Tag Archives: Seneca the Younger

Simplicity, complexity, simplicity

In concluding one of his Epistles to Lucilius (22.13-17), Seneca cites in Latin two versions of a sentiment expressed in Vatican Saying 60 (quoted below):

Nemo non ita exit e vita, tamquam modo intraverit, ‘Everyone goes out of life just as if he had but lately entered it’, specifically attributed by Seneca to Epicurus; and Nemo aliter quam quomodo natus est exit e vita, ‘No one leaves this world in a different manner from one who has just been born’ (trans. R.M. Gummere, reading in the second instance qui modo (Wolters) for quomodo of the manuscripts).

After quoting the first version, Seneca suggests a couple of ways in which an old person may be considered to be like a young person: an old person, or indeed a person of any age, is just as afraid of death and ignorant of life; and an old person has nothing finished, through putting things off.

Seneca then quotes the second version and denies that it is true, alleging that through our own fault ‘we are worse when we die than when we were born’ (peiores morimur quam nascimur). When we come into the world we are free of desires, fears, superstition, treachery and such things. We should go from life as we were at the beginning, having learned wisdom; instead at the approach of death our courage fails us.

Having denied the truth of the saying, however, Seneca comes close to acknowledging its applicability. We fret at death because we go from life stripped of all our goods; we have nothing – just as we had nothing when born, though he does not say that explicitly.

Perhaps his final point is the most poignant: we do not care how well we live but how long, whereas what is within our power is not how long we live but how well (omnibus possit contingere, ut bene vivant, ut diu, nulli). He implies: the will to live is there at the end as at the beginning, and what have we learned in the meantime?

Thoughts for the Day, September 15: ‘We all go from life as we were when just born’ (Vatican Sayings 60). Or, ‘Everyone goes from life as if just born.’ The Greek has πᾶς ὥσπερ ἄρτι γεγονὼς ἐκ τοῦ ζῆν ἀπέρχεται. In the first translation, the ‘we’ form has been used for gender neutrality; the second translation is phrased to avoid the same problem.

Thwarted by necessity

If everything in the universe happens according to universal laws, if the way the universe is constructed means that every event proceeds of necessity from what has gone before, if all of existence is subject to a rigid determinism, the impression we may have that we can make free and significant choices must be illusory. No matter how much free will we may seem to exercise, we must be operating according to laws and mechanisms that control our every thought and move.

This kind of approach has been influential in the history of philosophy. Stoicism is well known for it, but even Epicurus’ atomist predecessor Democritus held a deterministic view of physical reality. Epicurus disagreed, and believed there must be some slight deviation from complete rigidity – some slight ‘swerve’ (παρέγκλισις: Usener 280; Latin clinamen) – to explain the behaviour of atoms. This opens the way for life to be influenced by three factors: necessity, chance and human agency – but not all-controlling fate (Letter to Menoeceus 133). Human decision-making can play a large part in shaping the course of our lives: thus in the life of a wise person the most important matters can be organized by the exercise of reason (Principal Doctrine 16).

Seneca the Younger’s Letters to Lucilius provide interesting insights into thought patterns which a Stoic may adopt in an attempt to come to terms with necessity and determinism. For example, in Letter 61 Seneca advises accepting necessity rather than rebelling against it, desiring whatever circumstances require of us and thus never needing to act unwillingly. Then even the prospect of death will not cause sadness, as death is part of the necessary order of things.

The inevitability of death was a key part of the Stoic argument that we must be reconciled to whatever happens. Epicurus took a different approach, rejecting fatalism and emphasizing the fact that circumstances provide opportunities for a positive response. Life is limited in duration but this is an encouragement to make the most of the time available. Gratitude is a powerful factor in responding positively to life, and by casting off unnecessary fears, living according to natural limits and maintaining friendly relations with our fellow human beings we can enjoy a profoundly happy and satisfying life.

Epicurus’ approach was philosophically objectionable to those who saw a need for emotional detachment in the face of hard necessity. Well, says Epicurus in Vatican Saying 40, if everything is controlled by necessity they can have no complaint against my views, which must themselves be part of that necessity to which they wish to be reconciled.

Thoughts for the Day, August 31: ‘If you say that everything happens by necessity, you have no grounds for complaint against someone who says that everything does not happen by necessity; for you are saying that what the person is doing itself happens by necessity’ (Vatican Sayings 40).

Pleasure in the fulfilment of simple needs

According to Seneca, the Stoic Zeus needed only himself to be happy (Epistles 9.16-17). When the world dissolves (resoluto mundo, as happens from time to time according to Stoic thought) and all the gods other than Zeus are ‘confounded together’ (dis in unum confusis), Zeus can retire into himself and his own thoughts, completely self-sufficient.

Human beings, as part of nature, can hardly be that self-sufficient, but Epicurus boldly asserts that we can compete with Zeus for happiness if we learn to be content with what nature provides for our needs. This means recognizing what our essential needs are and being content when they are satisfied.

In Vatican Saying 33 he gives the example of our need for food, water and warmth. In each case – when we have had enough to eat or drink, when we are warm enough – the fulfilment of our need reaches a natural limit and at that point we could not be happier if we had more food or water to consume or more protection against the cold. The ability and opportunity to reach a natural limit give us the experience of a happiness that cannot be improved on, which thus invites comparison with the perfect happiness attributed (whether in Stoic or other mythological thinking) to the supreme deity.

Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus (§§ 130-131) presents the general argument:

And we regard self-sufficiency as a great good, not so that we always make do with little, but so that if we do not have much we are satisfied with little, being truly convinced that those enjoy the pleasures of luxury most who have least need of luxury, and that everything natural is easy to obtain and everything baseless difficult to obtain. Inexpensive dishes yield as much pleasure as expensive fare when once the pain of need has been taken away; and barley cake and water give the highest pleasure when someone in need consumes them. So being used to a simple and not extravagant life-style is sufficient for full health, makes a person confident about the necessities of life, makes us better at dealing with luxury when that occurs at intervals, and makes us fearless in the face of fortune.

In the text of saying 33 in the Vatican manuscript, the word ‘Zeus’ is lacking but it is obvious that a word needs to be restored. One piece of evidence for restoring ‘Zeus’ occurs in a passage in the Historical Miscellany of the Roman author Aelian (Claudius Aelianus, late second – early third century AD). Writing in Greek, Aelian collected a great variety of interesting and amusing information, anecdotes and the like for a popular readership. As a supporter of Stoicism he was highly critical of Epicurean philosophy, but the passage of interest here is neutral from that point of view. In a series of miscellaneous notes about ancient Greek authors and historical figures he refers to ‘Epicurus of the deme of Gargettus’ who said that ‘a man who is not satisfied with a little will not be satisfied with anything’ (this is similar to Vatican Saying 68), and ‘he was ready to declare himself a match for Zeus in good fortune if he had bread and water’ (4.10.13, trans. Wilson, p. 195).

Thoughts for the Day, August 25: ‘The body asks not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold; and someone who has these things and expects to have them could compete even with Zeus for happiness’ (Vatican Sayings 33).

Richard M. Gummere (ed. and trans.), Seneca: Ad Lucilium Epistulae morales (Loeb Classical Library), vol. I, London, Heinemann/ New York, Putnam’s Sons, 1918, repr. 1925, pp. 52-53. N.G. Wilson (ed. and trans.), Aelian: Historical Miscellany (Loeb Classical Library, 486), Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1997, pp. 194-195.

Poverty and wealth

Epicurus’ dictum concerning poverty as great wealth (found in Vatican Saying 25) is quoted in Latin by Seneca the Younger in the fourth of his Moral Epistles to Lucilius (Book I 4.10). Seneca begins the letter by urging Lucilius to hasten his philosophical studies so that he will be able the sooner to enjoy ‘an improved mind, one that is at peace with itself’ (emendato animo et conposito, trans. R.M. Gummere). The main focus of the letter is on the need not to spoil life by useless worry about death. At the end of his letters Seneca liked to quote and comment on a passage for the day. Here he says the quotation ‘is culled from another man’s Garden’ (ex alienis hortulis sumptum est) – an allusion to the Garden of Epicurus.

The quotation in Latin contains the idea of a law of nature. ‘Poverty, brought into conformity with the law of nature, is great wealth’ (magnae divitiae sunt lege naturae composita paupertas). Perhaps the word composita (‘brought into conformity with’) echoes the use at the beginning of the letter of conposito with reference to a well-regulated and settled mind? In any case, the thought seems somewhat similar: the mind must be well-adjusted in its encounters with reality, and one’s life must be well-adjusted in its relationship to nature. This latter adjustment is not achieved by what is commonly called wealth. Rather, from a position of poverty we become open to the abundance that nature supplies.

Seneca’s commentary is apt. The law of nature sets limits (terminos): not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold (cf. Vatican Saying 33). To achieve these ends it is not necessary to attach oneself to the rich or to undertake hazardous enterprises. For ‘nature’s needs are easily provided and ready to hand’ (parabile est, quod natura desiderat, et adpositum). We sweat and suffer for superfluous things. ‘That which is enough is ready to our hands’ (Ad manum est, quod sat est). In coming to terms with poverty, we acknowledge the wealth which nature provides.

Seneca quotes the same dictum at the end of the twenty-seventh letter to Lucilius (27.9, omitting magnae, ‘great’). He attributes the saying to Epicurus by name, and notes that Epicurus said it ‘in various ways and contexts’ (aliter et aliter, trans. Gummere); but what can never be learned too well can never be repeated too frequently (sed numquam nimis dicitur, quod numquam satis discitur).

Thoughts for the Day, August 17: ‘Poverty measured by the goal of nature is great wealth; wealth without limits is great poverty’ (Vatican Sayings 25).