Seneca to Lucilius: philosophy as the guide of life

Philosophy, by Raphael

Philosophy, by Raphael

From time to time I go back to the letters that Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius (I have commented on 9 so far, I’m going in order, though I am not commenting on every letter). This is because of the clarity of the writing and the conversational tone with which Seneca approaches topics ranging from whether to go to parties to how to deal with death. Letter XVI is on philosophy, the guide of life.

The basic idea is made clear in the first lines: “no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom.” (XVI.1) But the study of wisdom is actually a love of wisdom, and shouldn’t be pursued for trivial matters, as Seneca makes clear shortly thereafter: “Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties.” (XVI.3)

This would pretty much get rid of a lot of modern academic philosophy. I have written recently that, in fact, quite a bit of the latter these days is either trivial or an exercise in logic chopping for the sake of logic chopping (or of a tenured position). And yet, sometimes I wonder if I don’t have the guts to go far enough and fully embrace what Seneca was getting at. He wasn’t the only Stoic to do so, by the way. Epictetus, who never mentions Seneca (possibly because they had different views of Nero), nevertheless makes clear that studying, say, logic, is not good if it is for its own sake:

“We know how to analyse arguments, and have the skill a person needs to evaluate competent logicians. But in life what do I do? What today I say is good tomorrow I will swear is bad. And the reason is that, compared to what I know about syllogisms, my knowledge and experience of life fall far behind.” (Discourses II, 3.4-5)

This goes a long way toward explaining the only superficially puzzling empirical finding that modern moral philosophers (meaning those who teach ethics at the college level) are actually no more moral, in practice, than their average academic colleague. I doubt Seneca or Epictetus would have been shocked by this.

At XVI.5 Seneca makes an interesting argument about why philosophy should be our guide in life, regardless of our metaphysical positions: “whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence.”

Notice the three possibilities considered here: inexorable Fate, or what we would today call determinism; God as the planner of everything that goes on in the universe, similar to the Christian idea of Providence, and even, perhaps, to Epictetus’ take on the same subject; or Chance, the Epicurean chaos characterizing a cosmos in which God does not play any active role.

This is not at all dissimilar from Marcus’ own frequent comments in the Meditations: “Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence. (Meditations XII.14) (For a number of other examples, see this post.)

All of the above reinforces my point that, contra to somewhat popular belief even in the modern Stoic community, metaphysics definitely underdetermines ethics for the Stoics, including the ancient ones.

Seneca then pulls one of his not infrequent positive citations of Epicurus: “This also is a saying of Epicurus: ‘If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.'” (XVI.7)

Seneca has already explained to his friend, in Letter II.5, that “the thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp — not as a deserter, but as a scout.” Which makes him, to my mind, ecumenical and open minded (certainly positive traits of a good Stoic), while still considering himself a member of the Stoa, and not simply an eclectic.

The letter concludes with this nice and instructive contrast, leading to a deep truth: “Add statues, paintings, and whatever any art has devised for the luxury; you will only learn from such things to crave still greater. Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits.” (XVI.8-9)

3 thoughts on “Seneca to Lucilius: philosophy as the guide of life

  1. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    I’ve sometimes wondered if I should have been a professional philosopher, most notably after reading “Excellent Sheep” by Bill Deresiewicz a couple times. (Though I didn’t go to an elite college for undergrad, I was somewhat of a high school overachiever, and the elite education culture is known to trickle down to lower tiers, so a lot of the stuff in the book was familiar to me. I was reminded of it recently when reading about how people who graduate at the top of their class in high school tend to be moderately successful but almost never visionary or creative.) My interest in wisdom – how to live and die well – dates back to only about 8 years later than my interest in natural science, and the ancients said that you have to really dedicate yourself to philosophy to the exclusion of other things to really benefit from it. Also, the most admirable ancients who wrote about philosophy – Epictetus and Musonius Rufus – did make their living in philosophy itself. But the ancients also said that you didn’t have to stop doing other things to be dedicated to philosophy, only to use philosophy to decide carefully what else you do and how you do it. So I’ll probably do better staying in natural science (astronomy/astrophysics) with an “amateur” approach to philosophy than I would have going into professional philosophy if I were to lose the wisdom approach along the way. Also, I imagined when younger that, as the ancients thought, science or “natural philosophy” could serve as a support to wisdom: accepting that I must die someday and, with the way the universe is evolving, almost surely be forgotten as well, can bring certain insecurities to a pause. Along with all that, someone who cares about something other than publication numbers, fame, and money ought to stay in natural science to try to preserve the best of the culture against the neoliberalization of everything.

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  2. Marco Barbieri

    I have a question for you, Massimo, although I’m afraid it’s a very (probably too much) general one. What do you think, beside your areas of direct interest such as philosophy of science, of 20th- century philosophy? From phenomenology to existentialism and to post-structuralism, do you think that it is “authentic” philosophy? Do you think it is as useful (maybe not a good term for philosophy anyway) as much as ancient philosophies such as Stoicism?


  3. Massimo Post author


    Right, that’s a huge question. I do think there is value in much modern philosophy, though in some more than others. But no, I don’t think any modern approach is as useful as the Greco-Roman approach, especially when it comes to philosophy as a guide to life, rather than just an interesting intellectual puzzle.

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