Reflecting on Seneca, Letter 62, On Good Company – by Judith Stove

An occasional series of reflections inspired by Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius

Seneca’s Letter to Lucilius 62, On Good Company, is extremely short, only three brief sections long. In this way, it represents a companion piece to the previous letter, 61, also brief, On Meeting Death Cheerfully. One of the messages from the earlier letter (one frequently encountered in Seneca) is that our time is short, and we should be prepared at any time to depart; thus, there will be no time for lengthy debates, and so letter 62 will be, appropriately, concise.

In keeping with the need to be direct, Seneca confronts us with a blunt accusation: ‘They’re lying (mentiuntur).’ But who are these people who are lying? The people who pretend to be so busy that they have no time for liberal studies (which Graver and Long gloss specifically to mean study in philosophy). The implication is that such people feel very important because their jobs are time-consuming. But this, Seneca insists, is a ruse, a pretence. They ‘pretend to be occupied’ (simulant occupationes), they ‘stretch [their activities] out’ (augent), even if they’re only ‘keeping busy’ with themselves.

Making a direct contrast, Seneca declares: ‘I’m free, Lucilius, free!’ (vaco, Lucili, vaco), the repetition underscoring that he is open, not closed off, to a range of deliberations. He explains: ubicumque sum, ibi meus sum: ‘wherever I am, there I am my own person.’ This is a declaration of independence, and Seneca adds: ‘I don’t surrender (trado) myself to things, I adapt (commodo) to them, and I don’t hunt for ways of wasting time.’ Tradere – from the root word for ‘giving,’ plus the prefix trans (here contracted), ‘across, over’ – has the sense of a transaction, a quid pro quo, here explicitly rejected: Seneca makes an adjustment, not a handover.

The section is rounded out by Seneca with a mention of an habitual practice: ‘wherever I am, I ‘work on’ (tracto) my thoughts, and I address (converso) something productive in my mind.’ This is a favourite Senecan practice, of conducting a pursuit of information, or an investigation, whatever his situation. We have seen it in Letter 55, On Vatia’s Villa: ‘As usual I began to look around me for something to investigate…’ (ex consuetudine tamen mea conspicere coepi, an aliquid illic invenirem, 55.3). We saw a similar proceeding in the very different setting of Letter 58, where Seneca puts Plato’s metaphysical speculations to practical use: taking on trust Plato’s denial of existence to impermanent sense-phenomena, he suggests that it is expedient for us, rather, to focus on eternal things (58.26).

Section 2 makes some interesting contrasts, pointed up by Seneca’s use of negatives, which have the effect of leaving something implied but not fully committed – just as he presents himself to be, in company with others. ‘When I have given (dedi) myself to friends, I don’t however withdraw from myself (non tamen mihi abduco).’ The contrast is partly with trado earlier: dare (the root verb of tradere) is a willing and generous giving, appropriate for friends, yet Seneca still carves out a notional space to pursue his own thoughts.

‘Nor do I waste time with those (nec cum illis moror) with whom some occasion has herded me (quibus me tempus aliquod congregavit), or some official reason.’ Moror once more picks up the sense of having no time to lose. Even more evocatively, congregavit, from the root grex, ‘a flock, herd, drove, swarm,’ retains the sense of domestic animals gathered for sordid sale, or slaughter. The final sentence of this section introduces the last and perhaps key theme: that, rather than being ‘herded’ into groups of uncongenial people, at any moment, we can spend our (limited) time with the best people, wherever and whenever they have lived.

Here, once more, Seneca is confrontational: ‘I carry Demetrius, the best of men, around with me’ (mecum circumfero), with a sense of parading him as a challenge to the passers-by, as if he were a banner waved around at a protest, or a portable statue. ‘Leaving behind the wearers of purple (conchyliatis – the ‘purple people,’ people wearing clothes dyed with the expensive fluid from the murex shellfish), I talk with him, half-naked as he is (seminudo) and admire him.’ Seneca’s unusual word here, conchyliatis, is meant to be eye-catching, just like the expensive clothing worn by such exhibitionists. Again, we have a striking contrast between their conspicuous consumption, and the philosopher’s lack of it.

Demetrius, a Cynic philosopher, is half-naked because he was exiled, and may well have been sentenced to hard labour. We are told by Philostratus that Demetrius caught up with the Stoic exile, Musonius Rufus, when Musonius was in a chain-gang, digging the ground as a labourer on Nero’s project of cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth (Life of Apollonius V.19). It seems that Demetrius was always to be found alongside rebels and resisters. The historian Tacitus records that Demetrius was with the Stoic Thrasea Paetus, when Thrasea received the decree of the Senate that ‘allowed him the choice of death,’ because of his opposition to Nero; and stayed while Thrasea opened his veins, and died (Annals. 16.30-35).

Seneca’s admiration is expressed in a number of texts, so much so that perhaps Seneca’s Demetrius was an original for the ‘Demonax’ lauded satirically by Lucian as the too-perfect philosopher. And here, perhaps defensive about the fact that his praise is extreme, Seneca adds, ‘Why wouldn’t I admire him? I can see that he lacks nothing.’

This ties back in to one theme from Letter 61, of our always thinking something or other is lacking. Now Seneca offers an argument: nobody in fact can possess everything (so in fact something will always be lacking, for each individual), but everyone can disregard possessions – and then it ceases to matter that he/she lacks one or another thing. ‘The shortest way to wealth is to disregard wealth’: if you cease to value possessions, then your few will seem as many.

The final observation is that Demetrius lives as if not only he has learned to disregard things, but as if he’s surrendered them to other people. ‘Our’ (noster) Demetrius has made a free gift (picking up on the earlier theme) of his personal belongings, because they do not relate to him. Even half-naked, he has everything that matters. And by ‘carrying Demetrius around’ with him, Seneca constantly has an example to follow.

And here we must end, having written far more words than there are in Letter 62 either in Latin or in English, and – as Seneca says with dark humour at the close of the (very lengthy) Letter 58: ‘How can a man end his life, if he cannot end a letter?…This last word you will read with greater pleasure than all my deadly talk about death. Farewell!’

Judith Stove is the assistant editor of Stoicism Today. If you have enjoyed this reflection on Letter 62, why not join Simon J.E. Drew and Judith Stove every fortnight at Soul Searching With Seneca, as we discuss Seneca’s Letters, exploring Stoic and other themes in both the Latin and the English (timezones for our sessions are optimised for eastern Australia: Judith, and California: Simon). We use the Loeb text (English translation by Richard Gummere), as it is freely available online, often referring to the edition of Margaret Graver and A.A. Long for authoritative (and up-to-date!) information.








One thought on Reflecting on Seneca, Letter 62, On Good Company – by Judith Stove

  1. Ben Cerwinske says:

    I’ve been struggling with envy lately. The idea that nobody can possess everything and will therefore always be lacking something was helpful to me today. Thank you!

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