In his 14th letter, “On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World,” Seneca advises his reader to avoid discomfort, danger, and being an object of envy. As the title suggests, he recommends withdrawing, not engaging, to improve one’s peace of mind, and even to improve the lives of others. He makes a case for living in a certain way to avoid problems from that most dangerous beast: the typical human.
First, we should overcome our self-directed and self-absorbed fears, he says. Too often we are “slaves” to our bodies, overly fearful on its behalf because we love it too much. Instead of living for the body, according to Seneca, we should conduct ourselves “as if we could not live without it.” It calls to mind an analogy of someone in his driveway all day long, waxing a fancy car that is too expensive to drive lest a pebble scratch the finish. The body is for taking us places that we need to go. Seneca even goes so far as to say that while we should treat it with care, we should also be prepared to deliver it to the flames when self-respect and duty call for it.
Leaving aside those extreme situations, however, Seneca says we should avoid discomfort and danger whenever possible. He classifies human fears into three categories: fear of want, fear of sickness, and fear of violence. The last of these is our greatest terror: violence comes “in many shapes and its paraphernalia are terrifying.” This is perhaps not a letter to read before drifting off to sleep, because he does use some graphic language, and we are sharply reminded that ancient times were not all about robed men engaged in civilized discourses in the Stoa about philosophical matters. The injuries people would sometimes inflict on one another were horrifying.
Seneca does not advise us to try to convince our fellow humans to use restraint. Rather, he offers a realistic, pragmatic set of rules: We should abstain from giving offense so that no one is moved to violence against us. We should not openly seek safety from dangerous people lest they think we are condemning them by avoiding them. We should protect ourselves from the “mob” by possessing nothing that someone would want to steal. Seneca urges us to avoid three things in particular: hatred, jealousy, and scorn–on the part of others, that is. While other people’s emotions are beyond our control, he merely tells us to choose certain courses of action that might minimize those feelings on others’ part.
Seneca’s analogy of the swirling straits of Charybdis for dangerous, powerful people is apt here. How do we navigate a world that at times seems to be teeming with strong individuals who have the inclination and ability to do us harm? Regular readers of Seneca will not be surprised to hear that he recommends philosophy as a “protecting emblem.” Philosophy is peaceful and minds her own business, and even the brutes of the world regard it as sacred.
He sets aside the question of whether the wise person should pay attention to politics and says that those who practice moderation tend to have good health. He compares a vessel in harbor to one on the open sea; there are times when the vessel in harbor is destroyed, but much more often that happens while it is at sea. Many Stoics, Seneca writes, have “withdrawn into privacy for the purpose of improving men’s existence and framing laws for the human race without incurring the displeasure of those in power. The wise man will not upset the customs of the people, nor will he invite the attention of the populace by any novel ways of living.”
Many people feel compelled in the current political climate to make their opinions heard. It is interesting to consider the possibility of a balance between the direction of our energies outward, attracting attention and possibly envy or anger, and the withdrawal from society to “improving men’s existence” from a quiet place. Is a retreat cowardly, or is it better in the long run? I don’t know if there are easy answers to this question. If an activist’s voice is repressed after her first speech because it has invited too much attention from authorities, she might have persuaded more people in the end by writing pamphlets from the comfort of her home.
By avoiding discomfort, danger, and inviting others’ envy, are we betraying Stoic principles? Possibly, but Seneca is charmingly human in this letter. We are reminded that life is messy, sometimes violent, and does not always fit into a monolithic or dogmatic worldview.
Photo courtesy of Skitterphoto on Pixabay.