Stoic Serenity 2.7: The Philosopher’s Seclusion Exercise

Crowds generate within us an impulse to follow the majority. It can be difficult to protect the fruits of our efforts in such a situation.

Today is the last day of chapter 2. Finally! We’ll simply be taking a look at two of Seneca’s Letters and writing a response to them.

Crowds

You can read Letter 7, “On Crowds” here. I’ve paraphrased below.

Are you asking me what one thing should be especially avoided? I would say, crowds; for at this point you can’t yet trust yourself to them with safety. I admit my own weakness, at any rate; for I never return home with the same character that I left the house with. The part within me that I have forced to be calm always ends up disturbed; some of the foes that I have overcome simply return again. Just as the sick man, who has been weak for a long time, is in such a condition that he cannot be taken out of the house without suffering a relapse, so we ourselves are affected when our souls are recovering from a lingering disease. To socialize and mix with the crowd is harmful; every single person makes some vice attractive to us, or stamps us with it, or taints us unconsciously with it. Certainly the larger the crowd, the greater the danger.

But the activity that is the most damaging of all to our character is the habit of lounging at the games; it is then that vice sneaks up quietly through the avenue of pleasure. What do I mean? I mean that I come home from lounging at the games always more greedy, more ambitious, more accustomed to sensual pleasure, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation—an exhibition at which men’s eyes are given a break from watching the slaughter of their fellow men. But it was quite the opposite. This event made all the previous combats seem

We get caught up in the crowd and do absurd things; we forget our focus.

compassionate! For at this event, all the playing around was cast aside and it was pure murder. The men did not even have any defensive armor. They were exposed to blows at every point of their body, and no one ever strikes in vain. Many people prefer this type of spectacle compared to the usual fights done “by request.” Of course they prefer this spectacle; there was absolutely no helmet or shield to deflect the weapons! In this type of combat, who needs defensive armor or even skill? For armor and skill would only be delaying death. In the morning, they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon they throw them to the spectators. Then the spectators demand that the killer shall face the man who is to kill him in his turn; and they always save the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every single fight is death, and the method is by fire and sword. This sort of thing happens while the arena is empty. You might say, “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” But what is your point? Yes, he was a murderer, and he deserved this punishment. But consider what crime you yourself have committed, the poor guy, that you deserve to sit and watch the show! In the morning they cried, “Kill him! Lash him! Burn him! Why does he meet the sword in such a cowardly manner? Why does he strike poorly? Why doesn’t he die game? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to each lash!” And then when it is time for intermission, they announce: “There will be a little throat-cutting in the meantime” so there will always be something going on for you to watch!

Consider politics and aristocracy, in history and the present. People became caught up in the “rat race” and focused on seeking money and power. Many ended up sacrificing their values for silly material things that they started believing were intrinsically valuable.

Come now, do you not understand even this truth, that a bad example reacts on the agent? Thank the immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel. The young character, who cannot stand strong in Virtue, must be rescued from the crowd; it’s simply too easy to be influenced and side with the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true is this phenomenon that none of us, no matter how much we may cultivate our abilities, can withstand the barrage of vice that approaches when we are surrounded by others. Even a single slip of indulgence or greed can cause much harm! Our close friend, if he lives in luxury, weakens and softens us unconsciously; if our neighbor is rich, he awakens jealousy within us; if our friend gossips and talks poorly of others, he rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we were spotless and sincere. If these individuals can affect us so, then what do you think will be the effect on our characters when the entire world assaults it?! You must either imitate the world or you must loathe it.

But neither of those options is ideal; you should not imitate what is bad simply because there are many around you who do, nor should you hate the many who imitate what is bad simply because they are different from you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make you a better person. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; because humans learn while they teach. There’s no reason for pride in advertising your abilities should lure you into publicity, causing you to desire to lecture the general public. Of course I should be willing for you to lecture to the public if you personally had the talent to deal in their type of currency like that. As it is, none of them will understand you. Perhaps one or two individuals will come your way, but even those will have to be molded and trained by you so that they will understand you. You might think: “Why did I bother learning all these things if no one else will ever learn them?” But don’t be afraid that you’ve wasted your efforts; for you learned these things for yourself.

However, in order to share my own learning with you and not save it exclusively for myself, I shall share with you three excellent sayings which have come to my attention, all of them on the same subject. This letter will give you one of them as payment of my debt; the other two you may accept as a contribution in advance. Democritus says: “One man means as much to me as a multitude, and a multitude only as much as one man.” The following saying was also nobly spoken, although the author is anonymous; people asked him what the point of all this study was if it was applied to an art that would only reach very few people. He replied: “I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.” The third saying, also noteworthy, is by Epicurus, written to one of his colleagues: “I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Take these words to heart, Lucilius, so that you remember to scorn the pleasure that is received when one receives applause from the majority. Although many men might praise you, do you have any reason for being pleased with yourself if you are someone whom the confused masses can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards. Farewell.

(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter 7 “On Crowds”)

A list of my favorite points:

  • Just as the sick man, who has been weak for a long time, is in such a condition that he cannot be taken out of the house without suffering a relapse, so we ourselves are affected when our souls are recovering from a lingering disease.
  • Vice sneaks up quietly through the avenue of pleasure.
  • I come home from lounging at the games always more greedy, more ambitious, more accustomed to sensual pleasure, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings.
  • The young character, who cannot stand strong in Virtue, must be rescued from the crowd; it’s simply too easy to be influenced and side with the majority.
  • You must either imitate the world or you must loathe it.
  • Associate with those who will make you a better person. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve.
  • You learned these things for yourself.
  • “I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.”
  • Remember to scorn the pleasure that is received when one receives applause from the majority.

Seneca advises us to stay away from “the masses” basically. As Stoics, our goal is to protect and nurture our Virtue. But Seneca admitted that he himself would go home after spending time with the general population feeling more cruel and less human by the time he went back home. Have you noticed a similar feeling after watching something like the Super Bowl or the World Cup? At first, you feel a bit like a stranger in the situation, because you’ve been studying philosophy and trying to apply its principles. But as you immerse yourself within your surroundings, amongst your cheering friends, you tend to forget your studies and we more often than not end up following the crowd, despite our best efforts and intentions. By the end, we feel like we’ve let ourselves down; we’ve slipped back to our old ways. Seneca’s point is that our moral characters are fragile and our internal peace is easily unsettled, even for “experts” such as Socrates. Therefore, as “beginners,” we are that much more at risk at losing the efforts of all our hard work and dedication to a couple of moments with the general masses.


The Philosopher’s Seclusion

Letter 8, “On the Philosopher’s Seclusion” can be read here. I’ve paraphrased below:

“So you’re telling me to shun the crowds, withdraw from men, and be content with my own conscience? Where are the teachings in your school that order a person to die in the midst of active work?” As to the course which I seem to be urging you on now and then, my purpose in shutting myself up and locking the door is to be able to help even more people. I never spend a single day in idleness; I even delegate part of the night as time for my studies. I don’t schedule time for sleep, but I fall asleep when I absolutely must. Even when my eyes are wearied with waking and ready to fall shut, I keep them focused on their task. I have withdrawn not only from people but from affairs, especially from my own affairs; I’m working for the benefit of later generations, writing down some ideas that may be of assistance to them. There are truly some valuable teachings! Their effectiveness could be compared to prescriptions of useful medicine. These are the ones that I’m writing down, for I myself have found them helpful for helping my own sores, if not to fully heal, then to at least stop the rate of spreading.

I point other people to the right path, which I myself came upon late in life, when wearied with wandering. I cry out to them: “Avoid whatever pleases the crowds: avoid the gifts of Chance! Halt before every good which Chance brings to you, in a spirit of doubt and fear; for it is the animals and fish, who are without reasoning, that are deceived by tempting hopes. Do you call these things the “gifts” of Fortune? They are traps. Anyone who truly wishes to live a life of safety will avoid these traps as much as possible, these traps that deceive so many of us. Such a career leads us to dangerous heights, and life on such heights ends only in a fall. Furthermore, we can’t even stand up to Prosperity as soon as she offers to ease our discomfort; nor can we go down “with the ship at least on her course;” Fortune does not capsize us—she plunges our bows under and dashes us on the rocks.

“Always remember this important and proven rule of life—indulge the body only so far as is needful for good health. The body should be treated rigorously, so that it will not be disobedient to the mind. Eat only to relieve hunger; drink merely to quench thirst; dress merely to keep out the cold; house yourself merely as a protection against personal discomfort. It makes no difference whether the house is made of sod or of colored marble; you must understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a grass roof as by a roof of gold. Despise everything that useless toil creates as an ornament and an object of beauty. Reflect on this thought instead: ‘Nothing but the soul is worthy of wonder; for if the soul itself is great, everything else pales in comparison.'”

When I communicate in such terms with myself and the future generations, don’t you agree that I’m doing more good than when I appear as counsel in court, or stamp my seal upon a will, or lend my assistance in the senate, by word or action, to a candidate? Believe me, those who seem to be busy with nothing are actually busied with the greater tasks; they are dealing both with things mortal and things immortal at the same time.

But I must stop and pay my customary contribution to balance this letter. The payment won’t be from my own “property,” since I’m still studying Epicurus. Today I read in his works, “If you want to enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of Philosophy.” The person who submits and surrenders himself to her does not wait for his reward; he is emancipated on the spot. For the very service of Philosophy is freedom.

You probably are wondering why I quote Epicurus so often instead of words from our own school. But is there any reason to consider them solely the words of Epicurus and not common property? How many poets have written ideas that have been later uttered by philosophers! I don’t even need to mention the authors and playwrights. How many words of wisdom have been expressed in silent drama! How many of Publilius’ lines are worthy of being spoken by actors wearing stage boots, as well as by wearers of the slipper! I shall quote one verse of his, concerning philosophy, particularly the phase of philosophy which we were discussing a moment ago, where he says that the gifts of Chance are not to be regarded as part of our possessions:

Don’t fall for Fortune’s traps. Remember that anything “good” that lands in our hands can just as easily be ripped from our hands.

“Still alien is whatever you have gained/By coveting”

I recall that you yourself expressed this idea much more happily and concisely:

“What Chance has made yours is not really yours.”

And we should not forget the third, which was spoken by you even more happily:

“The good that can be given can also be removed.”

I shall not charge this up to the expense account, because they were your own words. Farewell.

(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter 8 “On the Philosopher’s Seclusion”)

My favorite points from Letter 8:

  • My purpose in shutting myself up and locking the door is to be able to help even more people.
  • Do you call these things the “gifts” of Fortune? They are traps.
  • Such a career leads us to dangerous heights, and life on such heights ends only in a fall.
  • We can’t even stand up to Prosperity as soon as she offers to ease our discomfort.
  • The body should be treated rigorously, so that it will not be disobedient to the mind.
  • A man is sheltered just as well by a grass roof as by a roof of gold.
  • Despise everything that useless toil creates as an ornament and an object of beauty.
  • Those who seem to be busy with nothing are actually busied with the greater tasks
  • “If you want to enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of Philosophy.” The person who submits and surrenders himself to her does not wait for his reward; he is emancipated on the spot.
  • “The good that can be given can also be removed.”

The philosopher isn’t concerned with the same things that most people are concerned with. Society expects us to run about engaged in business pursuits and extracurricular activities. So when we don’t participate in those, people tend to notice and form assumptions: “She must not really care about helping others since she doesn’t want to be on this committee.” Or “He must think he’s better than us since he won’t go watch the show with us.” The truth is, while much of society seeks immediate pleasure and flutters from whim to whim without guiding principles, students of philosophy have other pursuits. Remember, we seek the holy grail! (eudaimonia 🙂 ) Besides protecting our time, we protect our efforts thus far by being careful about what we partake in. Seneca is basically giving us the age-old warning about “hanging with the wrong crowd.” People will be encouraging us to “accept the gifts of Fortune.” But as philosophers, we already know that Fortune can just as easily take away the very thing which it decided to bestow. It is just as easily a trap: as long as we remember that and steer clear from desiring it, we will protect ourselves. But if we fall for the trap, we will certainly harm ourselves.


Assignment:

  • Write down what it means to you personally that “the philosopher is different from other people.”
  • What does Seneca mean in Letter 7 when he says “You must either imitate the world or you must loathe it”? Do you agree with him?
  • What does Seneca mean in Letter 8 when he says “a man is sheltered just as well by a grass roof as by a roof of gold”?
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