Category Archives: Seneca to Lucilius

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!

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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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Seneca to Lucilius: on old age

Old LeonardoThis is the 12th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, and it deals with an issue that an increasing number of people in the first world of today have to deal with: old age.

Seneca begins by recalling a recent visit to one of his country houses, during which he complained to one of his employees that too much money was being spent to keep it up. But his bailiff protested that the house was getting old, and the repairs were therefore entirely warranted. So Seneca writes to Lucilius: “And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?” (XII.1)

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Seneca to Lucilius: on the blush of modesty

BlushingThe 11th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, deals with a couple of crucial Stoic tenets: the distinction between impressions and assent, and the idea of role models.

Seneca begins with the unlikely topic of blushing, which one simply cannot avoid doing, no matter how hard one tries. He tells his friend Lucilius that “by no wisdom can natural weaknesses of the body be removed. That which is implanted and inborn can be toned down by training, but not overcome” (XI.1).

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Seneca to Lucilius: on friendship

Friendship[see here for a brief introduction to this ongoing series]

The ninth letter written by Seneca to his friend Lucilius is about friendship, and it begins with an example of what could fairly — if superficially — be considered a Stoic paradox: “the wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself.”

But of course there is no contradiction in this. One is self-sufficient in the sense that, if need be, one can be happy even without externals such as friends, neighbors and associates. Indeed, remember that for the Stoics the Sage can be “happy” (meaning eudaimon) even on the rack. But that doesn’t mean that’s the preferred way to live, even for a Sage, let alone for the rest of us.

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Seneca to Lucilius: on avoiding crowds

Crowds[see here for a brief introduction to this ongoing series]

The seventh letter from Seneca to his friend is on the subject of crowds, and why a Stoic (or any sane person, really) ought to avoid them. Since I myself never particularly liked crowds — be that at sports events, concerts, or large parties — I was keen on comparing my own opinion with that of the prominent Roman Stoic.

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