Seneca to Lucilius: on the futility of half-way measures

Astronaut Terry Virts salutes Earth in the Vulcan fashion, from aboard the Space Station.

Live long and prosper, says the famous Vulcan salute introduced by actor Leonard Nimoy in the original Star Trek series. I’m sure Mr. Spock meant something along the lines of flourishing (i.e., eudaimonia) whenever he said “prosper,” but these days prosperity is usually understood primarily in terms of wealth. And yet, letter XXII from Seneca to his friend Lucilius is, in part, an argument that neither wealth nor a long life are intrinsically good. As usual with virtue ethics, it isn’t the external object that matter, but what you do with it.

The letter begins with Seneca apologizing to Lucilius for being unable to give him exact advice beyond general principles. That’s because every situation is different, and one needs to have a direct sense of what is actually going on in order to be specific. Comparing — in classic Stoic fashion — the philosopher to a doctor, he says:

“The physician cannot prescribe by letter the proper time for eating or bathing; he must feel the pulse.” (XXII.1)

What is Lucilius concerned with? Apparently, the Ancient Roman version of a rat race, and how to get out of it. Seneca’s analysis begins with countering the typical excuses people give for living a frantic life in pursuit of wealth:

“The usual explanation which men offer is wrong: ‘I was compelled to do it. Suppose it was against my will; I had to do it.’ But no one is compelled to pursue prosperity at top speed.” (XXII.4)

Notice a subtle point here: Seneca isn’t saying that prosperity is not worth pursuing. It is, after all, a preferred indifferent. But it is preferred only insofar it doesn’t get in the way of conducting a virtuous life, as one gets the sense Lucilius was worrying about insofar his own pursuits were concerned. Which is why his friend reminds him that he is under no obligation at all to live in the fast lane.

Seneca then adds:

“From business, my dear Lucilius, it is easy to escape, if only you will despise the rewards of business. We are held back and kept from escaping by thoughts like these: ‘What then? Shall I leave behind me these great prospects? Shall I depart at the very time of harvest? Shall I have no slaves at my side? No retinue for my litter? No crowd in my reception room?’ Hence men leave such advantages as these with reluctance; they love the reward of their hardships, but curse the hardships themselves.” (XXII.9)

This is a lovely paragraph, worth meditating upon. Begin with the end: people love the reward of their hardships, but curse the hardships themselves. Indeed, and yet what is actually rewarding in life is the experience itself, not so much the final outcome. Have you ever been on a strenuous hike? Sure, there is satisfaction when you get to the summit and can look at the view. But it is the whole process that is worth going through, blisters and all. Or think about a major accomplishment in your life, like when you graduate from college. By all means, celebrate the moment. But also be honest: the euphoria lasts a day or two, and the real reward lies in the process of learning, for which you spent all those long hours of effort before you got to the finish line. If you are still not convinced, reflect on the fact that as soon as we actually reach a goal we typically make plans for a new one, because the end of the journey is not as satisfying as the journey itself. And it is human nature to keep moving, always on a journey we deem worth embarking on.

The middle paragraph above from Seneca is an enumeration of material goods similar to those still listed today whenever someone explains why making money is important (except for slavery, unless you count the exploitation of fellow human beings under unfair labor practices as a form of slavery, which it is). People still want to bask in adoring crowds hanging in their “reception room,” and still value having a retinue of others who surround them wherever they go, whether it is by litter or private helicopter. None of this makes you a better person, and indeed the frantic pursuit of it is very likely to turn you into a significantly worse one.

“Search the minds of those who cry down what they have desired, who talk about escaping from things which they are unable to do without; you will comprehend that they are lingering of their own free will in a situation which they declare they find it hard and wretched to endure. It is so, my dear Lucilius; there are a few men whom slavery holds fast, but there are many more who hold fast to slavery.” (XXII.10-11)

Again, what a beautiful turn of phrase, especially at the end: the most damning kind of slavery is the one we condemn ourselves to, without even realizing it. As Seneca reminds us, often time we complain of being unable to escape our situation, because we absolutely “have” to do this or that. And yet, the obligation is only in our mind, we accept it uncritically and then feel bound by it, even though it is, ultimately, our own choice to be so enslaved.

“Zeno, Chrysippus, and all their kind will give you advice that is temperate, honourable, and suitable. … No man can swim ashore and take his baggage with him.“ (XXII.11-12)

The advice given by Zeno, Chrysippus and all the Stoics is to get rid of much of our baggage, because it gets in the way of our swimming securely toward the shores of virtue. As we have discussed in the past, Stoicism is not Cynicism, and there is no prohibition against owning property or being wealthy. Indeed, Seneca himself owned a lot of property and was one of the wealthiest men in Rome. (Yes, he was far from a Sage.) But the Stoics did admire the Cynics, and there is a strong current of minimalism in terms of external goods among several of the major Stoics, including Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. That’s because, as a matter of human nature, if one becomes more and more focused on — or obsessed by — the pursuit of externals, then one has less time and energy to become a better person, and sometimes actually has to do unvirtuous things in order to gain, or keep, his wealth.

The letter ends with a more general contemplation about death, which Seneca elsewhere says is the ultimate test of our virtue and our philosophy:

“A man has caught the message of wisdom, if he can die as free from care as he was at birth; but as it is we are all a-flutter at the approach of the dreaded end. Our courage fails us, our cheeks blanch; our tears fall, though they are unavailing. But what is baser than to fret at the very threshold of peace?” (XXII.16)

Here, of course, the Stoic position is not that different from the Epicurean one, as summarized in the famous sentiment that wherever death is, we are not; and wherever we are, she is not. Death, moreover, is used in Stoicism as the very thing that gives meaning to our lives: we ought to live as if each day were our last, because it may very well be. And if we take this advice seriously, we will no longer waste time in the pursuit of things that are not important, we will get out of the rat race, and devote ourselves to what is really important in life: love, friendship, and virtue. Yet, many simply do not get, or perhaps do not wish to hear, the message, which is why Seneca concludes with this sentiment:

“Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long.” (XXII.17)

3 thoughts on “Seneca to Lucilius: on the futility of half-way measures

  1. Robin Luethe

    If a person wants to marry (or cohabit), and have a kid or two here is the economic reality. Medical insurance 25,000; the most inexpensive housing is up to 36,000, transportation – easily 12,000, food, clothing, and other 15,000 – That comes to $88,000. We live in a Money Society. My grandmother was literally a sustenance farmer, widowed about 1920 with six children – and 40 acres. She needed only several hundred a year for all of them to survive – and amazingly thrive. She might be called a naive Christian Stoic, and while the terminology likely was foreign was seen as such.

    The unease our country (and the world) is facing likely is in part related to the above. I don’t know how to fit it in with you great post today, but somehow it does probably need fitting.


  2. Massimo Post author


    I don’t think there is a problem in fitting your observations with the post. We all have to make a living, unless with are Cynics… What you are talking about is hardly a case of devoting oneself to the pursuit of eccessive wealth.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. leonids


    Since our “Money Society,” has largely decided to ignore the effects of anthropogenic climate change, future generations might be forced to be as resourceful and Stoic as your grandmother and her children were.


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