Letter XXXI. On Siren Songs

In letter 31 Seneca challenges us to reject, even actively challenge, other people’s good intentions, because they tend to wish us the wrong kinds of things (success, beauty, money, etc.). Instead, what we should wish for is to become the kind of person who does honourable and lasting things while others tend not to pray for it on our behalf:

“Be deaf to those who love you most of all; they pray for bad things with good intentions. And, if you would be happy, entreat the gods that none of their fond desires for you may be brought to pass… What they wish to have heaped upon you are not really good things; there is only one good, the cause and the support of a happy life, – trust in oneself”. (XXXI, 2-3)

This letter is more complex and dense than most of those already published, so it is best to read it calmly and draw your own conclusions, without being influenced by this interpreter.

I would like to point out however that this is the first letter in which Seneca conveys his idea of God:

“Your money, however, will not place you on a level with God; for God has no property. Your bordered robe will not do this; for God is not clad in raiment; nor will your reputation, nor a display of self, nor a knowledge of your name wide-spread throughout the world; for no one has knowledge of God; many even hold him in low esteem, and do not suffer for so doing. The throng of slaves which carries your litter along the city streets and in foreign places will not help you; for this God of whom I speak, though the highest and most powerful of beings, carries all things on his own shoulders. Neither can beauty or strength make you blessed, for none of these qualities can withstand old age. … What we have to seek for, then, is that which does not each day pass more and more under the control of some power which cannot be withstood. And what is this? It is the soul, – but the soul that is upright, good, and great. What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in a human body? (XXXI, 10-11)

(image Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel)


XXXI. On Siren Songs

1. Now I recognize my Lucilius! He is beginning to reveal the character of which he gave promise. Follow up the impulse which prompted you to make for all that is best, treading under your feet that which is approved by the crowd. I would not have you greater or better than you planned; for in your case the mere foundations have covered a large extent of ground; only finish all that you have laid out, and take in hand the plans which you have had in mind.

2. In short, you will be a wise man, if you stop up your ears; nor is it enough to close them with wax; you need a denser stopple than that which they say Ulysses used for his comrades. The song which he feared was alluring, but came not from every side; the song, however, which you have to fear, echoes round you not from a single headland, but from every quarter of the world. Sail, therefore, not past one region which you mistrust because of its treacherous delights, but past every city. Be deaf to those who love you most of all; they pray for bad things with good intentions. And, if you would be happy, entreat the gods that none of their fond desires for you may be brought to pass.

3. What they wish to have heaped upon you are not really good things; there is only one good, the cause and the support of a happy life, – trust in oneself. But this cannot be attained, unless one has learned to despise toil and to reckon it among the things which are neither good nor bad. For it is not possible that a single thing should be bad at one time and good at another, at times light and to be endured, and at times a cause of dread.

4. Work is not a good.[1] Then what is a good? I say, the scorning of work. That is why I should rebuke men who toil to no purpose. But when, on the other hand, a man is struggling towards honourable things, in proportion as he applies himself more and more, and allows himself less and less to be beaten or to halt,[2] I shall recommend his conduct and shout my encouragement, saying: “By so much you are better! Rise, draw a fresh breath, and surmount that hill, if possible, at a single spurt!”

5. Work is the sustenance of noble minds. There is, then, no reason why, in accordance with that old vow of your parents, you should pick and choose what fortune you wish should fall to your lot, or what you should pray for; besides, it is base for a man who has already travelled the whole round of highest honours to be still importuning the gods. What need is there of vows? Make yourself happy through your own efforts; you can do this, if once you comprehend that whatever is blended with virtue is good, and that whatever is joined to vice is bad. Just as nothing gleams if it has no light blended with it, and nothing is black unless it contains darkness or draws to itself something of dimness, and as nothing is hot without the aid of fire, and nothing cold without air; so it is the association of virtue and vice that makes things honourable or base.

6. What then is good? The knowledge of things. What is evil? The lack of knowledge of things. Your wise man, who is also a craftsman, will reject or choose in each case as it suits the occasion; but he does not fear that which he rejects, nor does he admire that which he chooses, if only he has a stout and unconquerable soul. I forbid you to be cast down or depressed. It is not enough if you do not shrink from work; ask for it.

7. “But,” you say, “is not trifling and superfluous work, and work that has been inspired by ignoble causes, a bad sort of work?” No; no more than that which is expended upon noble endeavours, since the very quality that endures toil and rouses itself to hard and uphill effort, is of the spirit, which says: “Why do you grow slack? It is not the part of a man to fear sweat.”

8. And besides this, in order that virtue may be perfect, there should be an even temperament and a scheme of life that is consistent with itself throughout; and this result cannot be attained without knowledge of things, and without the art[3] which enables us to understand things human and things divine. That is the greatest good. If you seize this good, you begin to be the associate of the gods, and not their suppliant.

9. “But how,” you ask, “does one attain that goal?” You do not need to cross the Pennine or Graian[4] hills, or traverse the Candavian[5] waste, or face the Syrtes,[6] or Scylla, or Charybdis, although you have travelled through all these places for the bribe of a petty governorship; the journey for which nature has equipped you is safe and pleasant. She has given you such gifts that you may, if you do not prove false to them, rise level with God.

10. Your money, however, will not place you on a level with God; for God has no property. Your bordered robe[7]will not do this; for God is not clad in raiment; nor will your reputation, nor a display of self, nor a knowledge of your name wide-spread throughout the world; for no one has knowledge of God; many even hold him in low esteem, and do not suffer for so doing. The throng of slaves which carries your litter along the city streets and in foreign places will not help you; for this God of whom I speak, though the highest and most powerful of beings, carries all things on his own shoulders. Neither can beauty or strength make you blessed, for none of these qualities can withstand old age.

11. What we have to seek for, then, is that which does not each day pass more and more under the control of some power which cannot be withstood.[8] And what is this? It is the soul, – but the soul that is upright, good, and great. What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in a human body? A soul like this may descend into a Roman knight just as well as into a freedman’s son or a slave. For what is a Roman knight, or a freedman’s son, or a slave? They are mere titles, born of ambition or of wrong. One may leap to heaven from the very slums. Only rise

And mould thyself to kinship with thy God.[9]

This moulding will not be done in gold or silver; an image that is to be in the likeness of God cannot be fashioned of such materials; remember that the gods, when they were kind unto men,[10] were moulded in clay.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  The argument is that work is not, in itself, a good; if it were, it would not be praiseworthy at one time and to be deprecated at another. It belongs, therefore, to the class of things which the Stoics call ἀδιάφορα, indifferentiares mediae; cf. Cicero, de Fin.iii. 16.
  2.  Literally, “come to the end of his furrow.”
  3.  i.e., philosophy.
  4.  The Great St. Bernard and Little St. Bernard routes over the Alps.
  5.  A mountain in Illyria, over which the Via Egnatia ran.
  6.  Dangerous quick-sands along the north coast of Africa.
  7.  The toga praetexta, badge of the official position of Lucilius.
  8.  For example, Time or Chance.
  9.  Vergil, Aeneid, viii. 364 f.
  10.  In the Golden Age, described in Ep. xc., when men were nearest to nature and “fresh from the gods.”

Letter X. On Living to Oneself

Preparation for a sacrifice. Marble, a fragment of an architectural relief, Louvre

In his tenth letter, Seneca continues to teach us to avoid crowds and to value introspection, however, he warns that many times we should not even trust ourselves since we are usually foolish and ignorant.

Initially, one might think that Seneca contradicts his earlier letters when he says that “talking to oneself” can be bad. As a matter of fact, Seneca says that if you are already wicked and ignorant, talking to yourself won’t do any good. A foolish person will only make his own-self worse. The crowd might otherwise check and temper his irrationality. Or, in other words: if you have no idea of what you are doing, don’t trust your judgment.

Seneca thinks that we should not pray for wealth or success (“that which belongs to another.“), but for intellectual and physical health. He concludes the letter with the council:

“Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening.” (X,5)

Points:

  1. Avoid the crowds; avoid even the individual.
  2. Do not pray for wealth or success.
  3. “Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening.” (§5)

Image: Preparation for a sacrifice. Marble, a fragment of an architectural relief, Louvre.

Also available on Medium.


X. On Living to Oneself

1. Yes, I do not change my opinion: avoid the many, avoid the few, avoid even the individual. I know of no one with whom I should be willing to have you shared. And see what an opinion of you I have; for I dare to trust you with your own self. Crates, they say, the disciple of the very Stilbo whom I mentioned in a former letter, noticed a young man walking by himself, and asked him what he was doing all alone. “I am communing with myself,” replied the youth. “Pray be careful, then,” said Crates, “and take good heed; you are communing with a bad man!”

2. When persons are in mourning, or fearful about something, we are accustomed to watch them that we may prevent them from making a wrong use of their loneliness. No thoughtless person ought to be left alone; in such cases he only plans folly, and heaps up future dangers for himself or for others; he brings into play his base desires; the mind displays what fear or shame used to repress; it whets his boldness, stirs his passions, and goads his anger. And finally, the only benefit that solitude confers, – the habit of trusting no man, and of fearing no witnesses, – is lost to the fool; for he betrays himself. Mark therefore what my hopes are for you, – nay, rather, what I am promising myself, inasmuch as hope is merely the title of an uncertain blessing: I do not know any person with whom I should prefer you to associate rather than yourself.

3. I remember in what a great-souled way you hurled forth certain phrases, and how full of strength they were! I immediately congratulated myself and said: “These words did not come from the edge of the lips; these utterances have a solid foundation. This man is not one of the many; he has regard for his real welfare.”

4. Speak, and live, in this way; see to it that nothing keeps you down. As for your former prayers, you may dispense the gods from answering them; offer new prayers; pray for a sound mind and for good health, first of soul and then of body. And of course you should offer those prayers frequently. Call boldly upon God; you will not be asking him for that which belongs to another.

5. But I must, as is my custom, send a little gift along with this letter. It is a true saying which I have found in Athenodorus:[1]“Know that thou art freed from all desires when thou hast reached such a point that thou prayest to God for nothing except what thou canst pray for openly.” But how foolish men are now! They whisper the basest of prayers to heaven; but if anyone listens, they are silent at once. That which they are unwilling for men to know, they communicate to God. Do you not think, then, that some such wholesome advice as this could be given you: “Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening“?

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Frag. de superstitione 36 H., according to Rossbach.