Sunday, 15 September 2013

Forward Progress

From the things that you write me and by the reports that I hear, I have good hope for you.                                             Epistle 2

     Seneca has "good hope" for the ethical progress of Lucilius and says as much in order to encourage him to continue on his path. But can we perhaps read a subtle cautionary reminder in his qualifications "from the things that you write" and "from the reports that I hear?"  Genuine progress must be just that: genuine. 
     Moreover, it is still just a "good hope" Seneca holds for his young friend. While Seneca himself famously stated that "to err is human," for the Stoic, there are no degrees of virtue. One is either virtuous, or he is not, for virtue cannot be mixed with vice. In practical terms, however, we are doing well when we are making forward progress. 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Conserve What Is Truly Yours

But I would that you conserve what is truly yours and begin to do so at once. For, as our ancestors understood, "It is too late to be frugal when you have reached the dregs of the cast." There is not much left at the bottom, and only the worst of its content remains.
                                   Epistle 1

     what is truly yours - Seneca is writing on the subject of time in this epistle and therefore the clause "what truly is yours" can be read in this context. There is a double-meaning here, however, and, for Seneca's purposes, a more important one. For the Stoic, "what is truly yours" refers to one's moral purpose, one's Virtue, the only thing that truly belongs to a person. Our own time is ours in the sense that we can always choose to spend whatever moments remain to us virtuously. 
     It is imperative that we begin to live virtuously immediately; for time is ours only in the sense of how we use it, not how long it will be. Indulging in Vice and neglecting Virtue and postponing the amendment of our ways until the last possible moment is akin to expecting to find quality wine at the bottom of the barrel. When we neglect and flee from Virtue for too long we run become a barrel that contains nothing left but the dregs of what could have been a fine wine.    

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Whatever Remains Is Enough

What, then, do I mean to say by all this? It is this: I do not consider a man poor if he regards as enough whatever little remains to him.

                             Epistle 1

     Seneca has been using financial metaphors of gain and loss, applying them both to the concept of moral progress or loss and the gaining of or losing of (or wasting of) time. In the most recent post, he had declared that he has been reduced to poverty through no fault of his own; that is, he, as an old man, was being impoverished in terms of an elderly person's diminishing years.
     But this was not a lament or complaint. The principle theme throughout this epistle (and a reoccurring theme in much of Seneca's other writings) has been the correct use of time and the notion that no life is too short if properly used. Just as a man is only as poor as he considers himself to be, no amount of time is too little for a man if it is enough for him.  
     And how is it enough? Because it is time used well. No man, not even if he has lived 120 years, can die contentedly if those years have been squandered in Vice. But Virtue makes a happy and contented man out of even the shortest life.     
     We need not pity the virtuous man who dies young, unexpectedly, or even unjustly; but we must pity the vicious man who lives a long life. As Seneca famously writes elsewhere, "It is not how long you live that matters, but how nobly." The poverty which is truly undesirable is not the lack of wealth or the dearth of years, but the poverty of Virtue. Where there is Virtue, there is no poverty and life is always complete.  

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Seneca's Old Age

But my current situation is the same as what happens to many who are reduced to poverty through no fault of their own: everyone forgives them, but nobody comes to their rescue.
                                                     Epistle 1

     In the previous post, Seneca in humility admits (through use of financial metaphor) that he is, in a word, not perfect, but he has at least made progress in that he can recognize his moral losses and shortcomings. These losses are of course due to his own failures. There is no contradiction here where Seneca writes that his "current situation is the same as what happens to many who are reduced to poverty through no fault of their own." 
     Seneca, at the time that he was writing these epistles, was a very old man. The overall subject of this epistle is time, and more specifically, the wasting of time versus the proper use of time. Seneca here is simply adding a personal note pertaining to his own situation. He is continuing with the poverty metaphor, but he is applying it now not to his own moral progress, but to the amount of time an old man like himself has left in life. 
     But this is not the mournful complaint of an old man over the shortness of his remaining life. As we shall see in the next post, Seneca is contented in this "poverty." 

Saturday, 6 July 2013

I Confess Frankly, My Friend....

You will ask, perhaps, what I myself do who preach these things to you. I confess frankly: as is the case with a luxuriant but cautious man, my expense account is balanced. I cannot tell you I lose nothing, but whatever I do lose I can tell you how and why the loss occurred. I can give you the cause of my poverty.  
                                   Epistle 1

     There are 124 extant letters of our stoic philosopher Seneca to his friend Lucilius, admonishing him towards Virtue and warning him against Vice (and at times even reproving him). He instructs him, essentially, on how to become wise man, a sage.  
     Yet neither Seneca nor any of the other ancient Stoics whose works have been preserved ever claimed to be a wise man. But like anyone who is at least on the correct path towards Wisdom, Seneca is able to discern what he already possesses and what he still lacks. He cannot say he loses nothing, but when he does lose something, he can say how and why. He recognizes his faults, his "poverty", and he is actively remedying them. 
     But why would Seneca instruct another person on how to live if he has not yet perfected his own advice? Today, if we discover a man's actions are not entirely consistent with his words, we are inclined to label him a hypocrite. But Seneca's is not a case of somebody not practising what he preaches. The Stoic seeks friends whom he can either improve or who can improve him. Lucilius, while having made considerable progress of his own, was still a few paces behind Seneca. Seneca, while not yet perfect himself, was a useful encouragement to his friend. And in helping his friend, he was also furthering his own progress. Elsewhere Seneca famously wrote, qui docet discit, or "he who teaches learns". Just as, for example, a modern day Latin teacher keeps sharp his own knowledge of that ancient language by teaching others, the philosopher rehearses for himself the lessons of his school in the same fashion, training himself as he trains others. (And it is indeed in this spirit that I write these posts; not as one who has already hit the mark, but as one who has made some progress in his aim and needs further practice.) The teacher also becomes accountable to his students in the same way - or even to a greater degree! - as the students are accountable to him. If we ever lose sight of our goal, of Virtue, and have thus momentarily lost that sense of personal shame for our Vices and Passions, perhaps a sense of public shame in the form of the scrutiny of our friends will keep us in check.
     We must remember, however, that if we hope to be useful to our friends or they to be any use to us, then we must understand the limits of our successes and "confess frankly" our weaknesses. This requires a substantial amount of personal self-reflection (that is, honesty with one's own self) before one enters into the friendship. My friend cannot help me if he thinks I am flawless; and I do him no good pretending to be so, thereby providing him with a false model to emulate... He will be emulating not a good but a bad man! 

Monday, 1 July 2013

Time: The Benefit That Can Never Be Repaid

Such is the great foolishness of mortals, that they allow the least important, cheapest and easily replaceable objects to be charged to their accounts after they have received them.  But they never consider themselves to be in debt when they have received time; and yet this is the one thing that even a grateful recipient can never repay.                                              Epistle 1

     In the previous post, Seneca asserted that time - while we have complete control over our own characters in any given moment - is a "fleeting and slippery possession" which can at any instant be snatched away from mortals by death. Therefore we had best take possession of our time now while we have the chance, value it, and use it fittingly.
     Few of us truly value or feel grateful and indebted for this possession. While it is true that certain base men are habitually ungrateful, most of us feel at least a little gratitude for the things we possess and receive.
     A sense of gratitude for benefits received other than time is of course honourable.  Cicero, another Roman philosopher whose ethics were akin to that of the Stoics, wrote that gratitude is the greatest of all Virtues and even the parent of all the other Virtues. Seneca himself wrote a lengthly essay on the subject of the giving and receiving of benefits, and the proper gratitude shown by recipients. Any decent human being will be grateful, either to God or to his fellow man or to both, when a benefit is done for him. Yet even the most grateful of us often forget to be grateful when we have received time, a benefit that, unlike most others done for us, can never be repaid.
     How can we show gratitude for this most precious of benefits? By using it well; that is, to use it virtuously. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Not Promised Tomorrow

All things, my Lucilius, are another's matter; our time alone is our own affair. Nature sent us into this one fleeting and slippery possession, from which anybody who wants to can cast us out.  
                                                                  Epistle 1

   Time is our own in the sense that we can choose to make proper use of it. Seneca argues frequently that life is not short, that it only seems so because we willingly waste time, and that a virtuous life can be lived just as well in a single day as in an hundred years. 
     Another man's use of his own time - even if he chooses to spend it viciously, even seeking my hurt without cause - is his own business, not mine.  Likewise, just about anything else - from the length of my life to the rising and setting of the sun to the rush hour traffic to the weather - are alien to me. How I use the time I have been allotted by Nature is my own affair. Not even the desperate junkie who puts a knife to my throat cannot rob me of my use of time - he cannot force me to spend my last seconds of my life as a coward.  
     Seneca, though, reminds us that Nature has given us a fleeting and slippery possession. That desperate junkie willing to kill for the possible pocket change I have on my person can indeed shorten my time suddenly, as can myriad other factors beyond my control. I had better, then, start living life well now, not later.  I am not promised tomorrow, or even the next second. [See also next post]        

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Get Back To Work!

Therefore, my Lucilius, do as you write to me that you are doing, and hold every hour in your grasp, so that you depend less upon tomorrow, having cast your hand to work today.  Life passes by while it is postponed.  
                                                     - Epistle 1

     The time to amend our character is now.  Dying daily, as we are, we must not depend on a tomorrow that has never been promised to us, nor even on a later hour in the day.  The natural End or goal of Man's life, living virtuously according to Nature, is the task that is ever at hand.  Indeed, it is the Task of life for a rational creature. We postpone, as it were, life itself, while we are set upon some other task.  Life, then, passes us by.  

Monday, 10 June 2013

Practice What You Preach

Therefore, my Lucilius, do as you write to me that you are doing....
                                               Epistle 1

     Stoic philosophy, especially in its Roman manifestation (which we find here in the works of Seneca), is unlike what many today would consider to be philosophy.  It is not mere esoteric intellectualising, detached from reality, serving no practical purpose.  Whatever intellectualising is done is ultimately for the sake of real world application.  Philosophy has indeed been called ars vitae or the art of life.  The very etymology of the word means the love [philo] of wisdom [sophia] in Greek.  Wisdom is not wit, cleverness, or raw intelligence.  It is correct understanding for knowing what to do and when to do it, with the aim of leading a life worth living.  Of course, uncovering this understanding may take some very heavy intellectualising and vigorous thinking, but this is contemplation in the service of a practical end - living the good life.  Wisdom, then, is an action.  One cannot claim to have attained any measure of wisdom while his actions are out of tune with his intellect.  
     When Seneca urges his friend to do as he writes, these are not casual words.  It is a subtle reminder that authentic philosophy is practised, not just talked about.  

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Death Has Already Passed

We err in that we look towards Death as a future event; the greater part of it has already passed.  Whatever time lies behind us, Death already possesses. 

                                                  - Epistle 1

     In the previous post, Seneca reminded us that we are dying daily, that every moment brings us closer to Death, and therefore the opportunity to live well, that is, to live virtuously, is now.  Even if we die tomorrow, we can live a fully virtuous life today.  Our time is not short if we know how to use it. 
     Seneca now carries this argument one step further.  We are mistaken, he says, when we look towards Death as some sort of terrible future event that has yet to occur.  We perhaps should be looking to the past. We have experienced Death already, or something akin to it, before we were born.  This non-existence was hardly terrible.  In fact, it did not trouble us at all. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

Dying Daily

Who can you show me, who places any value on his time, evaluates the worth of his day, and who understands that he is dying daily?                                 - Seneca, Epistle 1

     Death is not some far off event.  It is happening to us right now.  Every moment brings us closer to it, and even today could be our last day.  Indeed, if one contrasts the vastness of time with our short lives, little more than a drop in the bucket of time, this day might as well be our last.  
     But who really meditates upon this fact?  It is, for most people, a depressing thought, and they ignore it, even deny it, as long as possible.  
     Yet for the Stoic, this thought is not depressing, but essential to happiness.  Once the reality of our mortality is accepted and rehearsed daily in our minds, we will properly estimate the value of our time and our days, and not a moment will be wasted;  for every moment will be dedicated to our true purpose and only source of happiness: the cultivation of Virtue.    

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Nobody To Blame But Ourselves

And if you would just pay attention to the cause of our loss of time, you would discover that the greatest part of our life slips away while we are doing evil, or doing nothing at all - practically our entire lives are wasted doing something other than what we should be doing.  
                                 - Epistle 1

     There was an eternity before we were born and there will be an eternity after we die.  Whether we live a hundred years longer or just one more day makes no difference.  The extra years, in the grand scheme of things, is less than a drop in a giant bucket.  How we live  our lives is what matters.  One of Plato's most famous lines, which he placed in the mouth of Socrates, was: "It is not living, but living well which is important."  Plato was not a Stoic, but his well known saying is very much a stoic sentiment.  Our own Seneca the Younger wrote: "It is not how long you live that matters, but how nobly."
     The good news is that nothing and nobody can prevent us from living nobly (or, if necessary, dying nobly).  A virtuous life is always within our grasp, whether that life be for a few hours more or for many decades more.  
     The bad news is that - although most of us have more than a few hours to live and many of us still have many decades left - most of us will waste that time just as we have always squandered our time before this moment.  We waste our time when we forget that Virtue is the only good and Vice is the only evil, and that our character is the only thing that truly belongs to us.  
     Thus, the man that lives for only one day more but lives that day virtuously has lived longer than the man who lives another sixty years but lives viciously.        

Thursday, 16 May 2013


Persuade yourself of what I write: Some moments are torn away from us, some are stolen, some vanish away. But the worst loss of time is due to our own negligence. -Epistle 1                     

     The goal of the ancient stoics was to live according to nature.  Their understanding of what "living according to nature" means, however, was vastly different than what our modern ears might imagine.  We might think it means to shun artificial social conventions; to live in the forest like animals; to reject the city life and make friends with birds and squirrels instead of people; to accept and even embrace our emotions and impulses, even our negative emotions, as natural feelings.  

     Our modern notions of living in accordance with nature could not be further removed from the ancient stoic view of nature.  Our social conventions and the personal roles they entail are not man-made, but part of the fabric of the cosmos.  For a man to fulfill his role as a man, a woman as a woman, a son as a son, a citizen as a citizen, a neighbour as a neighbour, etc - these are not artificial constructs thrust upon us by an equally artificial society, but natural relationships and duties prescribed by Nature herself.  Nature made us social animals, like bees in a hive, each with his or her own part to play (not chosen roles, but ordained roles), living in communities like men, not in the wilderness like beasts.  But the most important distinction between modern and stoic concepts of what constitutes "living in accordance with nature" are their opinions concerning the negative emotions, or the Passions.  Anger, Fear, Intemperance, self-indulgent Depression and all the other horrible Vices are not natural emotions.  They are unnatural feelings brought about by our own poor reasoning and ignorance of the true Good (Virtue) and the true Evil (Vice).  

     "The worst loss of time is due to our own negligence."  And we are negligent when we fail to live according to Nature.  Yet nothing can prevent us from doing so, except our own selves.  Our time is always our own if we choose to make it so.    

Monday, 13 May 2013

Is Life Too Short?

Gather and preserve your time - which up till now has either been carried off, been stolen or has fallen away from you.  

                                   - Epistle 1

     We hear it said often and sometimes say it ourselves that "life is short".  Many people go as far as to claim that "life is too short".
     But a constant theme of Seneca is that life is not too short at all.  In fact, he even writes an entire essay on this subject, entitled On The Shortness of Life (De Brevitate Vitae). Life is not short, he would say.  Our time is abundant, if only we know how to use it.
     Seneca has encouraged his friend to "liberate" himself (see last post). Now he instructs him to "gather and preserve" his time.  In the same manner that the Stoic understands true Freedom to be Freedom from Vice and the Liberty to be virtuous, the Stoic also knows that nothing and nobody can take his time away from him but himself.  
     How is time "carried off" from us?  When we are ruled by our Passions and not by Reason. How is time "stolen" from us? When we allow Vice to snatch moments away from Virtue.  How does time "fall away" from us?  When we become neglectful in our study of philosophy, forgetting that Virtue is the sole good and that we always have time for Her.  

Friday, 10 May 2013

Liberate Yourself for You

Emancipate yourself for yourself.                  - Epistle 1

     What is Liberty?  We talk about it often in our post-Enlightenment world.  Classical liberals might think it means not paying too much tax to the government or having the constitutional freedom to be as fanatically religious or non-religious as they choose to be.  Our modern liberals from the New Left might think it is the ability to scorn our society's time honoured traditions and be as hyper-individualistic (and, paradoxically, egalitarian) as possible.
   But what is Liberty for the stoic?  What does the stoic mean when he urges his student to free or emancipate himself for himself?  
   For the stoic, true Liberty is to be free of the things which are truly evil.  Taxes and religious oppression are not in themselves evil.  A gap between the rich and the poor is not an evil either, nor is having a passport that says you are a female when you feel like you should be a male.  
  True Liberty is freedom from Vice.  Fear, Anger, Sadness (that is, Depression), Foolishness, Intemperance, Impulsiveness, Selfishness - these are the things the Stoic emancipates himself from.  And he does it for himself, for his own sake, because it is the only thing he can do for himself. 
    Once a man has freed himself from vice, he is at liberty to be virtuous.