Seneca to Lucilius: 60, luxury vs the meaning of life

[This is the second of three posts in my occasional "Seneca Week" series.]

How much is enough? It's a question that the ancient Stoics often pondered, and that it is most certainly pertinent to our hyper-consumerist society. When I first moved to the United States in the early '90s I naturally noticed a number of differences between European and American culture. Qualitatively speaking, some went in favor of the Europeans, some in favor of the Americans.

But one of the most bizarre ones was the notion of "retail therapy," the idea that if you feel bad about your life, for whatever reason, you should go out shopping. Buying new things will assuredly make you feel better! This, of course, works very well for the multinational companies that want to sell you a lot of stuff you don't actually need, but does it work for you?

Yes, temporarily. Psychologists refer to this as the hedonic treadmill: you buy a shiny new iPhone, say, and you feel great. But give it a few days and the shine will have worn out. At which point you may slide again into the depressive state that stimulated you to buy the gadget in the first place. But you know the solution: buying something else! And so on, you keep running on the hedonic treadmill, never really getting anywhere (and spending a lot of money in the process).

Another facet of this attitude of wanting more than we need is instantiated by notion of gourmet food. I'm talking serious stuff: spending a small fortune to get into one of those exclusive Manhattan restaurants, making reservations months in advance, sampling dishes that took an inordinate amount of money and time to put together -- beginning with procuring the ingredients on the other side of the world.

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was notoriously skeptical of gourmet cuisine (even then!), thinking it an unnecessary indulgence that distracts us from more worthy pursuits in life. Turns that Seneca expresses a similar opinion in his 60th letter to his friend Lucilius:

"How long shall we continue to fill with grain the market-places of our great cities? How long must the people gather it in for us? How long shall many ships convey the requisites for a single meal, bringing them from no single sea? The bull is filled when he feeds over a few acres; and one forest is large enough for a herd of elephants. Man, however, draws sustenance both from the earth and from the sea. What then? Did nature give us bellies so insatiable, when she gave us these puny bodies, that we should outdo the hugest and most voracious animals in greed? (LX. On Harmful Prayers, 2)

I love the point about a forest being large enough to feed a herd of elephants, and yet nothing seems to satiate human beings. That's the problem with luxury: once we step outside of the fairly narrow boundaries imposed by our bodies and their needs, there is no logical stopping point. More is always better. And as a result we have been systematically destroying ecosystems and hunting countless species to extinction.

Don't get me wrong. I'm Italian, and I do appreciate a good meal that goes beyond the basic necessities. I love the standard ancient Stoic fare of lentil soup, but my wife and I cook a variety of other dishes at home as well. Much of our cooking, however, relies on local, fresh ingredients. We do go to restaurants (well, BC, i.e., Before Covid), but there as well we far prefer simple meals with few ingredients to elaborate chemical gastronomy. There is, of course, no sharp line separating a reasonable meal from an extravagant one, but I think it is hard to deny that there is such a line, and that crossing it embarks us on a never ending journey during which we can lose ourselves, thinking that the discovery and accumulation of new pleasures is really what life is all about.

But if not about gourmet meal and shiny smartphones, what is life actually about? The Stoic answer is that we should live "according to nature," meaning applying reason to make the world a better place -- because, after all, what distinguishes us from every other species on earth is that we are highly sociable and capable of reason.

Another way to put the point is that what makes for a meaningful human life is to be useful to others. Research on people who are facing the final curtain clearly shows that they do not regret not having made more money, or their fifteen minutes of fame on social media, or even one more gourmet meal or iPhone. What they regret is not having being useful to others, and not having paid enough attention to the relationships they had with other human beings, beginning of course with their own family and friends. Along similar lines, Seneca says to Lucilius:

He really lives who is made use of by many; he really lives who makes use of himself. Those men, however, who creep into a hole and grow torpid are no better off in their homes than if they were in their tombs. Right there on the marble lintel of the house of such a man you may inscribe his name, for he has died before he is dead. (LX. On Harmful Prayers, 4)
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