Seneca’s Candor

Seneca’s Letter 27 to Lucilius grabbed my attention for several reasons. One, Seneca is disarmingly honest with his friend when he admits to Lucilius that he himself hasn’t rid himself of his faults. Seneca writes, “No, I’m not so shameless as to set about treating people when I’m sick myself. I’m talking to you as if I were lying in the same hospital ward, about the illness we’re both suffering from, and passing on some remedies.” He goes on to say that he is admitting to Lucilius his “inmost self.” I find this tack winning, as one of my cynical reservations about Stoicism is along the lines of “Who do these guys think they are?” Apparently Seneca does not view himself as faultless, or well ahead of Lucilius on the road to wisdom. As an aside, it appears clear to me now that this aspect of Seneca must have appealed to Montaigne, another philosopher well known for his tendency toward honesty in his healthy self-effacement and self-criticism. (It is thanks to Montaigne that I first picked up Seneca and started to read more about Stoicism.)

Rather than pursue “fleeting” pleasures, we should:

Look around for some enduring good instead. And nothing answers this description except what the spirit discovers for itself within itself. A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness. Even if some obstacle to this comes on the scene, its appearance is only to be compared to that of clouds which drift in front of the sun without ever defeating its light.

Seneca then opines that Lucilius’s “pace could be increased,” because although Lucilius has not been “dragging [his] steps” thus far, there is still a lot of work to be done. In case you were wondering how much time and energy one should devote to the pursuit of enduring good, it is merely “all your waking hours” and “all your efforts.”

How does one do this? I interpret this as a sort of an undercurrent of mindfulness that flows underneath one’s thoughts throughout the day and sometimes surfaces. When the mind feels bored or unsettled, you can settle on a simple Stoic precept of your choosing. When someone annoys you, the default reaction could be something from Stoic writings that is helpful, such as Epictetus’s distinction between reality and our impressions.

Sickness and Remedy Metaphor

Another thing that struck me in this letter is the use of the word “remedy,” in both translations I have looked at. I named my blog to describe my quest for “tranquility” as extolled in Stoic writings and explained in depth in William Irvine’s terrific A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (the book that made me see the wisdom of having a “philosophy of life”; incidentally, Irvine has a blog at http://21stcenturystoic.org, which has a lot of good content but hasn’t been updated recently).

It appears that many of us have come by Stoicism in a quest for a palliative to soothe the tensions of living. It might have been preferable if we had come to Stoicism merely out of healthy curiosity, but we are quite fortunate that Stoicism exists, as it does not seem possible to be alive without experiencing some sort of suffering.  

The sickness we endure, according to Seneca, is embodied in our faults. He advises Lucilius to make sure “that your faults die before you do.” Both the sickness and the remedy, therefore, are within us, because as quoted above, enduring good consists of “what the spirit discovers for itself within itself.” It is difficult to train the mind to cease casting about for outside phenomena to blame for unhappiness or to relieve it, and to turn inward instead.

No Delegating

After writing that one must devote all of one’s time and energy to pursuing the good, Seneca adds that “This is not something that admits of delegation.” He proceeds to relay a droll tale of a rich simpleton who retains learned slaves, at great expense, to memorize popular literary works so he can impress his friends at dinner parties without his actually having to remember these works himself. This ends up being tedious for the guests, who have to endure the slaves’ recitations and the rich man’s attempts to repeat their words, invariably resulting in his being unable to get past a few words before faltering. His friends later tease him about his unwillingness to take up wrestling because of physical weakness, pointing out that he has a number of able-bodied slaves, after all. In other words, it is clear that neither the slaves’ physical or mental abilities can be ascribed to their master.

On my initial reading of this, I thought it was an outdated allegory, relevant solely to a time when people had slaves and also cared about reciting poetry. After straining for a bit, I came up with an analogy that may or not work: I subscribe to a number of email newsletters from this or that guru in the areas of health, nutrition, self-improvement, mindfulness, fitness, parenting, and so on. This must mean I am healthy, mindful, fit, and great at parenting, right? And yet it’s not so, as I’m a work in progress. The real work happens internally, and if I skim the newsletters as I usually do, quickly and in a distracted manner, it is not sufficient. I cannot delegate to these internet strangers the actual work that self-improvement requires.

But isn’t it beyond our reach to spend every waking moment pursuing enduring good–and would we even know it when we saw it? Thankfully, the Stoics suggest things we can get rid of to make time for the important tasks: namely, all those things that are distracting you from the present moment. Marcus Aurelius writes, “Concentrate every minute . . . on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions” (Meditations 2.5). It seems the Stoics were ahead of the current mindfulness and minimalism trends by about two thousand years.

 

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