Seneca to Lucilius: how to live like a philosopher

The Philosopher, Delphi Museum, photo by Massimo

The Philosopher, Delphi Museum, photo by Massimo

[see here for a brief introduction to this ongoing series]

The fifth letter that Seneca writes to his friend Lucilius concerns the proper way to conduct oneself as a philosopher, and it is an interesting example of PR on behalf of the profession, which apparently needed it even then!

Seneca begins by encouraging, indeed begging, his friend to keep at his philosophical studies, but he also wishes to dissuade him from, well, look too much like a philosopher:

“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. 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.1-2)

Why shouldn’t Lucilius go around dressed and behaving, basically, like a Cynic?

“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.” (V.2)

This is a really subtle point, analogous to Bill Irvine’s idea — expressed in his A Guide to the Good Life — that one should practice Stoicism in a “stealth mode,” as Epictetus also counseled. The duty of the philosopher is to help others live a eudaimonic life, largely by way of example, and not to just show off. Seneca reinforces the point:

“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.” (V.3)

Yes, yes, this sounds a bit condescending. But so be it. After all, one wouldn’t chastise a doctor, say, for stating that his goal is to improve people’s health, since he is an expert on that particular problem. If a philosopher is a true philosopher, in the ancient sense, then, things should not be any different (and, indeed, the Stoics often used the metaphor of a philosopher as physician of the soul).

The letter goes on to explain what “following nature” does not mean:

“Our motto, 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. … Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance; and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. … 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.” (V.4-5)

Notice the explicit admission that most philosophers are not Sages, and that the best they can do is to strive for a “happy medium” in which they are wiser than when they started, and act accordingly. There is dispute about whether the Stoics thought that sagehood was actually achievable or only an ideal to aspire to — a conundrum similar to that encountered by Buddhists with regard to their concept of Enlightenment. Maybe Socrates was an actual Sage or maybe he just got close, either way what we see displayed here is what some people may read as Seneca’s hypocrisy and others as his pragmatism (I choose to go for the second).

What should the house of a philosopher look like? Seneca has an answer there too:

“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.” (V.6)

Again, the uncharitable reading here would be that Seneca wished to justify his own possession of silver rather than earthenware, but I think the point is well taken: if, as the Stoics maintain, wealth is a preferred indifferent and poverty a dispreferred one, then one can exercise virtue regardless of the richness of his kitchen accoutrements.


Categories: Letters to Lucilius, Seneca

2 replies

  1. I agree with Seneca. I think the important point is to abjure all affectation, not only for the sake of lookers on, but for one’s own development. Affecting the appearance of philosophy is proof positive of its vacuity. In any case a plain and simple lifestyle has for more charm and comfort than one dedicated to ostentation, surely? I honestly wonder what the wealthy get out of all their “trappings”. To the extent that wealth affords us leisure for health and reflection it’s a boon, but the rest is idle.

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  2. I always knew that he had a lot of Stoic influences, but I’m starting to see a lot of overt expression of Seneca’s ideas in Thomas Jefferson. Especially in the idea of the wealthy, educated person who lives according to the social mores of their age while cultivating an inner philosophical core. Jefferson basically just restated one of the passages when he said, “In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.”

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