Seneca to Lucilius: on the blush of modesty

BlushingThe 11th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, deals with a couple of crucial Stoic tenets: the distinction between impressions and assent, and the idea of role models.

Seneca begins with the unlikely topic of blushing, which one simply cannot avoid doing, no matter how hard one tries. He tells his friend Lucilius that “by no wisdom can natural weaknesses of the body be removed. That which is implanted and inborn can be toned down by training, but not overcome” (XI.1).

This is a remarkable insight and an immediate acknowledgement of the limits of philosophy: wisdom itself, the chief good according to the Stoics, cannot overcome our natural predispositions and innate reactions. If we experience embarrassment we blush, if we feel fear or anger, we cannot avoid the rush of adrenalin. This is all outside of our control, and therefore, Epictetus would later say, of “no concern” to us (meaning that we can’t do anything about it, and to attempt it is foolish).

Seneca goes on to reinforce the point: “Wisdom can never remove this habit; for if she could rub out all our faults, she would be mistress of the universe … we cannot forbid these feelings any more than we can summon them” (XI.6). This leaves no illusions in his interlocutor: if you think wisdom is going to make you super-human, you are in for a disappointment, my young friend.

This established, however, Seneca continues with what he thinks is good advice for Lucilius nonetheless, which is to cultivate wisdom despite its limitations, because it is, after all, the best that human beings can do. But how do we cultivate wisdom, exactly? Can it be taught? Is it itself innate? Seneca’s answer is quintessential Stoicism:

“Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them” (XI.8) … “Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit … For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler” (XI.10).

I love the concluding sentence, “you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler,” which encapsulates a fundamental Stoic insight that can be considered valid for any type of virtue ethics: we don’t learn how to be virtuous by obeying rules (like a deontologist would do), or by calculating the possible outcomes of our actions in order to maximize a predetermined quantity (like a utilitarian would). Rather, we learn virtue the same way in which Renaissance artists learned their trade: by associating — virtually, if not physically — with those who already practice at a high level, learning from them by using them as examples to guide us in the molding of our own character. The choice of your personal daimon, is up to you, but choose well, keep practicing while imagining him or her always looking over your shoulders, and your crooked stick will gradually be straightened with the help of the right ruler.

(Incidentally, if you are curious about the above mentioned Laelius, his relationship to Seneca and to Cicero, go here.)

4 thoughts on “Seneca to Lucilius: on the blush of modesty

  1. rebtdoctor

    This is a great post as the idea of holding a role model in mind as we face temptation and make decisions is a great way of helping us do better in life. Nicely done Massimo. Thank you.

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  2. Jeff Ahrens

    Indeed a remarkable insight. One that seems to be vindicated by modern neuroscience, at least to my understanding.

    Also this is where the evening mediation is key. Giving yourself that feedback and having examples to live up to in order to continuously cultivate wisdom. I’ve found that to be a very useful part of the practice of stoicism. The trick I suppose is being able to recognize those natural weaknesses and not beat yourself up too much. Perhaps simply a reminder to recognize and step back from them is enough.

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  3. Stoic Student

    Thank you for this great post. The concluding sentence of this letter is indeed a gem. I am wondering, though, if we are better off choosing an existing (or historical) person as a role model or a fictional person. Indeed, we might consider the ideal (but non-existent) sage as our ‘ruler’. I believe the role of a role model, according to Seneca, is twofold: he is a witness that prevents us from acting wrong, and he is a ruler to measure our behaviour with. An existing person might be more suitable as a witness, since we might better be able to visualize him beside us. The sage might be more suitable as a ruler, since he is truly straight. Even Cato had his flaws, as every human being has. Alternatively, we could even have a ‘grand council’ of models, composed of existing and fictional persons. But to be honest, I am not sure which option is best.


  4. Massimo Post author

    Stoic Student,

    The Stoics themselves used a combination of alive, dead and imaginary role models (Heracles falls in the latter category, for instance). I guess the answer is whatever works best for you!

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