One of the perks for Patreon supporters of the Modern Stoicism organization is access to discussions by our panel of experts on Stoicism on selected topics. We’ve all been extraordinarily busy – as you can well imagine – so we haven’t quite managed yet to get them done on a monthly basis, but we plan to do so going forward.
This month, the passage suggested by one of our Patreon supporters runs:
“You’ll say to me: ‘What are you saying, Seneca? Are you deserting your side? Surely your Stoics say: “We shall remain in active service right up to the very end of life, without ceasing to apply ourselves to the common good, to help the individual, and to give assistance with an aged hand even to our enemies. We Stoics are the ones who grant no exemptions from service at any age, and as that most eloquent of poets puts it, ‘We clamp down the war-helmet on our gray hair.’ We are the ones who hold so strongly that there is no inactive moment before death that, if circumstances allow, death itself is not inactive.”Seneca, On Leisure, 1.4
You can read all of the answers by Massimo Pigliucci, Christopher Gill, Chuck Chakrapani, Piotr Stankiewicz, and Greg Sadler here on our Patreon site.
Here’s Massimo’s contribution to this discussion:
Seneca here is using some rhetorical flourish, having his interlocutor accusing him of deserting the Stoic camp and walking the Epicurean path instead. This is because Seneca is suggesting that it is perfectly fine to devote oneself to intellectual contemplation, especially in one’s later years, when poor health may get in the way of other pursuits.
But in the paragraphs following this excerpt, Seneca makes clear what he means. He begins by restating something he also wrote in a letter to his friend Lucilius: he considers his Stoic forerunners to be his teachers, not his masters: “I shall go whither they lead me, not wither they send me.” And in order to make the point that what he is suggesting does not contradict Stoic philosophy, he clarifies that he learns just as much from studying the lives of philosophers as by reading their treatises. In other words, we should look at what the Stoics did, not just at what they said. Indeed, this notion of learning practical philosophy from both theoretical books and biographies of actual practitioners was well established in antiquity. After all, Zeno himself, the founder of Stoicism, got interested in philosophy when he read Xenophon’s Memorabilia, a book about the life of Socrates.
As for the charge of Epicureanism, here is how Seneca explains the difference between the two schools, in this respect: “Epicurus says ‘The wise man will not take part in politics, except upon some special occasion;’ Zeno says, ‘The wise man will take part in politics, unless prevented by some special circumstance.'”
One such set of circumstances, Seneca continues, is when the State “is so rotten as to be past helping.” One cannot but wonder whether he was referring directly to his unfortunate tenure as Nero’s advisor. Historians’ best guess is that Seneca wrote On Leisure in 62 or shortly thereafter. He died, by order of Nero, less than three years later.