[see here for a brief introduction to this ongoing series]
The seventh letter from Seneca to his friend is on the subject of crowds, and why a Stoic (or any sane person, really) ought to avoid them. Since I myself never particularly liked crowds — be that at sports events, concerts, or large parties — I was keen on comparing my own opinion with that of the prominent Roman Stoic.
The first reason we get to avoid crowds is that consorting with large numbers of people directly interferes with the progress of a Stoic student: “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.” (VII.1)
Why does this happen, exactly?
“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. … 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.” (VII.2-3)
As is often the case with Seneca, the above statement may sound ungenerously elitist, and maybe it was, I don’t have a special insight into the man’s soul. But I prefer the most charitable reading that he is describing the reality of human interactions: a lot of people are indeed greedy, ambitious, cruel, and so forth, and if one is trying to train oneself to avoid such attitudes, then one is better off decreasing exposure as much as possible. This is certainly not a uniquely Stoic idea: just think of the tradition of monkhood, from the Christian to the Buddhist variety.
Modern readers will also do well to remember 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 intermission, they announce: ‘A little throatcutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!'” (VII.4-5)
A similar consideration applies to other Stoic writers who sound unduly harsh, or pessimistic, to modern ears. Take Epictetus’ famous advice to kiss your child goodnight while reminding yourself that he is a mortal, so that you will not be too distraught if he dies during the night. What kind of a monster would write that? Not a monster, but a deep and honest thinker who lived at a time when even most of the children of an emperor were likely to die young, as Marcus Aurelius for instance found out. Once we recall that to mind, Epictetus’ and Seneca’s words sound a lot less harsh and strange.
Seneca is particularly worried about exposing young people to crowds: “The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority,” though really, anyone will incur into the problem: “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.” (VII.6)
I have seen this happening when I was a young man attending a highly politicized high school in Rome, where it was indeed very difficult to resist the will of the majority, no matter how good your reasons. And modern psychological research also supports the idea that our opinions are far too easily swayed by others, with a distinct bias in favor of groupthink.
Next Seneca makes another interesting observation — also supported by modern cognitive science — about just how easily we take the wrong path:
“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.” (VII.7)
Again, science tells us that the best way to avoid temptation is actually not to expose ourselves to it, rather than resist it. So Seneca’s worry is well placed.
“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.” (VII.8)
Again, elitism at play? Perhaps, but this sort of advice actually works, and it was endorsed not just by the Stoics but, most famously, by Aristotle. Keep the company of good people from whom you can learn, choose friends who have the guts to hold up a mirror to your soul so that you may see where you need improvement. Think about that, the next time you are invited to a dinner party.