Category Archives: Seneca to Lucilius

Seneca to Lucilius: old age and death

The 26th letter written by Seneca to his friend Lucilius begins in this fashion:

“I give thanks to myself, in your presence, that I do not sense any impairment in my mind, even though I do in my body. Only my faults have grown old, and those parts of me that pay service to my faults.” (XXVI.1-2)

When he wrote his letters Seneca was living the last years of his life, and even though he had of course no knowledge that those years would come to an abrupt end once the order to commit suicide had been delivered by Nero’s guards, he felt it in his bones. Still, he is thankful that his mind is still sharp, even though his body is decaying, as befits a Stoic who puts premium on his faculty of judgment and considers the body a preferred indifferent. I find it endearing that Seneca immediately mentions his faults, that persist because there are parts of him that keep paying service to them. We try to become better people, but we are still very fallible humans.

“My mind tells me to ponder the matter and to discern what of my tranquility and moderate habits I owe to wisdom and what to my time of life; also, to distinguish carefully between things I cannot do and things I do not want to do.” (XXVI.3)

This is a dense passage, addressing two separate issues. The first one is the open question of how much his serenity of mind and temperance of habit is the result of his own efforts at becoming more virtuous, or simply of the fact that he is getting old. The answer, for most of us, is probably an inextricable combination of the two, though there certainly are examples of old people who are neither serene nor temperate.

The second part is a reminder to himself of a version of the dichotomy of control: some things are simply not in our power, so we don’t get to take credit for not doing them. What we should focus instead is on the bits that are under our control, because we are definitely responsible for those. This is the virtue of practical wisdom, or phronesis in Greek (and prudentia in Latin): it is the knowledge of good and evil, and specifically the knowledge that the only truly good and truly evil things are those that fall under our control. Our own correct judgments are the only good (for us), and our own incorrect judgments are the only evil (for us).

“It is a very big problem, you say, for a person to wither and perish and — if I may speak accurately — to melt away. For we are not knocked flat all at once; rather, we waste away a little at a time, as each day erodes our strength.” (XXVI.4)

A quick and sudden death is easy and preferable, but the reality is that most of us will decay slowly, losing both our physical and likely mental strength in the process. That’s the hard challenge of nearing the end, and that’s why how we approach death is the ultimate test of our character. How will we react to our increase dependency on others? Is it better to hang around until the very last minute, or walk through the open door, as Epictetus puts it, while we are still in control? Hence this interesting bit of self doubt:

“I am unafraid as I prepare myself for that day when the artifices and disguises will be stripped away and I shall make judgment of myself. Is it just brave talk, or do I mean what I say? Were they for real, those defiant words I spoke against fortune, or were they just theater — just acting a part?” (XXVI.5)

It’s good practice to ask ourselves the same question, not just about death, but about how we conduct ourselves every day: are we really trying, however imperfectly, to live the Stoic life, or is it just talk? As all Stoics, Seneca puts limited value in theoretical learning (as important as it is). The proof, as we say, is in the pudding:

“Lectures and learned seminars and sayings culled from the teachings of philosophers and educated conversation do not reveal the mind’s real strength. For speech is bold even where the speaker is among the most timorous. What you have achieved will be revealed only when you breathe your last.” (XXVI.6)

Setting aside the substance of what Seneca is saying here, let’s pause for a second to appreciate the beauty of his writing. This why pretty much all translations of Seneca are good, because it is almost impossible to botch the job when one is served with such astounding prose.

“You are younger than I, but what does it matter? Years are not given out by quota. There’s no way to know the point where death lies waiting for you, so you must wait for death at every point.” (XXVI.7)

This is a crucial, and so commonly underappreciated point. We often speak of someone dying “prematurely” if they die young, or even young-ish. But we based that on statistical expectations. From the point of view of the Logos, the cosmic web of cause and effect, there is no such thing as too early or too late. Things happen when they happen. And this bit of theoretical understanding has the potential to be of enormous practical interest, if we internalize the thought and act accordingly: do not waste time, for the simple reason that you don’t know how much of a reserve you have in the bank.

Seneca then quotes the archrival Epicurus, who tells us to “rehearse for death.” Seneca explains to his friend that this is really an injunction to rehearse for freedom, because death is freedom from the shackles imposed by life on our bodies and minds. Life itself is a preferred indifferent, for the Stoic, and too much love of life is not a good thing, as it can lead us to act unvirtuously. Which explains the concluding words of the letter:

“There is but one chain that binds us: the love of life. That, admittedly, we may not discard; yet we must lessen it.” (XXVI.9)

Seneca to Lucilius: the effective teaching of virtue

Scipio Africanus, Stoic role model

Is it possible to teach virtue? Opinions differed among the Greco-Roman philosophers, as I have discussed in an earlier post. The Stoics, of course, answered in the positive, but they were not blind to the difficulties inherent in the task, as is clear from letter XXV from Seneca to Lucilius, which in the wonderful Chicago Press edition carries the title “Effective teaching.”

Seneca recounts the situation of two mutual friends, who, he says, need to be treated differently because of where they are in their life stages. With one of them, Seneca thinks harsh measures ought to be put in place, adding that if he doesn’t offend his friend, then he doesnt’ love him. I suspect this sort of attitude is difficult to implement nowadays, given our culture’s current penchant for easy offense. Then again, Seneca was talking about a friend who he genuinely wanted to help, not a stranger he actually aimed at hurting.

Seneca anticipates Lucilius’ objection: are you seriously thinking of taking on a pupil who is 40 years old? He is set in his ways, and one can mold things only whey they are soft. To which comes the reply:

“I don’t know if I will succeed, but I would rather fail in my endeavor than in my duty to him. Nor should you give up hope: even long-term invalids can be cured if you take a stand against intemperance, and if you force them repeatedly to do things and put up with things against their will.” (XXV.2)

Notice the standard Stoic analogy between philosophical and physical health, but also the acknowledgment that, while it may be more difficult than if one starts earlier in life, it is still possible at any age to help people we care along the path of virtue.

The second friend needs a gentler treatment, continues Seneca, because he is still capable of blushing, which means he has retained a sense of right and wrong, and is concerned about it:

“We must nurture that sense of shame: once it has solidified in his mind, there will be some room for hope.” (XXV.2)

The second part of the letter turns to helping out Seneca himself, as well as Lucilius: just because they are conscious of the importance of virtue it doesn’t mean that they are ipso facto virtuous. As he often does in the early letters, Seneca quotes the rival Epicurus, not being shy to borrow from the latter’s philosophy, since the truth is public property. The quote is rather indicative of Epicurus’ own approach to things (recall that he was among the few ancients who actually went around claiming to be a sage): “do everything as though Epicurus were watching you.”

This is interesting because it’s a clear indication of an exercise that modern Stoics refer to as “the sage on the shoulder,” the idea — supported by empirical evidence in social psychology — that we behave better if we imagine that there is someone watching what we are doing. And Seneca is explicit in his instructions to Lucilius:

“Put yourself under the guardianship of men of authority. Let it be Cato, or Scipio, or Laelius, or someone else at whose coming even desperate characters would suppress their faults, while you go about making yourself the person in whose company you would not dare to do wrong.” (XXV.6)

Cato, of course, is Cato the Younger, the arch-enemy of Julius Caesar, and a frequent role model for Seneca. Scipio is the legendary Scipio Africanus, a Roman general and consul who defeated Hannibal at the battle of Zama in 202 BCE, during the Second Punic War. And Laelius was Gaius Laelius Sapiens (Laelius “the wise”), a Roman statesman of the II century BCE. The point is that all these people were known for their virtuous character, and are therefore apt to be role models for Lucilius (and the rest of us). Seneca even suggests that the choice of a role model depends on our own personality: for some a hardened soul like that of Cato will do, others might want to go with the gentler Laelius.

Role models play a huge part in Stoic ethical teaching, because — as Seneca says elsewhere — they provide us with a ruler against which to measure just how crooked our own character still is, as well as a pointer for the direction to take in order to further our self-improvement. So, pick your Cato, Scipio, or Laelius; or perhaps a modern role model, like Susan Fowler; or a fictional one, like Spider-Man (the ancients often used Odysseus); or simply look up to a friend or relative you think is doing the right thing for the right reasons. Role models don’t have to be perfect, no human being is. But it’s precisely because of their imperfection that their examples provide us with realistic goals, helping us to become better human beings here and now.

Seneca to Lucilius: courage in a threatening situation

Silver denarius of Metellus Scipio

Silver denarius of Metellus Scipio, Stoic role model

What to do when we are about to face a difficult situation, even a threat to our wellbeing, such as a lawsuit, or a disease? Seneca tells Lucilius in Letter XXIV that most people would counsel their friends to think positive, as we would say today, to fix their attention on the hopefully likely good outcome, trying to steer the mind away from the negative possibilities. But that’s not what the Stoic philosopher tells his friend to do:

“But what I will do is lead you down a different road to tranquility. If you want to be rid of worry, then fix your mind on whatever it is that you are afraid might happen as a thing that definitely will happen. Whatever bad event that might be, take the measure of it mentally and so assess your fear. You will soon realize that what you fear is either no great matter or not long lasting.” (XXIV.2)

This is what Bill Irvine, in his A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, calls “negative visualization,” even though Don Robertson, who is familiar with the modern version of the technique in cognitive behavioral therapy, points out that strictly speaking the Stoics thought the only negative (memeaning truly bad) thing that could befall someone is to act unvirtuously. Be that as it may, the idea is not to indulge in negative thoughts for their own sake, and even less so to dwell on possible tragedies that may struck us. Rather, it’s a matter of being mentally prepared for the worst, in order not to be shocked if and when it comes. As Seneca himself says elsewhere, a prepared mind is better able to withstand an unfavorable turn of events.

The letter continues with a series of example of people who have embraced a difficult situation with courage, including Publius Rutilius Rufus, who was exiled to Smyrna when he was falsely accused of extortion of the populations of the province of Asia, which he was actually trying to protect; and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica, who was defeated by Caesar along with Cato and decided to commit suicide, famously departing from his soldiers with a nonchalant “Imperator se bene habet” (“Your general’s just fine”). But of course the greatest example of them all is the philosophical father of all the Hellenistic philosophies, including Stoicism:

“Socrates lectured while in prison, and although there were people there to arrange an escape, he refused to leave; instead, he stayed, meaning to do away with humankind’s two greatest fears: death and imprisonment.” (XXIV.4)

Seneca then reminds Lucilius of Cato’s own suicide, and the fact that he retired to his room for the last time in the company of a book by Plato and his dagger, “the one so that he would be willing to die, the other so that he would be able.” (XXIV.6) And a few lines later we also find the famous description of Cato’s last hour that has become standard Stoic lore: when his self-inflicted wound was about to be held in place by his physician, who had rushed into the room, Cato literally tore his guts from himself, throwing them on the floor and thus accomplishing his goal.

Of course, not many of us are likely to ever face a tyrant in battle, or to be sent into exile for having done the right thing. But these examples are meant to remind us that others have withstood far more difficult situations than the one that may be keeping us up at night right now. If they were able to summon so much courage and do the right thing, surely so can we? If it isn’t Caesar you are facing in the battlefield, but rather your boss who is unfairly berating a coworker, does it really take that much effort to stand up and say the right thing?

The letter also containes with the following advice:

“Your clear conscience gives reason to be confident; still, since many external factors have a bearing on the outcome, hope for the best but prepare yourself for the worst. Remember above all to get rid of the commotion. Observe what each thing has inside, and you will learn: there is nothing to fear in your affairs but fear itself.” (XXIV.12)

That last phrase, of course, was repeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt on the occasion of his inaugural address, on 4 March 1933, without attribution. Roosevelt was telling his fellow Americans, still in the midst of the great depression, that they had to endure and refuse to be paralyzed by unjustified terrors, relying instead on reason to overcome their problems and prosper again. How very Stoic of him.

Later on Seneca reminds his friend that whatever we may have to endure, others have alredy done it, and if someone else bore it well, so can we:

“‘I shall become poor.’ I will be one among many. ‘I shall be exiled.’ I’ll think of myself as a native of my place of exile. ‘I shall be bound.’ What of it? Am I now unfettered? Nature has chained me to this heavy weight that is my body. ‘I shall die.’ What you are saying is this: I shall no longer be susceptible to illness, to imprisonment, to death.” (XXIV.17)

A remarkable call to Stoic resilience, followed by an even more remarkable section in which Seneca says that fear of the afterlife is for children, or for simple minded people who actually believe in Cerberus, the hound of Hades who guards the entrance to the Underworld. In reality,

“Death either consumes us or sets us free. If we are released, then better things await us once our burden is removed; if we are consumed, then nothing is waiting for us at all: both goods and evils are gone. … We die every day, for every day some part of life is taken from us. Even when we are still growing, our life is shrinking. ” (XXIV.18, 20)

After citing (favorably) Epicurus, ad he often does in his early letters, Seneca says that a person of courage does neither love nor hate life, and knows when it is time to leave the party (as Epictetus would later put it). By the end, he sounds almost existentialist, or even nihilist, though he attributes to unspecified “others” this parting thought:

“‘How much more of the same things? I mean, how long will I wake and sleep, eat and grow hungry, grow cold and grow hot? Nothing has an ending: everything is connected to the rest of the world. Things chase each other in succession: night comes on the heels of day, day on the heels of night; summer yields to autumn, autumn is followed hard by winter, which then gives way to spring. Everything passes only to return. I do nothing that is new, see nothing that is new. Sometimes this too produces nausea.’ There are many who feel, not that life is hard, but that it is pointless.” (XXIV.26)

Seneca to Lucilius: on the true joy which comes from philosophy

Family Joy by Megan Duncanson

Family Joy, by Megan Duncanson

Letter XXIII of Seneca to his friend Lucilius dwells on a distinction between false and true joy, one that is well worth discussing because it tells us something interesting about Stoicism and emotions. (For my ongoing commentary on the Letters, see here.)

Seneca begins by telling Lucilius that he wishes to write to him about things that matter, not waste time chatting about the weather or the other trivialities that people talk about when they have nothing to say. He then gets straight to the point:

“Do you ask what is the foundation of a sound mind? It is, not to find joy in useless things. I said that it was the foundation; it is really the pinnacle. We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in the control of externals.” (XXIII.1-2)

This, of course, is one rendition of the Stoic dichotomy of control: we do not control externals, so it is foolish to stake our happiness on them. Seneca’s turn of phrase, “I said that it was the foundation, it is really the pinnacle” actually highlights the idea that finding joy in the soundness of one’s own judgments, as opposed to the acquisition of externals, is a major goal of Stoic training, and indeed the pinnacle one can achieve thanks to such training.

We can therefore make sense of a phrase from this letter that seems otherwise entirely out of character and slightly oxymoronic:

“Above all, my dear Lucilius, make this your business: learn how to feel joy.” (XXIII.3)

Normally, we don’t have to learn how to feel joy. It is a natural human emotion that arises in response to certain situations, like accomplishing a goal, reuniting with a friend, or even winning the lottery. The fact that we have to “learn” how to feel joy, however, is perfectly in agreement with the Stoic tenet that basic feelings (proto-passions, to use their terminology) are value neutral and should be evaluated by our faculty of judgment, which has the power to give or withdraw assent to such feelings. It is the resulting cognitively informed emotion that can be appropriate or inappropriate.

Of course, training oneself to feel the right kind of joy is difficult, just as it is difficult to come up with real topics of conversations instead of falling back on weather and sports. But that is why Seneca writes:

“Real joy, believe me, is a stern matter. … It is just this joy, however, of which I would have you become the owner; for it will never fail you when once you have found its source.“ (XXIII.4)

Seneca here is making a promise similar to the one that Epictetus makes in the first section of the Enchiridion (see my discussion here). The desirable outcome is achievable if one sets aside the things that glitter on the surface, as Seneca puts it, and go instead for the real gold, the one that takes work to bring to the light. One example is our own body:

“The frail body, also, even though we can accomplish nothing without it, is to be regarded as necessary rather than as important; it involves us in vain pleasures, short-lived, and soon to be regretted, which, unless they are reined in by extreme self-control, will be transformed into the opposite. This is what I mean: pleasure, unless it has been kept within bounds, tends to rush headlong into the abyss of sorrow.” (XXIII.6)

This sounds pretty stern, but not so much by the standard of Roman Stoicism (which, I maintain, was significantly more stern then its Greek forerunner). Seneca is admitting that pleasure is a good thing (in the sense of a preferred indifferent, obviously), but he is also warning his friend that it has a tendency to take over, distracting us from more important pursuits. What pursuits, exactly? Here comes the answer:

“Do you ask me what this real good is, and whence it derives? I will tell you: it comes from a good conscience, from honourable purposes, from right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path.” (XXIII.7)

That would be, of course, the path of virtue. If all of this sounds way too preachy and heavy, just ask yourself the following simple question: if you had to choose between a life of moderate pleasures and modest means, but lived honestly while doing right by your friends and family, and one of incredible riches, but bought at the price of the suffering of others, which would you pick? If you go for the latter, you are not just clearly un-Stoic, you are simply not a very pleasant human being. Because that is, fundamentally, what Seneca and the Stoics were getting at: what kind of life is worth living, in the sense of an existence one is justifiably proud of by the time one lies on his death bed? There are several different answers to this question (for instance, the Epicurean one), but some of those answers are deemed unacceptable by pretty much any philosophy or religion one cares to mention, not just Stoicism.

The problem is that it takes many of us a long time to realize this, and some of us never quite get it. Which is why Seneca concludes the letter with these memorable words:

“Some men, indeed, only begin to live when it is time for them to leave off living. … Some men have left off living before they have begun.“ (XXIII.11)

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)

Seneca to Lucilius: on practicing what you preach

Seneca begins his twentieth letter to his friend Lucilius by asking him to prove his words by way of his actions, testing his progress as a student of Stoicism by in terms of what he does, rather than merely what he writes. It is a stark reminder that Stoicism is a practical philosophy, meant to actually be deployed daily during your life, not simply contemplated for a few hours a week, when we may be leisurely reading a book.

Seneca says that we should strive to keep “deed and word” in agreement with each other, but also immediately acknowledges that this is a high standard, difficult to maintain. (Yes, he knew something of that sort of difficulty from first person experience.) He goes on by commenting on specific examples:

“Observe yourself, then, and see whether your dress and your house are inconsistent, whether you treat yourself lavishly and your family meanly, whether you eat frugal dinners and yet build luxurious houses. You should lay hold, once for all, upon a single norm to live by, and should regulate your whole life according to this norm.” (XX.3)

Why do people behave incoherently, then? According to Seneca, this is the result of two problems. The first one being that too many people are simply not bothered by the inconsistencies between their actions and their words, i.e., they don’t take the pursuit of virtue at heart. The second one is that, even if some people are so bothered, they too easily slip back into old habits, out of lack of wisdom. In a sense, many of us simply don’t take our life seriously enough, conducting it as if we were in a game, where we make up our mind about what to do on the spur of the moment, without a compass to guide us through.

Seneca imagines Lucilius objecting that he has a large household to take care of, and that he therefore needs a lot of money. That may be the case, says the philosopher, but his dependents will support themselves if he stops indulging them, going on to suggest that one advantage of poverty (or at least of modest means) is that it immediately reveals who your true friends are: those sticking around even when there is little material advantage to be gained.

This is also one of those early letters in which Seneca is unabashed of quoting Epicurus, going into enemy camp, as he puts it at one point, not as a traitor, but as a scout, returning home with whatever he found of value, like this advice from the famous rival, who sounds almost like a Cynic:

“Believe me, your words will be more imposing if you sleep on a cot and wear rags. For in that case you will not be merely saying them; you will be demonstrating their truth.” (XX.9)

Interestingly, however, Seneca then engages in a short imaginary dialogue with Epicurus where he points out that the rags ought to be worn by choice, not necessity, or it is going to be difficult to determine whether the person in question is truly virtuous or simply unlucky.

This line of reasoning leads Seneca to suggest to his friend the standard Stoic exercise of mild self-deprivation:

“I hold it essential, therefore, to do as I have told you in a letter that great men have often done: to reserve a few days in which we may prepare ourselves for real poverty by means of fancied poverty. … Let the soul be roused from its sleep and be prodded, and let it be reminded that nature has prescribed very little for us.“ (XX.13)

This is one of my own regular practices, which can take the form of a cold shower (to remind myself of just how good it is to be able to take hot ones), a day or two of fasting (to better enjoy the next meal), a week or so of not buying anything other than food (who the hell needs all that stuff that corporations are trying to sell us anyway?), or a brisk walk in the cold while being underdressed (to appreciate how lucky I am to have a coat). Deprivation exercises, then, have multiple functions: they test our endurance, they prepare us for possible adversity, they remind us that a lot of things we think we need are not really necessary, and they reset our hedonic threadmill, making us appreciate what we have all over again.

Seneca to Lucilius: on self-control, and what the Stoics really thought about emotions

Achilles and Penthesileia

Occasionally I get back to Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius (I have commented on 11 so far), because they are one of the most complete and organic sources we have about ancient Stoicism. The project is to eventually publish posts on most (though not all) of the letters. Stay tuned, it will take some time…

The last letter I wrote about is XVIII, on festivals and fasting, but I wish to jump ahead all the way to CXVI, on self-control, because it touches on one of the perennial issues faced by prokopontes (and reliably brought up by critics of Stoicism): how to deal with emotions.

Seneca begins by contrasting the Stoic position with the Peripatetic (Aristotelian) one:

“The question has often been raised whether it is better to have moderate emotions, or none at all. Philosophers of our school reject the emotions; the Peripatetics keep them in check. I, however, do not understand how any half-way disease can be either wholesome or helpful.” (CXVI.1)

But hold on! “Philosophers of our school reject the emotions”? Are our critics right after all?? It seems hard to find a more clear statement of the idea that Stoics really should try to behave like Mr. Spock from Star Trek!

Ah, but of course, appearances are sometimes deceiving, and occasionally one needs to dig deeper, in this case going to the original Latin:

“Utrum satius sit modicos habere adfectus an nullos saepe quaesitum est. Nostri illos expellunt, Peripatetici temperant. Ego non video quomodo salubris esse aut utilis possit ulla mediocritas morbi.”

The key word here is “affectus,” which Seneca spelled in the archaic fashion, “adfectus.” My Latin-English dictionary says this about it:

1. A state of body, and especially of mind produced in one by some influence.
2. Love, desire, fondness, good-will, compassion, sympathy.
3. In Lucan and later prose, metonymy for the beloved objects.
4. In Seneca and Pliny, low ignoble passion or desire.
5. In the Latin of the Pandects, ability of willing, will, volition.

This list clearly captures both why Seneca did not mean to cover all of the emotions when he wrote “philosophers of our school reject the emotions,” and why the confusion persists to this day, given the co-existence of positive and negative uses of the word adfectus, as well as of its modern English translations.

John Fitzgerald, in his Passions and Moral Progress in Greco-Roman Thought, writes about adfectus:

“Many if not most post-Ciceronian authors preferred to render pathos [the Stoic term for negative emotions] by affectus or adfectus. For example, Quintilian, who presents pathos and ethos as two emotional modes that can be used by the orator, says that ‘the Greeks call the one [mode] pathos, which we correctly and properly translate as adfectus.’ He goes on to link pathos with tragedy and says that it is almost entirely concerned with anger, hatred, fear, envy, and pity.” (p. 4)

So the Romans used adfectus to refer not to emotions in general, but to the “passions,” i.e., the explicitly negative emotions, such as the above mentioned anger, hatred, fear, envy, and pity.

It is therefore not by chance that Seneca uses the word again in On Anger. Indulge me for transcribing the Latin version first, with my English translation next (see also my three-part series on Seneca’s essay):

“Et ut scias quemadmodum incipiant adfectus aut crescant aut efferantur, est primus motus non voluntarius, quasi praeparatio adfectus et quaedam comminatio; alter cum voluntate non contumaci, tamquam oporteat me vindicari cum laesus sim, aut oporteat hunc poenas dare cum scelus fecerit; tertius motus est iam inpotens, qui non si oportet ulcisci vult sed utique, qui rationem evicit. Primum illum animi ictum effugere ratione non possumus, sicut ne illa quidem quae diximus accidere corporibus, ne nos oscitatio aliena sollicitet, ne oculi ad intentationem subitam digitorum comprimantur: ista non potest ratio vincere, consuetudo fortasse et adsidua observatio extenuat. Alter ille motus, qui iudicio nascitur, iudicio tollitur.” (De Ira, On Anger, II.4.1-2)

“I wish to instruct you in how passions get started, develop, and reach the point of exasperation. The first movement is involuntary, and it is like a preparation, or a threat, by the passion; the second movement is voluntary and controllable, and it consists in thinking that vengeance is necessary, because I have been offended, or that someone has to be punished, because he has offended; the third movement is arrogant, it does not want vengeance because it is necessary, but because it wants it, it has already annihilated reason. We cannot avoid the first impulse by reason, in the same way as we cannot avoid those physical reactions I mentioned earlier, yawning when others yawn, or closing our eyes when someone suddenly points a finger at them: these things cannot be overcome by reason; perhaps they may be attenuated by habit, or a constant attention. But the second movement, the one that springs from deliberation, is also countered by deliberation.”

This is an incredibly clear rendition of the Stoic distinction among propatheiai (involuntary emotional reactions), pathē (unhealthy emotions, or passions; pathos in the singular), and eupatheiai (healthy passions or emotions). Seneca is telling us that propatheiai are natural and involuntary, there is nothing we can do about them. But once we turn our attention to them, we have a choice: we can either give them assent, thus turning them into pathē; or withdraw our assent from them, thus turning them into eupatheiai. It is obvious what a Stoic should do.

That bit from On Anger also explains why the apparently reasonable Aristotelian position is, in fact, foolish: if we let the “first movement” turn into the “second movement,” the battle is already lost. At that point, the “passion” proceeds of its own accord, even against our own volition, to the “third movement,” which is a case of temporary madness, as Seneca himself describes it in the same essay. Whatever we do in that state is going to be destructive, even if there was, in fact, a good reason to act in response to the initial stimulus (say, an injustice, instead of a mere insult).

It is now easy, then, to appreciate the remainder of Seneca’s letter to his friend (remember, the topic at hand is self-control, not anger):

“Who does not admit that all the emotions flow as it were from a certain natural source? We are endowed by Nature with an interest in our own well-being; but this very interest, when overindulged, becomes a vice. Nature has intermingled pleasure with necessary things — not in order that we should seek pleasure, but in order that the addition of pleasure may make the indispensable means of existence attractive to our eyes. Should it claim rights of its own, it is luxury. Let us therefore resist these faults when they are demanding entrance, because, as I have said, it is easier to deny them admittance than to make them depart.” (CXVI.3)

And he concludes:

“Do you know why we have not the power to attain this Stoic ideal? … It is because we are in love with our vices; we uphold them and prefer to make excuses for them rather than shake them off. … The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability.” (CXVI.8)

Seneca to Lucilius: on festivals and fasting

Saturnalia festival in Ancient Rome

As part of my running commentary on Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, a very extensive collection of Stoic philosophical precepts, let me say a few words on Letter XVIII, about festivals and fasting, as it deals with the recurring issue — very much relevant still today — of how to comport ourselves on special occasions in which one is expected to over-indulge.

Seneca begins the letter in this fashion: “It is the month of December, and yet the city is at this very moment in a sweat. License is given to the general merrymaking. Everything resounds with mighty preparations – as if the Saturnalia differed at all from the usual business day!” (XVI.1)

This is one of the things I love about reading the Letters: you get these occasional glimpses of Seneca’s private life as well as of life in Rome at the peak of imperial power. That’s a nice bonus on top of the philosophical insight!

Seneca continues: “this is just the season when we ought to lay down the law to the soul, and bid it be alone in refraining from pleasures just when the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures.” (XVI.3)

I know what you are thinking: here comes the killjoy Stoic! But the advice Seneca does is not to refrain from enjoying oneself, but simply not to overdo it: “It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way – thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.” (XVI.4)

That’s exactly how I feel at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and so forth. Of course we want to have a good time and share a pleasant moment in life with our family and friends. But do we have to get drunk or sick from overeating in order to do it?

Seneca then takes advantage of the topic at hand to make a more general point about a standard Stoic exercise, mild self-deprivation:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ … It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.” (XVI.5-6)

The idea is to train ourselves for the chance that we will really have to do with much less than we are used to: “If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes. Such is the course which those men have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.” (XVI.6)

Seneca even gives specific advice to Lucilius about the practice: “Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune.” (XVI.7)

Okay, I must confess that by Seneca’s standards my own practice is that of a dilettante: I fast once a week, for a day, and occasionally two days. Never got to three or four. I guess there is always room for improvement. Then again, I can attest to the same feeling of joy, once I resume my regular habits. This is the other reason to engage in occasional self-discomfort: to reset what modern psychologists refer to as the hedonic threadmill, to remind ourselves of just how good our lives normally are (assuming, of course, that they truly are, as in my own case).

Seneca then talks to Lucilius about wealth, something he knew a lot about — both because he was one of the richest men in the Empire, and because he had lost a lot on the occasion of his exile (and will lose again soon, when he will fall out of favor with Nero):

“Of course I do not forbid you to possess [wealth], but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you.” (XVI.13)

The very end of the letter is on an entirely different topic, because Seneca was in the habit (especially in the early letters) to close by gifting Lucilius with a gem of wisdom, calling it his “debt” to be paid to his friend. Usually, the quote was culled from another author, and that author often, as in this case, is none other than Epicurus:

“Here is a draft on Epicurus; he will pay down the sum [of the debt]: ‘Ungoverned anger begets madness.’ … The outcome of a mighty anger is madness, and hence anger should be avoided, not merely that we may escape excess, but that we may have a healthy mind.” (XVI.14)

So remember: enjoy the festivals, but in moderation; practice a bit of self-deprivation; and especially don’t get angry!

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)

Seneca to Lucilius: on groundless fears

Fear and worryThe 13th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, concerns the sort of things of which people are afraid without cause.

Seneca begins by arguing that we have to experience certain things in order to build our character and develop resistance against them: “no prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever” (XIII.2)

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