Seneca to Lucilius: 48, tricks of logic

(evil Spock: did he indulge in mere logical tricks?)

Logic is one of the three fields of study of the standard Stoic curriculum, together with “physics” (meaning the totality of the natural sciences, plus metaphysics), and ethics — the study of how to live our lives. So it may appear somewhat odd that Seneca trashes logic in his 48th letter to his friend Lucilius. Isn’t logic necessary in order to reason well, which in turn leads us to live a life informed by rationality? And yet, after a short preamble at the beginning of the letter we read:

“That, most excellent Lucilius, is what I want those splitters of hairs to teach me—what I should do for a friend, or for a human being; not how many different ways the word ‘friend’ is used or how many different things ‘human’ can signify.” (Letters, XLVIII.4)

Seneca here, it turns out, is not criticizing the study of logic understood as the discipline that improves human reasoning, but rather what we would today call logic chopping, or hair splitting: indulging in irrelevant puzzles about minutiae, for the sake of impressing others or for pure intellectual enjoyment, with no practical impact on how we conduct our business in life.

Indeed, Seneca gets downright sarcastic:

“‘Mouse’ is a syllable.
But a mouse eats cheese.
Therefore a syllable eats cheese.

Suppose I can’t solve that one: what risk do I incur by not knowing how? What inconvenience even? Sure, I’d have to watch out—someday I might find myself catching syllables in mousetraps! Better be careful—my cheese might be eaten by a book!” (Letters, XLVIII.6)

The syllogism transcribed by Seneca is of course fallacious (can you catch the problem?), and Seneca knew it. But his point stands: what on earth are some logicians doing, engaging in parlor tricks like these? Well, what else should they be doing? We are told shortly thereafter, in no uncertain terms:

“What childish pranks! Is this what makes us knit our brows? Is this why we let our beards grow long? Are we pale and earnest in our teaching of this? Would you like to know what philosophy has to offer the human race? Advice! One person is summoned by death, another burned up by poverty, another tormented by wealth—others’ wealth or his own. This one shrinks from misfortune; that one wants to sneak away from his prosperity. This one is mistreated by other people; that one, by the gods. Why are you making up little games? You have no time for joking around; you have been summoned to assist those in need.” (Letters, XLVIII.7-8)

In other words, philosophy is serious business! There was a time, not long ago, where I would have scoffed at this sort of sentiment, labeling Seneca (and Epictetus, who says something similar in the Discourses) an anti-intellectual. Of course, Seneca was anything but! Not only he was one of the foremost Roman philosophers, he was also a notable playwright, whose work influenced Shakespeare. And yet, even his plays are not meant to simply entertain. They are morality tales and philosophy lessons wrapped into one, especially his fascinating version of Medea. He goes on:

“Which of your conundrums takes away desires? Which even mitigates them? They don’t help. … Is this the way to the highest good? Through ‘if this’ and ‘if that’ and quibbles that would be shady and disreputable even for lawyers?” (Letters, XLVIII.9-10)

Ouch, particularly the jab at lawyers! Here is the irony, reading these words two millennia later, as a professional philosopher. Ever since I got into Stoicism and started writing about it, I noticed that a number of my esteemed colleagues look with disdain upon the stuff I do. Surely I can’t be a good enough philosopher if I “waste” my time writing for the general public. (According to some of my former science colleagues I also wasn’t a particularly good scientist, since even then I wrote a lot for the public, mostly on pseudoscience.) So, in a sense they took Seneca’s attitude and flipped it around. On balance, I actually think that both academic science and philosophy are perfectly respectable ways to make a living. But at this point in my life I would have no hesitation to drop the academic “conundrums,” as Seneca calls them, to devote myself full time to practical philosophy. Why? Because it actually changes people’s life for the better. Logical hair splitting certainly doesn’t.

Indeed, ever since I’ve embraced Stoicism as a philosophy of life I have experienced a renewed sense of urgency to do things that matter, which is precisely the way Seneca ends his letter:

“Even if you had a lot of life left to live, you would need to parcel out your time sparingly so as to have enough for necessities. As it is, with time in such short supply, what madness it is to learn things that are superfluous!” (Letters, XLVIII.12)

Incidentally, all of this got started with this sentence near the beginning of the letter:

“No one can have a happy life if he looks only to himself, turning everything to his own advantage. If you want to live for yourself, you must live for another.” (Letters, XLVIII.2)

I couldn’t agree more.

By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 23 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 23 exclusive posts