Letter XXXVI. On the Value of Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Section 8 Seneca offers a scientific perspective on death:

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

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

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

(image: Allegory of Fortune, by Salvator Rosa)

XXXVI. On the Value of Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Review: Seneca, On the shortness of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Seneca, On the Happy Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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