Seneca to Lucilius: 31, the great potential of the human mind


Turn a deaf ear to those who love you most: their intentions are good, but the things they are wishing for you are bad. If you want to be truly prosperous, entreat the gods that none of the things they want for you may happen. Those are not goods that they wish to see heaped upon you. (XXXI.2-3)

Strong stuff from Seneca here! But before you run off thinking that the Roman philosopher was giving permission to teenagers to ignore their parents and live a life of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, take a look at what comes immediately afterwards:

There is but one good, and that is both the cause and the mainstay of happiness: trust in oneself. (XXXI.3)

According to classic scholar Liz Gloyn, in her wonderful The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, the Stoics recognized that, in most cases at least, the family is crucial to our initial moral development. We learn the basics of how to live our life and how to interact with others from our parents and other adults we grow up with. The problem is that such early teaching environment soon runs out of things to teach us, from a Stoic perspective.

You see, most parents want you to be successful, famous, wealthy, and so forth. But for Stoics those are all preferred indifferents, meaning things that have value (axia in Greek), but only if they are used for good. And those things themselves don’t tell you how to use them. What does? Virtue, of course. Which is why Seneca advises his friend to turn a deaf ear toward what his mother and father are saying, and trust instead himself, specifically his judgment as a student of Stoicism.

Seneca continues:

For it cannot be that any one thing is bad at one time and good at another, or light and easy to bear at one time and terrifying at another. Work is not a good. So what is? Not minding the work. (XXXI.3-4)

The first bit is essentially the Socratic argument for the notion that virtue is the chief good, as articulated in detail in the Euthydemus. The idea is that some things are good or bad depending on the circumstances. Money, for instance. It’s good if you use it to improve the lives of those around you, or more generally for the betterment of the human cosmopolis. But it’s bad if you use it to corrupt politicians or law enforcement in order to enjoy ill gotten gains.

Virtue, by contrast, is by definition good, in all circumstances. If you apply a virtue to achieve something bad then it’s not a virtue anymore, it’s a vice.

Notice the last bit of the above quote, the shift from work to not minding work. This isn’t an example of Stoics going through life with a stiff upper lip. Rather, it is the idea that work is not an intrinsic good, because it is morally neutral. It doesn’t, per se, make you a better of worse person. Not minding work, however, is a reflection of your own character, specifically of your resilience and your understanding - based on Stoic principles - that the only things you completely control are your own judgments, definitely not your work (you may influence the latter, but not control it).

It is shameful for a man who has achieved great things to be still bothering the gods. Why do you need prayers? Make your own prosperity! And you will do so if you have well understood that anything mingled with virtue is good, anything conjoined with bad conduct is shameful. … It is association with virtue or vice that makes a thing honorable or shameful. (XXXI.5)

I find this exhortation both charming and inspiring. Seneca is, in a very direct sense, telling us to rely on our own means, not to “bother” the gods with silly prayers. That’s because happiness - in the sense of a eudaimonic life, a life worth living - is entirely under our control, since it depends only on our judgments. The last part reiterates the main theme of this letter: outside things are neither good nor bad, it is what we make of them that turns them into good or bad. Another way to put the point is that “good” and “bad” are not facts about the world, but human judgments.

Complete virtue consists in the evenness and steadiness of a life that is in harmony with itself through all events, which cannot come about unless one has knowledge and the skill of discerning things human and divine. This is the highest good; if you obtain it, you begin to be an associate of the gods and not a suppliant. (XXXI.8)

Living a life that is in harmony with itself is another way to phrase the famous Stoic dictum that we should live “according to nature,” i.e., as rational and social animals. “Discerning things human and divine” is a also reference to the same concept, because living according to nature means that one needs to have knowledge of what both human and cosmic (i.e., “divine”) nature are all about. Virtue, as Seneca says elsewhere, is nothing but right reason, and if we can train ourselves to live that way we have nothing to envy to the gods (indeed, envy is most definitely not a Stoic value, since it implies the desire for something that is not under our control).

The next bit also refers to the gods, in a highly poetic manner that can be fully appreciated also by a modern secular mind:

Money will not make you equal to a god: God owns nothing. A tunic bordered with purple will not do it; God is naked. Fame will not do it, and neither will self-display and spreading one’s name far and wide. … Not even beauty and strength can confer blessedness on you; neither endures the onset of age. (XXXI.10)

But good judgment does endure into old age, and indeed it becomes more refined, if we keep paying attention and exercising our virtues.

The conclusion of Letter 31 is remarkable especially for the time:

This mind can be found just as well in a freedman or even a slave as in a Roman of equestrian status. For what is a Roman equestrian, or a freedman, or a slave? Those are names born of ambition or of unfair treatment. (XXXI.11)

This more or less explicit condemnation of slavery is not an exception for the ancient Stoics, though it did set them aside from most other philosophers and thinkers of the time (see this detailed article by Don Roberston). For Seneca it is the human mind that has immense potential, it doesn’t matter if that mind happens, as a matter of circumstances, to belong to an aristocrat or a slave.

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