Seneca to Lucilius: 58, on being

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The 58th letter that Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius, unofficially entitled "On being," is one of the most fascinating in terms of insights into Seneca's own mind and into Stoic philosophy more broadly. Seneca tells Lucilius that:

"We at times should slacken our minds and refresh them with some sort of entertainment. But let even your entertainment be work; and even from these various forms of entertainment you will select, if you have been watchful, something that may prove wholesome. (LVIII.25)"

This may sound insufferably serious, perhaps reinforcing the common stereotype of the Stoic who goes around sporting a stiff upper lip while she attempts to suppress her emotions. But, actually, I found the implementation of this particular piece of advice to be very useful in my own life.

As Seneca says, we need some rest and relaxation. But does it have to be mindless? I enjoy an hour, sometimes two, of television in the evening. But I don't channel surf (as I used to!), or watch whatever senseless thing is on. Rather, I select my streaming series or movies (or documentaries) carefully, paying attention to recommendations from friends, and of course to the always useful Tomatometer! The result is that I get the best of both worlds: I do relax when I need it, but I also keep nourishing my mind with a healthy fare, not with junk food.

"That is my habit, Lucilius: I try to extract and render useful some element from every field of thought, no matter how far removed it may be from philosophy." (LVIII.26)

Here is an expansion of the same concept. Not only when relaxing, but in general, I try to read widely, not just about philosophy, let alone Stoic philosophy specifically. Sure, I keep up with the modern Stoic literature and go back to the ancient texts on a regular basis, as part of my practice. And I have to read technical papers in philosophy of science, to keep up with my chosen academic field.

But I also always have at least one English, one Italian (to keep my mother tongue fresh), and one Japanese (I just love that culture) novels going at all times. In order to encourage myself to read more widely I have recently started an online philosophy book club (the next live discussion will take place on August 9th, featuring Read & Riot: A Pussy Riot Guide to Activism, by Nadya Tolokonnikova. And so on.

Seneca then veers toward a more serious subject matter: the bodily and mental decay that comes with aging, and how he approached it as a Stoic:

"To some extent our petty bodies can be made to tarry longer upon earth by our own providence, if only we acquire the ability to control and check those pleasures whereby the greater portion of mankind perishes." (LVIII.29)

Stoicism -- again, contra popular misconception -- doesn't have anything against pleasure. Unlike the Epicureans, we don't think that pleasure is the chief good in life, but we do think that it is in accordance with nature, meaning that it is natural for people to seek pleasure (just like pain is against nature, and people accordingly try to avoid it). That said, Seneca is right that people often literally die of their pleasures (think smoking, or too much drinking, or too much food). A wise person would strike a balance between enjoying life and maintaining her health. The idea is to own our pleasures, not to be owned by them.

"Frugal living can bring one to old age; and to my mind old age is not to be refused any more than is to be craved. There is a pleasure in being in one’s own company as long as possible, when a man has made himself worth enjoying." (LVIII.32)

Here we encounter a good example of the Stoic concept of preferred indifferents: life itself. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about being alive. It is simply a transitory state of matter within the immense cosmos. What makes it valuable is its quality, and what we do with it. To try to stay alive at all costs -- sometimes, especially in the United States -- at the literal cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars for just a few more weeks or months for a terminally ill patient -- is foolish. But to willingly give up a life in which one is practicing virtue by helping others while enjoying her loved ones is just as foolish.

Unfortunately, I have relatives who have gotten old and do not enjoy their own company. They are miserable, and at least in one case, often talk about their impatience to die. That is the sad result of neglecting ourselves throughout our existence, getting to the end and literally not knowing what to do with our day.

"I shall not abandon old age, if old age preserves me intact for myself, and intact as regards the better part of myself; but if old age begins to shatter my mind, and to pull its various faculties to pieces, if it leaves me, not life, but only the breath of life, I shall rush out of a house that is crumbling and tottering." (LVIII.35)

Here Seneca turns even more serious, tackling the perennially difficult topic of suicide. I am completely with him in this respect. Of course, I hope that my body, but especially my mind, will work reasonably well until the end. Indeed, I'm taking measures to increases the chances of it being so, by exercising both body and mind. But, as usual, the outcome is not entirely up to me, being affected by my genetic makeup, by the environment in which I live, and by accident and disease.

That is why it is more important than ever that our society makes provisions -- like physician assisted suicide -- so that those of us who, in full control of their faculties, have made the determination to leave "a house that is crumbling and tottering" are helped to do so with dignity. Seneca concludes with words I can hardly improve upon:

"If I find out that the pain must always be endured, I shall depart, not because of the pain but because it will be a hindrance to me as regards all my reasons for living. He who dies just because he is in pain is a weakling, a coward; but he who lives merely to brave out this pain, is a fool." (LVIII.36)
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