Seneca to Lucilius: 39, on healthy and unhealthy desires

(Roman banquet, Pompeii, circa 50 CE.)

According to Seneca, right at the beginning of his 39th letter to his friend Lucilius, we need both to study things in a sustained manner and to keep a handy breviarium, that is, a summary of the fundamental points. We learn by way of the first approach, and are reminded of what we know by the second. This is splendidly illustrated by the two works by Epictetus (well, actually, by his brilliant student, Arrian, based on Epictetus’ lectures): the Discourses, of which we have unfortunately lost four of the original eight volumes (together with a biography of Epictetus, also written by Arrian), are the meat that sustains our main course of study. The Enchiridion, or Manual, is the little thing we carry with us as a refresher always at hand. And what sort of things should we be reminded of, according to Seneca?

“It is a fortunate person who directs [his] energy toward the good. He will place himself outside the jurisdiction of fortune: he will moderate prosperity, minimize adversity, and scorn those things that others admire.” (XXXIX.3)

“The good,” for Stoics, consists in arriving at sound judgments, so that we may attempt to act in a right manner. Those judgments and decisions are entirely up to us, although the outcomes of the actions we initiate are not. What puts us outside “the jurisdiction of fortune,” then, is the fact that we take what the world throws at us — be it prosperity or adversity — not as something good or bad in itself, but as opportunities to exercise our virtue. From there, Seneca launches on an attack on excessive wealth:

“Greatness of spirit despises great wealth; it prefers moderate means to abundance. For moderation is useful and life-giving, while abundance harms a person through excesses.” (XXXIX.4)

But hold on a sec, I’m sure you’re thinking. Wasn’t Seneca one of the richest men in the Roman Empire under Nero? He was, and I’ve explained elsewhere that he was a flawed human being, not a sage, and that moreover, he knew it and publicly admitted it. But this isn’t about Seneca the man, it’s about the general soundness (or not) of Stoic doctrine. In that respect, then, it is interesting to note that the implication here is that wealth is not a straightforward “preferred indifferent,” as it is often portrayed to be (as opposed to poverty, typically classed as a “dispreferred indifferent”). Seneca is suggesting that there is such thing as too much wealth, which tempts us into unvirtuous behavior. That means that wealth becomes, under certain circumstances, a dispreferred indifferent, as it gets in the way of us being virtuous. He elaborates on why:

“What enemy has ever treated anyone as roughly as some people’s pleasures treat them? Their desires are uncontrolled — insane — and would be unforgivable, except that the damage is all to themselves.” (XXXIX.5)

This is something that even the two hedonistic schools of the Hellenistic period, the Epicureans and the Cyrenaics would have gotten onboard with: it is unvirtuous to be controlled by one’s pleasures, rather than we being the ones that control the pleasures. Seneca observes that this can easily turn out to be the case because of the way human psychology works:

“Desires that exceeds the bounds of nature cannot but go on to infinity. Our nature has its own limit, but empty and perverse desires are inherently unbounded. Our needs are measured by utility; beyond that, what line is there to draw?” (XXXIX.5)

Let’s take a specific example from Roman culture itself. Lucius Licinius Lucullus was a first century BCE retired general who, after disappointment arising from the lack of well deserved recognition for his accomplishments, gave himself to host lavish parties, so lavish in fact that even today, in Italian, a “pranzo Luculliano” (a Lucullian meal) refers to an inordinately sumptuous banquet. Setting aside that a Stoic would say that Lucullus should not have bet his happiness on such an ephemeral external as public recognition, he and his guests apparently took to stick bird feathers in their throats mid-meal, thus triggering vomit. Once eliminated what they had just eaten but not yet digested, they were free to start all over again. This is a stark example of what Seneca means when he says that nature has its own limits (we get hungry, but hunger is satiated by simple and modest meals), while perverse desires are inherently unbounded.

“[These people] have grown so accustomed to [the pleasures] that they can no longer do without them. They are especially miserable in that they have gotten to a point where what were once luxuries have become necessities. Rather than enjoying their pleasures, they are slaves to them. … The worst of their condition is when they not only enjoy their shameful behavior but even approve of it.” (XXXIX.6)

In pointing out that some people get to the point of no longer being able to do without certain pleasures, he anticipated the modern concept of the hedonic treadmill in psychological science. It is well documented that we get quickly used to pleasures (shiny new iPhone!), and constantly seek additional ones to maintain the high (oh, the iPhone is already several weeks old…). Indeed, the classic Stoic exercises in mild self-deprivation (like abstaining for some period of time from food or drink, or from purchasing goods,) are designed precisely to “reset,” so to speak, the hedonic treadmill, forcefully reminding us of what we otherwise take for granted.

People who are not careful with pleasures, then, become their slaves. “Slave” is a term that — ironically, given his early life — was often used by Epictetus when addressing his students: we are all, to some extent, slaves to our destructive passions, and we are all “fools” (another recurrent word in Epictetus’ vocabulary) because we don’t realize precisely what Seneca says at the beginning of this letter: the only wise course of action is to bet on our judgments and virtuous actions, not on the vagaries of luck.

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