Absurd Being

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Seneca c. 4 BCE - 65 CE

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The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca  


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The Man

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (the younger) was born in Cordoba, Spain around 3 BCE. His family was wealthy and his father was a famous teacher of rhetoric in Rome. In his early childhood, Seneca went to Rome with his aunt where he received a good education in Stoicism and neo-Pythagoreanism.

In 31 CE, Seneca began his career in law and politics. He was quite successful as a lawyer and quickly amassed both significant wealth and prestige. His relationship with the emperor Caligula deteriorated in 39 CE and in 41 CE was banished from Rome (to Corsica) by the emperor Claudius. The charge laid against him, adultery with Claudius’ niece, was quite probably false.

In 49 CE, Seneca was invited back to Rome at the request of the emperor’s wife and in 50 CE, he became Praetor and was appointed tutor to the future emperor, Nero. He also married Pompeia Paulina, an influential and well-connected woman in Roman society.

Nero gradually became suspicious of his wealthy and popular ex-tutor and Seneca retired in 62 CE to free himself for his philosophy and writing. In 65 CE, Seneca was accused of taking part in a plot against Nero and bidden to take his life. He did so, apparently without much fuss, his wife electing to die with him. They committed suicide by slitting their wrists.

Seneca did not have a reputation just as a philosopher but also as a gifted orator and writer, with nine plays currently attributed to his pen.

Seneca has frequently been accused of failing to live up to his Stoic principles and the accusations seem hard to deny. He was apparently despondent when exiled to Corsica and pleaded to be allowed to remain, he wasn’t above flattery to curry favour of those in power, the effort he exerted in the public sphere seemed to suggest he was attached to his position more than a Stoic should be, and so on.

However, charges have also been made that he was betraying his Stoic ideals because he was rich and extravagant. These things in themselves, don’t contravene Stoic principles though. The Stoics weren’t like the cynics who explicitly rejected these kinds of external goods as intrinsically bad. The Stoics saw these things as indifferent, meaning they neither contribute to nor detract from virtue. One could be rich and still be a Stoic, Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome and his Stoic credentials are never questioned on that ground.

At any rate, whatever his personal life attested to, his writings were surely Stoic in nature and serve as clear models for the Stoic life, even if Seneca himself didn’t always live up to them.

The Philosophy

All of the Stoic philosophers make very similar (essentially identical) points in their works since they each adhered to the principles of Stoicism in its entirety. Rather than simply recapitulating these same points then, on this page I will put my specific notes on Seneca’s writings taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca (Hadas, M., 1958) to allow the reader to get a feel for Seneca, as it were.

On Providence (Why misfortunes befall good men in the face of an existing providence)

Points out that such order as that seen in the universe cannot exist without a caretaker of sorts.
Man is god’s disciple and tries him, hardens him, and readies him for himself.
It is impossible for evil to befall a good man. Opposites cannot combine.
Evil is actually advantageous for the victim:

  1. Without an antagonist we cannot know our prowess.
  2. A life too easy and pampered creates sluggish and weak men and minds. Such men are easily upset by small vagaries.
  3. A victory achieved without struggle is a hollow victory. (Olympic games analogy)
  4. The bearer of suffering is strong and noble inside, goods that are long lasting and of much more value than any others.

The universe is deterministic and therefore we have no choice but to bear events with fortitude. Even the gods are not above Fate.
The duty of the good man is to offer himself to Fate.
If you cannot bear any suffering then there is a way out in suicide, which is very fast and easy compared to the birthing process.

  1. The thing that matters is not what you bear but how you bear it.
  2. Nothing can be wrested from a man if he does not cling to it. (Demetrius)
  3. Events do not, as we suppose, happen but arrive by appointment.
  4. Your good fortune is not to need good fortune.

On the Shortness of Life

Life is long enough if it isn’t squandered through luxury and indifference or given away to other people. The worst are those who waste their time on drink and lust.
A man preoccupied with many interests can focus on nothing deeply.
People often delay their life until retirement but there is no guarantee you will even live that long. Everything future is uncertain.
If people knew how many days they had left until death how sparing they would be with their time.
The future is uncertain, the present transitory, only the past is unalterable. But preoccupied people have no leisure in which to look back on the past. The past is free of want and fear.
Life is ample for those who keep themselves detached from involvement.
Some people are even preoccupied in their leisure. This is busy idleness.
Only philosophers can really be at leisure. Through philosophy one can survey all of history and the knowledge revealed within. Only the dedications of philosophy are free from ruin, nothing else (honours, monuments, achievements) will last.
Many people laboriously attain what they desire, anxiously hold what they have attained and all the while are losing time.
Never ending desire and ambition keeps one flitting from interest to interest, frittering away one’s time.

  1. Slight is the portion of life we live. (Poet)
  2. You live as if you would live forever.
  3. Expectancy is the greatest impediment to living: in anticipation of tomorrow it loses today.

On Tranquillity of Mind

In order to prevent life becoming stale the best course is to have an active career or to contribute to mankind in some other way. Even being virtuous in word and deed satisfies this demand.
Devoting oneself to study will overcome any distaste for life.
Do not let Fortune cause you to stop and remain motionless. Take what you have and make the most of it. Habituate yourself to your condition and grasp whatever good lies within reach.
In deciding what to do, first estimate yourself, but be wary of overrating yourself.
Choose friends free from passions. Especially avoid negative people.
Be wary of acquiring too much property. It is much less a grief to lose property than to have never had it. Diogenes refused to have anything which could be taken from him. Even the gods are penniless.
The sage has nothing, even his body and personality, and is ever prepared to return them to Fortune should she but ask.
If one if thrifty, then one always has enough. Without it, one never does.
We must value things by their function, not their trappings.
Anything carried to excess is wrong.
Habit is an anodyne to calamity. At first, a problem causes great suffering but when one resolves to endure without fretting the problem reduces, even if it doesn’t actually change.
Be modest in your desires and know that they are all trivial.
Understand and accept that your very conception was conditional upon death.
Shock of disasters cannot disturb men prepared and waiting. So, always have the worst in mind and you will never be upset or surprised. Terrible things happen all around you, why should you be surprised if they happen to you?
Every exertion should be for some objective and have some rationale. Do not waste your time / life.
Be adaptable.
Take a light view of things. Do not take life too seriously.
Be authentic. Do not wear masks in public and try to be someone you are not. We can never be fully at ease when hiding our true selves and in constant fear of being found out.
Withdraw into oneself but not completely. Solitude will make one long for company and then company will make one seek solitude. One is a cure for the other; use both in moderation.
Do not study too hard. Allow time for yourself to relax. Take a walk, even go drinking, as far as intoxication (but don’t go overboard). All things in moderation.

  1. Virtue, at a distance and unseen, radiates usefulness.
  2. People upon whom Fortune never has smiled are more cheerful than those she has deserted.
  3. How much happier is he whose only obligation is to a man he can easily refuse – himself!
  4. We are all chained to fortune.
  5. What can happen to somebody can happen to anybody.
  6. Nothing befalls the sage contrary to his expectations.

Consolation of Helvia

This is a letter Seneca wrote to console his mother who was suffering because he had been evicted.

We don’t need much for happiness. Externals matter little.
Misfortune can be sustained with ease if one is always on the alert for it. It is only when one is surprised that misfortune can affect.
Fortune is never to be trusted for she is fickle. We should keep ourselves detached from good fortune for we never know when it will depart from us.
Whatever is excellent in man can neither be taken away nor given. The mind cannot be exiled for it is completely free; not restricted even by space and time.
To be deprived of one’s country is not intolerable:

  1. People always move from place to place and in fact, you would be hard pressed to find someone who lives in the same place they were born. It is part of man’s natural constitution to move around restlessly, descended from spirit as it is.
  2. Whole tribes and nations have changed their homes resettling different countries.

There are no natural resources or large houses or money and so on in exile:

  1. Only a petty mind should be concerned with such things.
  2. If even a lowly cottage houses virtue it can be greater than any palace.
  3. Poverty is no disaster because man only needs a little to maintain himself.
  4. All things are required only in tiny quantities for happiness; food, money, clothing, housing…
  5. Most people are relatively poor and yet they are quite happy.
  6. Nowadays more and more is required and expected as the norm compared to past times.

What if all the above negative factors are combined?

  1. If one has the fortitude to overcome any one of the above problems then one can overcome all of them.

What about the ignominy of exile?

  1. If you stand apart from others and rely on yourself you can never be swayed by the opinions of others.
  2. If a great man falls, it is eminently possible for him to keep his greatness where he falls.

Emotions are not under our control, but negative emotions must not be distracted or they will only resurface. They must be beaten and the best way to do this is through philosophical studies.

  1. The sage is neither elated by prosperity nor depressed by adversity.
  2. For necessities even exile is sufficient, for superfluities not even kingdoms are.
  3. It is the mind which makes men rich.
  4. None can be despised by another unless he is first despised by himself.

On Clemency

The fruit of right deeds is in the doing of them, no reward can match that.
Clemency is more than just a prop for villains in the same way that medicine is valued among those healthy as well as those sick.
Pardon must not be general or vice will erupt. To pardon everyone is as cruel as to pardon none. Apply moderation.
None of the other virtues are more humane.
The king should deal with others as he would have the gods deal with him. Would he wish that the kings were unforgiving and strict in their rulings?

Letters to Lucilius

A friend is someone you trust as much as you trust yourself. You should analyse people and choose your friends carefully. Trusting everyone and trusting no one are both wrong.
Moderation is key. The easygoing man should act and the active man should take it easy. Do not make your dress or mode of life conspicuous.
You will cease to fear if you cease to hope; each of them hang on the future. Animals are fortunate in that they are only capable of thinking about the present. Man is tormented by the past through his memory and the future through his foresight.
Avoid crowds. You cannot emerge from one the same as when you entered it. Neither become like the bad because they are many, nor hostile to the many because they are different. Retire into yourself.
Scorn popular approval. If the many admire you then they understand you and what grounds will you have for self-satisfaction if you are the kind of man the many understand.
We should welcome old age.
We should be content at each moment that we have lived and be prepared to end it right there. If you can do that, every additional moment will be a blessing.
Do not be markedly different nor yet one of the crowd. Do as others do only not in the same way.
During times of security and comfort you should train yourself to go without. If you can derive pleasure from the smallest of things then you will never be without pleasure.
Travel to escape your problems will not work because they will follow you. Once you get rid of your problems, any place becomes agreeable. The good life is available everywhere.
The beginning of salvation is the knowledge of sin. If you aren’t aware of your faults then you will never try to change them.
Be wary of merely exercising your memory on what is not your own. Produce something of your own. If we rest content with solutions offered, the real solution will never be found. Moreover, a man who follows another, not only never finds anything, he is not even looking.
God is inside you. No man is good without god. A virtuous soul is impelled by a celestial force.
We should not pride ourselves on what isn’t ours. Our money, clothes, houses, etc are not in us, they are around us. What is ours? Soul. And reason perfected in the soul. Reason demands that we live according to our nature.
Remember that Fortune holds equal sway over everyone, be they slave or master. Discrimination is wrong. Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you.
Value a man not by his job, but by his character. A man gives himself his own character, accident allots his job.
There are two factors in nature which give rise to things – cause and matter. There is only one cause, Creative Reason or god.
Body is a weight upon the soul. Philosophy lifts the soul up and directs it from the earthy to the divine.
Death is either end of transition. Neither deserve fear.
Living is not the good, but living well. The wise man lives as long as he should – not as long as he can. Quality not quantity is important. If the need arises he will release himself through suicide. Dying early or late is irrelevant, dying well or ill is. If one is prepared to die then Fortune loses all sway over him. Prepare yourself to die by living in it as if you were ready to move. Keep in mind that it is only a temporary housing.
A man should keep learning as long as he is ignorant, that is, as long as he lives.
Wisdom is never a windfall, virtue is not an accident.
Everything is valued by its good. The good in man is reason, Perfect reason to be precise. When a man’s reason is perfected he is happy. Perfect reason is virtue and is the same as honour. If a man has this, then he may be called good irrespective of what he lacks. If a man is without this, then he cannot be good no matter how much of anything else he has. Once a man achieves this wisdom, he cannot backslide to folly.
A good man will do what is right even if it causes his pain, but he will never do what is wrong even if it brings him pleasure.
No matter what happens, a Stoic bears it with serenity because he knows it has happened by the divine law which rules the universe.
All other goods besides virtue are frivolous. However people with these other goods seem to be happy and great but this is because you include the pedestal (money, house, etc) in the measurement. Look at a man naked to assess his worth and then look at him even without his body.
Wisdom is the perfect good of the human mind. Philosophy is the love of wisdom and progress towards it. Wisdom is knowledge of things divine and human. Philosophy is the study of virtue and the striving for right reason. Philosophy has three parts: moral (regulates soul / assesses value and assigns things to their proper place), natural (scrutinises nature / deals with impulses), and rational (exacts precision in terms, arguments and truths / deals with actions).
Continuous discourse is rhetoric. Question and answer format is dialectic.
Sages may have invented things (this was Posidonius’ position) but Seneca says they didn’t do them qua sages. Sages acting qua sages produce far more important goods, revealing truth and nature, the laws of life, showing the way to happiness, perfecting reason, etc.
A man is happy when no circumstance can reduce him. He is happy when he leans on nothing except himself, for if he is sustained by a bolster he is liable to fall and there will always be factors outside himself that have power over him. The happy life is self-sufficiency and abiding tranquillity. This can be attained by surveying truth in its entirety and safeguarding a will that is without baseness and focused undeviatingly upon reason.
No man that serves his body is free. Once, the body was supplied with its requirements like a slave, but these days everything is acquired for it like a master.

Our deaths are merely a rebirth into eternity. At your departure you cannot take even as much as you came into the world with for you must shed your body.