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Ideas of Seneca the Younger, by Text

[Roman, -4 - 65, Born in Cordoba, Spain. Chief adviser to the Emperor Nero. Murdered by his master.]

60 Letters from a Stoic
006 p.39 One joy of learning is making teaching possible
     Full Idea: Part of my joy in learning is that it puts me in a position to teach.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 006)
     A reaction: This doesn't quite distinguish between bad learning and good learning, but I take a commitment to wanting to teach what you know as an essential part of wanting to know.
048 p.96 Selfishness does not produce happiness; to live for yourself, live for others
     Full Idea: No one can lead a happy life if he thinks only of himself and turns everything to his own purposes. You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 048)
     A reaction: It is important to see this as a key aspect of the ancient aspiration to virtue. The end result is not far from Christianity. It is simplistic to see the quest for virtue as a crass self-obsessed quest for self-improvement. We are social.
048 p.98 What philosophy offers humanity is guidance
     Full Idea: Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out for humanity? Counsel.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 048)
     A reaction: See Quine for a flat modern denial of this claim (Idea 9764). There is a modern tendency to see ethics and political thought operating at a meta- or metameta- level. I take the main ethical theories to be very illuminating of real life.
054 p.104 We know death, which is like before birth; ceasing to be and never beginning are the same
     Full Idea: I already know what death is like - it will be the same after me as it was before me. ..Only an utter idiot would think a lamp was worse off when it was put out than before it was lit. ..What does it matter whether you cease to be or never begin?
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 054)
     A reaction: These sentiments are, interestingly, derived from the epicureans, rather than from the stoic tradition, but to us they probably look close together, where they looked like opponents at the time.
054 p.105 Wise people escape necessity by willing it
     Full Idea: There is nothing a wise man does reluctantly; he escapes necessity because he wills what necessity is going to force on him.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 054)
     A reaction: He is discussing death in this letter. The difficulty here is sliding into fatalism. For instance, if you are informed that you have cancer, it is tempting to become 'wise' and will your own death, but lots of people fight it, and win.
065 p.119 To the four causes Plato adds a fifth, the idea which guided the event
     Full Idea: To the four Aristotelian causes Plato adds a fifth in the model - what he himself calls the 'idea' - this being what the sculptor had constantly before his eyes as he executed the intended work.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 065)
     A reaction: A very interesting interpretation. I take the four 'causes' to be primarily the four 'explanations', and it exactly fits how we should understand Plato, as offer a crucial underlying explanation. The statue is Aristotle's example.
077 p.125 Suicide may be appropriate even when it is not urgent, if there are few reasons against it
     Full Idea: There are many occasions on which a man should leave life not only bravely but for reasons which are not as pressing as they might be - the reasons which restrain us being not so pressing either.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 077)
     A reaction: This is an interesting and startling claim from the great champion of suicide, who nobly and memorably committed suicide himself. But we all dread a loved one miscalculating Seneca's dialectic, and dying when living would have been better.
077 p.126 Living is nothing wonderful; what matters is to die well
     Full Idea: There's nothing so very great about living - all your slaves and all the animals do it. What is, however, a great thing is to die in a manner which is honourable, enlightened and courageous.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 077)
     A reaction: You get the feeling that Seneca actually thought suicide was better than a natural death. Did he actually seek his own death? It is an odd interpretation of his own stoic injunction to 'live according to nature'.
077 p.127 It is as silly to lament ceasing to be as to lament not having lived in the remote past
     Full Idea: Wouldn't you think a man a prize fool if he burst into tears because he didn't live a thousand years ago? A man is such a fool for shedding tears because he isn't going to be alive a thousand years from now.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 077)
     A reaction: These thoughts are traditional, dating back to Epicurus, but Seneca is exceptionally going at finding new variations and examples to reinforce the basic thought.
077 p.129 We are scared of death - except when we are immersed in pleasure!
     Full Idea: You are scared of death - but how heedless of it you are while you are dealing with a dish of choice mushrooms!
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 077)
     A reaction: A beautifully simple observation, from the greatest philosopher of death. Maybe hospices should concentrate on sex, drugs and rock and roll.
077 p.130 Life is like a play - it is the quality that matters, not the length
     Full Idea: As it is with a play, so it is with life - what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 077)
     A reaction: A very nice epigram, culminating the wonderful Letter 77 on the subject of death. A play needs to be a decent length if it is to exhibit its qualities. It would be heartbreaking if all of Shakespeare's plays were just 20-minute sketches.
078 p.134 A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is
     Full Idea: A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 078)
     A reaction: Seneca is a very penetrating thinker about ordinary life - an aspect of philosophy which is nowadays totally neglected by the most eminent philosophers.
083 p.140 Character is ruined by not looking back over our pasts, since the future rests on the past
     Full Idea: What really ruins our characters is the fact that none of us looks back over his life. We think a little about what we are going to do, and fail to think about what we have done, yet plans for the future depend on the past.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 083)
     A reaction: One always assumes that writings about the wisdom of daily life will be one mass of clichés, but Seneca proves otherwise. With a pang I realise that I may be too guilty of not thinking about the past. I've even been proud of it.
088 p.154 If everything can be measured, try measuring the size of a man's soul
     Full Idea: Nothing's outside your scope when it comes to measurement. Well, if you're such an expert, measure a man's soul; tell me how large or how small that is.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 088)
     A reaction: This is Descartes's non-spatial argument, which I take to be one of the four main props to his mind-body dualism. As always, it is expressed with beautiful concision by Seneca.
088 p.156 It's no good winning lots of fights, if you are then conquered by your own temper
     Full Idea: What's the use of overcoming opponent after opponent in the wrestling or boxing rings if you can be overcome by your temper?
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 088)
     A reaction: He has such a nice way of presenting what might be traditional and commonplace ideas. If you see life as a battle, then you should think very carefully about who the opponents are - because they may be hiding within.
088 p.158 Wisdom does not lie in books, and unread people can also become wise
     Full Idea: What grounds could I possibly have for supposing that a person who has no acquaintance with books will never be a wise man? For wisdom does not lie in books.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 088)
     A reaction: A useful warning to the likes of me, who may have retreated from the hurly-burly of the agora (see Callicles in Plato's 'Gorgias'), under the illusion that detachment is needed for wisdom. Maybe involvement is needed for wisdom.
088 p.158 That something is a necessary condition of something else doesn't mean it caused it
     Full Idea: There's no reason for you to assume that, X being something without which Y could never have come about, Y came about as a result of the assistance of X.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 088)
     A reaction: This thought originates with Carneades, reported by Cicero. This is a clear message to the likes of Mackie, who are in danger of thinking that giving the preconditions of something is sufficient to give its causes.
088 p.158 Does time exist on its own? Did anything precede it? Did it pre-exist the cosmos?
     Full Idea: Look how many questions there are on time. Does it have an existence of its own? Does anything exist prior to time, independently of it? Did it begin with the universe, or did it exist even before then?
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 088)
     A reaction: I'm not sure that the questions have shifted or become any clearer after two thousand years, despite Einstein and co. Note that discussions of time were not initiated by Augustine.
088 p.159 Excessive curiosity is a form of intemperance
     Full Idea: To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 088)
     A reaction: This comes as a bit of a surprise, given the high value that philosophers place on knowledge. I'm reminded of Auberon Waugh's criticism of the Scots as a 'wildly over-educated people'. I think the problem is what you could have been doing instead.
088 p.160 Even philosophers have got bogged down in analysing tiny bits of language
     Full Idea: Even the philosophers have descended to the level of drawing distinctions between the uses of different syllables and discussing the proper meanings of prepositions and conjunctions.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 088)
     A reaction: How wonderfully prescient! The vast industry of modern philosophy of language exactly fits Seneca's description. I don't quite share his contempt, of course, and I think Seneca would have a bit of sympathy with modern analysis (just a bit!).
090 p.163 To govern used to mean to serve, not to rule; rulers did not test their powers over those who bestowed it
     Full Idea: In the Golden Age, to govern was to serve, not to rule. No one used to try out the extent of his power over those to whom he owed that power in the first place.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 090)
     A reaction: I spent my professional career trying to persuade people that management should be a subjection to the managed. Wake up! The second half of this idea is the interesting bit - the temptation to just 'try out' your powers gets to them all.
090 p.171 Philosophy aims at happiness
     Full Idea: Philosophy takes as her aim the state of happiness.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 090)
     A reaction: A startlingly forthright view. It seems to neglect what I take to be the main aim of philosophy, which is to achieve understanding. I presume true happiness would follow from that. Seneca must now explain why soporific pleasure is wrong.
090 p.176 Nature doesn't give us virtue; we must unremittingly pursue it, as a training and an art
     Full Idea: Nature does not give a man virtue; the process of becoming a good man is an art. ...Virtue only comes to a character which has been thoroughly schooled and trained and brought to a pitch of perfection by unremitting practice.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 090)
     A reaction: This is an important gloss from a leading stoic on the slogan of 'live according to nature'. One might say that the natural life must be 'tracked' (as Philip Larkin says we track happiness). The natural life is, above all, the rational life, for stoics.
091 p.183 If we control our own death, no one has power over us
     Full Idea: No one has power over us when death is in our own power.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 091)
     A reaction: A classic slogan for the stoic view of suicide, an idea that crops up in Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar'. He doesn't seem to have understood that they can take away your shoelaces.
102 p.226 Living contrary to nature is like rowing against the stream
     Full Idea: For those who follow nature everything is easy and straightforward, whereas for those who fight against her life is just like rowing against the stream.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 102)
     A reaction: A classic statement of the well-known stoic slogan, but expressed with Seneca's characteristic elegance. There is always a slight hidden of dubious fatalism in the slogan. 'Rage, rage, against the dying of the light!' - Dylan Thomas.
104 p.184 Sometimes we have a duty not to commit suicide, for those we love
     Full Idea: There are times when, however pressing one's reasons to the contrary, one's dying breath must be held back as it is passing one's lips, even if this is torture, simply out of consideration for one's dear ones.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 104)
     A reaction: This is, of course, a highly significant counterbalance to his normal acceptance of suicide. I wish anyone who is planning suicide would heed it. They have no idea how much suffering will usually result from their action.
104 p.185 Is anything sweeter than valuing yourself more when you find you are loved?
     Full Idea: Can anything be sweeter than to find that you are so dear to your wife that this makes you dearer to yourself?
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 104)
     A reaction: Another lovely penetrating remark from Seneca. I suppose a symptom of low self-esteem might be 'why does she love someone as worthless as me?', but that would be unusual.
108 p.201 Both teachers and pupils should aim at one thing - the improvement of the pupil
     Full Idea: A person teaching and a person learning should have the same end in view: the improvement of the latter.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 108)
     A reaction: [He cites a philospher called Attalus for this remark] This is worthy to be up in the hall of every educational institution in the world, and especially in the staff rooms.
117.13 p.136 Referring to a person, and speaking about him, are very different
     Full Idea: It makes a very great difference whether you refer to the person directly, or speak about him.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 117.13), quoted by A.A. Long - Hellenistic Philosophy 4.3.2
     A reaction: We seem to think that the distinctiveness of reference was first spotted by Frege. Not so.
120.5 p.76 Humans acquired the concept of virtue from an analogy with bodily health and strength
     Full Idea: Seneca held that human beings owe the original acquisition of the concept of virtue to an analogy with bodily health and strength
     From: report of Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 120.5) by James Allen - Soul's Virtue and the Health of the Body p.76
     A reaction: This is an unusual view, even for a stoic, but shows how close the concepts of health and virtue were. Notice that it is strength as well as health. Plato just emphasises mental and physical harmony.
122 p.222 The whole point of pleasure-seeking is novelty, and abandoning established ways
     Full Idea: The whole object of luxurious living is the delight it takes in irregular ways and in not merely departing from the correct course but going to the farthest point away from it, and in eventually even taking a stand diametrically opposed to it.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 122)
     A reaction: A rather conservative and puritanical remark, but worthy of contemplation even for committed hedonists. It is just a sad facts that most pleasures diminish with familiarity. Small children make delightful remarks. Imagine if they repeated them.
123 p.227 Trouble in life comes from copying other people, which is following convention instead of reason
     Full Idea: One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guided by the example of others; instead of being set to rights by reason we're seduced by convention.
     From: Seneca the Younger (Letters from a Stoic [c.60], 123)
     A reaction: An interesting practical spin and critique of the standard metaethical idea that morality is just convention. If you think morality is convention, presumably your moral duty is to imitate your neighbours. Nice deconstruction.
60 On Anger (Book 3)
§01 p.18 Anger is an extreme vice, threatening sanity, and gripping whole states
     Full Idea: Other vices drive the mind on, anger hurls it headlong; ..other vices revolt from good sense, this one from sanity; ...other vices seize individuals, this is the one passion that sometimes takes hold of an entire state.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On Anger (Book 3) [c.60], §01)
     A reaction: He particularly dislikes anger because it is the vice that leads to violence.
§04 p.21 Anger is a vice which afflicts good men as well as bad
     Full Idea: Other vile passions affect only the worst sort of men, but anger creeps up even on enlightened me who are otherwise sane.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On Anger (Book 3) [c.60], §04)
     A reaction: A very interesting observation for anyone who is trying to analyse the key issues in virtue theory.
§06 p.23 True greatness is never allowing events to disturb you
     Full Idea: There is no more reliable proof of greatness than to be in a state where nothing can happen to make you disturbed.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On Anger (Book 3) [c.60], §06)
     A reaction: He specifically opposes Aristotle's view that there are times when anger is appropriate, and failure to be very angry indeed is a failure of character.
§36 p.47 Every night I critically review how I have behaved during the day
     Full Idea: When the lamp has been removed from my sight, and my wife, no stranger now to my habit, has fallen silent, I examine the whole of my day and retrace my actions and words; I hide nothing from myself.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On Anger (Book 3) [c.60], §36)
60 On Providence
§1 p.4 The ocean changes in volume in proportion to the attraction of the moon
     Full Idea: The waves increase by degrees, approaching to the hour and day proportionately larger or smaller in volume as they are attracted by the star we call the moon, whose power controls the ocean's surge.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On Providence [c.60], §1)
     A reaction: ....just in case anyone thought that Isaac Newton had invented gravity.
§2 p.4 Nothing bad can happen to a good man
     Full Idea: Nothing bad can happen to a good man.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On Providence [c.60], §2)
     A reaction: This is a pithy summary of a well know ancient attitude - one that is rejected by Aristotle, but defended by Socrates. It depends what you mean by 'bad' - but that is a rather modern response.
§4 p.10 To be always happy is to lack knowledge of one half of nature
     Full Idea: To be always happy and to pass through life without any mental distress is to lack knowledge of one half of nature.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On Providence [c.60], §4)
     A reaction: These kind of paradoxes plague virtue theory, and any theory which aims at an ideal. Heaven, for example, seems to have no problems to solve, which spells boredom. The fascination of corrupt people is their superior knowledge of the world.
60 On the Happy Life
§02 p.86 Unfortunately the majority do not tend to favour what is best
     Full Idea: Human concerns are not so happily arranged that the majority favours the better things.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On the Happy Life [c.60], §02)
     A reaction: On the whole Seneca is unimpressed by democracy, as people are rushed into decisions by the crowd, and live to regret them.
§08 p.92 The supreme good is harmony of spirit
     Full Idea: The highest good is harmony of spirit.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On the Happy Life [c.60], §08)
     A reaction: This idea is straight from Plato's Republic.
§09 p.93 I seek virtue, because it is its own reward
     Full Idea: You ask what I seek from virtue? Virtue herself. For she has nothing better, she is herself her own reward.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On the Happy Life [c.60], §09)
     A reaction: Presumably this is the source of the popular saying that 'virtue is its own reward'. The trouble is that this doesn't seem a very persuasive thing to say to a sceptic who doubts whether being virtuous is worth the trouble.
§11 p.93 A wise man is not subservient to anything
     Full Idea: I do not call any man wise who is subservient to anything.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On the Happy Life [c.60], §11)
     A reaction: At the very least, a wise man should be subservient to a wiser man.
§13 p.96 Virtue is always moderate, so excess need not be feared
     Full Idea: In the case of virtue excess should not be feared, since in virtue resides moderation.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On the Happy Life [c.60], §13)
     A reaction: This seems to imply that all of the virtues are unified in the one achievement of the virtuous state. It leaves the notion of 'virtue' a bit thin in content, though.
§17 p.99 Why does your wife wear in her ears the income of a wealthy house?
     Full Idea: Why does your wife wear in her ears the income of a wealthy house?
     From: Seneca the Younger (On the Happy Life [c.60], §17)
§17 p.99 It is shameful to not even recognise your own slaves
     Full Idea: Why, to your shame, are you so careless that you do not know your handful of slaves by sight?
     From: Seneca the Younger (On the Happy Life [c.60], §17)
§22 p.103 There is far more scope for virtue if you are wealthy; poverty only allows endurance
     Full Idea: What doubt can there be that the wise man has greater scope for displaying his powers if he is rich than if he is poor, since in the case of poverty only one kind of virtue exists - refusal to be bowed down and crushed.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On the Happy Life [c.60], §22)
     A reaction: It is against this view that I see Jesus proposing poverty as central to virtue. But then he has the surprising view (to Seneca) that humility is a virtue. What Nietzsche calls the slaves' inversion of values.
§24 p.106 If wealth was a good, it would make men good
     Full Idea: Wealth is not a good; for it it was, it would make men good.
     From: Seneca the Younger (On the Happy Life [c.60], §24)
     A reaction: An immediately attractive argument, but should we assume that anything which is good will enhance our personal goodness? If goodness is a habit, then continual pursuit of wealth is the test case to examine. Seneca is right!