Thursday, October 18, 2012

Seneca and the Stoic Life (and Power and Philosophy and Death)

I said the other day I was reading Seneca's Letters from a Stoic (Penguin Classics) , largely because of his influence on Montaigne. I finished the book earlier today.

The Letters are vivid and intimate  in its references to daily life - dinner parties, baths, the construction of houses. It is a very personal account from the deep past, including a perspective on life that is of its time. That alone makes it an interesting read.

It is revealing, though, that it is so personal, and mostly focused on individual fortitude and self-control. Seneca wrote the book after retiring from public service. Just a few short years before he had been one of the Emperor Nero's two chief ministers, and thus one of the most powerful people on the planet.

He was forced to commit suicide shortly afterwards, in AD 65. A plot to overthrow Nero would have allegedly raised Seneca himself to become Emperor. So he had to slit his veins and slowly expire in a bath.  A twist of fate could have made the Stoic the master of the world.

Perhaps that explains the personal focus and emphasis on virtue. Anything to do with public affairs was simply too sensitive. So the book is much more concerned with self-control and preparing oneself for adversity, for moderation in emotions and in eating and drinking, for ignoring the allure of wealth and power.

It may also explain his alleged hypocrisy. The introduction says "Seneca .. may well be history's most notable example of a man who failed to live up to his principles." He condemned preoccupation with wealth, but amassed a dazzling fortune of three hundred million sesterces. He argued against tyranny, but served one of history's worst tyrants.

It is a pity that there is not more reflection on the nature of power and public policy and practical wisdom from someone so close to the center of power.

Still, perhaps it is a doctrine that is suitable to the times. The upper classes enjoyed dazzling wealth. Seneca complains of hosts who artfully arranged changing the carved or painted ceilings of the dining hall between courses, or shot saffron perfume through the air.

But life was also violent and capricious, subject to the whims of the more powerful and the afflictions of illness, shipwreck or theft.

One issue Seneca explores is that the wise man ought to know when he has enough.
Nature's wants are small, while those of opinion are limitless. Imagine that you have piled up all that a veritable host of rich men have ever possessed, that fortune has carried you far beyond the bounds of wealth so far as any private individual is concerned, building you a roof of gold and clothing you in royal purple, conducting you to such a height of opulence and luxury that you hide the earth with marble floors - putting you in a position not merely to own, but to walk all over treasures - throw in sculptures, paintings, all that has been produced at tremendous pains by all the arts to satisfy extravagance: all these things will only induce in you a craving for even bigger things. Natural desires are limited; those which spring from false opinions have nowhere to stop, for falsity has no point of termination. When a person is following a track, there is an eventual end to it somewhere, but with wandering at large there is no limit, p65

In other words, without having some sense of a track - a purpose - there is no real sense of what is enough.

There is a tremendous sense of fragility that haunts the whole book. Everything could be taken away in an instant. The wise man should not count on possessions or power, but be prepared so that when adversity comes it will not perturb him too much.

That may be hard advice to take, and often ignored. But, he says,

Words need to be sown like seed. No matter how tiny a seed may be, when it lands in the right sort og ground it unfolds its strength and from being minute expands and grows to a massive size. 

People need philosophy as a kind of therapy, not simply as quibbling or academic disputation over syllogisms. He dismisses pedantry.
Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out to humanity? Counsel. (p98)

He complains about the "amount of useless and superfluous material to be found in the philosophers", however.

They have come to envy the philologist and the mathematician, and they have taken over all the inessential elements in those studies - with the result that they know more about devoting care and attention to their speech than devoting such attention to their lives. (p160)

He could almost be talking about the mathematical turn in modern economics. So frustration over academic detachment goes back a long way.

But he is firmly in favor of the liberal arts in the original sense of free : the pursuits of a free man. They do not themselves create good character. But "when it comes to character the liberal arts open the way to it rather than carry the personality all the way there." p157

Philosophy is essentially about living well and the means to happiness.

Who can doubt, my dear Lucillus, that life is the gift of the immoral gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy? p161
Philosophy has the single task of discovering the truth about the divine and human worlds. The religious conscience, the sense of duty, justice, and all the rest of the close-knit, interdependent "company of virtues", never leave her side. p 162
Philosophy takes as her aim the state of happiness. That is the direction in which she opens routes and guides us. She shows us what are real and what are only apparent evils. She strips mens' minds of empty thinking, bestows a greatness that is solid and administers a check to greatness when it is all empty show; she sees tht we are left in no doubt about the difference between what is great and what is bloated. p171

Those are fine goals. But is not simply a matter of contemplation, either. People need activity.

The fact that the body is lying down is no reason for supposing the mind is at peace. Rest is sometimes far from restful. Hence our need to be stimulated into general activity and kept busy and occupied with pursuits of the right nature whenever we are victims of the sort of idleness that wearies of itself. When great military commanders notice indiscipline among their men they suppress it by giving them some work to do, mounting expeditions to keep them actively employed. p 111
In many ways he is surprisingly ahead of his time, in his condemnation of the violence in the arena, or his insistence that slaves ought to be treated with dignity and perceived as equally human.  And some of the Stoic attitudes had long lasting impact on Western Civilization. The introduction says that Seneca was second only to Cicero in how much he was read in the Middle Ages, even if he is largely forgotten now.

Perhaps the problem with stoicism was that it was too private, too willing to accommodate itself to detachment and austerity and the expectation of adversity. Perhaps more resistance to Nero earlier would have been a better philosophy for producing happiness.

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