Seneca to Lucilius: on avoiding crowds

Crowds[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.

9 thoughts on “Seneca to Lucilius: on avoiding crowds

  1. “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.”

    At the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champagne in 1971 Margaret and I had an experience that made us fear and avoid at least ‘small’ [a] large crowds. We were attending an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in front of the ‘Illini Union’. It was a pretty big crowd – maybe 2-3 hundred. We about 2/3 of the way toward the back.

    Some guy began giving a speech the gist of which seemed to be that if we (the crowd) trashed the Union we could end the war. Utter absurd, but the crowd surged forward and while we tried to back out we were sucked along. Inside people became breaking glass cases and indeed trashing the place. It didn’t stop Nixon.

    About three quarters of the way around the hall the ran around the perimeter we saw ‘Illi’ cop we had a nodding acquaintance with by an exit and we indicated to him we’d like to get the hell out there. He let us out the door he was guarding. Whew!

    At least nobody went after people. Just trashed the building were we got are breakfast and dinner, and bought books.

    Since then we’ve been to a few large demonstrations, but avoid anything ‘small’. You can take Bart from South San Francisco, pop up on Market St., in the middle of, e.g., anti-Gulf War demo, and pop back down and be out of SF before the rowdies and crazies come ou.

    [a] I well organized 100K+ is safer!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A couple of corollaries that flow from the concern about crowds:

    1. Nothing good happens after 10 PM.
    2. Less good happens after midnight.

    I learned those in a seminar taught by a former FBI agent on investigative techniques. Both scenarios greatly increase exposure to the “wrong path”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a very well timed essay. Last night, after months of relative social seclusion, I ventured out to the birthday party of an old friend visiting from abroad. In the early hours, while the crowd was yet thin, I found great company and conversation with a handful of academically zealous graduate students. Having been complimented for the radiant optimism and soundness of mind they felt I’d developed in the intervening years, I had occasion to sprinkle conversation with the wisdom of Epictetus and Seneca. But as the crowd thickened, so did the tug toward uncomely behaviour. The collective will of the crowd so effectively and thoroughly debased my companions and to a lesser extent myself, that I was forced to retire early, unceremoniously and certainly damaging friendships in the process. It is good to find this situation addressed so pointedly in the surviving literature. The philosophical justification it provides gives great comfort to this nascent prokopton.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lots of food for thought here. I found myself taking another view. What is the point of developing our personal expression of stoic philosophy if we choose to remain isolated in order to maintain it? Stoicism does tell us that we are social animals. I prefer to accept the challenge to practice stoicism as I go amongst people- whether I know them or not. (I do spend a lot of time alone and that is what I need to recharge myself.) A saying I have had for years by my desk : great is the man who in the midst of a madding crowd can keep the independence of solitude. This sounds very stoic to me.
    I’m travelling in Northeast Italy right now. In Treviso today. If I chose to avoid grounds I would not experience this slice of the world. “There is something of the wonderous in all things of nature.” We are cycling so experiencing the beautiful countryside as well as built up centres.


  5. Katy,

    Good points, though I don’t think Seneca’s (and Epictetus’, for that matter) advice is not to engage, or to withdraw from the world. It is rather a warning about just how easily we can be led to unvirtuous behavior by frequenting questionable company, and a reminder of the good that comes from sharing time with good people.


  6. “science tells us that the best way to avoid temptation is actually not to expose ourselves to it, rather than resist it”.
    But how does one avoid temptation when it’s all around us, when our whole culture is dedicated to the cultivation of greed.
    And let’s spare a thought for the members of whole demographics, whose members cannot escape the proximity and influence of their degraded cohorts. ..but perhaps this is elitist.


  7. Marcus,

    Those are damn good questions, and I don’t really have ready answers to submit. I have personally been working on the temptation issue very carefully, avoiding exposure and consciously reassessing my priorities. It’s working, slowly but surely.

    As for what you refer to as the whole demographics, education. Which takes generations to come to fruition. I’m trying to do my part, but it’s a really long game.


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