Seneca to Lucilius: 52, on choosing our teachers

We all need teachers, mentors, or role models. Nobody is self-made, despite the pernicious and persistent American myth that argues otherwise. But how do we choose our mentors? How do we recognize if they are not actually good for us? Not everyone is lucky enough to hang around obvious choices, such as Socrates.

The topic of selecting our teachers is both important and, when treated by Seneca, a bit ironic, for reasons that will appear clear in a moment. In his fifty-second letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca writes:

"So with people's dispositions; some are pliable and easy to manage, but others have to be laboriously wrought out by hand, so to speak, and are wholly employed in the making of their own foundations. I should accordingly deem more fortunate those who have never had any trouble with themselves; but the others, I feel, have deserved better of themselves, who have won a victory over the meanness of their own nature, and have not gently led, but have wrestled their way to wisdom." (Letter LII.6)

I suspect Seneca here is disagreeing with Aristotle, who famously classified people into four groups when it comes to their attitude toward virtue:

(I) Those with phronesis (practical wisdom) are never inclined to do anything unvirtuous. They don't have to fight any urge to engage in vice.

(II) Those with enkrateia (self-mastery) do experience at least occasional urges to engage in vice, but can exercise self-control and act virtuously.

(III) Those with akrasia (weakness of the will), who know what the virtuous thing to do is, but cannot bring themselves to do it, and succumb to vice.

(IV) Those who are kakos (vicious), and have decided that virtue is worthless, pursuing vice with gusto.

According to Aristotle, people in the first group deserve our highest praise, because they are naturally virtuous. Seneca, by contrast, is saying, in effect, good for them, but I really admire those in the second group, who are more human in their temptations, and yet "wrestle their way to wisdom." Personally, I think Seneca got it exactly right here.

It's interesting to note, by the way, that Socrates -- and the Stoics -- actually denied the existence of the third category, the akratic one. Socrates, famously says in the Protagoras that "No one goes willingly toward the bad" (358d), meaning that people always do what they think is good for them, and that's because they think (though they may be mightily mistaken) that whatever they settled on is the best course of action for them.

For instance, I may appeal to my inherent akrasia to explain why I am staying home to watch television and eat junk food instead of going to the gym. But for Socrates this is just because, deep down, I have decided that doing the first and not the latter is really better for me. Perhaps not in terms of physical health, but in those of psychological health. You know, I'm stressed by the pandemic and all that. Of course -- if I actually reckoned that way -- I would be mistaken, engaging in rationalizing rather than rational thinking. Which is why the Stoics put so much emphasis on training ourselves to arrive at the best and most honest judgments we are capable of.

Back to Seneca's letter:

"Choose as a guide one whom you will admire more when you see him act than when you hear him speak." (LII.8)

This is sound advice, but of course it is a bit ironic coming from Seneca, who has always been controversial within Stoic circles for talking the right talk more than he walked the right walk. That said, he was no sage, knew it, and openly admitted it, to his credit. 

Seneca returns to the same point near the end of the letter:

"Let them be roused to the matter, and not to the style; otherwise, eloquence does them harm, making them enamored of itself, and not of the subject." (LII.14)

We should be wary of convincing words, unless they are used to describe the right substance. This too is somewhat ironic, because Seneca himself is well known for his oratory style. He is certainly the most readable of the three great Roman Stoics (the other two being Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius). However, in his case the stylish prose was indeed in the service of good ideas, so no one can fairly accuse him of being a sophist. (It's also possible that the sophists themselves were unfairly accused...)

A bit earlier on, Seneca reproaches Lucilius, likely for something the latter had written in a previous letter:

"Why do you take pleasure in being praised by men whom you yourself cannot praise?" (LII.11)

This is something that Marcus Aurelius also brings up in the Meditations:

"Constantly observe who those are whose approbation you wish to have, and what ruling principles they possess. For then you will neither blame those who offend involuntarily, nor will you want their approbation if you look to the sources of their opinions and appetites." (VII.62)

This is a very useful though somewhat puzzling insight into human nature. Indeed, why on earth do we give so much of a crap about the opinions of people whom either we don't know or, worse, we do know and have ourselves a low opinion of?

So, as a practical takeaway from this letter, the next time you discover yourself being really bothered by what someone else thinks of you, pause and ask yourself: what are the sources of their opinions and appetites? Only then decide whether you need to be concerned or not.

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