Seneca was born in the year 4 B.C., a time of great opportunity, at Corduba, in Spain, son of the talented rhetorician, Annaeus Seneca. We gather that the family moved to Rome during the boyhood of Lucius, that he was educated for the bar, and that he was soon attracted by the Stoic philosophy, the stern nurse of heroes during the first century of the Empire. The last two years of Seneca's life were spent in travelling about southern Italy, composing essays on natural history and relieving his burdened soul by correspondence with his friend Lucilius. These letters are all addressed to Lucilius. The native country of this Lucilius was Campania, and his native city Pompeii or Naples. He was a Roman knight, having gained that position, as Seneca tells us, by sheer industry. Prominent in the civil service, he had filled many important positions and was, at the time when the Letters were written, procurator in Sicily. It may be safely said that the years 63-65 constitute the period of the Letters. There were 124 Letters in all. They ring as true today as they did 1,949 years ago! You can find written translations of each podcast episode at www.lettersfromastoic.net.
Letter 7: On Crowds
Do you ask me what you should regard as especially to be avoided?
I say, crowds; for as yet you cannot trust yourself to them with safety.
I shall admit my own weakness, at any rate; for I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me.
Something of that which I have forced to be calm within me is disturbed; some of the foes that I have routed return again. Just as the sick man, who has been weak for a long time, is in such a condition that he cannot be taken out of the house without suffering a relapse, so we ourselves are affected when our souls are recovering from a lingering disease.
To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.
But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure.
What do you think I mean?
I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation, – an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men. But it was quite the reverse.
The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. The men have no defensive armor They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain.
Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts “by request.” Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon.
What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death.
In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators.
The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering.
The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty.
You may retort: “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!”
And what of it?
Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? In the morning they cried “Kill him! Lash him! Burn him!
Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a way? Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn’t he die game? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!”
And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: “A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!”
Come now; do you not understand even this truth, that a bad example reacts on the agent?
Thank the immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel.
The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority.
Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue.
Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere.
Letter 6: On Sharing Knowledge
I feel, my dear Lucilius, that I am being not only reformed, but transformed.
I do not yet, however, assure myself, or indulge the hope, that there are no elements left in me which need to be changed. Of course there are many that should be made more compact, or made thinner, or be brought into greater prominence.
And indeed this very fact is proof that my spirit is altered into something better, – that it can see its own faults, of which it was previously ignorant. In certain cases sick men are congratulated because they themselves have perceived that they are sick.
I therefore wish to impart to you this sudden change in myself; I should then begin to place a surer trust in our friendship, – the true friendship which hope and fear and self-interest cannot sever, the friendship in which and for the sake of which men meet death.
I can show you many who have lacked, not a friend, but a friendship; this, however, cannot possibly happen when souls are drawn together by identical inclinations into an alliance of honorable desires.
And why can it not happen?
Because in such cases men know that they have all things in common, especially their troubles.
You cannot conceive what distinct progress I notice that each day brings to me. And when you say: “Give me also a share in these gifts which you have found so helpful,” I reply that I am anxious to heap all these privileges upon you, and that I am glad to learn in order that I may teach.
Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it.
No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.
I shall therefore send to you the actual books; and in order that you may not waste time in searching here and there for profitable topics, I shall mark certain passages, so that you can turn at once to those which I approve and admire.
Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns.
Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules. Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates.
It was not the class-room of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof, that made great men of Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus. Therefore I summon you, not merely that you may derive benefit, but that you may confer benefit; for we can assist each other greatly.
Meanwhile, I owe you my little daily contribution; you shall be told what pleased me to-day in the writings of Hecato; it is these words:
“What progress, you ask, have I made?
I have begun to be a friend to myself.” That was indeed a great benefit; such a person can never be alone.
You may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind.
Letter 13: On Groundless Fears
I know that you have plenty of spirit; for even before you began to equip yourself with maxims which were wholesome and potent to overcome obstacles, you were taking pride in your contest with Fortune; and this is all the more true, now that you have grappled with Fortune and tested your powers.
For our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that, and have occasionally even come to close quarters with us. It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested, – the spirit that will never consent to come under the jurisdiction of things external to ourselves.
This is the touchstone of such a spirit; 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.
So then, to keep up my figure, Fortune has often in the past got the upper hand of you, and yet you have not surrendered, but have leaped up and stood your ground still more eagerly. For manliness gains much strength by being challenged; nevertheless, if you approve, allow me to offer some additional safeguards by which you may fortify yourself.
There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. I am not speaking with you in the Stoic strain but in my milder style. For it is our Stoic fashion to speak of all those things, which provoke cries and groans, as unimportant and beneath notice; but you and I must drop such great-sounding words, although, heaven knows, they are true enough.
What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.
The first of these three faults may be postponed for the present, because the subject is under discussion and the case is still in court, so to speak. That which I should call trifling, you will maintain to be most serious; for of course I know that some men laugh while being flogged, and that others wince at a box on the ear. We shall consider later whether these evils derive their power from their own strength, or from our own weakness.
Do me the favour, when men surround you and try to talk you into believing that you are unhappy, to consider not what you hear but what you yourself feel, and to take counsel with your feelings and question yourself independently, because you know your own affairs better than anyone else does.
* Is there any reason why these persons should condole with me?
* Why should they be worried or even fear some infection from me, as if troubles could be transmitted?
* Is there any evil involved, or is it a matter merely of ill report, rather than an evil?
Put the question voluntarily to yourself:
* Am I tormented without sufficient reason, am I morose, and do I convert what is not an evil into what is an evil?
You may retort with the question:
* How am I to know whether my sufferings are real or imaginary?
Here is the rule for such matters: we are tormented either by things present, or by things to come, or by both. As to things present, the decision is easy. Suppose that your person enjoys freedom and health,...
Letter 12: On Old Age
Wherever I turn, I see evidences of my advancing years.
I visited lately my country-place, and protested against the money which was spent on the tumble-down building. My bailiff maintained that the flaws were not due to his own carelessness; “he was doing everything possible, but the house was old.” 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? I was angry, and I embraced the first opportunity to vent my spleen in the bailiff’s presence. “It is clear,” I cried, “that these plane-trees are neglected; they have no leaves. Their branches are so gnarled and shriveled; the boles are so rough and unkempt!
This would not happen, if someone loosened the earth at their feet, and watered them.” The bailiff swore by my protecting deity that “he was doing everything possible, and never relaxed his efforts, but those trees were old.” Between you and me, I had planted those trees myself, I had seen them in their first leaf. Then I turned to the door and asked: “Who is that broken-down dotard? You have done well to place him at the entrance; for he is outward bound. Where did you get him? What pleasure did it give you to take up for burial some other man’s dead?” But the slave said: “Don’t you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images. My father was Philositus the steward, and I am your pet slave.” “The man is clean crazy,” I remarked. “Has my pet slave become a little boy again? But it is quite possible; his teeth are just dropping out.”
I owe it to my country-place that my old age became apparent whithersoever I turned. Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it.
Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains.
Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline.
And I myself believe that the period which stands, so to speak, on the edge of the roof, possesses pleasures of its own. Or else the very fact of our not wanting pleasures has taken the place of the pleasures themselves. How comforting it is to have tired out one’s appetites, and to have done with them! “But,” you say, “it is a nuisance to be looking death in the face!” Death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike. We are not summoned according to our rating on the censor’s list. Moreover, no one is so old that it would be improper for him to hope for another day of existence. And one day, mind you, is a stage on life’s journey.
Our span of life is divided into parts; it consists of large circles enclosing smaller. One circle embraces and bounds the rest; it reaches from birth to the last day of existence. The next circle limits the period of our young manhood. The third confines all of childhood in its circumference. Again, there is, in a class by itself, the year; it contains within itself all the divisions of time by the multiplication of which we get the total of life. The month is bounded by a narrower ring. The smallest circle of all is the day; but even a day has its beginning and its ending, its sunrise and its sunset. Hence Heraclitus, whose obscure style gave him his surname, remarked:
“One day is equal to every day.” Different persons have interpreted the saying in different ways. Some hold that days are equal in number of hours, and this is true; for if by “day” we mean twenty-four hours’ time, all days must be equal, inasmuch as the night acquires what the day loses.
Letter 11: On the Blush of Modesty
Your friend and I have had a conversation.
He is a man of ability; his very first words showed what spirit and understanding he possesses, and what progress he has already made.
He gave me a foretaste, and he will not fail to answer thereto. For he spoke not from forethought, but was suddenly caught off his guard. When he tried to collect himself, he could scarcely banish that hue of modesty, which is a good sign in a young man; the blush that spread over his face seemed so to rise from the depths.
And I feel sure that his habit of blushing will stay with him after he has strengthened his character, stripped off all his faults, and become wise. For 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.
The steadiest speaker, when before the public, often breaks into a perspiration, as if he had wearied or over-heated himself; some tremble in the knees when they rise to speak; I know of some whose teeth chatter, whose tongues falter, whose lips quiver.
Training and experience can never shake off this habit; nature exerts her own power and through such a weakness makes her presence known even to the strongest. I know that the blush, too, is a habit of this sort, spreading suddenly over the faces of the most dignified men. It is, indeed more prevalent in youth, because of the warmer blood and the sensitive countenance; nevertheless, both seasoned men and aged men are affected by it. Some are most dangerous when they redden, as if they were letting all their sense of shame escape. Sulla, when the blood mantled his cheeks, was in his fiercest mood.
Pompey had the most sensitive cast of countenance; he always blushed in the presence of a gathering, and especially at a public assembly. Fabianus also, I remember, reddened when he appeared as a witness before the senate; and his embarrassment became him to a remarkable degree. Such a habit is not due to mental weakness, but to the novelty of a situation; an inexperienced person is not necessarily confused, but is usually affected, because he slips into this habit by natural tendency of the body. Just as certain men are full- blooded, so others are of a quick and mobile blood, that rushes to the face at once.
As I remarked, Wisdom can never remove this habit; for if she could rub out all our faults, she would be mistress of the universe. Whatever is assigned to us by the terms of our birth and the blend in our constitutions, will stick with us, no matter how hard or how long the soul may have tried to master itself. And we cannot forbid these feelings any more than we can summon them. Actors in the theater, who imitate the emotions, who portray fear and nervousness, who depict sorrow, imitate bashfulness by hanging their heads, lowering their voices, and keeping their eyes fixed and rooted upon the ground. They cannot, however, muster a blush; for the blush cannot be prevented or acquired. Wisdom will not assure us of a remedy, or give us help against it; it comes or goes unbidden, and is a law unto itself.
But my letter calls for its closing sentence. Hear and take to heart this useful and wholesome motto: “Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.” Such, my dear Lucilius, is the counsel of Epicurus; he has quite properly given us a guardian and an attendant. We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone whom it can respect, – one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed.
Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts!
And happy also is he who can so
Letter 10: On Living to Oneself
Yes, I do not change my opinion: avoid the many, avoid the few, avoid even the individual.
I know of no one with whom I should be willing to have you shared. And see what an opinion of you I have; for I dare to trust you with your own self. Crates, they say, the disciple of the very Stilbo whom I mentioned in a former letter, noticed a young man walking by himself, and asked him what he was doing all alone.
“I am communing with myself,” replied the youth. “Pray be careful, then,” said Crates, “and take good heed; you are communing with a bad man!”
When persons are in mourning, or fearful about something, we are accustomed to watch them that we may prevent them from making a wrong use of their loneliness. No thoughtless person ought to be left alone; in such cases he only plans folly, and heaps up future dangers for himself or for others; he brings into play his base desires; the mind displays what fear or shame used to repress; it whets his boldness, stirs his passions, and goads his anger.
And finally, the only benefit that solitude confers, – the habit of trusting no man, and of fearing no witnesses, – is lost to the fool; for he betrays himself.
Mark therefore what my hopes are for you, – nay, rather, what I am promising myself, inasmuch as hope is merely the title of an uncertain blessing: I do not know any person with whom I should prefer you to associate rather than yourself. I remember in what a great-souled way you hurled forth certain phrases, and how full of strength they were! I immediately congratulated myself and said: “These words did not come from the edge of the lips; these utterances have a solid foundation. This man is not one of the many; he has regard for his real welfare.”
Speak, and live, in this way; see to it that nothing keeps you down. As for your former prayers, you may dispense the gods from answering them; offer new prayers; pray for a sound mind and for good health, first of soul and then of body. And of course you should offer those prayers frequently. Call boldly upon God; you will not be asking him for that which belongs to another.
But I must, as is my custom, send a little gift along with this letter. It is a true saying which I have found in Athenodorus: “Know that thou art freed from all desires when thou hast reached such a point that thou prayest to God for nothing except what thou canst pray for openly.” But how foolish men are now! They whisper the basest of prayers to heaven; but if anyone listens, they are silent at once. That which they are unwilling for men to know, they communicate to God. Do you not think, then, that some such wholesome advice as this could be given you:
“Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening”?