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

Letter VII. On Crowds

Pollice Verso

Seneca’s seventh letter is about crowds and why a stoic (or any reasonable person, in fact) should avoid them.

As is often the case with Seneca, the statement may sound elitist, but I prefer the more charitable reading in which he is describing the reality of human interactions: many people are really greedy, ambitious, cruel, and if someone is training himself to avoid such attitudes, then it is best to reduce exposure as much as possible. The letter is remarkable for narrating in detail the gladiatorial games, reminding modern readers of the cultural context in which Seneca was living and writing:

” In the morning, they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators… And when the games stop for the halftime, they announce: ‘A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!'” (VII, 4-5)

Seneca is particularly concerned about the exposure of young people to the crowds: “The young character, who cannot keep his integrity, must be rescued from the crowd; it is very easy to take the side of the majority.” He offers advice that is still relevant and warns us to about the “likes” in social networks:

you should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you“. (VII,8)
“you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand?” (VII, 12)

Points:

  1. Avoid crowds;
  2. Do not copy the many, but don’t despise them because they are unlike you.
  3. Be aware of the applause of the majority. 

Also published on Medium (free link).


VII. On Crowds

1. Do you ask me what you should regard as especially to be avoided? I say, crowds; for as yet you cannot trust yourself to them with safety. I shall admit my own weakness, at any rate; for I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me. Something of that which I have forced to be calm within me is disturbed; some of the foes that I have routed return again. Just as the sick man, who has been weak for a long time, is in such a condition that he cannot be taken out of the house without suffering a relapse, so we ourselves are affected when our souls are recovering from a lingering disease.

2. To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger. But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure.

3. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, – because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation, – an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men. But it was quite the reverse. The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder[1]. The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain.

4. Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts “by request.” Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these means delaying death. In the morning, they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty.

5. You may retort: “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? In the morning, they cried “Kill him! Lash him! Burn him! Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a way? Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn’t he die game? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!” And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: “A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!” Come now; do you[2] not understand even this truth, that a bad example reacts on the agent? Thank the immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel.

6. The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority.Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue.

7. Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it! You must either imitate or loathe the world.

8. But both courses are to be avoided; you should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.

9. There is no reason why pride in advertising your abilities should lure you into publicity, so that you should desire to recite or harangue before the general public. Of course, I should be willing for you to do so if you had a stock-in-trade that suited such a mob; as it is, there is not a man of them who can understand you. One or two individuals will perhaps come in your way, but even these will have to be moulded and trained by you so that they will understand you. You may say: “For what purpose did I learn all these things?” But you need not fear that you have wasted your efforts; it was for yourself that you learned them.

10. In order, however, that I may not to-day have learned exclusively for myself, I shall share with you three excellent sayings, of the same general purport, which have come to my attention. This letter will give you one of them as payment of my debt; the other two you may accept as a contribution in advance. Democritus[3] says: “One man means as much to me as a multitude, and a multitude only as much as one man.”

11. The following also was nobly spoken by someone or other, for it is doubtful who the author was; they asked him what was the object of all this study applied to an art that would reach but very few. He replied: “I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.” The third saying – and a noteworthy one, too – is by Epicurus[4]  written to one of the partners of his studies: “I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”

12. Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.

Farewell.


Footnotes

[1] During the luncheon interval condemned criminals were often driven into the arena and compelled to fight, for the amusement of those spectators who remained throughout the day.

[2] The remark is addressed to the brutalized spectators.

[3] Frag. 302 Diels.
Democritus (meaning “chosen of the people”; c. 460 – c. 370 BC) was an Ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher primarily remembered today for his formulation of an atomic theory of the universe.

[4] Frag. 208 Usener.

Image:  Pollice Verso by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Letter VI. On Sharing Knowledge

In the sixth letter, Seneca discusses friendship and knowledge sharing. The first memorable sentence is:

No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it. (VI, 4)

He asks that Lucilius continue studying, not only through books, but mainly through examples, and especially to share with others what he has learned. Then claims that the company of Socrates did Plato and Aristotle more good than his philosophy. The same with MetrodorusHermarchus, and Polyaenus in regard of Epicurus‘ presence.

Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. It was not the class-room of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof, that made great men of Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus. Therefore I summon you, not merely that you may derive benefit, but that you may confer benefit; for we can assist each other greatly. (VI, 6)

Points:

  1. Learn and Share knowledge.
  2. Not merely derive benefit, but confer benefit; for we can assist each other greatly.

VI. On Sharing Knowledge

1. I feel, my dear Lucilius, that I am being not only reformed, but transformed. I do not yet, however, assure myself, or indulge the hope, that there are no elements left in me which need to be changed. Of course there are many that should be made more compact, or made thinner, or be brought into greater prominence. And indeed this very fact is proof that my spirit is altered into something better, – that it can see its own faults, of which it was previously ignorant. In certain cases sick men are congratulated because they themselves have perceived that they are sick.

2. I therefore wish to impart to you this sudden change in myself; I should then begin to place a surer trust in our friendship, – the true friendship which hope and fear and self-interest cannot sever, the friendship in which and for the sake of which men meet death.

3. I can show you many who have lacked, not a friend, but a friendship; this, however, cannot possibly happen when souls are drawn together by identical inclinations into an alliance of honourable desires. And why can it not happen? Because in such cases men know that they have all things in common, especially their troubles. You cannot conceive what distinct progress I notice that each day brings to me.

4. And when you say: “Give me also a share in these gifts which you have found so helpful,” I reply that I am anxious to heap all these privileges upon you, and that I am glad to learn in order that I may teach. Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.

5. I shall therefore send to you the actual books; and in order that you may not waste time in searching here and there for profitable topics, I shall mark certain passages, so that you can turn at once to those which I approve and admire. Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears,[1] and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns.

6. Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules. Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. It was not the class-room of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof, that made great men of Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus. Therefore I summon you, not merely that you may derive benefit, but that you may confer benefit; for we can assist each other greatly.

7. Meanwhile, I owe you my little daily contribution; you shall be told what pleased me to-day in the writings of Hecato;[2] it is these words: “What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.” That was indeed a great benefit; such a person can never be alone. You may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind.

Farewell.

Footnotes

  1.  Cf. Herodotus, i. 8 ὦτα τυγχάνει ἀνθρώποισι ἐόντα ἀπιστότερα ὀφθαλμῶν.
  2.  Frag. 26 Fowler.
  3. image: The School of Athens, Raphael

Stoic Meditation: Musonius Rufus

“If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures.”

Musonius Rufus, fragment 51

Musonius Rufus was a preeminent Stoic in Rome, most famous nowadays for being Epictetus’ teacher and so an influencing Marcus Aurelius.

The full quotation:

When I was still a boy at school, I heard that this Greek saying, which I here set down, was uttered by Musonius the philosopher, and because the sentiment is true and striking as well as neatly and concisely rounded out, I was very happy to commit it to memory. “If one accomplishes some good though with toil, the toil passes, but the good remains; if one does something dishonorable with pleasure, the pleasure passes, but the dishonor remains.”

Afterwards I read that same sentiment in a speech of Cato’s which was delivered at Numantia to the knights. Although it is expressed a little less compactly and concisely as compared with the Greek which I have quoted, yet because it is earlier and more ancient, it may well seem more impressive. The words from his speech are the following: “Consider this in your hearts: if you accomplish some good attended with toil, the toil will quickly leave you; but if you do some evil attended with pleasure, the pleasure will quickly pass away, but the bad deed will remain with you always.

Letter V. On the Philosopher’s Mean

Between Hope and Fear by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

As Epictetus also counselled, one should be discreet when practicing philosophy. Seneca begins the letter with a warning against the practices of the Cynic School, which has greatly influenced stoicism:

“Repellent attire, unkempt hair, slovenly beard, open scorn of silver dishes, a couch on the bare earth, and any other perverted forms of self-display, are to be avoided.” (V, 2)

Seneca explains the meaning of the Stoic motto “Live according to Nature” and recommends a frugal and restrained lifestyle, avoiding avarice and extreme luxuries:

Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance; and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. (V, 5)

He talks about hope and fear, presenting a surprising relationship between them. Finally, he exhorts us to enjoy the present without anxiety for the future or torment by the past.

Points:

  1. Be discreet when practicing philosophy.
  2. Have a frugal but satisfying lifestyle.
  3. Don’t worry too much about the things that are to come or the things that have passed.

— — —

V. On the Philosopher’s Mean

1. I commend you and rejoice in the fact that you are persistent in your studies, and that, putting all else aside, you make it each day your endeavour to become a better man. I do not merely exhort you to keep at it; I actually beg you to do so. I warn you, however, not to act after the fashion of those who desire to be conspicuous rather than to improve, by doing things which will rouse comment as regards your dress or general way of living.

2. Repellent attire, unkempt hair, slovenly beard, open scorn of silver dishes, a couch on the bare earth, and any other perverted forms of self-display, are to be avoided. The mere name of philosophy, however quietly pursued, is an object of sufficient scorn; and what would happen if we should begin to separate ourselves from the customs of our fellow-men? Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society.

3. Do not wear too fine, nor yet too frowzy, a toga. One needs no silver plate, encrusted and embossed in solid gold; but we should not believe the lack of silver and gold to be proof of the simple life. Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve. We also bring it about that they are unwilling to imitate us in anything, because they are afraid lest they might be compelled to imitate us in everything.

4. The first thing which philosophy undertakes to give is fellow-feeling with all men; in other words, sympathy and sociability. We part company with our promise if we are unlike other men. We must see to it that the means by which we wish to draw admiration be not absurd and odious. Our motto,[1] as you know, is “Live according to Nature”; but it is quite contrary to nature to torture the body, to hate unlaboured elegance, to be dirty on purpose, to eat food that is not only plain, but disgusting and forbidding.

5. Just as it is a sign of luxury to seek out dainties, so it is madness to avoid that which is customary and can be purchased at no great price. Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance; and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. This is the mean of which I approve; our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world at large; all men should admire it, but they should understand it also.

6. “Well then, shall we act like other men? Shall there be no distinction between ourselves and the world?” Yes, a very great one; let men find that we are unlike the common herd, if they look closely. If they visit us at home, they should admire us, rather than our household appointments. He is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware. It is the sign of an unstable mind not to be able to endure riches.

7. But I wish to share with you to-day’s profit also. I find in the writings of our[2] Hecato that the limiting of desires helps also to cure fears: “Cease to hope,” he says, “and you will cease to fear.” “But how,” you will reply, “can things so different go side by side?” In this way, my dear Lucilius: though they do seem at variance, yet they are really united. Just as the same chain fastens the prisoner and the soldier who guards him, so hope and fear, dissimilar as they are, keep step together; fear follows hope.

8. I am not surprised that they proceed in this way; each alike belongs to a mind that is in suspense, a mind that is fretted by looking forward to the future. But the chief cause of both these ills is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessing of the human race, becomes perverted.

9. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves over that which is to come as well as over that which is past. Many of our blessings bring bane to us; for memory recalls the tortures of fear, while foresight anticipates them. The present alone can make no man wretched. Farewell.

Footnotes

  1. i.e., of the Stoic school.
  2. Frag. 25 Fowler.
  3. image: Between Hope and Fear by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Letter IV. On the Terrors of Death

The fourth letter to Lucilius by Seneca teaches how to develop mental calm and reject the fear of death. Seneca begins by comparing a man who becomes wise with a boy who comes of age. And one of the things that age and wisdom bring is a more proper understanding of death:

“No evil is great which is the last evil of all. Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.” (IV.3)

He says it is equally foolish to despise life and fear death, and tranquility can be achieved by learning that there is no reason to fear death, which is always with us. Seneca´s philosophy bears strong resemblances to Epicurus’ take on the subject: “Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.” as put in the Letter to Menoeceus.

Seneca then talks about a related issue, the quality of one’s life:

“No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it … Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die.” (IV.4 & IV.5).

In sequence, Seneca warns Lucilius not to trust Fortune, thereby implicitly advising him to make the best of every moment he’s got:

“No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths. The very day the ships have made a brave show in the games, they are engulfed.” (IV.7)

Points:

  1. Do not fear death
  2. Focus on the quality of your life.
  3. Do not trust Fortune.

— — —

IV. On the Terrors of Death

1. Keep on as you have begun, and make all possible haste, so that you may have longer enjoyment of an improved mind, one that is at peace with itself. Doubtless you will derive enjoyment during the time when you are improving your mind and setting it at peace with itself; but quite different is the pleasure which comes from contemplation when one’s mind is so cleansed from every stain that it shines.

2. You remember, of course, what joy you felt when you laid aside the garments of boyhood and donned the man’s toga, and were escorted to the forum; nevertheless, you may look for a still greater joy when you have laid aside the mind of boyhood and when wisdom has enrolled you among men. For it is not boyhood that still stays with us, but something worse, — boyishness. And this condition is all the more serious because we possess the authority of old age, together with the follies of boyhood, yea, even the follies of infancy. Boys fear trifles, children fear shadows, we fear both.

3. All you need to do is to advance; you will thus understand that some things are less to be dreaded, precisely because they inspire us with great fear. No evil is great which is the last evil of all. Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.

4. “It is difficult, however,” you say, “to bring the mind to a point where it can scorn life.” But do you not see what trifling reasons impel men to scorn life? One hangs himself before the door of his mistress; another hurls himself from the house-top that he may no longer be compelled to bear the taunts of a bad-tempered master; a third, to be saved from arrest after running away, drives a sword into his vitals. Do you not suppose that virtue will be as efficacious as excessive fear? No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it, or believes that living through many consulships is a great blessing.

5. Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks. Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die.

6. For this reason, make life as a whole agreeable to yourself by banishing all worry about it. No good thing renders its possessor happy, unless his mind is reconciled to the possibility of loss; nothing, however, is lost with less discomfort than that which, when lost, cannot be missed. Therefore, encourage and toughen your spirit against the mishaps that afflict even the most powerful.

7. For example, the fate of Pompey was settled by a boy and a eunuch, that of Crassus by a cruel and insolent Parthian. Gaius Caesar ordered Lepidus to bare his neck for the axe of the tribune Dexter; and he himself offered his own throat to Chaerea.[1] No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths. The very day the ships have made a brave show in the games, they are engulfed.

8. Reflect that a highwayman or an enemy may cut your throat; and, though he is not your master, every slave wields the power of life and death over you. Therefore I declare to you: he is lord of your life that scorns his own. Think of those who have perished through plots in their own homes, slain either openly or by guile; you will then understand that just as many have been killed by angry slaves as by angry kings. What matter, therefore, how powerful he be whom you fear, when every one possesses the power which inspires your fear?

9. “But,” you will say, “if you should chance to fall into the hands of the enemy, the conqueror will command that you be led away,” — yes, whither you are already being led.[2] Why do you voluntarily deceive yourself and require to be told now for the first time what fate it is that you have long been labouring under? Take my word for it: since the day you were born you are being led thither. We must ponder this thought, and thoughts of the like nature, if we desire to be calm as we await that last hour, the fear of which makes all previous hours uneasy.

10. But I must end my letter. Let me share with you the saying which pleased me to-day. It, too, is culled from another man’s Garden:[3] “Poverty brought into conformity with the law of nature, is great wealth.” Do you know what limits that law of nature ordains for us? Merely to avert hunger, thirst, and cold. In order to banish hunger and thirst, it is not necessary for you to pay court at the doors of the purse-proud, or to submit to the stern frown, or to the kindness that humiliates; nor is it necessary for you to scour the seas, or go campaigning; nature’s needs are easily provided and ready to hand.

11. It is the superfluous things for which men sweat, — the superfluous things that wear our togas threadbare, that force us to grow old in camp, that dash us upon foreign shores. That which is enough is ready to our hands. He who has made a fair pact with poverty is rich.

Farewell.

Footnotes

  1.  A reference to the murder of Caligula, on the Palatine, A.D. 41.
  2.  i.e., to death.
  3.  The Garden of Epicurus. Frag. 477 and 200 Usener.
  4. imageStill Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill from Pieter Claesz

Letter III. On True and False Friendship

The third letter is about friendship. Here Seneca advises us to tread carefully and make important distinctions: We cannot decouple friendship from trust: if we don’t trust another person, we cannot say that he is a friend. So, first, get to know the person enough to be able to make a judgment about his character. If we arrive at a positive conclusion, we can think of him as a friend. Once this is done, trust becomes implicit, and should never be revoked:

When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment. … Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (III.2)

The next section of the letter resumes things off and contains some great metaphors. Like this:

“It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter more safe.” (III.4)

Seneca claims that it is a more innocent mistake to trust everyone. He believes that neither extreme should be embraced, and that one should choose a path somewhere in between, not trusting everyone, but not doubting all. The essay ends with the stoic advice “follow nature”, i.e., to apply reason to human problems:

“Discuss the problem with Nature; she will tell you that she has created both day and night.” (III.5)

Conclusions:

  1. Choose your friends carefully, and then commit entirely.
  2. A friend whom you do not trust completely will become someone untrustworthy. Someone already untrustworthy should not be called a friend.
  3. Be careful not to trust everyone, and not to trust no one. It is important to find a balance.

III. On True and False Friendship

1. You have sent a letter to me through the hand of a “friend” of yours, as you call him. And in your very next sentence you warn me not to discuss with him all the matters that concern you, saying that even you yourself are not accustomed to do this; in other words, you have in the same letter affirmed and denied that he is your friend.

2. Now if you used this word of ours[1] in the popular sense, and called him “friend” in the same way in which we speak of all candidates for election as “honourable gentlemen,” and as we greet all men whom we meet casually, if their names slip us for the moment, with the salutation “my dear sir,” — so be it. But if you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means. Indeed, I would have you discuss everything with a friend; but first of all discuss the man himself. When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment. Those persons indeed put last first and confound their duties, who, violating the rules of Theophrastus, judge a man after they have made him their friend, instead of making him their friend after they have judged him. Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.

3. As to yourself, although you should live in such a way that you trust your own self with nothing which you could not entrust even to your enemy, yet, since certain matters occur which convention keeps secret, you should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections. Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal. Some, for example, fearing to be deceived, have taught men to deceive; by their suspicions they have given their friend the right to do wrong. Why need I keep back any words in the presence of my friend? Why should I not regard myself as alone when in his company?

4. There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them. Others, again, fear to confide in their closest intimates; and if it were possible, they would not trust even themselves, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe.

5. In like manner you should rebuke these two kinds of men, — both those who always lack repose, and those who are always in repose. For love of bustle is not industry, — it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind. And true repose does not consist in condemning all motion as merely vexation; that kind of repose is slackness and inertia.

6. Therefore, you should note the following saying, taken from my reading in Pomponius:[2] “Some men shrink into dark corners, to such a degree that they see darkly by day.” No, men should combine these tendencies, and he who reposes should act and he who acts should take repose. Discuss the problem with Nature; she will tell you that she has created both day and night.

Farewell.

Footnotes

  1.  i.e., a word which has a special significance to the Stoics; see Letter XLVIII.
  2.  Perhaps Publius Pomponius Secundus was a distinguished statesman and poet in the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius.
  3. Image: Detail from the Sarcophagus of Stilicho, in Museo della civiltà romana.

Letter II. On Discursiveness in Reading

In the second letter, Seneca writes to Lucilius about solitude, focus and careful curation of information intake. Much of this letter strikes me as completely relevant to life today in our technological civilization.

“You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.” (II,2)

Seneca’s prescription here seems to be to focus, to go deep into a few things rather than skim the surface of many things. He specifies books, but I think his thought is applicable even more so today. We get buried under surfaces presented via modern media, and seldom get depth. Seneca is saying go deep.

He concludes by addressing another subject, which will be dealt with extensively in the next letters: what is enough and what wealth means:

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. (…) Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough”. (II, 6)

Points:

  1. Don’t waste your time reading works from amateur thinkers. Seek out authors with proven wisdom, and truly absorb their teachings.
  2. Don’t bounce around from book to book. Find one, focus on devouring its knowledge effectively.
  3. It is not what you have, but what you desire, that defines your wealth.

ImageNero and Seneca by Barrón González, Museo de Prado


II. On Discursiveness in Reading

1. Judging by what you write me, and by what I hear, I am forming a good opinion regarding your future. You do not run hither and thither and distract yourself by changing your abode; for such restlessness is the sign of a disordered spirit. The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company.

2. Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner.

3. Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.. Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you may possess, it is enough to possess only as many books as you can read.

4. “But,” you reply, “I wish to dip first into one book and then into another.” I tell you that it is the sign of an overnice appetite to toy with many dishes; for when they are manifold and varied, they cloy but do not nourish. So you should always read standard authors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before. Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day.

5. This is my own custom; from the many things which I have read, I claim some one part for myself. The thought for to-day is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, — not as a deserter, but as a scout.6. He says: “Contented poverty is an honourable estate.” Indeed, if it be contented, it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbour’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.

Farewell.

Footnotes

  1.  Frag. 475 Usener

Letter I. On Saving Time

The aim of this page is to publish a full text accompanied by a short review of the classics of stoicism. That is, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. We will start with the 124 Seneca’s famous Moral Epistles to Lucilius.

Most of these posts will be short commentaries with excerpts, since many of the letters are brief. The translation I am using is the classic 1916 one by Richard GummereAnother good, new translation has been published by Margaret Graver and Anthony Long.

The letters were all written toward the end of Seneca’s life, so they represent his more mature thought. Even though they are actual letters to a real friend, they were clearly written with a broader audience in mind, which is why they are considered to be Seneca’s philosophical testament.

Starting with letter I, on saving time. It is a plead to Lucilius to use his time wisely, because most men just don’t understand that we “die daily”. Seneca says:

“Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.” (I.1)

We’ve been given enough time, the problem is we wasted it. We value physical goods that can be returned, and we ignore the most precious:

“ What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, — time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.” (I.3)

The setting of priorities becomes even more important as one nears the end, and the essay closes with a metaphor that draws a parallel between life and a barrel of wine:

“For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.” (I.5)

— — — — — — — — — —

I. On Saving Time

Greetings from Seneca to his friend Lucilius.

  1. Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius — set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words, — that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.
  2. What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.
  3. Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, — time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.
  4. You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practising. I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.
  5. What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask.[1] Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.

Farewell.

Footnotes:

  1.  Hesiod, Works and Days, 369.
  2. Image: Roman wine trade oxcart, from grave stele, Augsburg Roman Museum