Seneca was one of the great Roman Stoics (together with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus) of which we have substantial writings surviving. Near the end of his life he famously wrote a series of philosophical letters to his friend Lucilius, which the classic scholar Liz Gloyn has interpreted as a sort of informal curriculum to study Stoic theory and practice. I have been writing an occasional series commenting on most of the letters, highlighting the crucial passages and exploring their value — almost two thousand years later — for contemporary life. This next installment of the series concerns letter 27, where Seneca talks about the source of real joy and satisfaction.
It begins with a profession of humility that I find endearing:
“‘How is it that you are advising me?’ you say. ‘Have you already advised yourself? Have you got yourself straightened out? Is that why you have the time to correct others?’ I am not such a hypocrite as to offer cures while I am sick myself. No, I am lying in the same ward, as it were, conversing with you about our common ailment and sharing remedies. So listen to me as if I were talking to myself: I am letting you into my private room and giving myself instructions while you are standing by. (27.1)
Seneca here is exploiting the recurring Stoic metaphor that philosophy is akin to medicine: our soul (so to speak) is sick, and philosophy is the remedy. But he is not posing as a doctor, but rather presenting himself as a fellow patient, perhaps a bit more advanced in the treatment, but ailing nonetheless. This established the same kind of rapport with Lucilius (and, more broadly, with readers of the Letters) that I strive for with fellow practitioners: we are all in this together, and we can help each other.
He then shifts to a reminder that for the Stoics virtue is the highest good:
“Just as the worry over criminal acts does not depart, even if they are not discovered at the time, so also with wrongful desires: remorse remains when they themselves are gone. … Virtue alone yields lasting and untroubled joy.” (27.2–3)
The idea is that doing selfish, or downright wrongful things will weigh on your conscience, and in fact that such weight will remain for a long time, far longer than the material benefit you may have accrued from your deeds. One thing and one thing only gives you joy and serenity: the practice of virtue. Why? Because virtue is, by definition, the only thing that can never be used for wrong. This is an argument that goes back to Socrates, who articulates it in the Euthydemus, and is picked up by Epictetus when he asks:
“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.” (Discourses 1.1.5)
And reason, for the Stoics, is essentially equivalent to virtue, as Seneca himself states in a later letter:
“Virtue is nothing else than right reason.” (66.32)
Seneca then goes on both to praise and to prod Lucilius. He acknowledges that his friend has made significant progress in his philosophical practice, but much remains to be done. And, as he drily puts it, this isn’t the sort of thing that can be delegated to others…
We then come to an interesting story about a foolish Roman aristocrat named Sabinus, who was very proud of his knowledge, which he greatly overestimated. He was convinced that any knowledge possessed by a member of his household (especially his expensively acquired slaves) was ipso facto possessed by him, as if these things worked by osmosis. His acquaintance Satellius Quadratus then encouraged Sabinus to take up wrestling, even though Sabinus was actually physically slight and of a somewhat pale and sickly complexion. Sabinus objected on just those grounds: “How can I? I’m barely alive!” To which Satellius sarcastically replied: “Oh, please don’t say that! Don’t you see how many super-healthy slaves you have?” If you think that the knowledge possessed by the slaves is automatically yours, then perhaps the same goes for their physical strength…
Seneca’s point is that Sabinus was proud of something that was not actually his doing. That’s not where real joy and satisfaction are to be found. We have to work at acquiring knowledge and at becoming better persons, and that — the process more than the result — justifies our sense of accomplishment. As Seneca puts it near the end of the letter:
“Excellence of mind cannot be borrowed or bought. I think too that if it were for sale, it would not find a buyer. Yet wickedness is purchased every day.” (66.8)