Seneca to Lucilius: 44, philosophy as the great equalizer

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Philosophy is for everyone

“If there is any good in philosophy, it is this: it has no regard for genealogies.” (Letters to Lucilius, XLIV.1)

At the beginning of his 44th letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca reminds us that philosophy is for everyone, regardless of one’s ancestry or so-called “noble” birth. This is a point I often have difficulty getting across when I talk about Stoicism to the media. A common objection raised to my presentation of the philosophy is that it’s elitist, since few people have enough leisure time to read the ancients, or a sufficient degree of education to appreciate them.

“Excellence of mind is available to all: in this regard we are all nobly born.” (Letters, XLIV.2)

Going on to make his point by way of examples:

“Philosophy neither rejects anyone nor chooses anyone; it shines for all. Socrates was no patrician; Cleanthes hauled water, and hired himself out to water people’s gardens; Plato did not come to philosophy a nobleman but was ennobled by it.” (Letters, XLIV.2–3)

Socrates was famously rather poor, always walking the streets of Athens in rags, and was most definitely not handsome! Yet, his mind was capable of asking penetrating questions, plainly showing to anyone who listened that a lot of self-important men of the time were actually ignorant fools. Cleanthes was the second head of the Stoa, the immediate successor of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. He was poor, and worked as a water carrier for people in order to be able to afford to study with Zeno. And I love the typically Senecean turn of phrase at the end of the quote: Plato did not come to philosophy a nobleman but was ennobled by it.

“Everyone has the same number of ancestors. There is no one whose origins lie anywhere but in oblivion. Plato says that every king is of servile origin and every slave of kingly origin.” (Letters, XLIV.4)

Here Seneca is making a point about social history: even those who fancy themselves of noble origin, he reminds us, ultimately trace their ancestry to humble people we never heard of. Regardless of one’s origins, however:

“It is the mind that confers nobility, for the mind has license, regardless of estate, to rise above the vagaries of chance.” (Letters, XLIV.5)

We may be constrained by our social status in terms of what we can materially do, of course. But such constraints are far less strong on the ability of our mind to exercise itself. Again, granted that lack of education will make it far less likely that someone can become a professional philosopher or theologian, the sort of things that really matter in life can be grasped by anyone equipped with basic reasoning skills. What, exactly, is Seneca talking about here? This:

“‘How?’ you ask. If you make your own distinctions of what is good and bad, without reference to popular notions. You should not consider where things come from but where they are headed.” (Letters, XLIV.6)

If we apply our native capacities of reasoning, we can figure out what is good and what is bad, both for us and for the human cosmopolis of which we are an integral part. We should do this without concerning ourselves with who said what, or where certain notions come from. Those are interesting questions for experts to spend their time on. But in order to live good lives we just need to focus on where it is that our own decisions are likely to lead us.

“What, then, is the mistake people make, seeing that everyone wants a happy life? They take the instruments used by happiness to be happiness itself, and so abandon the very thing they are seeking.” (Letters, XLIV.7)

This is an incredibly powerful insight into the nature of human unhappiness: many people confuse the tools that we have available to be happy with the thing itself. Take the obvious example: a successful entrepreneur who begins to think that the accumulation of wealth is a goal worthy in and of itself. It obviously isn’t. We want money so that we can do things with it, the sort of things that make our lives better, such as having a roof over our head, being able to pay our medical bills, or for the education of our children, and so forth. But how many houses to we need in order to make a home? How many cars, in order to be able to move around? Beyond a certain (rather low) limit, money becomes a hindrance, shifting from the category of preferred indifferents — in Stoic terms — to that of dispreffered ones. It becomes a source of worry, as well as an end in itself, at which point the mistake Seneca is pointing out has already occurred.

“The greater their efforts, the greater the hindrance they create for themselves. It is like hurrying in a maze: their very haste impedes them.” (Letters, XLIV.7)

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