Seneca to Lucilius: 33, on the use of philosophical maxims

Letter 33 from Seneca to his friend Lucilius is rather ironic from the point of view of modern Stoics, who often do precisely what Seneca makes a bit of fun of: throw around quotations, including, of course, from Seneca himself. Nevertheless, I’m going to quote (!) from the beginning of this letter right at the outset:

We do not have the eye-catchers you have in mind; with us, the buyers are not disappointed by entering the shop and finding nothing more than was hung up outside. We let them choose the display items from any point in the text they happen to prefer. Just suppose we did want to separate a few individual sayings from the throng: To whom would we attribute them? To Zeno? To Cleanthes? To Chrysippus? To Posidonius? To Panaetius? We are not under a monarch. Each of us asserts his own freedom. (XXXIII.3-4)

There are two interesting points here. First off, Seneca is clearly saying that Stoicism isn’t a simple matter of “self-help,” as we would call it today. Someone who were to go from a first glance to an in-depth look at the philosophy would certainly not be disappointed. So despite the fact that it is fun, and I actually think useful, to quote the ancients (in context, when appropriate), it is also important that we encourage people not to stop at the quotations, but to pick up Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus, and read them cover to cover. (Unfortunately, we can’t do that with Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Posidonius and Panaetius, since so little of their works has arrived to us.)

The second point is encapsulated in the phrase “we are not under a monarch, each of us asserts his own freedom.” As I’ve argued before, Stoicism is not a religion, the Enchiridion is not scripture, and Epictetus was not Jesus. Which means we are not only perfectly justified in rejecting or updating some of the ancient notions, we actually better constantly engage in that sort of activity, or Stoicism will become fossilized. This, of course, is exactly what people like Larry Becker, Don Robertson, Bill Irvine, and myself have been doing. Besides, even religions do get updated over the centuries. Modern Christianity, or Buddhism, are certainly not what they were a couple of millennia ago. To reiterate the point and make it even more explicit, Seneca adds:

You must give up hope that you will ever be able to take just a quick sampling from the works of the greatest men. You must read them as wholes, come to grips with them as wholes. (XXXIII.5)

And to further reinforce that a serious student of philosophy really ought to go beyond the sound bites he continues:

Individual sayings take hold more easily when they are isolated and rounded off like bits of verse. That is why we give children proverbs to memorize. (XXXIII.6-7)

So people who learn Stoicism by way of scattered quotes on the internet, or by browsing social media, are really like children. Of course, there is nothing wrong in starting at the level of a child. The problem is if we, as adults, stop there. That’s the reason I resist one of the most common questions I’m asked whenever someone interviews me about Stoicism: “can you give me your elevator speech?” Well, I can, but that would be appropriate to children. Are your listeners children?

‘This is what Zeno said’: what do you say? ‘Cleanthes said this’: what do you? How long will you march under another’s command? Take charge: say something memorable on your own account; bring forth something from your own store. (XXXIII.7)

Again, Seneca strongly encourages us to think in our own terms. It is fine, indeed, useful, to take inspiration from the great figures of the past -- including, of course, Seneca himself! But, again, this is philosophy, not religion. We are supposed to develop our own judgments, and an excellent way to do so is by first rephrasing the basic concepts in our own words, and then proceeding with a critical analysis of those who have come before us.

The modern Stoicism movement gets a lot of criticism on the ground that “this isn’t what Zeno meant.” Perhaps (though it’s hard to say what Zeno meant, since very little of his writings survive), but so what? We are free to reinterpret and update things, not in an arbitrary and haphazard way (if we wish to still meaningfully call ourselves Stoics), but certainly beyond the confines of minds who lived two millennia ago, however brilliant those minds were.

Remembering is keeping track of something you have committed to memory; knowing, by contrast, is making all those things your own. (XXXIII.8)

Exactly! Once more: the Enchiridion is not the Bible. Epictetus would have been stunned, and I dare say rather disappointed, if he had known that people would take his words as revealed truths so many centuries after his death. To memorize a passage from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, or to quote him by looking up your highlights in the Kindle version of his book, is fine. But what if someone asks you to explain why you think that quote is still pertinent today? Or to elaborate on its meaning in a broader context? That’s where the difference between memory and knowledge comes to the fore.

Nothing will ever be found out if we rest content with what has been found out already! (XXXIII.10)

Precisely. People have no difficulty accepting the notion that science makes progress, which is why, say, modern evolutionary biologists are not just “Darwinists,” and modern physicists are not “Newtonians,” with all due respect for the historical influence of both Darwin and Newton. But philosophy makes progress as well, albeit in a different fashion, and at a different pace, than science. (For more on this see: here, here, here, here and here.)

Seneca concludes his letter to Lucilius with one of my favorite quotes (ah!) from him, which is worth not memorizing, but studying, understanding, elaborating, and very much acting upon:

How about it, then? Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road -- but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come. (XXX.11)

Notice the notion that it is wise to “use the ancient road” if and until when it is still serviceable. Something isn’t to be discarded just because it is old. Ancient Stoicism embodies a lot of wisdom, which is why modern Stoics still read Seneca and the others. But those people were “our guides, not our masters.” Accordingly, I’m happy to include colleagues and friends like Larry Becker, Don Robertson, Bill Irvine and others as my new guides. But not my new masters.

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