Stoic Serenity 3.6: Mice, Tarzan, & Seneca—Debriefing of Letter 90

After tackling Seneca’s extremely-intriguing Letter 90, we use today’s post to debrief. We’ll cover:

  • A Trip to the Zoo
  • Themes from Seneca’s Letter 90
  • Is Seneca advocating socialism?
  • The Expansion of Luxury
  • Slaves Under Marble & Gold
  • Increase of technological advancement = decrease of wisdom?
  • So what’s the point?
  • Assignment!

 A Trip to the Zoo

As luck would have it, after spending all Friday putting together a post based on Seneca’s Letter 90 which talks about luxury and the “beginnings of civilization,” I ended up being invited to go to the zoo on Saturday.

Wow. You really can’t help but look at nature differently after reading Letter 90, so going to the zoo is a much different experience than before. Some thoughts that crossed my mind at the zoo:

Harvest mice intentionally spin pointless flips in their wheel, seemingly for nothing but pure self-amusement. Then they scurry about collecting food amidst the dried stalks inside their glass tank:

Thought: “Animals enjoy some entertainment now and then, but when it’s time to go to work to get food for the next meal, they don’t complain about losing out on ‘leisure time.'”

For animals, playtime is as much a part of life as is gathering food in order to survive. This is part of living according to nature.

A rainforest tree whose leaves and branches created a perfect canopy.

Thought: “This would have made a perfect roof for the idyllic people that Seneca described. This tree is even better for them because they wouldn’t have had to craft a roof by hand; one was already provided by nature.”

The idyllic people described by Seneca were content with what nature provided. A tree canopy would serve its function just as well as a tiled roof, but a tree canopy would also be a lot more convenient.

If Nature provided the necessary items in order for gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans to survive in “the wild,” then why couldn’t humans survive in the wild? I mean, a human who has grown up in the wild, perhaps like the Jungle Book character Mowgli, or Tarzan; someone who has been really using their physical abilities everyday. Despite the fact that our bodies are incredibly similar to those of the apes, we don’t have half of the physical ability because we’ve simply neglected our bodies as we idle in luxury.

While animal groups often have “leaders,” usually the biggest or strongest in the group, the animals seem to have “unwritten laws” that they just simply follow. For example, silverback (male) gorillas don’t like to be so closely confined with one another. But given ample room, they can be quite content to be in each other’s company. (They can “agree to disagree”). And if one of them approaches the other uninvited, then the other simply goes to another space in the territory. Simply put, animals, unlike humans, don’t seek world domination. Enough space is enough space. And if one member of a group simply wants to be left alone, their wish is most often respected.

Listening to the bellows of Simiang apes echoing across the entire zoo, my mind was transported to the time of “cavemen,” where animal calls permeated the landscape as earth’s beautiful soundtrack. The “cave man” could not demand the “luxury” of silence. The earth’s noises were his soundtrack. By accepting this fact as a natural part of life, he was “living according to nature.”

Themes from Seneca’s Letter 90

  • “Golden Age” in which humans lived off of what Nature provided them
    • For nature has the habit of subjecting the weaker to the stronger.
    • 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
    • Nature was sufficient for them.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • they were men of lofty spirit and—if I may say—“fresh from the gods.”
  • greed / luxury vs. fellowship / simplicity
    • Philosophy has told us that ultimate power is God’s domain, and fellowship is humans’ domain.
    • But once vice snuck in and kingdoms were transformed into tyrannies, then a need arose for laws.
    • A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.
    • “What a fool I’ve been, carrying around this extra baggage all the time!”
    • Can’t animal skins protect us well enough, more than enough, from the cold?
    • We had everything we needed at birth; but it is we ourselves who have made everything difficult.
    • here 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!
    • 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!
    • 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.”
    • [Nature’s 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?!
    • 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,
  • The Simple Life
    • The things that we absolutely need are readily available to us and require no elaborate effort to acquire; only the luxuries call for labor.
    • Each day, Luxury expands herself.
    • The situation has now come to this: that to want only what is enough is a sign of being uncivilized and penniless.
    • No, these discoveries have been made since we humans have ceased to discover wisdom.
    • 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.
  • wisdom vs. cleverness
    • 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.
    • Wisdom’s seat is higher; she trains not the hands, but she is mistress of our minds.
    • She makes us acknowledge the difference between what is actually great and what is simply swollen to “greatness.”
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • weighed the value of each thing by a true standard of appraisement.
  • Wisdom is a good that can be sought after and obtained.
    • “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.”
    • 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.

Is Seneca advocating socialism?

Seneca mentioned in his letter how the people of the “Golden Age” would work together to gather whatever they received from the earth. They didn’t keep it for their individual selves, but they shared freely with each other. This reminds me of an Inuit proverb:

There’s no such thing as a good hunter; only a lucky hunter.

Is Seneca suggesting that capitalism is evil and that everyone should adopt socialism? I would say “no.” Seneca acknowledged that this idyllic “Golden Age” existed until greed took over. He acknowledged that because greed has entered civilization in such strong force, that we can never go back to “the way things were.” I believe wholeheartedly with Seneca. In theory, most economic systems seem to be great “solutions” for society’s problems—but the problem is that human greed ends up corrupting each of these systems, so they never turn out as good in practice as they do on paper. Seneca even seems to say that it’s a lost cause to try to return to that original way of life:

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.

The Expansion of Luxury

This is the point with which I agree wholeheartedly with Seneca. In the post yesterday, I mentioned how horse carriages used to be a sign of immense luxury. Today, they’re a bucolic tourist adventure, and afterwards we crawl back into our leather-trimmed cars.

People used to be content with walking/running as the sole means of transportation. (I’m skipping a lot of human history here, but bear with me): then they started building boats and riding horses. Then they invented bicycles, trains, cars, and airplanes. Do you see where this is going? The truth is, Nature already provided us with sufficient means of transportation. But humans have taken it to the next level.

I was waiting at a car sales lot while my sister was inside working out the financial aspects of her new purchase. While we were waiting, her friend and I spotted a used book store across the four-lane street. We decided to go check it out while we were waiting. And so we promptly got into her friend’s car and drove across the street to the bookstore.

I felt so… “in-between” in that incident. This business of driving across the street is something so commonly American, very few people would see the absurdity in it. But as we were pulling into the various turning lanes and following the winding parking lots in order to get to the location that had been simply “across the street,” I couldn’t help but think of all the refugee clients and co-workers that I’d worked with; how many friends could I tell what I was doing right now—riding in a car to go across the street—and they would think I’m absolutely insane!

When my mother visits my apartment, she thinks I live like a rustic hippie. When my co-workers from Iraq and Myanmar visit my apartment, they think I’m spoiled. When my family visits, I volunteer to sleep on the floor so that there’s room for everyone. My mother thinks that’s ridiculous, and she buys an air mattress. When I tell my friend from Iraq that I slept on the floor the other night, he responds, “I do that every once in a while. Back in Iraq, we used to sleep on the roof of the house and gaze at the stars.” If I were to tell a refugee from Myanmar that I slept on the floor last night, they’d undoubtedly respond, “Why wouldn’t anyone sleep on the floor? Mattresses are expensive and take up space.” I live between two worlds of luxury’s expansion spectrum.

Consider the television: people were thrilled to have television sets when they were first invented; never mind the fact that the picture was in black and white. Today, it’s simply a necessity that our televisions have a color picture, preferably high definition and flat-screen. And it’s a no-brainer that it has to have a remote control. Do we even know how to use the television without the remote control? Can the newer models of television even be used without a remote? And so, when we lose our remote control, we worry ourselves with finding it. We complain that we have to stand up and walk five steps to the television and finally try to figure out what buttons to press to make the television do what we want. It seems that luxury isn’t really helping our physical world that much, but it seems to be harming our minds and characters more than we realize.

I was a chaperone for high school students on a mission trip to Nicaragua. The area in which we were working was the poorest region in Nicaragua. Eighty students and five teachers used two portable toilets without any doors or curtains. There was no garbage collection of any sort, so each morning the teachers would pile the school’s trash about a meter or two from the building and light it on fire. Construction tools of any sort were difficult to procure. At one point, I was digging an 8’x8′ area one foot deep, but there were few shovels available, and so I was using a sharp, pointy stick to dig in the packed desert earth. Clean drinking water was difficult to procure. Yet when we brought back water for the American high school students to drink, their unanimous response was, “Why isn’t there any ice, too?”

In my opinion, Seneca is correct: luxury expands daily and humans adapt to each new level of its expansion.

What other examples can you think of that demonstrate the “expansion of luxury”?

Slaves Under Marble & Gold

A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.

What does Seneca mean when he says this? What does he mean by “slavery”? He means that when we lived in this “Golden Age,” we cared about each other. The earth provided, and we all had access to its provisions. We were free. But greed has snuck in and hoarded away those natural provisions, leaving those who were unable or unwilling to hoard to live in poverty. Those in poverty are slaves to those with riches. The actions of the (extremely) wealthy largely determine the experiences of the impoverished. Even for people who do not live in “poverty,” who have eked out a nice existence for ourselves, we are still “slaves” to our possessions. We worry about paying our bills. We worry about status and long for the latest gadget. We do not act freely as we believe we do, but we pursue material things almost zombie-like. In Seneca’s statement, “marble and gold” represents luxury, and a society that seeks after luxury. We’re slaves both to luxury and to society itself.

Increase of technological advancement = decrease of wisdom?

Perhaps the most intriguing line in Seneca’s Letter is this:

No, these discoveries have been made since we humans have ceased to discover wisdom.

Seneca’s referring to the innovations of glass-blowing, pottery, fish farms, you name it. Consider this rough chart:


I find this line from Seneca intriguing because in recent centuries, we’ve seen an exponential increase of technological advancement. Humans were using fingers, lines drawn in the sand, and the abacus for millennia. And suddenly humans invent calculators and computers and all sorts of equipment. Is Seneca right? Has human focus shifted from seeking Wisdom to pursuing fleeting ingenuity and expanding luxury?

So what’s the point?

What does this mean for us, as we continue our pursuit of Virtue and eudaimonia?

Remember that at the beginning of the letter, Seneca wrote:

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.

And he concluded with:

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.

Remember that humans are born with the means to attain wisdom, and thus attain Virtue. But we aren’t born with Wisdom or Virtue itself. Learn to differentiate between intelligence/ingenuity/cleverness and actual Wisdom, who is much higher.


Use today to do a bit of exploring your own thoughts and writing them down. You can do this in your journal if you wish.

  • Explain in your own words what you believe Seneca means when he says:

    A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.

    Why does he use the word “slavery”?

  • Consider the theme of greed in Seneca’s letter. Explain what Seneca means by:

    We in our crimson luxury toss and turn with worry, stabbed by needling cares.

  • Write down you own thoughts on greed, luxury, and extravagance.
    • What role do they play in your own life?
    • Have you been greedy or extravagant yourself?
    • Write about a time when you were envious of someone else’s luxury, or when you pursued luxury yourself.
    • Has someone with a greedy disposition ever taken advantage of you?
    • How would a Stoic deal with relieving their taste for greed or luxury?

And now, for your viewing enjoyment:

Catch a glimpse into the lives of this tribe in Mongolia. What aspects of their lives would you say exemplify the concept of “living according to Nature”?

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