Seneca to Lucilius: 59, on pleasure and joy

[This is the first of three posts in my occasional "Seneca Week" series.]

"Why is it that folly holds us with such an insistent grasp?" (LIX.9)

This is the excellent question Seneca poses to his friend Lucilius near the beginning of his 59th letter. Seneca wishes to know why is it that we keep doing things that are not good for us, even when we ought to know better. I believe it is a question that can be asked across cultures and ages, and I certainly know I can ask it of my self. The Stoic philosopher provides a couple of tentative answers:

"It is, primarily, because we do not combat it strongly enough. ... Secondly, because we do not put sufficient trust in the discoveries of the wise." (LIX.9)

Yeah, that sounds about right. Even when we are well intentioned, our will power is often deficient, a phenomenon for which Aristotle had a special word: akrasia, or weakness of the will. How many times have you experienced it? You know you should get up and go to the gym, but you find easy excuses to procrastinate, until the day is over. You know that you shouldn't go for a second helping for dinner, or another glass of wine, and yet you see your hand reaching for it even as your mind is reminding you that it's probably not a good thing.

The second point is also interesting, and clearly resonates with us denizens of the 21st century: we just don't listen to the advice of people who know better. Your doctor probably told you several times that you need to exercise more and eat and drink less. She knows what she's talking about, building on both her personal experience as a physician and systematic medical research. And yet, you don't put enough trust into her advice to take it seriously and act on it. Seneca continues his analysis:

"But how can a man learn, in the struggle against his vices, an amount that is enough, if the time which he gives to learning is only the amount left over from his vices? ... We skim the top only, and we regard the smattering of time spent in the search for wisdom as enough and to spare for a busy man." (LIX.10)

When I was doing interviews for my How to Be a Stoic, I was asked by an Italian journalist: "But Prof. Pigliucci, isn't Stoicism a bit of a demanding philosophy?" It sure is. But the journalist would have never dreamed of asking the same question to, say, a Christian: "This is all well and good, but isn't Christianity a bit of a demanding religion?" Religions are a type of philosophies of life, and both religions and life philosophies are supposed to be demanding. As Seneca says, you are not a Stoic (or a Christian, or a Buddhist) only for an hour at the end of the day, or on Sunday morning. You are a Stoic (or a Christian, or a Buddhist) every single waking hour of your life.

"What hinders us most of all is that we are too readily satisfied with ourselves; if we meet with someone who calls us good men, or sensible men, or holy men, we see ourselves in his description, not content with praise in moderation, we accept everything that shameless flattery heaps upon us, as if it were our due. ... Thus it follows that we are unwilling to be reformed, just because we believe ourselves to be the best of men." (LIX.11)

Well maybe not the best, exactly, but pretty good, and certainly better than average, right? Modern psychologists have shown that this is an empirical fact about human nature: we tend to overestimate our abilities (we are always better drivers than average!), as well as our moral standing. As Seneca remarks, we are also easy prey to flattery, which is why -- among other things -- so many people read horoscopes: have you ever seen a horoscope that describes anyone in bad terms? We always "recognize" ourselves in whatever description is sufficiently flattering to stroke our egos.

Seneca tells Lucilius that most people seek joy in the wrong places:

"All men of this stamp, I maintain, are pressing on in pursuit of joy, but they do not know where they may obtain a joy that is both great and enduring. One person seeks it in feasting and self-indulgence; another, in canvassing for honors and in being surrounded by a throng of clients; another, in his mistress; another, in idle display of culture and in literature that has no power to heal; all these men are led astray by delights which are deceptive and short-lived -- like drunkenness for example, which pays for a single hour of hilarious madness by a sickness of many days" (LIX.15)

Lots of interesting references here. First notice that Seneca is contrasting transitory pleasures with a more mature and lasting joy -- about which he will tell us in a moment. Second, he lists a number of "preferred indifferents," meaning things that can reasonably be pursued, but that do not make us better human beings (which is the goal of Stoic, or any other, philosophy of life). Contra popular misperception, Stoics are not opposed to pleasure, which they class as "in accordance with nature" (as opposed to pain, which is contrary to nature). We just think that pleasure is a positive but minor ingredient of life, and certainly not something to put at the top of one's priorities.

It is also worth pondering about Seneca's dismissal of "idles display of culture" and of "literature that has no power to heal." In other words, culture and arts do not have unquestionable value in a person's life. They have value either as simple sources of relaxation, or -- far more importantly -- when they are morally instructive. Seneca himself was a playwright, but his plays -- from Medea to The Trojan Women, from The Madness of Hercules to Oedipus -- are all instruments for him to teach Stoic philosophy. This debate is still with us today: art for art's sake, or art with a social conscience? Literature for literature's sake, or literature with a political goal?

Near the end of the letter Seneca finally tells Lucilius what is really worth striving for:

"Reflect, therefore, on this, that the effect of wisdom is a joy that is unbroken and continuous. ... This joy springs only from the knowledge that you possess the virtues. None but the brave, the just, the self-restrained, can rejoice." (LIX.16)

The source of lasting joy, then, is the goodness of one's own character, as reflected in the three cardinal virtues explicitly mentioned by Seneca: courage, justice, and temperance (he left out practical wisdom, but then again that one consists in knowledge of what is truly good for us, so that the entire letter can be read as extolling practical wisdom).

There are two decisive advantages of focusing on the betterment of one's own character. First, it is what actually allows us to enjoy the pleasures of life. The temperate person drinks wine in company and to relax, but does not get drunk. Second, we are solely in charge of improving ourselves, while our external pleasures depend on other people and circumstances, i.e., on luck. Hence the final sentence of the letter, before the customary farewell:

"That which Fortune has not given, she cannot take away." (LIX.18)
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