Letter XI. On the Blush of Modesty

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.

Also available on Medium.

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.

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