Seneca to Lucilius: 51, on resort villas and morals

[Thermal baths at Baiae, Wikipedia Commons.]

The 51st letter written by Seneca to his friend Lucilius has the unusual title (in the Delphi Classics version) of "Baiae and Morals." Baiae is the modern southern Italian town of Baia, situated on the northwest shore of the Bay of Naples. Near the end of the Roman Republic and early during the Empire (the time when Seneca lived) it was considered a premier vacation resort, rated higher, on the TripAdvisor of the time, than Capri, Pompey, or Herculaneum. It was notorious for the hedonistic excesses that went on there, not to mention constant rumors of scandals and corruption.

Interestingly, Baiae was said to have been named after Baius, the helmsman of Odysseus' ship in the Odyssey, who was supposedly buried nearby. And of course Odysseus was a Stoic (mythological) role model.

Seneca, being one of the wealthiest men in the Empire, naturally had a villa in Baiae. But the letter is a reflection on the futility of owning resort villas, as well as on the moral implications of luxury. (Yes, yes, I'm aware that Seneca preached more than he practiced, see here.) Near the beginning of the letter, he writes to Lucilius:

"We ought to select abodes which are wholesome not only for the body but also for the character. Just as I do not care to live in a place of torture, neither do I care to live in a cafe." (LI.4)

This brings up the interesting topic of Stoic minimalism applied to our choice of where to live, and even how to furnish our homes. Clearly, so-called McMansions are out, as they are obviously disproportionate to most people's needs. I have a couple of dear friends who live in one of those, and I have always wondered, even before starting practicing Stoicism, why on earth the two of them need 12 rooms spanning two floors and a basement.

I have always preferred small-sized abodes, which is one reason I feel very comfortable living with my wife in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. And I can see exactly what Seneca means when he says that the place should be good for our character. Living in a small space means you have to think about every single item of furniture, why it is important, and whether it is sufficiently functional to justify its acquisition. Just like the Stoics advice us to consider what we do and how we spend our time during our limited lives. You don't want to waste precious square feet in a small apartment, and you don't want to waste precious days or months during a relatively short life.

By the way, it's possible that "not wanting to live in a place of torture" is a dig to the Cynics, whom Seneca disparages in other places in the Letters:

"Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance; and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. (V.5)

Take that, Diogenes of Sinope! Back to the current letter, later Seneca shifts to a broader consideration of the lure of pleasure and -- even more generally -- of the "passions," the negative emotions that so concern the Stoics:

"Both ambition and anger will wish to have the same rights over me as pleasure, and I shall be torn asunder, or rather pulled to pieces, amid all these conflicting passions." (LI.8)

Remember that the term "passion" here is a Stoic technical one, derived from the Greek pathē (sing. pathos, the root of the English word pathology). Passions are not to be equated with emotions in general, as the Stoics sought to actively cultivated what they saw as positive emotions, which they called eupatheiai (sing., eupatheia), literally "good" (eu) emotions.

The difference between the pathē and the eupatheiai is that the latter are in accordance with reason, while the former ones overtake reason. Consider, for instance, the difference between love and lust. Love is a positive emotion, which of course may contain an erotic component, but is not based solely, or even primarily, on it. Lust without a positive emotional engagement, by contrast, is just an animal instinct to have sex with a desirable person of whatever gender we happen to prefer. Lust overpowers reason, and we do all sorts of stupid and/or unethical things as a result.

The image emerging from Seneca's beautiful phrasing is of a person who is hopelessly in the thrall of strong emotional currents, now prone to anger, now recklessly pursuing their ambitions, then forcefully pulled by pleasures. There is, according to the Stoics, no wisdom or tranquillity in that kind of life, precisely because we are jerked back and forth by forces that do not give us time to pause and reflect on what we are doing and whether we should be doing it.

Near the end of the letter, Seneca broadens the scope of his inquiry even further:

"What is freedom, you ask? It means not being a slave to any circumstance, to any constraint, to any chance; it means compelling Fortune to enter the lists on equal terms." (LI.9)

This is one of my favorite quotes from Seneca, and it is so apt for the dark times we are all currently experiencing, on a planetary scale. Freedom, for a Stoic, is the ability to rely exclusively on one's inner resources, not to be the slave of Fortune. In order to do that, we train ourselves to internalize our goals, to value efforts over outcomes. Why? Because of the dichotomy of control: efforts are entirely up to us, while outcomes are not.

Let's apply the concept to the ongoing pandemic. We all want, of course, to stay healthy. But that is not under our control, because it depends, in part, on external circumstances over which we have no ultimate say. So the goal should shift internally: we should want to do our best to minimize the chances of getting the virus. That is entirely up to us, it is actionable, within the limits of what is available to us in terms of material resources. If we focus on our efforts, rather than on the hoped-for results, we will always succeed. We will have compelled Fortune to enter the lists on equal terms, as Seneca puts it.

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