Seneca to Lucilius: 42, good people are rare, sages exceedingly so

The forty-second letter by Seneca to Lucilius begins by referring a common friend, who apparently went around arguing that he was a good man. Seneca is skeptical, as he thinks that it takes time to become, and to be recognized as, good. Then he adds:

“You realize what sort of good man I mean in the present context: one of the second rank, for that other one is born perhaps once every five hundred years, like the phoenix.” (XLII.1)

First-rank good people are the sages, and Seneca is hinting at the fact that they are exceedingly rare, no more common than the phoenix, the mythological bird that is reborn from its ashes every 500 years. The topic of the Stoic sage, his frequency, and his characteristics, was a hot one during the early Stoa, and René Brouwer devoted a whole book to it. But the sage isn’t the chief topic of this letter, so let’s set him aside for the moment.

What’s the evidence that the unknown friend is a good person? Apparently, he is well known to despise the wicked! Well, replies Seneca, that’s not that impressive, since so do the wicked themselves:

“Wrongdoing has no harsher penalty than this: one offends oneself, and also one’s family and friends.” (XLII.2)

Here we see an interesting mix of Stoic philosophy and Roman culture. For the Romans, if someone did something dishonorable, he would morally stain both himself and his circle of relatives and friends, and dishonor was the worst possible fate for a man. (Women, of course, didn’t enter into it, though Scott Aikin & Emily Mc-Gill-Rutherford have written an interesting paper on the relationship between Stoicism and feminism.) 

From a Stoic perspective, all wickedness is a matter of errors of judgment, since nobody does evil on purpose, but only out of lack of wisdom. This notion is often controversial, in my experience, but I find it refreshingly non judgmental, along the lines of the Christian “hate the sin but not the sinner.” Besides, when was the last time — outside of Disney cartoons or 007 movies — that you saw a villain going to the mirror and laugh with an evil grin in self-satisfied contemplation of the bad deeds he is about to do?

Seneca then goes on to make an observation that echoes Plato’s story of the ring of Gyges in book two of the Republic, as well as modern discussions about moral luck: 

“There are many whose faults go undetected only because they are ineffectual: when these grow confident of their strength, they will act no less audaciously than those whose fortunes have already given them opportunity. They lack only the resources to display the full extent of their iniquity. … There are many people whose cruelty, ambition, or self-indulgence fails to match the most outrageous cases only by the grace of fortune. Just give them the power to do what they want, and you will see: they want the same things as others do.” (XLII.3-4)

Gyges was a shepherd who found a ring that made him invisible. Rather than use his power for good, predictably he fell to the temptation of using it to satisfy his lust and thirst for power (sounds familiar?). Accordingly, he goes to town, kills the king, and seduces the queen. The story is told in the Republic by Glaucon, who wants to argue against Socrates in favor of the notion that justice really comes down to the old-fashioned concept of might makes right. (Incidentally, Gyges allegedly was the ancestor of a real life king of Lydia by the same name.)

As for the concept of moral luck, it has a number of ramifications, some more debatable than others. But the one that Seneca focuses on is the notion that most people are “good” (and, indeed, genuinely think of themselves as such) only because they haven’t been given the opportunity to do bad things. This also reminds me of Epictetus:

“Paris was Menelaus’ guest, and anyone who saw how well they treated each other would have laughed at anyone who said they weren’t friends. But between the two a bit of temptation was thrown in the form of a beautiful woman, and over that there arose war.” (Discourses II, 22.23)

It is a sobering thought, but — in the Stoic context — not one that we need to interpret cynically or nihilistically, but rather as another invitation to be humble: we are not as good as we think we are. Just like Seneca’s and Lucilius’ unnamed friend.

Still, why is it that so many incur in such flagrant errors of judgment in the first place? Seneca addresses this question by suggesting that we tend to care for the wrong things, and to grossly misjudge their value, or their cost to us:

“Here is what makes our idiocy quite plain: we think the only things we pay for are those we spend our money on. The things we call free are those on which we spend our very selves. Things we wouldn’t be willing to pay for if it meant giving up our house for them, or some pleasant or productive estate, we are quite ready to obtain at the cost of anxiety, of danger, of losing our freedom, our decency, our time. You see, we treat ourselves as if we were more worthless than anything else.” (XLII.7)

What sort of things? Money, possessions, power, fame. These are externals that are — according to Stoic doctrine — at best preferred indifferents, but that can quickly become dispreferred. Take money, for instance. Epictetus famously reminds us that money, in itself, it is quite neutral (and hence not a good):

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)

The good is added by our reasoning ability, which tells us that we should use the money we have virtuously. The problem is that money, especially when it comes in great quantities, also poses a constant threat to our virtue, because we are continuously tempted to use it in order to acquire things for ourselves, or to corrupt others and gain power. It’s like having gelato constantly present in my freezer: sure, I may be able to resist the temptation and only have a small bite once in a while. But chances are I’ll soon get hold of the whole tub and finish it in one sitting. Best simply not to buy the gelato in the first place.

Which happens to be the advice Seneca gives to Lucilius, proceeding then to preempt the obvious objections:

“'You won’t have as much money.’ No, and you won’t have as much trouble either. ‘You won’t have as much influence.’ And neither will you incur as much resentment. Take stock of all those things that drive us to distraction — those things we cry the hardest to lose — and you’ll see: it’s not deprivation that troubles us but the thought of deprivation.” (XLII.9-10)

I know what you are thinking: easy for Seneca to say! He was the second richest man in the Empire! Yes, and he lost his wealth a first time when he was sent into exile by Claudius. Later in life he gladly offered much of it to Nero (in vain) just in order to be let into retirement. And in the end, of course, lost his life because the emperor assumed that he was a member of the Stoic opposition. Seneca was a human being, not a sage.

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