Today’s post is simply Seneca’s Letter 90 “On the Part Played by Philosophy in the Progress of Man”. As always, I’ve changed some of the wording in places in order to aid comprehension. This one’s quite long, so I’ve tried to break it up with lots of pictures and captions. This letter is quite thought-provoking, quite truthful, perhaps quite controversial. Feel free to share your thoughts on this one! We’ll debrief tomorrow.
If humans were gifted with wisdom at birth, then Wisdom would have lost her best attribute—that she is not the gift of Fortune, but can be equally sought after and attained by any person.
Who can argue, my dear Lucilius, that life is the gift of God, but living well is the gift of philosophy? This is how they came up with the notion that we owe more to philosophy than we owe even to God, reasoning that a good life is better than mere life. That would be correct, if philosophy itself were not a gift from God. God did not give anyone the knowledge of how to live a good life, but he gave the faculty of acquiring that knowledge to every single human. Consider this: if philosophy had been just a general good, and if we were gifted with understanding at birth, Wisdom would have lost her best attribute—that she is not one of the gifts of Fortune. For the precious and noble characteristic of Wisdom is that she does not seek us out, but that each one of us has a personal debt to ourselves to seek her out, and that our success on finding her does not depend on the actions of others.
Ultimate control is God’s domain. Fellowship is the domain of humans.
Would philosophy still be respectable if Wisdom came to us easily and freely? Wisdom’s sole function is to discover the truth about the Divine and about humans. Neither religion, nor duty, nor justice, nor any of the other Virtues ever depart from Wisdom’s side. Philosophy has taught us to worship the Divine and to love that which is human. Philosophy has told us that ultimate power is God’s domain, and fellowship is humans’ domain. This fellowship remained unspoiled for a long time, until greed tore the community apart and became the cause of poverty, even for those who Wisdom herself had made rich. For men cease to possess all things the moment they desire all things for their own.
The weaker is subject to the stronger.
But the first humans, still unspoiled, followed Nature, having one man both their leader and their law. They entrusted themselves more to the control of another than they did to themselves. For nature has the habit of subjecting the weaker to the stronger. Even among animals, which have no reasoning ability; those which are either the biggest or the most fierce hold the power. A weakling bull never leads the herd; it is led by the bull that has beaten the other males by his power and muscle. In the case of elephants, the tallest is first. For men, the best is regarded as the highest. This is why a ruler was assigned to the mind; and that’s why the people had a man that was more powerful; because he who was better had the greatest happiness. For no man can safely accomplish what he wants if he thinks he can only do what he ought to do.
Therefore, in the age which we call the “Golden Age”, the Stoic philosopher Posidonius maintained that the government was under the jurisdiction of the wise. They kept their hands under control; they protected the weaker from the stronger. They gave advice, both what to do and what not to do. They showed what was useful and what was useless. Their forethought judged that their subjects should not lack anything. Their bravery warded off dangers. Their kindness enriched and adorned their subjects. For them, ruling was a service!—not an exercise of royalty. No ruler tried to exercise his power over those who he was indebted to for the beginnings of his power. And no one had the desire or excuse to do wrong, because the ruler ruled well and the subject obeyed well, and the worst threat that a king could give to disobedient subjects is that they should depart from the kingdom.
But once vice snuck in and kingdoms were transformed into tyrannies, then a need arose for laws. And these very laws were thus framed by the wise. Solon, who established Athens on a firm basis of just laws, was one of the seven men renowned for their wisdom. If Lycurgus had lived in the same period, then certainly that hallowed number seven would have been a hallowed eight. The laws created by Zaleucus and Charondas are praised; but they did not learn the principles of justice in the Forum or in the offices of skilled counsellors. No, they learned the principles of justice in the silent and holy retreat of Pythagoras, and then went on to establish those principles in prosperous Sicily and throughout Grecian Italy.
Wisdom does not equal intelligence or devising elaborate equipment.
Up to this point, I agree with Posidonius. But the idea that philosophy discovered the arts of which life makes daily use? That I refuse to admit. Nor will I ascribe philosophy to an artist’s glory. Posidonius said: “When men were scattered over the earth, protected by overhangs, or by the dug-out shelter of a cliff, or by the trunk of a hollow tree, it was philosophy that taught them to build houses.” But for myself, I don’t believe that philosophy devised these cleverly-designed buildings of ours that rise story upon story, where cities crowd against each other. No, I don’t believe that philosophy devised this anymore than I believe that it invented the fish farms, which was done for the purpose of saving men’s gluttony from the risk of being affected by the weather; so that no matter how wildly the sea is raging, luxury may have its safe harbors in which to fatten fancy breeds of fish. Absurd! Did philosophy also teach the use of keys and bolts? No, that was nothing except giving a hint to greed. Did philosophy also erect all these towering tenements which are so dangerous to the people dwelling inside them? Was it not enough for humans to provide themselves with a roof out of whatever they happened to find, and to create for themselves a natural retreat without the help of art and without trouble? Believe me, that was a happy age, before the days of architects, before the days of builders! All this sort of thing was born when luxury was being born,—this business of cutting timbers to be square, and cutting a beam with skilled hands as the saw made its way over the marked-out line.
“The primal man split his wood with wedges.”
“A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.”
They were not preparing a roof for a future banquet. They did not carry the pine trees or the firs along the trembling streets with a long row of carts, merely to build paneled ceilings heavy with gold. Simple forked poles erected at either end propped up their simple houses. Closely-packed branches and leaves heaped up in a slope served as drainage for even the heaviest rains. Beneath such dwellings, they lived. But they lived in peace. A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.
I also disagree with Posidonius on another point: when he states that mechanical tools were the invention of wise men. For on that basis, one might also maintain that those were wise who taught the arts
“Of setting traps for game, and setting traps
for birds, and encircling mighty woods with dogs.”
Man’s ingenuity, not his wisdom, invented all these devices. I also differ from Posidonius when he says that wise men discovered our mines of iron and copper, “when the earth, scorched by forest fires, melted away the veins of ore which lay near the surface and caused the metal to gush forth.” No, the type of men who discover such things are not necessarily “wise.” They are simply busied and occupied with these things. Nor do I consider the following question as subtly as Posidonius did:
Which came first, the hammer or the tongs?
For they were both invented by a man whose mind was clever and determined, but his mind was not great or exalted. And this is true for any other discovery which can only be made by means of a bent body and of a mind whose gaze is upon the ground.
Why do we need cups when we can drink water with hands? Luxury does not solve any problem. Instead, it elevates our bodies as masters.
The wise man was easy-going in his way of living. And why not? Even in today’s world he would prefer to be as little cumbered as possible. How can you consistently admire both the philosopher Diogenes and the craftsman Daedalus? Which of these two individuals seems to you to be a wise man—the one who invented the saw, or the one who after observing a boy drink water by cupping his hands together, took his own cup from his bag and broke it, scolding himself saying, “What a fool I’ve been, carrying around this extra baggage all the time!” and then curled himself up in his tub and lay down to sleep? In today’s world, which do you consider to be wiser: the men who invented a way to spray saffron perfume from hidden pipes, who fills and empties canals with a sudden rush of waters, who cleverly constructed a dining-room with a ceiling of movable panels so the pattern can change with each course of the meal—or the man who proves to others as well as himself that nature has not given us such a difficult law when she says that we can live without marble-cutters and engineers, that we can clothe ourselves without silk fabric, that we can have everything that is available for our use, as long as we are content with what the earth has placed on its surface? If mankind were willing to listen to this sage, they would know that the chef is as superfluous to them as the soldier. Wise men found the care of the body an easy problem to solve. The things that we absolutely need are readily available to us and require no elaborate effort to acquire; only the luxuries call for labor. If you follow Nature, you will have no need for skilled craftsmen.
Does anyone require a tailored coat with buttons and side pockets? Can’t animal skins protect us from the cold?
Nature never wished for us to be harassed. She equipped us for whatever she forced upon us. “But the naked body cannot endure the cold.” What then? Can’t animal skins protect us well enough, more than enough, from the cold? Don’t many native tribes cover their bodies with tree bark? Can’t clothing be made from bird feathers sewn together? Even today, doesn’t a significant portion of the Scythian tribe clothe itself in fox and mice skins, soft to the touch and impermeable by the wind? “For all that, men must have some thicker protection than just the skin, in order to keep off the heat of the sun in summer.” What then? In the ancient past, weren’t many retreats produced by the hollowing out of caverns? What then? Didn’t the very first-comers take twigs and weave them by hand into wicker mats, smear them with mud, and then use them with wild grasses to construct a roof? By this simple method, they passed their winters in safety, the rains drained by sloping gables. What then? Don’t the people on the edge of the Syrtes in North Africa live in dug-out houses? And consider all the tribes who, despite the fierce blazing sun, possess no other protection to keep off the heat except by using the parched soil itself?
Luxury expands herself. Horse carriages were once seen as a luxury. Today, if we go on a carriage ride, we crawl back into our leather-trimmed cars to head back home after our “rustic adventure.”
Nature was not so hostile to humans that, while she gave all other animals a natural means to care for themselves, she made it impossible for humans to live without these artificial methods. Nature did not impose any of these artificial methods on us. None of these had to be painfully sought after so that our lives might be prolonged. We had everything we needed at birth; but it is we ourselves who have made everything difficult. Houses, shelter, creature comforts, food, and everything that is now the source of vast trouble, was already at hand, free to all, and obtainable through a little bit of effort. The limit corresponded to the need; but we ourselves have made these superfluous things valuable! We have made them admired! We have caused them to be sought after for an expensive price! Nature is enough for what she demands. Luxury has turned her back on Nature. Each day, Luxury expands herself. She has been gathering strength throughout the ages, and she has used her wit to promote the vices. At first, Luxury began to lust for what Nature regarded as superfluous. Then she began to lust for whatever was contrary to Nature. And finally, she made the soul a slave to the body; an utter slave to the body’s lusts. All these means by which the city is “patrolled”—or shall I say “kept in uproar”—are only concerned with the body’s business; there was a time was when all things were offered to the body in the same way that things are offered to a slave; but now these things are prepared for the body as things are prepared for a master! And thus we have the workshops of weavers and carpenters; thus we have the delicious smells of the professional chefs; thus we have the lewdness of those who teach lewd postures, and immodesty and affected singing. For the moderation that Nature has prescribed, which limits our desires to the resources that have been restricted to our needs, has abandoned the field. The situation has now come to this: that to want only what is enough is a sign of being uncivilized and penniless.
“The situation has now come to this: that to want only what is enough is a sign of being uncivilized and penniless.”
It’s hard to believe, my dear Lucilius, how easily the charm of eloquence wins even great men away from the truth. For example, consider Posidonius—who, in my estimation, contributed the most to philosophy—when he wishes to describe the art of weaving. He tells how, first, some threads are twisted and some are pulled from the soft, loose mass of wool. Next, the threads are kept stretched by hanging weights. Then, the perpendicular threads are forced by the loom to make a compact union with the first threads. Posidonius maintains that even the weaver’s art was discovered by wise men, forgetting that the complicated art he is describing was invented in later days—the art in which
“The web is bound to the frame; now they are apart
The reed parts the threads. Between the threads
Is shot the perpendicular threads by pointed shuttles borne;
The broad comb’s well-notched teeth then drive it home.”
The purpose of clothing is to protect our body from the elements and to “hide” our “nakedness”. What the heck are we doing?!
Imagine if Posidonius had been able to see the weaving done today!—the weaving that produces clothing that conceals nothing; clothing which provides no protection to the body, not even protection of modesty!
Posidonius then goes on to the farmer. With the same eloquence he describes the ground that is broken up and crossed again by the plow, so that the earth, once loosened, may allow freer movement to the roots. Then the seed is sown, and the weeds are plucked by hand, in case any chance growth or wild spring planting might come up and spoil the crop. Posidonius also declares that this trade is the “creation of the wise”,—just as if cultivators of the soil were not even today discovering countless new methods to increase the soil’s fertility! As if that weren’t enough, he continues to degrade the wise man by sending him next to the mill. For he tells us how the sage, by imitating the processes of nature, began to make bread. “The grain,” he says, “once taken into the mouth, is crushed by the teeth, which meet in hostile encounter, and whatever grain slips out the tongue turns back to the same teeth again. Then it is blended into a mass, that it may more easily pass down the slippery throat. When this has prepared the stomach, it is digested by the stomach’s constant heat. Then, and only then, is it assimilated with the body. Following this pattern,” he continues, “someone placed two rough stones, the one above the other, in imitation of the teeth; one set is stationary and the other awaits the motion of the first set. Then by rubbing the one stone against the other, the grain is crushed and brought back again and again, until by frequent rubbing it is reduced to powder. Then this man sprinkled the meal with water, and by continued manipulation subdued the mass and molded the loaf. This loaf was first baked by hot ashes or by a clay vessel glowing with heat. Later, ovens were gradually discovered along with other devices whose heat will render obedience to the sage’s will.” Posidonius came very near to declaring that even the cobbler’s trade was the discovery of the wise man!
And we think that our kitchen just *has* to be remodeled? Many of life’s basic tasks can be performed without even half of the luxury we have.
Yes, Reason indeed devised all these things, but it was not right reason. It was man, but not the wise man, that discovered them. Just as humans invented ships, in which we’ve crossed rivers and seas—ships fitted with sails to catch the force of the winds, ships with rudders to turn the vessel in one direction or another. The model for ships was the simple fish, which steers itself by its tail, and by its slightest motion on this side or that side bends its swift course. “But,” says Posidonius, “the wise man did indeed discover all these things. But they were too petty for him to deal with himself and so he entrusted them to his more basic assistants.” Not so! These early inventions were thought out by no other class of men than those who have them in charge today. We know that certain inventions came about only recently—such as windows which admit light to shine through transparent tiles, and the vaulted baths which have pipes built into their walls for the purpose of maintaining the temperature. Do I need to mention the marble that decorates our temples and houses? Or the polished stones by which we build colonnades and buildings spacious enough for nations? Or our written language, which enables us to write down and record an entire speech, no matter how fast it is spoken, matching speed of tongue by speed of hand? All of these types of things have been devised by the lowest grade of slaves. Wisdom’s seat is higher; she trains not the hands, but she is mistress of our minds.
Wisdom gives us the ability to differentiate between that which is truly great and that which has been simply “swollen to greatness.”
Do you know what Wisdom has brought forth to light, what she has accomplished? It’s not the graceful poses of the body, or the varied notes produced by the horn and flute, where breath is received and is transformed into a voice as it passes through. It is not Wisdom that invents weapons and forts and tools useful in war. No, Nature’s voice is for peace, and she calls all of mankind to harmony. Wisdom is not the artist of the basic and daily methods we use to acquire that which is absolutely necessary. Why do you assign such petty things to her?! You see in her the skilled artisan of life. It is true that Wisdom has the other arts in her control as well. For he whom life serves is also served by the things which equip life. But Wisdom’s course is toward the state of happiness. It is there that she guides us, there that she opens the way for us. She shows us what things are evil and what things seem to be evil. She strips our minds of vain illusion. She bestows upon us a greatness which is substantial, but she represses the greatness which is inflated and showy but filled with emptiness. She makes us acknowledge the difference between what is actually great and what is simply swollen to “greatness.” She delivers us the knowledge of the whole of nature and of her own nature. She discloses to us what God is and what He is like.
These are Wisdom’s rites of initiation, by means of which unlock the vast temple of God and the Universe itself—whose true spirit and true aspects Wisdom offers to the gaze of our minds. For our own eyes’ vision is too dull for sights so great. Then she goes back to the beginnings of things, to the eternal Reason which was imparted to the whole, and to the force which exists in all the seeds of things, giving them the power to create each thing according to its kind. Then Wisdom begins to inquire about the soul—from where did it come? Where does it dwell? How long does it live? Finally, Wisdom has turned her attention from the physical to the spiritual, and has closely examined truth and the signs by which truth is known, inquiring next how the questionable can be distinguished from the truth, whether in life or in language. For in both life and in language, elements of the false are mingled with the truth.
I believe that the wise man has not withdrawn himself from those arts which we were discussing, like Posidonius thinks. But I believe that the wise man never took up those arts at all. For a wise man would have determined that nothing was worth discovering if it would not be worth using forever. He would not take up things that would eventually have to be laid aside.
A clever man might also be a wise man, but that doesn’t mean he’s acting as a “wise man” all the time. His inventions are not the product of Wisdom; Wisdom does not produce the obsolete.
“But Anacharsis,” says Posidonius, “invented the potter’s wheel, whose whirling gives shape to vessels.” Then because the potter’s wheel is mentioned in Homer, people prefer to believe that Homer’s verses are false rather than the story of Posidonius! But I maintain that Anacharsis was not the creator of the potter’s wheel; and even if he was, although he was a wise man when he invented it, yet he did not invent it as a “wise man”—just as there are a great many things which wise men do as men, not as wise men. Suppose, for example, that a wise man is extremely fast at running; he will outrun all the runners in the race by virtue of being quick, not by virtue of his wisdom. I would love to show Posidonius some glass-blower who molds the the glass into various shapes by his breath alone, shapes that could hardly be fashioned by the most skilled hand. No, these discoveries have been made since we humans have ceased to discover wisdom.
But Posidonius again remarks, “Democritus is said to have discovered the arch, whose effect was that the curving line of stones, which gradually lean toward each other, is bound together by a keystone.” I myself must pronounce this statement to be false. For before Democritus there must have been bridges and gateways in which the curvature did not begin until about the top. It seems to have slipped your memory that this same Democritus discovered how ivory could be softened, how a pebble could be transformed into an emerald by boiling,—the same process used even today for coloring stones which are found to be responsive to this treatment! It may have been a wise man who discovered all such things, but he did not discover them by virtue of being a wise man; for he does many things which we see done just as well, or even more skillfully by men who are completely lacking in wisdom.
The wise man has weighed the value of each thing by a true standard of appraisement.
So what has the wise man found and brought to light? First of all there is truth, and nature. But nature he has not followed in the same manner as the animals, whose eyes are too dull to perceive the divine in it. In the second place, there is the law of life, and life he has made to conform to universal principles. He has taught us not merely to know God, but to follow Him, and to welcome gifts of chance as if they were divine commands from the Will of God. He has forbidden us to pay attention to false opinions, and has weighed the value of each thing by a true standard of appraisement. He has condemned those pleasures which are intermingled with remorse, and he has praised the goods that will always satisfy. For the benefit of everyone he has published the truth that a person is most happy when he has no need of happiness, and that a person becomes the most powerful when he has power over himself.
I’m not talking about philosophy that has placed citizens outside his country and God outside the universe, and which gives virtue to pleasure. No, I’m talking about philosophy that counts nothing good except that which is honorable,—one which cannot be persuaded by the gifts of man or Fortune, one whose value is such that it cannot be bought for any value. The idea that philosophy existed in such an age where arts and crafts were still undiscovered and when useful things could only be learned by use,—this I refuse to believe.
Next there came an era favored by Fortune when the bounties of nature lay available for everyone, for men to use at will, before greed and luxury had broken the bonds which held mortals together, resulting in humans abandoning their communal existence, separating and turning to looting. The men of the second age were not wise men, even though they did what wise men should do. Indeed, there is no other condition of the human race that anyone would regard more highly. And if God should order a human to construct earthly things and to bestow institutions upon people, this man whom God ordered would only approve of the system which was obtained among the men of that age when
“Men shared their gains, and earth more freely gave Her riches to her sons who did not seek them.”
“No farmer tilled the soil, nor was it right
To portion off or separate one’s property.
Men shared their gains, and earth more freely gave
Her riches to her sons who did not seek them.”
What race of humans was ever blessed more than that race? They enjoyed all nature in partnership. Nature was sufficient for them, now the guardian, as before she was the parent, of all; and her gift was that each man was guaranteed possession of the common resources. Why shouldn’t I call that race the richest race in human history, when you couldn’t find a single poor person among them?!
But greed invaded the happily ordained condition. And in its eagerness to lay something away for its own private use, greed made all things the property of others, and so the conditions were reduced from boundless wealth to outright need. It was greed that introduced poverty, and, by craving much, lost all. And so it is, although she now tries to correct her loss, although she adds one estate to another, evicting a neighbor either by buying him out or by betraying him, although she extends her country-seats to the size of provinces and defines ownership as meaning extensive travel through one’s own property,—in spite of all these efforts of hers, enlarging any kind of boundaries will never bring us back to the condition from which we have departed.
When there is no more that we can do, we shall possess much; but we once possessed the whole world! The very soil was more productive when it was untilled, and it yielded more than enough for people who refrained from robbing one another. Whatever gift nature had produced, humans found as much pleasure in revealing it to each other as in having discovered it. It was impossible for one person to surpass another or to fall short of another; everything that existed was divided among peaceful friends. The stronger had not yet begun to lay hands on the weaker. The miser had not yet begun to hide away everything for himself, thus shutting off his neighbor from even the necessities of life. Each person cared as much for his neighbor as for himself. Armor lay collecting dust. The hand, clean of human blood, had turned all its hatred against wild animals. The men of that day had found protection against the sun in some dense grove; security against the severity of winter or rain in their crude hiding-places; they spent their lives under the branches of the trees and passed tranquil nights without a single complaint. We in our crimson luxury toss and turn with worry, stabbed by needling cares. But how soft was the sleep that the hard earth had given to men of that day! No decorated and paneled ceilings hung over them, but as they lay beneath the open sky, the stars glided quietly above them. And the heavens, night’s noble pageant, marched swiftly by conducting its mighty task in silence. For those humans, the visions of this most glorious palace were free; open by day and by night. It was their joy to watch the constellations as they sank from mid-heaven and others, again, as they rose from their hidden abodes. What else but joy could it be to wander among the marvels which dotted the heavens far and wide? But you silly human of the present day shudder at every creak your house makes. They had no houses as big as cities. The air, the breezes blowing free through the open spaces, the flitting shade of rock or tree, crystal-clear springs and streams unspoiled by human work, whether by water-pipe or by any confinement of the water channel, but running freely at will, and meadows beautiful without the use of art,—amid such scenes were their basic homes, adorned with rustic hand. Such a dwelling was in accordance with nature; such a place was a joy to live in, fearing neither the dwelling itself nor its safety. In these days, however, our houses are responsible for much of our fear.
“No decorated and paneled ceilings hung over them, but as they lay beneath the open sky, the stars glided quietly above them. And the heavens, night’s noble pageant, marched swiftly by conducting its mighty task in silence.”
But no matter how excellent and innocent were the lives of the people of that era, they were not wise men. For that title is reserved for the highest achievement. Still, I wouldn’t deny that they were men of lofty spirit and—if I may say—“fresh from the gods.” For there is no doubt that the earth produced better offspring while it was not yet worn out. However, not all humans were endowed with mental faculties of highest perfection, though certainly their native powers were more sturdy than ours and more fitted for toil. For nature does not bestow virtue. It is an art to become good! At least they did not search for gold in the depths of earth, nor for silver or gems. And they were still even merciful to the simple animals—so far removed was that generation from the custom of man slaying fellow man, neither in anger or in fear, but just for fun! They did not yet have embroidered clothing nor did they weave cloth of gold. Gold was not yet even mined!
So what is the conclusion? It was by reason of their ignorance of things that the people of those days were innocent; and it makes a great difference whether one wills not to sin or has not the knowledge to sin. Justice was unknown to them, wisdom was unknown, as was self-control and courage. But their basic life possessed certain qualities related to those virtues. Virtue is not granted to a soul unless that soul has been trained and taught, and by persistent practice is brought to perfection. We were not born already possessing Virtue, but we were born to attain it. And even in the best of men, before you refine them by instruction, there is but the stuff of Virtue, but not Virtue itself. Farewell.
(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic Letter 90 “On the Part Played by Philosophy in the Progress of Man”)