Seneca to Lucilius: 44, philosophy as the great equalizer

“If there is any good in philosophy, it is this: it has no regard for genealogies.” (Letters to Lucilius, XLIV.1)

At the beginning of his 44th letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca reminds us that philosophy is for everyone, regardless of one’s ancestry or so-called “noble” birth. This is a point I often have difficulty getting across when I talk about Stoicism to the media. A common objection raised to my presentation of the philosophy is that it’s elitist, since few people have enough leisure time to read the ancients, or a sufficient degree of education to appreciate them.

But that is simply not the case. No more than it is the case with Buddhism, which is practiced by half a billion people, or Christianity, which counts almost two and a half billion people among its followers. Of course, if one wishes to become sufficiently steeped in Stoicism to be able to write books or give lectures about it, one does need a somewhat sophisticated background in philosophy, and time to spare. But that person would be the equivalent of a Christian theologian, for instance, and most Christians don’t have to get to those levels in order to practice their religion.

The same goes with practical philosophies for everyday life, such as Stoicism. The basic precepts are easy to understand, and both ancient and modern Stoics (with some exceptions) speak plainly, in a way that can be understood by most people, regardless of background. That’s why it is such a powerful experience to read Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius. And that is why Seneca continues:

“Excellence of mind is available to all: in this regard we are all nobly born.” (Letters, XLIV.2)

Going on to make his point by way of examples:

“Philosophy neither rejects anyone nor chooses anyone; it shines for all. Socrates was no patrician; Cleanthes hauled water, and hired himself out to water people’s gardens; Plato did not come to philosophy a nobleman but was ennobled by it.” (Letters, XLIV.2-3)

Socrates was famously rather poor, always walking the streets of Athens in rags, and was most definitely not handsome! Yet, his mind was capable of asking penetrating questions, plainly showing to anyone who listened that a lot of self-important men of the time were actually ignorant fools. Cleanthes was the second head of the Stoa, the immediate successor of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. He was poor, and worked as a water carrier for people in order to be able to afford to study with Zeno. And I love the typically Senecean turn of phrase at the end of the quote: Plato did not come to philosophy a nobleman but was ennobled by it.

“Everyone has the same number of ancestors. There is no one whose origins lie anywhere but in oblivion. Plato says that every king is of servile origin and every slave of kingly origin.” (Letters, XLIV.4)

Here Seneca is making a point about social history: even those who fancy themselves of noble origin, he reminds us, ultimately trace their ancestry to humble people we never heard of. Regardless of one’s origins, however:

“It is the mind that confers nobility, for the mind has license, regardless of estate, to rise above the vagaries of chance.” (Letters, XLIV.5)

We may be constrained by our social status in terms of what we can materially do, of course. But such constraints are far less strong on the ability of our mind to exercise itself. Again, granted that lack of education will make it far less likely that someone can become a professional philosopher or theologian, the sort of things that really matter in life can be grasped by anyone equipped with basic reasoning skills. What, exactly, is Seneca talking about here? This:

“‘How?’ you ask. If you make your own distinctions of what is good and bad, without reference to popular notions. You should not consider where things come from but where they are headed.” (Letters, XLIV.6)

If we apply our native capacities of reasoning, we can figure out what is good and what is bad, both for us and for the human cosmopolis of which we are an integral part. We should do this without concerning ourselves with who said what, or where certain notions come from. Those are interesting questions for experts to spend their time on. But in order to live good lives we just need to focus on where it is that our own decisions are likely to lead us.

“What, then, is the mistake people make, seeing that everyone wants a happy life? They take the instruments used by happiness to be happiness itself, and so abandon the very thing they are seeking.” (Letters, XLIV.7)

This is an incredibly powerful insight into the nature of human unhappiness: many people confuse the tools that we have available to be happy with the thing itself. Take the obvious example: a successful entrepreneur who begins to think that the accumulation of wealth is a goal worthy in and of itself. It obviously isn’t. We want money so that we can do things with it, the sort of things that make our lives better, such as having a roof over our head, being able to pay our medical bills, or for the education of our children, and so forth. But how many houses to we need in order to make a home? How many cars, in order to be able to move around? Beyond a certain (rather low) limit, money becomes a hindrance, shifting from the category of preferred indifferents — in Stoic terms — to that of dispreffered ones. It becomes a source of worry, as well as an end in itself, at which point the mistake Seneca is pointing out has already occurred.

This is true also within the specific practice of Stoicism, which is becoming more and more popular. A number of people, so-called Silicon Valley stoics (notice the lower case “s”), for instance, clearly confuse the tools for the goal. They take cold showers (a type of exercise in self-deprivation), for instance, in order to toughen themselves so that they can… make more money? That is not at all the goal of Stoicism. Again, money is a preferred indifferent. The only true good is arete, a life of excellence in which we become the best (moral) human beings we can be. If you think Stoicism is your ticket to success, fame, and wealth, you are profoundly mistaken about what Stoicism is. Which is why Seneca concludes this letter with a warning:

“The greater their efforts, the greater the hindrance they create for themselves. It is like hurrying in a maze: their very haste impedes them.” (Letters, XLIV.7)
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