“[Philosophy] tells all other occupations: ‘It’s not my intention to accept whatever time is left over from you; you shall have instead, what I reject.’” -Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, # 53
Lest this subtitle prove deceptive, note well this essay has nothing to do with a Native American nation or a city in New York, and even less with waters cascading over cliffs. Rather, it represents an invitation to spend your falls, or at least part of this one, in the company of the prolific Stoic philosopher, Lucius Anneaus Seneca (c. 4 BC – 65 AD).
In my youth, I associated the fall season with a renewed interest and focus on cultivating both mind and body. As a student, it was time to get back to the classrooms, and as a weightlifter, it was time to move from the lighter, faster-paced slimming exercises of summer to the heavy duty growth-spurring barbell heaving of autumn. While still in my college student days, I discovered in Seneca a thinker who inspired me greatly for building both body and mind. I’ve written about the body part in a previous post, Show Me Your Shoulders: The Stoic Workout. Here, I’ll zoom in on the mind.
I am also using fall metaphorically to refer to the middle season of life as we prepare for our twilight years. Fifteen years ago, at age 43, a line from Seneca’s essay On the Shortness of Life had a profound impact on me: “Nihil minus est hominis occupati quam vivere.” (“There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living.”) It convinced me to scale back from a heavy schedule or full-time employment and part-time college teaching. Within a year of taking additional time for the leisurely study of philosophy I’d write the first of twenty books.
Moving back in time and place to ancient Rome, due to the cruel jealously of Nero, whom Seneca had advised in his first years as emperor, Seneca never made it past the late fall or perhaps early winter of his own life, being ordered to commit suicide before the age of 70. Still, he wrote poignantly about the advancing years of life in his Letters to Lucilius, as a delightful excerpt will soon show.
The remainder of this article will consist of slightly adapted material from my chapters on Seneca in The Porch and the Cross. I will start with some of our sliver-tongued Stoic stylist’s musings on the autumn of his own life, and then flesh things out with my summaries of several excerpts from his Letters of Lucilius on the value and beauty of a life guided by philosophy. All direct quotations come from the Loeb Classical Library edition of Seneca’s Epistles.
So, I invite you to set Vivaldi’s Autumn playing quietly in the background and spend a bit of this chilly fall with Seneca’s ever warm wisdom.
Seneca on the Autumn of Life
In Letter 12, Seneca tells his friend Lucilius the signs he sees of his own advancing age. He visits his old country estate and finds the old house in a state of dilapidation. This is the house that grew under his own hands, and yet stones of his age are crumbling to pieces! He scolds the caretaker for the state of a row of trees that are gnarled and shriveled and bear no leaves. He tells them they need to have the ground under them loosened and they need to be watered. The caretaker tells him he has done all that, but to not avail, because the trees are simply old. (Seneca lets us in on his secret that he himself had planted those trees!) He then asks the caretaker about the identity of a rickety old slave who comes into view, a man who looks like he’s knocking at death’s door.
The old man himself replies to Seneca: “Don’t you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images. My father was Philositus the steward, and I am your pet slave.” Seneca says the man is crazy, or has become a boy again, since his teeth are falling out (but he knows that the slave tells the truth!)
Seneca muses that the old country homestead of his youth revealed to him his age wherever he turned, but he is not despondent. Rather, he urges us to love and to cherish our advancing years.
Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, – the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the decline…How comforting it is to have tired out one’s appetites, and to have done with them!
Let’s move on now to see what lessons this second “lame old man” (referencing Epictetus’s self-description) can teach us to make the most of our own years, whether we are still on the upward slope, or have started to slide down the other side!
Letter 16: How Philosophy Builds the Soul
Here we find a brief paean to philosophy as a guide to life and happiness. Seneca assures Lucilius that no one can lead a happy life without philosophy and even those just beginning in the pursuit of wisdom will find life much more bearable. He advises his friend to continue daily reflection and reminds him that keeping noble resolutions is more important than making them. By daily perseverance, his studies will soon become an entrenched habit.
Philosophy is not something for which one should seek attention or amusement. Philosophy is not a matter of words, but of facts. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders one’s life, guides one’s actions, shows us what we should do and also what we shouldn’t. Philosophy sits at the helm and guides our course through life. Some might ask how philosophy is of any use if Fate exists, if God rules the universe, or if all things are a matter of Chance. Seneca answers that philosophy still prevails. “She will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance.” Therefore, Seneca exhorts his friend not to allow his spiritual impulse for wisdom to grow weak or cold, but to establish it solidly so that what is now an impulse will become a firm habit of mind.
He ends again with an exhortation to drop all desire for externals and luxuries. Natural desires are limited, but those that spring from false impressions never satisfy and have no limits at all.
Letter 20: Philosophy not Spoken, but Lived
Philosophy seeks not to make speeches and entertain crowds with high-sounding word play. Philosophy teaches us how to act, not how to talk about acting. It teaches every man that his deeds must match his words and that his inner life and outer life must always be in harmony. Philosophers, in other words, must walk their talk and practice what they preach. This is no easy task and is achieved only through rigorous self-examination.
Observe yourself, says, Seneca. Is your manner of clothing and housing consistent with your philosophy? Are you generous toward yourself and stingy with your family? Do you eat frugal meals, but build a massive, ostentatious house? You should regulate yourself by one and the same norm in all your affairs. You should not be like those who control themselves at home, but then strut about in public. “What is wisdom? Always desiring the same things, and always refusing the same things.” It goes without saying that what you wish should be right, because if it was not right, it could not always satisfy.
Seneca also recommends a practical exercise to Lucilius to train him in desiring only what is right and in accordance with nature. He says it is not necessary for the philosopher to renounce all his possessions, but it is a good thing to practice voluntary poverty and simplicity at times for a few days, preparing oneself and rehearsing as it were, should true poverty befall one. Indeed, he says it can be a pleasant experience that provides a sense of freedom from the care for unneeded things. This can rouse the soul from its sleep and remind it that nature’s true needs are very few. Seneca ends with a picturesque and humorous description of the way that we all get our start in the world: “No man is born rich. Every man, when he first sees light, is commanded to be content with milk and rags. Such is our beginning, and yet kingdoms are all too small for us! Farewell.”
Letter 23: The Joys of the Philosophic Life
Seneca assures Lucilius he is not going to write to him about the weather or other trivial matters people write about when they don’t know what to say. No, he will write about the foundation, or rather the pinnacle, of a sound mind, which is not to find joy in useless things or to make our happiness dependent upon externals outside our control. Indeed, he will exhort his dear friend to set as his goal to learn how to experience the true joy that comes when one frees one’s self from both the hope of external goods and from the fear of things like poverty or death. “The very soul must be happy and confident, lifted above every circumstance.” This is the promise of philosophy and it is fulfilled when one rejoices only in what comes from the best within oneself.
And what is truly best? Real good “comes from a good conscience, from honourable purposes, from right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path.” It is only a few who control themselves and their actions by a guiding purpose while the rest are swept along aimlessly by the river of life, some through sluggish waters, and others in violent currents.
Seneca concludes with two related sayings of Epicurus that address the same theme addressed in Letter 13, that of the foolishness of always getting ready to begin to live life. Seneca says a man cannot be prepared to face death if he is just starting to live. We must strive rather to live as though we have already lived long enough by always living in harmony with our guiding purpose.
Letter 31: Goals Worth the Sweat
Seneca tells Lucilius that he recognizes him now! He sees that he is progressing in philosophy, striving for what is best and trampling under his feet the petty things of which the crowd approves. There is only one good, he reminds him, that cause and support of a happy life is to trust in oneself. This requires that one recognize that busyness, work, and toil are not true goods in and of themselves when they do not serve a noble purpose. One makes oneself happy through one’s own efforts when one’s efforts are blended with virtue. Whatever is blended with virtue is good and whatever is joined to vice is evil. Good is the knowledge of things and evil is the lack of such knowledge. When a good, noble goal has been identified, a good man will not fear the sweat involved in attaining it, even if it entails an arduous struggle uphill. The knowledge of good and evil in things human and divine will also lead to an even temperament and to a consistent, harmonious life.
And how is such a goal attained? Nature has provided you with all the necessary tools to rise to the level of God. Your money won’t do that, since God has no property. Your fancy clothes won’t do it either, for God has no wardrobe, nor will your fame and recognition, for no one truly knows God, and many do not honor him. Beauty and strength are useless here as well. They cannot hold up in old age. What we must seek is not things outside our control, governed by Fortune or Chance, but rather we must seek the goods of the human soul. “What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in the human body?” Such a soul may dwell in a stately Roman knight, but just as well in a slave. Indeed, one may arise from the very slums and shape oneself into kinship with God. This likeness of God cannot be cast in gold or silver, but is molded within our souls.
Letter 39: On Cultivating Greatness of Soul (& the Dangers of Failing to Do So)
The most noble element within the human soul is its capacity to be roused to seek out honorable things. No man of great talents is pleased with things mean and petty. The vision of great things calls to him and inspires him. Our souls are like flames, always flickering in motion, and the more ardently a soul burns, the greater is its activity. Happy is the man whose soul burns for better things! This man will disregard the things of chance, will control the level of his prosperity, will diminish adversity, and despise the petty things that others admire. The great soul will scorn things commonly seen as great, and will prefer the ordinary when the ordinary is truly useful and the great is truly excessive.
Like a branch that is broken by too heavy a load of fruit is the soul that is ruined by unlimited prosperity and pleasure. Men who yield to excess lusts always suffer in the end. They become unable to live without their vicious pleasures, so that what was once excessive and superfluous is now indispensable to them. They come to love their own vices. They attain the peak of unhappiness when they are not only drawn to, but are pleased and contented by shameful things. At this point they become beyond cure, for their vices have become habitual.
Letter 53: Philosophical Invincibility
Here Seneca provides another paean to philosophy, and an exhortation to pursue it above all else. Seneca starts his letter with a rather drawn out account of a recent bout of seasickness he experienced on a journey. It had become so bad that when he persuaded the captain to come close to the shore he jumped out into the cold waters in his wooly clothing and crawled over rocks onto the shores. He quips he has concluded that Ulysses himself (Odysseus of Homer’s Odyssey) kept getting stranded on islands not because of Neptune’s (Poseidon’s) ill will, but because of his own seasickness!
The moral of this little story was to show that while physical ailments have a tendency to make themselves known to us with unmistakable force and gusto, when it comes to ailments of the soul, the worse shape one’s soul is in, the less one is aware of it. He compares it to sleep. A person sleeping lightly may experience dreams and even realize that he is asleep and dreaming, while a person in heavy slumber has descended too deep for dreams or for consciousness of the self. A person who does not admit his spiritual failings is still plunged deeply in them. A person can only remember his dreams when he wakes up, as recognizing one’s faults is a sign of health. And what can wake a person up? Philosophy.
Only philosophy can rouse us from the slumbers that blind us to our faults. Seneca implores Lucilius to devote himself entirely to “her.” A sick person will devote his entire time to recovery before he carries out his normal business affairs. So too should we give precedence to the pursuit of wisdom and focus more on curing our souls than on any other business. Philosophy is a demanding mistress. She doesn’t want our odd moments, but demands our attention full-time. Philosophy “tells all other occupations: ‘It’s not my intention to accept whatever time is left over from you; you shall have instead, what I reject.’”
Seneca bids to give all of one’s time to philosophy, to sit by her side and court her, giving her one’s own mind, and thus advancing oneself beyond other men, “not far behind the gods themselves.” Indeed, Seneca declares that in a sense a wise man surpasses even a god, since a god is fearless by nature, while a wise man has earned his own fearlessness, achieving despite his human weakness, the serenity of a god.
Seneca ends this letter as follows:
Philosophy’s power to blunt all the blows of circumstances is beyond belief. Never a single missile lodges in her; she has strong, impenetrable defenses; some blows she breaks the force of, parrying them with the slack of her gown as if they were trivial, others she flings off and hurls back at the sender.
I suggest we heed his wise words and use this fall to strive our way towards such philosophical invincibility to steel ourselves for this season of winter and for the winters of our own lives, if we should live so long.
Kevin Vost is the author of twenty books on psychology, philosophy, theology, and physical fitness, has taught psychology and gerontology at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee and the University of Illinois at Springfield.