Letter XX. On Practising what you Preach

Seneca begins his twentieth letter by asking Lucilius to prove his words by his actions. It is a blatant reminder that stoicism is a practical philosophy, destined to be implemented daily during life, and not simply contemplated for a few hours a week, when we can read a book at leisure.

Seneca says that we should strive to maintain “deed and word” according to each other, but also immediately recognises that this is a high standard, difficult to maintain. Why do people behave incoherently? According to Seneca, this is the result of two problems. The first is that many people simply do not bother with the inconsistencies between their actions and their words, that is, they do not take the pursuit of virtue seriously. The second is that even if some people are bothered, they easily return to old habits for lack of wisdom.

Seneca imagines Lucilius objecting that he has a large family to care for and consequently needs a large amount of money. This may be the case, says the philosopher, but his dependents will get around if he stops spoiling them, suggesting that one of the advantages of poverty is that it immediately reveals who his true friends are: the ones who stick around even when there is little material advantage to be gained.

This train of thought leads Seneca to suggest the exercise of moderate self-deprivation:

“…therefore, reserve a few days in which we may prepare ourselves for real poverty by means of fancied poverty. (…) Rather let the soul be roused from its sleep and be prodded, and let it be reminded that nature has prescribed very little for us. No man is born rich. Every man, when he first sees light, is commanded to be content with milk and rags“. (XX, 13)

This practice can take the form of a cold shower (to remind you how good it is to be able to take the hottest ones), a day or two of fasting (to enjoy the next meal better), some time buying anything but food. The deprivation exercises, then, have multiple functions: they test our endurance, they prepare us for possible adversities, they remind us that many things we think we need are not really necessary, and they readjust our hedonic cycle, making us appreciate what we already have.

It is a great advise in Corona times!

Image: Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gérôme


XX. On Practising what you Preach

1. If you are in good health and if you think yourself worthy of becoming at last your own master, I am glad. For the credit will be mine, if I can drag you from the floods in which you are being buffeted without hope of emerging. This, however, my dear Lucilius, I ask and beg of you, on your part, that you let wisdom sink into your soul, and test your progress, not by mere speech or writings, but by stoutness of heart and decrease of desire. Prove your words by your deeds.

2. Far different is the purpose of those who are speech-making and trying to win the approbation of a throng of hearers, far different that of those who allure the ears of young men and idlers by many-sided or fluent argumentation; philosophy teaches us to act, not to speak; it exacts of every man that he should live according to his own standards, that his life should not be out of harmony with his words, and that, further, his inner life should be of one hue and not out of harmony with all his activities. This, I say, is the highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom, – that deed and word should be in accord, that a man should be equal to himself under all conditions, and always the same. “But,” you reply, “who can maintain this standard?” Very few, to be sure; but there are some. It is indeed a hard undertaking, and I do not say that the philosopher can always keep the same pace. But he can always travel the same path.

3. Observe yourself, then, and see whether your dress and your house are inconsistent, whether you treat yourself lavishly and your family meanly, whether you eat frugal dinners and yet build luxurious houses. You should lay hold, once for all, upon a single norm to live by, and should regulate your whole life according to this norm. Some men restrict themselves at home, but strut with swelling port before the public; such discordance is a fault, and it indicates a wavering mind which cannot yet keep its balance.

4. And I can tell you, further, whence arise this unsteadiness and disagreement of action and purpose; it is because no man resolves upon what he wishes, and, even if he has done so, he does not persist in it, but jumps the track; not only does he change, but he returns and slips back to the conduct which he has abandoned and abjured.

5. Therefore, to omit the ancient definitions of wisdom and to include the whole manner of human life, I can be satisfied with the following: “What is wisdom? Always desiring the same things, and always refusing the same things.[1] You may be excused from adding the little proviso, – that what you wish, should be right; since no man can always be satisfied with the same thing, unless it is right.

6. For this reason men do not know what they wish, except at the actual moment of wishing; no man ever decided once and for all to desire or to refuse. Judgment varies from day to day, and changes to the opposite, making many a man pass his life in a kind of game. Press on, therefore, as you have begun; perhaps you will be led to perfection, or to a point which you alone understand is still short of perfection.

7. “But what,” you say, “will become of my crowded household without a household income?” If you stop supporting that crowd, it will support itself; or perhaps you will learn by the bounty of poverty what you cannot learn by your own bounty. Poverty will keep for you your true and tried friends; you will be rid of the men who were not seeking you for yourself, but for something which you have. Is it not true, however, that you should love poverty, if only for this single reason, – that it will show you those by whom you are loved? O when will that time come, when no one shall tell lies to compliment you!

8. Accordingly, let your thoughts, your efforts, your desires, help to make you content with your own self and with the goods that spring from yourself; and commit all your other prayers to God’s keeping! What happiness could come closer home to you? Bring yourself down to humble conditions, from which you cannot be ejected; and in order that you may do so with greater alacrity, the contribution contained in this letter shall refer to that subject; I shall bestow it upon you forthwith.

9. Although you may look askance, Epicurus[2] will once again be glad to settle my indebtedness: “Believe me, your words will be more imposing if you sleep on a cot and wear rags. For in that case you will not be merely saying them; you will be demonstrating their truth.” I, at any rate, listen in a different spirit to the utterances of our friend Demetrius, after I have seen him reclining without even a cloak to cover him, and, more than this, without rugs to lie upon. He is not only a teacher of the truth, but a witness to the truth.

10. “May not a man, however, despise wealth when it lies in his very pocket?” Of course; he also is great-souled, who sees riches heaped up round him and, after wondering long and deeply because they have come into his possession, smiles, and hears rather than feels that they are his. It means much not to be spoiled by intimacy with riches; and he is truly great who is poor amidst riches.

11. “Yes, but I do not know,” you say, “how the man you speak of will endure poverty, if he falls into it suddenly.” Nor do I, Epicurus, know whether the poor man you speak of will despise riches, should he suddenly fall into them; accordingly, in the case of both, it is the mind that must be appraised, and we must investigate whether your man is pleased with his poverty, and whether my man is displeased with his riches. Otherwise, the cot-bed and the rags are slight proof of his good intentions, if it has not been made clear that the person concerned endures these trials not from necessity but from preference.

12. It is the mark, however, of a noble spirit not to precipitate oneself into such things[3] on the ground that they are better, but to practise for them on the ground that they are thus easy to endure. And they are easy to endure, Lucilius; when, however, you come to them after long rehearsal, they are even pleasant; for they contain a sense of freedom from care, – and without this nothing is pleasant.

13. I hold it essential, therefore, to do as I have told you in a letter that great men have often done: to reserve a few days in which we may prepare ourselves for real poverty by means of fancied poverty. There is all the more reason for doing this, because we have been steeped in luxury and regard all duties as hard and onerous. Rather let the soul be roused from its sleep and be prodded, and let it be reminded that nature has prescribed very little for us. No man is born rich. Every man, when he first sees light, is commanded to be content with milk and rags. Such is our beginning, and yet kingdoms are all too small for us![4]

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Seneca applies to wisdom the definition of friendship, Salust, Catiline, 20. 4 idem velle atque idem nolle, ea demum firma amicitia est.
  2.  Frag. 206 Usener.
  3.  i.e., the life of voluntary poverty.
  4.  Adapted from the epigram on Alexander the Great, “hic est quem non capit orbis.” See Plutarch, Alexander, § 6 ὦ παῖ ζήτει σεαυτῷ βασιλείαν ἴσην. Μακεδονια γάρ σε οὐ χωρεῖ, and Seneca, Ep. cxix. 8.

Letter XIX. On Worldliness and Retirement

Sir_Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Daniel_in_the_Lions'_Den

In his 19th letter Seneca warns us about true friendship and once again shows the risks of greed. Knowledge of what is enough is a fundamental aspect of stoicism.

Seneca says that we should choose our friends without thinking about the benefits we will receive from them, or that we will give to them:

“It is, however, a mistake to select your friend in the reception-hall or to test him at the dinner-table. The most serious misfortune for a busy man who is overwhelmed by his possessions is, that he believes men to be his friends when he himself is not a friend to them, and that he deems his favours to be effective in winning friends, although, in the case of certain men, the more they owe, the more they hate. A trifling debt makes a man your debtor; a large one makes him an enemy.” (XIX, 11)

The letter has another quote from Epicurus and follows with a recommendation on true friendship.

“You must reflect carefully beforehand with whom you are to eat and drink, rather than what you are to eat and drink. For a dinner of meats without the company of a friend is like the life of a lion or a wolf.” (XIX, 10)

Points:

  1. Retreat to privacy, everything will be on a smaller scale, but you will be satisfied abundantly; §7
  2. Friendship is important;
  3. Be careful when granting large benefits.

image: Daniel in the Lions’ Den by Sir Peter Paul Rubens

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XIX. On Worldliness and Retirement

1. I leap for joy whenever I receive letters from you. For they fill me with hope; they are now not mere assurances concerning you, but guarantees. And I beg and pray you to proceed in this course; for what better request could I make of a friend than one which is to be made for his own sake? If possible, withdraw yourself from all the business of which you speak; and if you cannot do this, tear yourself away. We have dissipated enough of our time already; let us in old age begin to pack up our baggage.

2. Surely there is nothing in this that men can begrudge us. We have spent our lives on the high seas; let us die in harbour. Not that I would advise you to try to win fame by your retirement; one’s retirement should neither be paraded nor concealed. Not concealed, I say, for I shall not go so far in urging you as to expect you to condemn all men as mad and then seek out for yourself a hiding-place and oblivion; rather make this your business, that your retirement be not conspicuous, though it should be obvious.

3. In the second place, while those whose choice is unhampered from the start will deliberate on that other question, whether they wish to pass their lives in obscurity, in your case there is not a free choice. Your ability and energy have thrust you into the work of the world; so have the charm of your writings and the friendships you have made with famous and notable men. Renown has already taken you by storm. You may sink yourself into the depths of obscurity and utterly hide yourself; yet your earlier acts will reveal you.

4. You cannot keep lurking in the dark; much of the old gleam will follow you wherever you fly. Peace you can claim for yourself without being disliked by anyone, without any sense of loss, and without any pangs of spirit. For what will you leave behind you that you can imagine yourself reluctant to leave? Your clients? But none of these men courts you for yourself; they merely court something from you. People used to hunt friends, but now they hunt pelf; if a lonely old man changes his will, the morning-caller transfers himself to another door. Great things cannot be bought for small sums; so reckon up whether it is preferable to leave your own true self, or merely some of your belongings.

5. Would that you had had the privilege of growing old amid the limited circumstances of your origin, and that fortune had not raised you to such heights! You were removed far from the sight of wholesome living by your swift rise to prosperity, by your province, by your position as procurator,[1] and by all that such things promise; you will next acquire more important duties and after them still more. And what will be the result?

6. Why wait until there is nothing left for you to crave? That time will never come. We hold that there is a succession of causes, from which fate is woven; similarly, you may be sure, there is a succession in our desires; for one begins where its predecessor ends. You have been thrust into an existence which will never of itself put an end to your wretchedness and your slavery. Withdraw your chafed neck from the yoke; it is better that it should be cut off once for all, than galled for ever.

7. If you retreat to privacy, everything will be on a smaller scale, but you will be satisfied abundantly; in your present condition, however, there is no satisfaction in the plenty which is heaped upon you on all sides. Would you rather be poor and sated, or rich and hungry? Prosperity is not only greedy, but it also lies exposed to the greed of others. And as long as nothing satisfies you, you yourself cannot satisfy others.

8. “But,” you say, “how can I take my leave?” Any way you please. Reflect how many hazards you have ventured for the sake of money, and how much toil you have undertaken for a title! You must dare something to gain leisure, also, – or else grow old amid the worries of procuratorships[2] abroad and subsequently of civil duties at home, living in turmoil and in ever fresh floods of responsibilities, which no man has ever succeeded in avoiding by unobtrusiveness or by seclusion of life. For what bearing on the case has your personal desire for a secluded life? Your position in the world desires the opposite! What if, even now, you allow that position to grow greater? But all that is added to your successes will be added to your fears.

9. At this point I should like to quote a saying of Maecenas, who spoke the truth when he stood on the very summit:[3] “There’s thunder even on the loftiest peaks.” If you ask me in what book these words are found, they occur in the volume entitled Prometheus.[4] He simply meant to say that these lofty peaks have their tops surrounded with thunder-storms. But is any power worth so high a price that a man like you would ever, in order to obtain it, adopt a style so debauched as that?[5] Maecenas was indeed a man of parts, who would have left a great pattern for Roman oratory to follow, had his good fortune not made him effeminate, – nay, had it not emasculated him! An end like his awaits you also, unless you forthwith shorten sail and, – as Maecenas was not willing to do until it was too late, – hug the shore!

10. This saying of Maecenas’s might have squared my account with you; but I feel sure, knowing you, that you will get out an injunction against me, and that you will be unwilling to accept payment of my debt in such crude and debased currency. However that may be, I shall draw on the account of Epicurus.[6] He says: “You must reflect carefully beforehand with whom you are to eat and drink, rather than what you are to eat and drink. For a dinner of meats without the company of a friend is like the life of a lion or a wolf.

11. This privilege will not be yours unless you withdraw from the world; otherwise, you will have as guests only those whom your slave-secretary[7] sorts out from the throng of callers. It is, however, a mistake to select your friend in the reception-hall or to test him at the dinner-table. The most serious misfortune for a busy man who is overwhelmed by his possessions is, that he believes men to be his friends when he himself is not a friend to them, and that he deems his favours to be effective in winning friends, although, in the case of certain men, the more they owe, the more they hate. A trifling debt makes a man your debtor; a large one makes him an enemy.

12. “What,” you say, “do not kindnesses establish friendships?” They do, if one has had the privilege of choosing those who are to receive them, and if they are placed judiciously, instead of being scattered broadcast. Therefore, while you are beginning to call your mind your own, meantime apply this maxim of the wise: consider that it is more important who receives a thing, than what it is he receives.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  See the introduction, p. ix.
  2.  The procurator did the work of a quaestor in an imperial province. Positions at Rome to which Lucilius might succeed were such as praefectus annonae, in charge of the grain supply, or praefectus urbi, Director of Public Safety, and others.
  3.  And therefore could speak with authority on this point.
  4.  Perhaps a tragedy, although Seneca uses the word liber to describe it. Maecenas wrote a Symposium, a work De cultu suo, Octavia, some stray verse, and perhaps some history. See Seneca, Epp. xcii. and ci.
  5.  Seneca whimsically pretvrends to assume that eccentric literary style and high political position go hand in hand. See also the following sentence.
  6.  Epicurus, Frag. 542 Usener.
  7.  A slave kept by every prominant Roman to identify the master’s friends and dependants.

Letter IX. On Philosophy and Friendship

Gladiators before entering the arena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Points:

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

Image: Gladiators before entering the arena by Stepan Bakalovich



IX. On Philosophy and Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unblest is he who thinks himself unblest.[15]

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

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

Farewell

Footnotes

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

Letter 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

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.