Stoic Serenity 5.8: Philosophy’s Noble Purpose

Finally, a breath of fresh, living air! Seneca’s Letter 48 today, “On Quibbling as Unworthy of the Philosopher,” resonates beautifully. The first three paragraphs were a bit of a roller coaster, but hang in there. It’s worth it:

In answer to the letter which you wrote me while traveling,—a letter as long as the journey itself,—I shall reply later. I should go into retirement, and consider what sort of advice I should give you. For you yourself, who consulted me, also reflected for a long time whether to do so; how much more, then, should I myself reflect, since more deliberation is necessary in settling than in presenting a problem! And this is particularly true when one thing is advantageous to you and another to me. Am I speaking like an Epicurean again? The fact is, the same thing that is is advantageous to me is also advantageous to you; for I am not your friend unless whatever is concerning you is my own concern as well. Friendship produces between us a partnership in all our interests. There is no such thing as good or bad fortune for the individual; we live in common. No one can live happily if he lives only for himself and transforms everything into a question of his own utility. No, you must live for your neighbor if you would live for yourself. This fellowship, maintained with scrupulous care, which makes us mingle as men with our fellow-men and holds that the human race has certain rights in common, is also of great help in cherishing the more intimate fellowship which is based on friendship, concerning which I began to speak above. For he that has much in common with a fellow-man will have all things in common with a friend.

Philosophy is beyond petty arguments.—Its purpose is much higher, much more noble.

And on this point, dear Lucilius, I would like to have those subtle philosophical debaters of yours advise me on how I ought to help a friend or fellow man, rather than tell me in how many ways the word “friend” is used, and how many meanings the word “man” possesses. Behold, Wisdom and Folly are taking opposite sides. Which shall I join? Which party would you have me follow? On one side, “man” is the equivalent of “friend”; on the other side, “friend” is not the equivalent of “man.” One side wants a friend for his own advantage; the other wants to make himself an advantage to his friend. What you have to offer me is nothing but distortion of words and splitting of syllables. It’s clear that unless I can devise some tricky premises and by false deductions tack on to them a fallacy which springs from the truth, I shall not be able to distinguish between what is desirable and what is to be avoided! I am ashamed! Such old men as we, dealing with such a serious problem, we make play of it!

“‘Mouse’ is a syllable. Now a mouse eats its cheese; therefore a syllable eats its cheese.” Now suppose that I cannot solve this problem; see what danger hangs over my head as a result of such ignorance! What a predicament I shall be in! Without a doubt, I must beware, or some day I shall be catching syllables in a mousetrap, or, if I grow careless, a book may devour my cheese! Unless, perhaps, the following syllogism is cleverer still: “‘Mouse’ is a syllable. Now a syllable does not eat cheese. Therefore a mouse does not eat cheese.” What childish nonsense! Do we knit our brows over this sort of problem? Do we let our beards grow long for this reason? Is this the subject we teach with sour and pale faces?

Seriously? Is this the reason we grow our beards? Is this what everything is for?!

Would you really know what philosophy offers to humanity? Philosophy offers counsel. Death calls away one man, and poverty scrapes another, a third is worried either by his neighbor’s wealth or by his own. So-and-so is afraid of bad luck; another desires to get away from his own good fortune. Some are ill-treated by men, others are ill-treated by the gods. Why is it that you frame such games for me? This is no occasion for joking; you are retained as counsel for unhappy mankind. You’ve promised to help those in danger by sea, those in captivity, the sick and the needy, and those whose heads are on the chopping block. Where are you straying off to? What are you doing?

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People everywhere need help. You are a philosopher. Humanity is depending on you.

This friend with whom you jest; he is in fear. Help him, and take the noose from his neck. People with outstretched hands are begging you from all sides; lives ruined and in danger of ruin are begging for some assistance; human hopes, humanity’s resources, depend on you. They ask that you deliver them from all their restlessness, that you reveal to them, scattered and wandering as they are, the clear light of truth. Tell them what nature has made necessary, and what is superfluous. Tell them how simple are the laws that she has laid down, how pleasant and unimpeded life is for those who follow these laws, but how bitter and confusing it is for those who have put their trust in opinion rather than in nature.

I could consider your logic games to be of some help in relieving people’s burdens if you could first show me what part of people’s burdens these games relieve. What part of these games of yours banishes lust? Or controls it? No, I can even say that these games are of absolutely no benefit! They are positively harmful. I can make it perfectly clear to you whenever you wish, that a noble spirit when involved in such subtleties is impaired and weakened. I’m ashamed to say what weapons they supply to men who are destined to go to war with Fortune; how poorly these games equip them! Is this the path to the greatest good? Is philosophy to proceed by such nonsense and by quibbles which would be a disgrace and a disappointment even for those who support the law? What else could you men be doing when you deliberately ensnare the person to whom you are putting questions, than making it appear that the man has lost his case on a technical error? But just as the judge can reinstate those who have lost a suit in this way, so philosophy has reinstated these victims of quibbling to their former condition. Why do you men abandon your mighty promises, and, after having assured me in high-sounding language that you will permit the glitter of gold to dazzle my eyesight no more than the gleam of the sword, that I shall, mightily and unwavering, scorn both that which all men crave and that which all men fear, why do you descend to the ABC’s of scholastic pedants? What is your answer?

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“What else could you be doing when you deliberately ensnare the person to whom you are putting questions?”

“Is this the path to heaven?”

For that is exactly what philosophy promises to me, that I shall be made equal to God. For this I have been summoned, for this purpose have I come. Philosophy, keep your promise!

Life is short enough already. Don’t waste it on petty arguments. Use what you have left for a noble cause.

Therefore, my dear Lucilius, withdraw yourself as far as possible from these exceptions and objections of so-called philosophers. Frankness and simplicity are befitting of true goodness. Even if you had many years left of life, you would have to spend them frugally in order to have enough for the necessary things; but as it is, when your time is so scant, what madness it is to learn superfluous things! Farewell.

(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic Letter 9 “On Quibbling as Unworthy of the Philosopher”)


This was included in the Stoic Serenity book as part of the exercises on friendship. I have no clue why, as the focus seems to be more on living in society in general than on friendships in particular, but I’m really glad to have read it. Despite studying this Stoic principle of a duty to society, I’ve been feeling really frustrated lately with humans. It seems like the majority of the world, the “non-philosophers” for certain, are focused on trivial matters. Ok, so those of us who place our focus higher, who wish to empower ourselves and contribute to the good of humanity, we look for our answers and our work in philosophy. Yet how disheartening it is to discover that the field of philosophy does not offer complete respite from misguided people who are focused on trivial matters. I thought we escaped this when we began studying philosophy. Nope. Sorry. It’s everywhere. The world is full of people searching for arguments instead of answers. Even in philosophy. Sometimes there are people with a higher focus, and sometimes people are arguing merely for the sake of winning an argument.—

“What else could you men be doing when you deliberately ensnare the person to whom you are putting questions, than making it appear that the man has lost his case on a technical error?”

“Do we let our beards grow long for this reason?”

Philosophy, which offers counsel to humans for their problems, is often reduced to petty arguments over semantics. But before you think that I’m advocating a “holier than thou” attitude, keep in mind that Seneca’s focus is not on creating disdain for the people involved in these trivial arguments, but for keeping ourselves in check—ensure that you do not lower yourself into these trivial debates, for when you do, you lose sight of the bigger picture of philosophy and you weaken yourself. Life is too short for us to worry about winning arguments and puffing ourselves up. We have much larger and more important tasks to accomplish!

Make it your goal today to keep your eyes open to the bigger picture. Don’t fall for petty arguments. Don’t worry about winning an argument for the sake of winning. This is not philosophy, and it does not speak any good to our character. As students of philosophy, we must remember our focus: what makes philosophy so important?

“People with outstretched hands are begging you from all sides; lives ruined and in danger of ruin are begging for some assistance; human hopes, humanity’s resources, depend on you.”

People all around you are reaching out, begging you to help them. Fulfill your duty as a student of philosophy, as a member of society, as a contributor to humanity. Help them.

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