In Seneca’s 69th letter, he writes to Lucilius that he should avoid “frequent . . . flitting [and] scurry[ing] about from one place to another.” Where the body goes, the spirit follows, says Seneca, so “To be able to hold your spirit in check, you must first stop the runaway flight of the body.” The sentiment at first glance echoes that in his 2nd letter, in which he compliments Lucilius: “You do not run hither and thither and distract yourself by changing your abode; for such restlessness is the sign of a disordered spirit. The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company.”

The 69th letter appears to be a sensible exhortation to avoid overcommitting oneself, whether physically, mentally, or psychologically, by trying to do too much, thereby distracting oneself from more important activities such as quiet contemplation. The letter, however, quickly offers an argument in favor of leaving certain things behind more or less permanently. Seneca writes that “the remedies which are most helpful are those which are not interrupted.” He advises Lucilius not to let the “oblivion to which you have consigned your former life” be “broken into.” The use of “oblivion” and “former life” are telling: This is not a temporary break from our daily activities, but a life change.

So what are the ills, what is the remedy? According to Seneca, “There is no evil that does not offer inducements.” (I was projecting when I thought he was telling me I should relax at home instead of going grocery shopping and then taking my son to a birthday party.) The problem, rather, is our various vices. “Scarcely will a whole lifetime suffice to bring our vices into subjection and to make them accept the yoke, swollen as they are by long-continued indulgence.”

The particular ills he then mentions–avarice, luxury, and ambition–all promise rewards, such as money, pleasures, and influence. Far from arguing that Lucilius should train himself not to be tempted, Seneca takes a more pragmatic route and says he should stay away from places where he might see things that will stoke his old cravings–“Just as he who tries to be rid of an old love must avoid every reminder of the person once held dear.”

I’m intrigued by this ascetic approach of avoidance in lieu of spiritual training to overcome temptations. I have been writing lately about Stoic exercises to strengthen the soul (or spirit, or character, or what have you). Avoidance feels like surrender. Then again, maybe it is just another weapon in our arsenal.

Ethics is an uphill climb at times. By choosing to avoid people or situations that will tempt us to act badly, we can conserve our energy so we can handle the many other troublesome people and situations we cannot avoid.

4 thoughts on “Seneca on avoiding temptation

  1. I’m wondering what Seneca means here too. When I hear him say: “You do not run hither and thither and distract yourself by changing your abode; for such restlessness is the sign of a disordered spirit. The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company,” I’m reminded of a former aquaintance who kept changing jobs, degree programs, career paths, cities and even countries! It seemed like her life was always a crazy mess.

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    1. It makes me think of the “hedonic treadmill” you wrote about a while back. Even if you’re happy after you make a move, you start becoming used to the change and possibly even unhappy after a while. Mere awareness of that phenomenon preempts me from changing things sometimes, if that makes any sense. As for restlessness, Brittany at Apparent Stoic had a very nice post recently discussing the Stoics on why traveling will not help you escape your problems. https://www.apparentstoic.com/a-vacation-in-my-mind/

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  2. I think he might be talking about morality or the lack thereof as a kind of conditioning, maybe something approaching the kind of ‘conditioning’ that afflicts long-time smokers and alcoholics. As a former long-time smoker, I can well attest to the importance of avoiding situations and people who are conducive to smoking, at least long enough for newer, better habits to form.

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    1. I agree. It’s in keeping with the idea of moral “exercises.” You have to develop the willpower muscle, but don’t make it even harder for yourself by hanging out in smoky bars. Good for you that you quit! (sorry my reply is so late…)

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