Seneca On Leisure

“What an advantage it will be to retire into the society of the best of men, and to choose some example by which we may guide our lives! This cannot be done without leisure: with leisure we can carry out that which we have once for all decided to be best, when there is no one to interfere with us and with the help of the mob pervert our as yet feeble judgment.” (I) So says Seneca near the beginning of his essay on the topic of leisure, one that may seem rather frivolous for a philosopher, but which is instead crucial. It is, after all, because of the ample leisure offered me by my academic position that you are now reading essay n. 266 on this blog…

Seneca reminds us of just how little of our time is under our control, because of external circumstances, but also because we let ourselves being conditioned by unwise desires, setting the wrong priorities for our actions:

“We toss as it were on waves, and clutch at one thing after another: we let go what we just now sought for, and strive to recover what we have let go. We oscillate between desire and remorse, for we depend entirely upon the opinions of others, and it is that which many people praise and seek after, not that which deserves to be praised and sought after, which we consider to be best.” (I)

Here, by contrast, is how a Stoic should comport herself:

“I am sure that our Stoic philosophers say we must be in motion up to the very end of our life, we will never cease to labour for the general good, to help individual people, and when stricken in years to afford assistance even to our enemies.” (I)

This is a striking passage, emphasizing the cosmopolitan and pro-social aspect of Stoic philosophy, which are far too often neglected or ignored altogether in common commentaries on Stoicism.

One of my favorite bits comes at the beginning of (III), where Seneca says that he follows the early Stoics not because they laid down commandments, as if Stoicism were a religious sect, but because he is convinced by his own reason that they were right:

“I will show that this is approved of by the Stoics also, not that I have laid any commandment upon myself to do nothing contrary to the teaching of Zeno and Chrysippus, but because the matter itself allows me to follow the precepts of those men.”

Even more interestingly, he immediately adds that not only the “ancients” (you know, Zeno lived three and a half centuries earlier…), but we too don’t know all the truth, which is why philosophy is a continuous process of seeking:

“Would that all things were already known, that truth were unveiled and recognized, and that none of our doctrines required modification! But as it is we have to seek for truth in the company of the very men who teach it.” (III)

Next comes a stark contrast with the Epicureans, and the chief reason I decided to practice Stoicism after seriously considering Epicureanism:

“Epicurus says, ‘The wise man will not take part in politics, except upon some special occasion;’ Zeno says, ‘The wise man will take part in politics, unless prevented by some special circumstance.'” (III)

Seneca elaborates on this, producing a beautiful turn of phrase as a result:

“The duty of a man is to be useful to his fellow-men; if possible, to be useful to many of them; failing this, to be useful to a few; failing this, to be useful to his neighbours, and, failing them, to himself: for when he helps others, he advances the general interests of mankind.” (III)

At IV he expands on the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism:

“Let us grasp the fact that there are two republics, one vast and truly ‘public,’ which contains alike gods and men, in which we do not take account of this or that nook of land, but make the boundaries of our state reach as far as the rays of the sun: and another to which we have been assigned by the accident of birth. … Some men serve both of these states, the greater and the lesser, at the same time; some serve only the lesser, some only the greater.”

And how does leisure enter into this? “We can serve the greater commonwealth even when we are at leisure; indeed I am not sure that we cannot serve it better when we are at leisure to inquire into what virtue is, and whether it be one or many: whether it be nature or art that makes men good.” (IV)

At V we get a twist on the Stoic precept that we should live according to nature: “We have a habit of saying that the highest good is to live according to nature: now nature has produced us for both purposes, for contemplation and for action.” So the wise person ought to engage in both contemplation and action, and indeed have her actions directed by the fruits of her contemplation. But in order to be able to contemplate and reflect on things one needs leisure.

“It is by no means desirable that one should merely strive to accumulate property without any love of virtue, or do nothing but hard work without any cultivation of the intellect, for these things ought to be combined and blended together; and, similarly, virtue placed in leisure without action is but an incomplete and feeble good thing, because she never displays what she has learned.” (VI) Again: contemplate and act, since contemplation without action is useless, but action without contemplation is blind and ineffective.

And Seneca adds that the major figures of his own school provide good examples of what he is talking about:

“What is the wise man’s purpose in devoting himself to leisure? He knows that in leisure as well as in action he will accomplish something by which he will be of service to posterity. Our school at any rate declares that Zeno and Chrysippus have done greater things than they would have done had they been in command of armies, or filled high offices, or passed laws.” (VI)

At VII Seneca makes an effort to contrast different philosophical choices while presenting a (somewhat) ecumenical interpretation, according to which the differences among schools of thought are more superficial than substantial:

“There are three kinds of life, and it is a stock question which of the three is the best: the first is devoted to pleasure, the second to contemplation, the third to action. First, let us lay aside all disputatiousness and bitterness of feeling, which, as we have stated, causes those whose paths in life are different to hate one another beyond all hope of reconciliation, and let us see whether all these three do not come to the same thing, although under different names. … The one man cannot live in contemplation without action, nor can the other act without contemplation: and even the third, of whom we all agree in having a bad opinion, does not approve of passive pleasure, but of that which he establishes for himself by means of reason.”

In the end, leisure, for the philosopher, isn’t just a matter of having the time to rest and pursue relaxing activities. It is a crucial aspect of one’s life, without which we do not have the time or energy to philosophize at all, thus being forced by circumstances to live a less useful and fulfilling life than we otherwise would.

8 thoughts on “Seneca On Leisure

  1. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Could this not almost border on Aristotelianism, where those who are forced to work two or three jobs to survive, especially if they’re single parents and thus have a third or fourth job at home, are somehow incapable of living the Good Life? Surely if those people do find a way to make time for leisure, they will be harshly criticized for engaging in a “luxury” that even many moderately wealthy people refuse to allow themselves, lest, say, their children fall behind in the rat race for fancy degrees and jobs and maybe end up having to work two or three jobs themselves. If they do manage to sneak in some philosophy on bathroom breaks and holidays where relatives can watch the kids, I suppose the overscheduled-by-physical-necessity would at least be able to consider the criticism as an indifferent and help the critics rethink their own attitudes.

    I think, though, that it’s even more crucial for those of us who are given leisure to devote as much of it as we can to cultivating a wiser approach to life, so that we will be less inclined to perpetuate and promote the economic injustice suffered by triple-shift-working single parents and others who need to sacrifice their leisure for adequate food, clothing, and shelter. Much of their suffering is due to our greed, after all, or the greed of those better-paid and more powerful than ourselves, which we imitate. I’ve recently convinced myself to focus more on the virtue of temperance on the basis that much injustice is done to support the intemperance of many of us: for instance, unnecessary environmental destruction and low-wage, no-benefit jobs are promoted for cheaper and easier business for producers and daily-life conveniences for affluent consumers.


  2. Massimo Post author


    Thanks for your comment, I really appreciate it.

    It’s probably not surprising that Seneca comes across as a bit of an Aristotelian, given that he was one of the wealthiest men in Rome. He probably didn’t realize the full import of what he was writing.

    However, Epictetus was a slave, and he did find the time to study philosophy. Moreover, Stoicism is 10% theory and 90% practice, and life offers all of us plenty of opportunity to practice.

    I do agree with your comment about going minimalist, which is something I’ve also tried to do in the last couple of years. As Bill Irvine puts it, Stoicism is not good for consumerism…

    In terms of the people suffering injustice and discrimination, however, I think Stoicism is a far better guide than Aristotelianism or Epicureanism, not to mention a number of modern philosophies. Its basic precepts can be learned and practiced by anyone, from slaves (actual, as in the case of Epictetus, or wage-type, as in many places in the modern world) to emperors.


  3. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Yeah, I do remember that even Seneca (whose Letters I often re-read for motivation) tells stories of slaves who found ways to put philosophical principles into practice, if only by committing suicide with toilet cleaners and the like to escape a more undignified end, that Epictetus developed his interest in philosophy before he achieved freedman status, and Diogenes the Cynic maintained his philosophical practice during his stint as a slave. I’m inclined to suspect that slaves back then may have been less harried than wage slaves today, but that may not have been true of all slaves, depending on the tasks they were asked to do. Nonetheless, any wage slave fortunate to get access to philosophy and education to understand it can probably find moments to do it, if only bathroom breaks and holidays, or being home with the flu, or something like that, and their tough life may help them learn certain philosophical principles more easily than the more fortunate can. Seneca was well aware that his own wealth and status were in many ways serious impediments to his motivation to practice his philosophy.

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  4. Paul Braterman

    I am still struggling with this concept of living according to nature. Elsewhere, Massimo, you approve of the argument that it is wrong to feed a cat on vegetables, because that is contrary to nature. But it is equally contrary to nature to neuter the cat, or feed it on factory-made food, or even, arguably, to feed it at all rather than leave it to live on its own prey.

    No doubt you can make valid distinctions between these different cases, but you still have all that work to do despite your invoking nature, and I’m not sure that that helped.


  5. Massimo Post author


    Indeed, Seneca himself says that being wealthy and privileged makes it harder to exercise virtue…

    As for modern wage slaves, that is why we need to push both for better social and economic justice (in accordance, I think, with the discipline of action and the Stoic virtue of justice) as well as for more basic education in (practical) philosophy.

    The analogy here is that even poor and time constrained people find the time to attend church. Why not a Stoic school?


  6. Massimo Post author


    The Stoic concept of “living according to nature” actually says something quite different. It doesn’t say that whatever is natural is good (that would be a fallacy). It says that we should regulate our lives according to (the best in) human nature, and the Stoics thought that human nature, at its best, is that of a social animal capable of reason. So to live according to nature in the Stoic sense means, as Seneca explicitly put it, to apply our intelligence to improve social living.


  7. Paul Braterman

    So “living according to nature”mean something like living up to our full natural potential, which involves, among other things, social involvement? If so, Stoicism here is merging with the idea of self-actualisation, but avoiding the illusion that the latter can be achieved without engagement in public affairs.


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