Seneca to Lucilius: 41, the god within us

“You are doing what is best and most beneficial for you if, as your letter says, you persevere in moving toward excellence of mind. How silly it is to pray for that! It is a wish you yourself can grant. You need not raise your hands to heaven; you need not beg the temple keeper for privileged access, as if a near approach to the cult image would give us a better hearing. The god is near you—with you—inside you.” (XCI.1)

So begins Seneca’s 41st letter to his friend Lucilius, where he advises him to take his life, and specifically his project of pursuing virtue, in his own hands. We don’t need to pray to gods, or go to priests, in order to becoming better human beings; that is completely within our own powers. Clearly, the Stoics here would disagree with many 12-step organizations, which are religiously based, and where members are asked to give themselves to god in order to find the strength to deal with their problems.

But not all 12-step organizations are religious in nature, and the non-religious ones — like the Secular Organizations for Sobriety — find a way to apply the same general principles without invoking the supernatural. Of course, the ancient Stoics would not have seen that much difference between the two approaches, since they were pantheists. For them “god” is the same thing as Nature or the cosmos, and we are literally bits and pieces of god, since we are parts of Nature endowed with the logos, the ability to think rationally.

“Do we marvel at possessions that can be transferred to another at a moment’s notice? What could be more foolish? A golden bridle does not improve the horse.” (XCI.6)

Seneca elaborates on his point by reminding his friend that externals (like riches, possessions, and so forth) can change hands in a matter of minutes, and therefore are not really “ours” in any deep sense of the word. Moreover, externals do not define who we are, just like you can’t tell a good horse by the kind of bridle it wears. It is, rather, only our character that is truly owned by us, and on which we can work throughout our lives. And it is that work, that constant attempt at improving ourselves, that defines our worth as members of the human cosmopolis. Seneca further comments along the same lines:

“Fruitfulness is the distinctive excellence of the vine; similarly in a human being we should praise that which belongs to him. So what if he has … a lovely home, vast plantations, substantial investments? All these things surround him; they are not in him. Praise in him that which nothing can take away and nothing can confer—that which is distinctive about the human being.” (XCI.7-8)

It is interesting that he uses the word “excellence” here instead of virtue. As I have pointed out before, the Greek term arête translates better as excellence than virtue, and the analogy with the “excellence” of the vine drives the point home: we wouldn’t say that vine has “virtue,” certainly not in the default sense of the word that applies to the moral realm. But we do say that this particular vine is an excellent plant, eventually yielding an excellent wine. What we mean to say is that there is a standard of goodness for vine and the resulting wine, in this case a standard that is set by human needs.

The same goes for our excellence of character. It is set by the human need to live socially and peacefully with others, so that we can recognize an “excellent” person from a not so good one and, more importantly, we can recognize that we ourselves are not yet excellent, not the best that we could be. But if we are practicing that’s precisely is our goal: to be the best persons that we are capable of being. Seneca concludes his letter by making his point explicit:

“Do you ask what that is? It is the mind, and rationality perfected within the mind. For a human being is a rational animal. Hence his good is complete if he fulfills that for which he is born. But what is it that this rationality requires of him? The easiest thing of all: to live in accordance with his own nature.” (XCI.8)

This is a good summary of the crucial Stoic concept that we should live “according to nature.” In order to do that, of course, one has to have a grasp of what human nature actually is. There is reasonable disagreement here, both among philosophers and among scientists. But I side with the basic Stoic take: what distinguishes us from every other species on the planet is a unique combination of two attributes: we are highly social, and we are capable of solving our problems by applying our ability to reason to such problems. That is why Seneca says in another letter:

“Virtue is nothing else than right reason.” (LXVI.32)
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