Seneca’s consolation letters, part III: to Polybius

Fortuna is blind
Fortuna is blind

Time to take a look at the third and last letter of consolation written by Seneca, to his friend Polybius. (For my commentary on his letter to Marcia see here, and on the one to his mother Helvia here.) The letter was written in the year 44 CE, during Seneca’s exile in Corsica, to console his friend of the death of his brother. In this commentary I will not cover the part, near the end, where Seneca writes in a flattering manner of the emperor Claudius. As translator Aubrey Stewart put it: “This switch of tone is sudden and unsuited to Seneca’s stoic philosophy, causing some scholars to ascribe the text to another author, though others argue that the tonal switch in De Consolatione ad Polybium was nothing more than Seneca’s desperate attempt to escape exile and return from Corsica.” On Seneca’s shall we say complex legacy as a man and a Stoic, see this essay of mine.

The letter begins with a version of the Stoic view from above exercise, meant to help put things, including tragedies, in perspective: “What, indeed, have mortal hands made that is not mortal? The seven wonders of the world, and any even greater wonders which the ambition of later ages has constructed, will be seen some day leveled with the ground … this entire universe, containing gods and men and all their works will someday be swept away and plunged a second time into its original darkness and chaos. Weep, if you can, after this, over the loss of any individual life!” (Notice the reference to Stoic cosmology and its idea that the universe is cyclical, going through rounds of birth and destruction.)

The point is to both remind Polybius that it is hubris to think that our own fate should be any different from that of anything else, and also that there is consolation in understanding how the world works (remember that according to the Stoics, “physics,” that is, natural philosophy, informs “ethics,” that is, the way we ought to live our lives): “Who can be so haughtily and peevishly arrogant as to expect that this law of nature by which every thing is brought to an end will be set aside in his own case, and that his own house will be exempted from the ruin which menaces the whole world itself? It is, therefore, a great consolation to reflect that what has happened to us has happened to everyone before us and will happen to everyone after us.”

Section II takes a different approach, as we have seen Seneca doing in both the other consolation letters, empathizing with his friend: “if we could gain anything by sorrow, I should not refuse to bestow upon your misfortunes whatever tears my own have left at my disposal: I would force some drops to flow from these eyes, exhausted as they are with weeping over my own domestic afflictions, were it likely to be of any service to you.”

At IV Seneca goes back to the Stoic idea of the impartiality of Fate: “We might go on blaming fate much longer, but we cannot alter it: it stands harsh and inexorable: no one can move it by reproaches, by tears, or by justice. Fate never spares anyone, never makes allowances to anyone … Look around, I pray you, upon all mortals: everywhere there is ample and constant reason for weeping.”

At V we see yet another approach to the problem, where Seneca exhorts Polybius to think about what his deceased brother himself would want: “If your brother wishes you to be tortured with endless mourning, he does not deserve such affection: if he does not wish it, dismiss the grief which affects you both: an unnatural brother ought not, a good brother would not wish to be so mourned for.”

Also, Polybius has to think of the rest of his family, including his other brothers (just like Seneca had reminded Marcia of her own family duties and how overly prolonged grief was getting in their way): “You ought to imitate great generals in times of disaster, when they are careful to affect a cheerful demeanour, and conceal misfortunes by a counterfeited joyousness, lest, if the soldiers saw their leader cast down, they should themselves become dispirited.”

VIII sees Seneca warning Polybius that the worst times will be when he finds himself alone at home. But a remedy is ready at hand: “grief, as though it then had an opportunity of attack, will lie in ambush for you in your loneliness, and creep by degrees over your mind as it rests from its labours. You ought not, therefore, to allow any moment to be unoccupied by literary pursuits: at such times let literature repay to you the debt which your long and faithful love has laid upon it, let it claim you for its high priest and worshipper: at such times let Homer and Virgil be much in your company.”

Yet another take is on display at IX, where Seneca first tells Polybius that one shouldn’t mourn for his own sake: “ask yourself: Am I grieving on my own account or on that of him who is gone? If on my own, I have no right to boast of my affectionate sensibility; grief is only excusable as long as it is honourable; but when it is only caused by personal interests, it no longer springs from tenderness.” And then proceeds with a standard Stoic analysis of what it means to be dead: “if the dead retain no feeling whatever, my brother has escaped from all the troubles of life, has been restored to the place which he occupied before his birth, and, being free from every kind of ill, can neither fear, nor desire, nor suffer: what madness then for me never to cease grieving for one who will never grieve again?”

The rest of IX reminds Polybius of the fact that while his brother can no longer enjoy a number of pleasures offered by life, he is also now being spared the many sorrows and turns of fortune that characterize human existence, as in the end “we cannot be sure of anything even for one whole day: since the truth is so dark and hard to come at, who can tell whether death came to your brother out of malice or out of kindness?”

At X Seneca deploys one of my favorite Stoic concepts, which we later find put to very good use by Epictetus, that things and people in our lives are never ours, but rather on loan from the universe: “you need not think for how much longer you might have had him, but for how long you did have him. Nature gave him to you, as she gives others to other brothers, not as an absolute property, but as a loan: afterwards when she thought proper she took him back again, and followed her own rules of action, instead of waiting until you had indulged your love to satiety.”

XII veers toward a positive note: “Turn yourself away from these thoughts which torment you, and look rather at those numerous and powerful sources of consolation which you possess: look at your excellent brothers, look at your wife and your son.” And at XVIII Seneca even suggests some writing therapy for his friend: “prolong the remembrance of your brother by inserting some memoir of him among your other writings: for that is the only sort of monument that can be erected by man which no storm can injure, no time destroy.”

I often argued that Seneca, for all his mixed legacy as a human being (see link above), is the most compassionate, the most human, of the Stoics. The end of the letter gives us plenty of examples of this: “I know, indeed, that there are some men, whose wisdom is of a harsh rather than a brave character, who say that the wise man never would mourn. It seems to me that they never can have been in the position of mourners, for otherwise their misfortune would have shaken all their haughty philosophy out of them, and, however much against their will, would have forced them to confess their sorrow … let your tears flow, but let them some day cease to flow: groan as deeply as you will, but let your groans cease some day: regulate your conduct so that both philosophers and brothers may approve of it.”

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11 thoughts on “Seneca’s consolation letters, part III: to Polybius

  1. It seems to me that they never can have been in the position of mourners, for otherwise their misfortune would have shaken all their haughty philosophy out of them, and, however much against their will, would have forced them to confess their sorrow

    Yes, it would seem that way.

    Seneca has given advice that I know to be true yet somehow it does not ring true. To misquote Seneca, misfortune should have shaken his haughty philosophy out of him.

    One is left with the impression that he is demonstrating wisdom with little real concern for the mourner, despite the claim he is the most compassionate of Stoic philosophers.

    Here again we see the dominant characteristic of Stoicism, an overriding concern for the self and a diminished concern for the other. This is paradoxical since one would think that writing the letter of consolation is an act of concern for the other. Until, that is, one reads the letter and what emerges is advice with little concern.

    Bereavement can be likened to a battlefield injury. It comes out of nowhere with startling and paralysing suddenness that leaves one incapacitated and in deep shock. The patient is given first aid, evacuated to a field hospital, treated and then moved to the rear where he can convalesce.

    This parallels the process of bereavement. The patient progesses through the stages of shock, first aid, intensive care and then convalescence. The treatment of the patient depends on the stage of bereavement. Seneca’s advice can be likened to a convalescence manual and is just about as useless to the patient as a convalescence manual. The convalescence manual is necessary for the therapist but it is the therapist who, with loving care, guides the patient through convalescence.

    Yes, one can throw a convalescence manual at some people and they will manage just fine. Many do not possess the interior resources to do this. This becomes apparent when they become stuck in convalescence. Just as is the case with battlefield casualties, they need the loving guidance of a therapist(and not a convalescence manual) to help them through the healing process, but this is not readily apparent to a philosophy obsessed with resilience and mired in concern for the self.

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  2. Massimo,
    And yet I found Seneca’s type consolation incredibly useful when I lost my mother. So much for lacking interior resources.

    First, my condolences to you on your painful loss. I am glad that you found consolation and hope that you have found closure.

    You are exactly the sort of person who would have the interior resources. By virtue of your Stoic training and the kind of person you are, you would be very receptive to this approach. But that is uncommon and you are, well, quite unique 🙂

    Remember that I qualified my statement by saying:

    This becomes apparent when they become stuck in convalescence

    Such people are unlikely to have the interior resources and this is the case I am addressing.

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  3. Labnut has inadvertently resolved for me what had been a great problem with stoicism.

    The whole point, if I understand correctly, is to cultivate and develop one’s interioir resources. So one cannot coherently, at the same time, describe a philosophy as useless because it is only of avail to those with such resources, and self-centred because the development of those resources are its focus of attention. As Seneca’s letter makes abundantly clear, one reason for keeping one’s grief (or any other feeling) within reason is one’s network of external responsibilities, and I do not understand why one might wish that Seneca’s own misfortunes had shaken his philosophy out of him.

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  4. Hi Paul,
    The whole point, if I understand correctly, is to cultivate and develop one’s interioir resources.

    Yes, provided that it is understood that part of those interior resources is the capacity to practice virtue ethics.

    So one cannot coherently, at the same time, describe a philosophy as useless

    I would never describe Stoicism as useless. On the contrary it is an extremely important ethical school and I support the work that Massimo is doing.

    My criticisms have to do with the relative balance between self-directedness and other-directedness. Modern Stoic writings reflect a strong tilt towards self-directness. It need not be this way and re-focusing attention on virtue ethics would restore a healthy balance. Massimo has all along maintained that the virtue ethics component of Stoicism gives it an other-directedness . This is quite true but it still does not come out strongly in Stoic teaching, especially the modern teaching.

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  5. Labnut,

    Lots of Stoics don’t see the problem with insufficient other-directness that you see. We think the discipline of action, the virtue of justice, and the concept of oikiosis are all other-directed. Moreover, the very concept of virtue — any virtue — makes sense only if it is other-directed. What would it even mean to be courageous or wise if one were living just for oneself?

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  6. Massimo,
    Moreover, the very concept of virtue — any virtue — makes sense only if it is other-directed.

    You seem not to have read my comment carefully. This is what I said:

    Massimo has all along maintained that the virtue ethics component of Stoicism gives it an other-directedness . This is quite true…“.

    You will note that I am making exactly the same point as you.

    You should remember that I have always maintained that it is a question of emphasis and not of absence(I can go back and quote my comment).

    I maintained then, and still maintain, that modern Stoicism’s dominant emphasis is on the self. This does not mean that the other is ignored, only that the self gets the greater proportion of attention. And remember we were contrasting Stoicism with Christianity where the dominant emphasis is on the other. This is the striking difference between Christianity and Stoicism as ethical systems.

    You are very reluctant to admit this point but I can easily back it up with references to modern Stoic writing(as I already have done)

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  7. Labnut,

    You seem to be the one who doesn’t read me carefully. I am rejecting your point on the basis of practice and of my knowledge so Stoicism. But of course your position is so vague that it cannot really be rebutted. What would count as “sufficient” outward look? How do we measure it? And why is this a problem for you, since you are a Christian, not a Stoic, and you do see the two as incompatible?

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  8. Massimo,
    I am rejecting your point on the basis of practice

    I am happy to believe that of you and it is fully in accord with the hints of your character that have shown themselves in your writing.

    But that does not change my judgement that modern Stoic writings reflect a strong self-directedness.

    And why is this a problem for you

    I would not describe it as a problem but as a concern. We live in an unjust and suffering world. I see this more acutely than you do because of where I live. This suffering and injustice cries out to heaven for the compassionate to act. Jesus, 2000 years ago, made a clarion call for us to attend to the suffering. That need is still present today and that is still our duty today. The Christian Church heeds this call but only in small numbers because the number of committed Christians is small(consumerism has taken its toll). Even so, a lot is done but so much more needs to be done.

    We need partners to help us in this task. We need them to join us in the front lines, we need them to awaken the conscience of the world and we need their help to affect structural solutions. We need people to passionately care about the suffering. We need more people like Pope Francis.

    Will Stoics step up to the plate and join us? Or will they content themselves with life-hacks?

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  9. Massimo,
    and you do see the two as incompatible?

    That needs some clarification.

    I, and other Catholics, find a lot to like and admire about Stoicism. Many of their techniques can profitably be used by Catholics and I think Catholics, in some ways, can learn from Stoics. Most of all I like the fact that Stoics adhere to virtue ethics. This is the strong commonality between Stoicism and Catholicism.

    This commonality makes possible a strong sharing of interest and goals. They can work together constructively and productively, unlike the case with New Atheism. But a fully lived Christian life requires an intense kind of devotional commitment that rules out living as a Stoic. I tried to bring home this point with my soccer and rugby analogy where you play one game or the other. You rejected my analogy but I still think it is a useful one. Soccer and rugby players can learn from the training and nutritional practices of the other. They can borrow knowledge, experiences and practices from each other but you still play one game or the other.

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