- Letters to Lucillus by Seneca



Background

The Roman philosophical period is summed up in one word: 'Greco-Roman', because Roman philosophy is a continuation of the Hellenistic tradition.

After Aristotle's death the Greek cities had fallen into disarray and were easily annexed by Macedonia. Life was insecure and problematic. The Roman Empire offered the conditions for a continuing cultural tradition: military, political, and economic stability. Administrators upheld Roman law and protection and educated, bilingual Romans embraced Greek culture.

In 197 B.C. Rome finished conquering Macedonia which from Alexander the Great had dominated the Greek polis as colonizer. In the battle of the highlands of Cynoscephalae (Dog's head) the famous Alexandrian phalanx strategy was very exposed in the rugged terrain of the hills and Flaminius's legionaries won. In post-war negotiation King Philip of Macedonia maintained his throne, but ironically the Greek cities that had supported the Romans were turned into Roman colonies. Another historical irony was the love that the Roman leader Flaminius professed for Greek culture (he was bilingual) and yet politically he imposed the status of colony on Greece in 27 B.C when Rome annexed it as a province. The exchange between the cultured but colonized Greece and its Roman conqueror intensified.

In post-Aristotelian Greece two dogmatic systems had already developed as responses to the disordered environment: stoicism and epicureanism.

The Stoic system had been created by Zeno of Citio (4th century B.C.) who, having lost his fortune in a shipwreck, learned from the Cynics in Athens that material possessions are not important to happiness. Zeno's thought system was Socratic philosophy turned into dogma: the basis of human happiness was 'living according to oneself', later 'living according to nature'. Virtue is the only good necessary for a human and consists in the knowledge of what is correct, what must be tolerated, or not, and justice. The world is governed by the divine Logos, the reason that maintains order in the world.

The Stoics spread the belief that we all have a divine spark that can be cultivated by living ethically: with nobility and goodness. The similarity between these thinkers and their contemporaries of the Axial Age in the East such as Buddha and Confucius, who also looked for solutions to life in their inner charism, is remarkable.

Cato the Younger (A.D. 95-46), Roman senator and Julius Caesar's ideological enemy, also declared himself a stoic and was critical of political corruption in Rome. His moral integrity contrasted with the political forms of the day. Although rich, Cato only ate and drank what was necessary, as a good stoic. He took his own life pushed by his great rival Julius Caesar.

Stoicism was the philosophy chosen by Cordoba born Seneca who educated and advised the emperor Nero. He committed suicide in AD 65 on Nero's orders. His Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium consists of 124 letters that he wrote after he retired from ten years public life serving Nero. In diary format it is a series of meditations on stoic philosophy touching subjects like death, wisdom, friendship, meaningfulness and virtue. The main goal of the Letters (published in 65 AD) is to advise the reader on how to live the good life.


Themes

Letter 3 > On Friendship

"1. You have sent a letter to me through the hand of a "friend" of yours, as you call him. And in your very next sentence you warn me not to discuss with him all the matters that concern you, saying that even you yourself are not accustomed to do this; in other words, you have in the same letter affirmed and denied that he is your friend. 2. Now if you used this word of ours in the popular sense, and called him "friend" in the same way in which we speak of all candidates for election as "honourable gentlemen," and as we greet all men whom we meet casually, if their names slip us for the moment, with the salutation "my dear sir," – so be it. But if you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means. Indeed, I would have you discuss everything with a friend; but first of all discuss the man himself. When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment. Those persons indeed put last first and confound their duties, who, violating the rules of Theophrastus, judge a man after they have made him their friend, instead of making him their friend after they have judged him. Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself. 3. As to yourself, although you should live in such a way that you trust your own self with nothing which you could not entrust even to your enemy, yet, since certain matters occur which convention keeps secret, you should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections. Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal. Some, for example, fearing to be deceived, have taught men to deceive; by their suspicions they have given their friend the right to do wrong. Why need I keep back any words in the presence of my friend? Why should I not regard myself as alone when in his company?

4. There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them. Others, again, fear to confide in their closest intimates; and if it were possible, they would not trust even themselves, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe. 5. In like manner you should rebuke these two kinds of men, – both those who always lack repose, and those who are always in repose. For love of bustle is not industry, – it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind. And true repose does not consist in condemning all motion as merely vexation; that kind of repose is slackness and inertia. 6. Therefore, you should note the following saying, taken from my reading in Pomponius: "Some men shrink into dark corners, to such a degree that they see darkly by day." No, men should combine these tendencies, and he who reposes should act and he who acts should take repose. Discuss the problem with Nature; she will tell you that she has created both day and night. Farewell."

Commentary

Seneca here discusses the nature of friendship which was of importance to the Stoics since they placed great store on personal friendship and the belief in a brotherhood of humanity. He distinguishes between the meanings of the general word 'friend' and the concept of  true 'friendship. Tust is at the bottom of the latter together with choosing well your real friends because trust breeds trust. Seneca rejects as extreme the behaviour of either trusting everyone or nobody. However he insists that we should share everything with intimate friends. This advice is based on the stoic belief that real fiends have mutual interests. However, being a friend to yourself is as important as having friendships since befriending yourself will mean you are never alone.

Self control is fundamental to a Stoic and massive friendships are to be avoided because they may lead to a mob mentality. This in turn can lead to indulgence in vices which is a danger to others and to our own character. Peer pressure coming from poor friendships can take us into excesses and groupthink. Avoidance of these kind of friends will help us live within our own integrity since it is ourselves that we have to face at the end of the day.


Moderation

The essential items for living are sustenance, shelter, clothing and strength of character. That is enough. Moderation, neither excess in amount nor in lacking is the key in all things. 

“Philosophy calls for simple living, not for doing penance, and the simple way of life need not be a crude one.”

Eating nourishing food means maintaining a healthy lifestyle as opposed to an extravagant one. A comfortable home is enough without all the extra decoration for no useful purpose. Those who always want more than is necessary will only encounter dissatisfaction. So taking pleasure in simple things and making do with what we have means freeing ourselves from unnecessary needs. Seneca's advice is to create a relationship with poverty, experimenting with doing without thing in order to liberate ourselves from the fear of losing them.

“The wise man, he said, lacked nothing but needed a great number of things, whereas, the fool, on the other hand, needs nothing (for he does not know how to use anything) but lacks everything. The wise man needs hands and eyes and a great number of things that are required for the purposes of day-to-day life; but he lacks nothing, for lacking something implies that it is a necessity and nothing, to the wise man, is a necessity.”

Our relationship with things is important but our relationship with self is even more important. We may be surrounded with things and know how to detach ourselves from them but we carry our inner selves with us wherever we go.

Our inner selves

It is a life's work to develop our inner selves. Seneca criticises the excuse that there is no time to work on our mental health. We can begin by being content with having enough. 

He also has advice for self-improvement. The first step is to recognise our own failings and that nobody is perfect. Pinpointing the problems is the way to improve on the imperfections.

Happiness can be influenced negatively by external forces and, unlike other philosophers, Seneca does not advise trying to fight them. Instead he suggests facing these troubles and overcoming them. Recognising of and understanding problems and also that they are not forever is the way forward.

Comparing ourselves to others is a waste of time. There will always be people with greater and lesser skills around us. Our goals should be personal, not comparative, and others' judgements of them are secondary. They should make sense to us and we should lead by quiet example.

“Why be concerned about others, come to that, when you’ve outdone your own self? Set yourself a limit which you couldn’t even exceed if you wanted to, and say good-bye at last to those deceptive prizes more precious to those who hope for them than to those who have won them. If there were anything substantial in them they would sooner or later bring a sense of fullness; as it is they simply aggravate the thirst of those who swallow them.”

Just as physical well-being is important, cultivating the mind is even more so. We will experience physical failures as we age or as we become ill and supporting these unwelcome trials is easier when we have the support of strong minds. 

Living the present is paramount. Examination of the past to learn from it and improve for the future is advisable, but we should embrace the moment. To dwell in the past is unhelpful since we cannot retrieve it. Worrying anxiously about the future is of no help either. Strengthening ourselves now to be able to face whatever comes is the best path.

“For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.” 

Suicide

"Tullius Marcellinus, a man whom you knew very well, who in youth was a quiet soul and became old prematurely, fell ill of a disease which was by no means hopeless; but it was protracted and troublesome, and it demanded much attention; hence he began to think about dying. He called many of his friends together. Each one of them gave Marcellinus advice,—the timid friend urging him to do what he had made up his mind to do; the flattering and wheedling friend giving counsel which he supposed would be more pleasing to Marcellinus when he came to think the matter over; but our Stoic friend, a rare man, and, to praise him in language which he deserves, a man of courage and vigour, admonished him best of all, as it seems to me. For he began as follows: “Do not torment yourself, my dear Marcellinus, as if the question which you are weighing were a matter of importance. It is not an important matter to live; all your slaves live, and so do all animals; but it is important to die honourably, sensibly, bravely. Reflect how long you have been doing the same thing: food, sleep, lust,—this is one’s daily round. The desire to die may be felt, not only by the sensible man or the brave or unhappy man, but even by the man who is merely surfeited.”

Commentary

Seneca's argument here is very personal since he took his own life. His basic theme is to distinguish between quality and quantity of life. In his opinion suicide is not an action that shortens a life unsuitably. Unlike a journey living can be cut short and still be complete, if lived well. Committing suicide is a way to retain control and freedom over your self-determination. It is an act of wisdom. History cites prominent peoples' suicides, like that of Cato, but there are also examples of ordinary people committing the same act since only courage and will are needed to kill yourself, not a call from the gods. Wise men live only as long as they should, not as long as possible.

No comments:

Post a Comment