season! (III, 3)

After this passage, Seneca reproaches Paulinus for leaving only scraps of his life to the pursuit of wisdom after he had taken care of ordinary business:  “Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live!” (III, 5)

Seneca says that putting things off is a great waste of life’s resources and also that “yet postponement is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day as it comes, it snatches from them the present by promising something hereafter”. In section X, he says that life can be divided into three main parts: “Life is divided into three periods—that which has been, that which is, that which will be. Of these the present time is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.

What, then, is a good way to spend your life? Not surprisingly, Seneca suggests engaging in conversations with philosophers of all times, as we can do by reading this book: “we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam. We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics.” and then “We are wont to say that it was not in our power to choose the parents who fell to our lot, that they have been given to men by chance; yet we may be the sons of whomsoever we will. Households there are of noblest intellects; choose the one into which you wish to be adopted; you will inherit not merely their name, but even their property, which there will be no need to guard in a mean or niggardly spirit; the more persons you share it with, the greater it will become.” (XV, 3)


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Letter XXXII. On Progress

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

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

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

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


XXXII. On Progress

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell

Footnotes

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

Review: Of Peace of Mind

The essay Of Peace of Mind was written as a means of guidance for all those who wish to dedicate themselves to moral improvement. Seneca presents the stoic doctrine’s response to help us overcome the torments caused by human fears and desires and achieve tranquility, the ideal state of serenity experienced fully and permanently by the ideal stoic sage.

Seneca’s philosophical lecture is used not as a strictly intellectual activity, but as a means to stimulate in the readers an inner disposition that can result in the practice of positive conducts in line with the stoic doctrine, of which Seneca was an important proponent.

Of Peace of Mind begins with a letter from Annaeus Serenus to his friend Seneca, asking for advice and saying that he feels he has a good command over some of his vices but not over others, and as a result his soul has no tranquility. He says “I am neither ill nor well and realizes that his judgment on his own affairs is distorted by personal prejudices. “I am well aware that these oscillations of mind are not perilous and that they threaten me with no serious disorder: to express what I complain of by an exact simile, I am not suffering from a storm, but from sea-sickness. Take from me, then, this evil, whatever it may be, and help one who is in distress within sight of land (I, 17).

Serenus lists his problems: doubt in the face of the desire for goods and physical pleasures (§5-9); alternation between the desire for social action and recollection into studies (§10-12) and an ethical and aesthetic dilemma concerning the search for fame (§13-14). After presenting the symptoms, making use of the patient’s image before the doctor, Serenus asks for the diagnosis and remedy: “I beg you, therefore, if you have any remedy by which you could stop this vacillation of mine, to deem me worthy to owe my peace of mind to you“.

Seneca’s response takes the remaining chapters and begins with a full description of the characteristics of the disease. He informs Serenus that he seeks the most important thing in life, a state that he calls Peace of Mind (tranquillitas) and that the Greeks called euthymia (II,3). He then explains that there are several kinds of men who do not achieve peace of mind, for different reasons. Some suffer from inconstancy, continually changing their goals and yet always lamenting of what they have just given up. Others are not erratic, but are in an unhappy position because of their torpidity. They “go on living not in the way they wish, but in the way they have begun to live, that is, by inertia (II,6). Still others believe that the way to overcome their inconstancy is to journey far away, but of course they carry only their own problems with them: “Thus every mortal from himself doth flee (II,14). Seneca concludes his preamble by suggesting that our problems do not reside in the place where we live, but in ourselves, and rhetorically asks: “How long are we to go on doing the same thing? (II, 15)

From Chapter III, Seneca presents a series of specific advice for Serenus on how to achieve peace of mind. The first comes from Athenodorus: “is to occupy oneself with business, with the management of affairs of state and the duties of a citizen. This is because to be at the service of others and one’s own country is, at the same time, to exercise oneself in an activity and to do good. But one can also do good and keep oneself occupied by engaging in philosophy. This kind of occupation will provide satisfaction and therefore peace of mind and will make our lives different from those of others who will have nothing to show for their own at the end of their lives: “Often a man who is very old in years has nothing beyond his age by which he can prove that he has lived a long time. It then follows with precepts about activities and idleness (negotia × otium).

In chapters VI and VII Seneca elucidates how to evaluate oneself and thus to choose a path where success is possible. It begins by warning his friend that it is common for people to think they can achieve more than they really can. The wise person, instead, is aware of his or her limitations. We must also remember that some pursuits are simply not worth the effort and we must move away from them because our time in life is short and precious. And so, says Seneca, “apply yourself to something which you can finish, or at any rate can hope to finish” (VI, 4). We must also be careful in choosing our associates, dedicating portions of our lives to people worth the effort. In addition, our quests should be of the kind we really like, if possible: “for no good is done by forcing one’s mind to engage in uncongenial work: it is vain to struggle against Nature. (VII,2)

Chapters VIII and IX deal with precepts about wealth, “the most fertile source of human sorrow (VIII, 1). Seneca warns Annaeus Serenus that, in his experience, the rich cannot bear losses better than the poor, for “that it hurts bald men as much as hairy men to have their hairs pulled out (VIII, 3). That is why Diogenes was not the owner of anything, to make it impossible for any one to take from him: “Fortune, mind your own business: Diogenes has nothing left that belongs to you (VIII:7). Of course, Seneca himself was no Diogenes, and in fact he was a very rich man. He was often accusated and charged with being hypocritical because of this, but his point is that one should not be attached to material goods. It is possible to have possessions, as long as you are not possessed by your wealth. Yet in the same section he advises to reduce the quantity of our possessions in order to reduce the probability of clinging to them in an exaggerated manner: “We never can so thoroughly defeat the vast diversity and malignity of misfortune with which we are threatened as not to feel the weight of many gusts if we offer a large spread of canvas to the wind (IX,3).

In the sequence, chapters X and XI, the vicissitudes of fortune are addressed, beginning with the good and traditional stoic suggestion on how to adjust to new situations. If you have lost something, even something precious, because of the changes of the winds of Fortune, just remember that “In every station of life you will find amusements, relaxations, and enjoyments; that is, provided you be willing to make light of evils rather than to hate them. (X,1). To this, classical quotes follow that are jewels of wisdom that require no addition: “When [the wise man] is bidden to give [property] up, he will not complain of Fortune, but will say, ‘I thank you for what I have had possession of: I have managed your property so as largely to increase it, but since you order me, I give it back to you and return it willingly and thankfully.’ (XI, 2). “What hardship can there be in returning to the place from whence one came? A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well. (XI, 4). And: “Disease, captivity, disaster, conflagration, are none of them unexpected: I always knew with what disorderly company Nature had associated me.” (XI,7).

In chapters XII and XIII the sources of restlessness arising from personal circumstances are addressed, bearing in mind the hardships of Fortune: false desires concerning goods and honors, public and private activities. Seneca warns his friend of the danger of occupying himself just to do something, instead of making good choices about how to use his time. He envisions a brief dialogue with those who do not know what they are doing or why: “By Hercules, I do not know: but I shall see some people and do something. We probably know people like that: things haven’t changed that much in two thousand years. It follows that we accept fate for what it is, and we actually try to do the best with the new circumstances. Seneca recalls the example of Zeno – the founder of the Stoic School – who lost everything in a shipwreck and began to study philosophy – saying: “Fortune bids me follow philosophy in lighter marching order (XIV, 3).

But of course Seneca understands that sometimes life is a tragedy, as when good people (he mentions Socrates, Rutilius, Pompey, Cicero and Cato) are treated with injustice. Even so, valuable lessons can be learned: “See how each of them endured his fate, and if they endured it bravely, long in your heart for courage as great as theirs … All these men discovered how at the cost of a small portion of time they might obtain immortality, and by their deaths gained eternal life. (XVI, 2-4).

In the the epilogue, Seneca affirms that the soul of men must have a rest, we must mix loneliness with social contact, work with leisure and enjoy games, amusements and drinks, but all with moderation: “We must not force crops from rich fields, for an unbroken course of heavy crops will soon exhaust their fertility, and so also the liveliness of our minds will be destroyed by unceasing labour, but they will recover their strength after a short period of rest and relief: for continuous toil produces a sort of numbness and sluggishness.

This last section overturns the unjustified accusation that the stoics would be spoil-joys, by recommending that we play with children like Socrates, dance like Scipio, walk outdoors and drink like Cato and Solon. “sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases. (XVII, 8).

It is not known when the dialogue Of Peace of Mind was written. It may have been composed and published in the period from the early 1950s until around 62 or 63.

Annaeus Serenus is the recipient not only of the book Of Peace of Mind, but also of On the Firmness of the Wise Person and of On the Leisure. He was a great friend of Seneca, a member of the equestrian order, formed by the wealthiest citizens. Serenus was also in charge of public administration, having obtained, under the influence of Seneca, the function of praefectus, responsible for fighting fires, an important activity in the city of Rome. He was quite young and died prematurely, according to Seneca in one of his letters to Lucillius. (Letters from a Stoic)

Review: Seneca, On the Happy Life

The essay On the Happy Life was written around the year 58 AD destined to his older brother, Gallio, to whom Seneca also dedicated his dialogue De Ira (“On Anger”). Seneca explains that the search for happiness is the search for reason. The main point to understand about the text is the title itself: ‘Happy’ here does not have the modern connotation of feeling good, but it is the equivalent of the Greek word eudaimonia, which is better understood as a life worthy of being lived, a state of plenitude of self. For Seneca and the stoics, the only life worth living is that of moral righteousness, the kind of existence we look at in the end and can honestly say that we are not ashamed.

Right in the first paragraph Seneca provides the stoic line of argument: We should not have happiness as our goal: “so far is it from being easy to attain to happiness that the more eagerly a man struggles to reach it the further he departs from it, if he takes the wrong road; for, since this leads in the opposite direction, his very swiftness carries him all the further away”. The solution is to aim for virtue. Happiness will be a consequence.

In the essay Seneca makes great opposition to the epicureans, a philosophical school that gives value to pleasure as a source of happiness, as we see in section ten: “You devote yourself to pleasures, I check them; you indulge in pleasure, I use it; you think that it is the highest good, I do not even think it to be good: for the sake of pleasure I do nothing, you do everything.”. In section XV, Seneca explains why one cannot simply associate virtue with pleasure. The problem is that sooner or later pleasure will lead you into non-virtuous territories: “You do not afford virtue a solid immoveable base if you bid it stand on what is unsteady.

In book VII he further elaborates on the distinction between pleasure and reason: “if they were entirely inseparable, we should not see some things to be pleasant, but not honourable, and others most honourable indeed, but hard and only to be attained by suffering.” Now, one could reasonably reject the distinction Seneca is trying to make, but then would be hard pressed to explain a large range of human behaviors where people do seem to genuinely prefer something despite its unpleasantness, for principled reasons, because they think it is good and honorable.

Section X ends with perhaps the sharpest contrast between Epicureanism and Stocism: “You devote yourself to pleasures, I check them; you indulge in pleasure, I use it; you think that it is the highest good, I do not even think it to be good: for the sake of pleasure I do nothing, you do everything.” Further, Seneca construct a finely balanced defense of Epicureanism from the apparently common abuse that many made of the school: “So, men are not encouraged by Epicurus to run riot, but the vicious hide their excesses in the lap of philosophy, and flock to the schools in which they hear the praises of pleasure. They do not consider how sober and temperate—for so, by Hercules, I believe it to be that “pleasure” of Epicurus is, but they rush at his mere name, seeking to obtain some protection and cloak for their vices. They lose, therefore, the one virtue which their evil life possessed, that of being ashamed of doing wrong: for they praise what they used to blush at, and boast of their vices… The reason why that praise which your school lavishes upon pleasure is so hurtful, is because the honourable part of its teaching passes unnoticed, but the degrading part is seen by all. This is a good example of Seneca’s justice, as well as of his compelling style of argumentation, whereby he is able to both strike a point in favor of his opponents and one against them in a single sentence. After this Seneca goes back to a critique of the pleasure principle: “those who have permitted pleasure to lead the van, have neither one nor the other: for they lose virtue altogether, and yet they do not possess pleasure, but are possessed by it, and are either tortured by its absence or choked by its excess, being wretched if deserted by it, and yet more wretched if overwhelmed by it”.

In section XX provides a list of rules that Seneca believe will lead to happiness. These are worth fully consideration:

  • I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance.
  • I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not.
  • I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.
  • Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly.
  • I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience.
  • I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honourable men half way.
  • Whenever either Nature demands my breath again, or reason bids me dismiss it, I will quit this life, calling all to witness that I have loved a good conscience, and good pursuits.

What should you focus on?

Stoic “indifferent” by Zeno (founder of the school)

“Indifferent” has two meanings. In one sense [used by the Stoics] it signifies the things that contribute neither to happiness [eudaimonia] nor unhappiness, like wealth, fame, health, strength, and the like; for it is possible to be happy even without these things, though depending on how they are used they contribute to happiness or unhappiness. But in another [non-Stoic] sense “indifferent” signifies things that excite neither attraction nor aversion, as is the case with having an odd or even number of hairs on one’s head, or with extending or bending one’s finger. But it was not in this sense that the things mentioned above [such as health] are called “indifferent” [by the Stoics], since they are able to excite attraction and aversion. This is why some of the indifferent things are selected and others rejected, whereas indifference in the other sense provides no grounds for choosing or avoiding.

Diogenes Laertius, Life of Zeno