Skip to main content


Showing posts from December, 2018

Lucretius: On the Nature of the Universe

Seneca dedicated three of his most important  works - the letters, "Natural questions" and "On Providence" - to Lucilius, a young man eager to get a carrier in politics. The letters give a very comprehensive analysis of the human mind, "Natural questions" attempts to explain the natural world in which we live and "On providence" gives further arguments for seeing the world as an ordered whole. Most people only read the letters but the three works are clearly conceived as one package designed to make the reader give up whatever he or she has of base goals and strive to become a true stoic. Seneca wants Lucilius to retire from his futile and self-destructive attempts to serve Rome in traditional politics and instead dedicate himself to serve the Cosmic City in which all human beings are citizens by striving to become wise and by helping others to reach that goal. And to become wise we need to understand both human beings and their place in the univ

Happy Saturnalia!

Did you know that the historical roots of Christmas are the Kronia -festivities in ancient Greece which were a celebration of the Golden Age where all men were supposed to have been equal because the richness of nature made work unnecessary? During the Kronia "slaves and the free, rich and poor, all dined together and played games" (quote from the article linked to below). Dice players. Roman fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio (VI 10,1.19, room b) in Pompeii. The Kronia heavily influenced the Roman Saturnalia where gift-giving became a vital part of the festivities. Since the egalitarian theme was still as strong as ever, showing off with too valuable gifts was considered rude. Instead, gifts were commonly figures of clay or wax (sigillaria) which everyone could afford. Another symbol of the egalitarian spirit of the festivities was that both slaves (which wasn't supposed to) and free men (which didn't have to) wore the pilleus : a conical, red f

A few notes on Stoic political philosophy

An absolutely brilliant passage from one of the best books about Stoicism currently available: "Coming to see all others as fellow-citizens is quite distinct from striving to build a political community in which all others will be one's fellow-citizens. The community according to which all others are fellow-citizens is already there; it is the cosmos, the whole of which each human being is a part. The Stoics do not envisage a worldwide community that should be established. Rather, they tell us that such a community exists, should be understood, and should transform how we relate to others." - Katja Maria Vogt, Law, Reason, and the Cosmic City: Political Philosophy in the Early Stoa , 2007, location 1241  Witness Cicero: "There are indeed several degrees of fellowship among men. To move from the one that is unlimited, next there is a closer one of the same race, tribe and tongue, through which men are bound strongly to one another. More intimate still is tha

How many friends should a wise person have?

It's interesting to compare the following quotes from Aristotle and Seneca regarding the number of friends the wise man should have: "No one can have complete friendship for many people, just as no one can have an erotic passion for many at the same time; for [complete friendship, like erotic passion] is like an excess, and excess is naturally directed at a single individual. And just as it is difficult for many people to please the same person intensely at the same time, it is also difficult, presumably, for many to be good. [To find out whether someone is really good], one must both have experience of him and be on familiar terms with him, which is extremely difficult. If, however, the friendship is for utility or pleasure, it is possible for many people to please, for there are many people of the right sort, and the services take little time." - Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea , Book VIII, chap. 6 §2 "I should like also to state to you one of the distinction

On Resilience

Resilience is great - but, arguably, it just a part of an even greater value of Stoicism, namely that it can greatly improve our relations with other people. Stoicism can teach us not to be possessive, envious, vindictive - and, of course, plain aggressive. It is possible to imagine a highly resilient person who still has issues with aggression or arrogance - but it is difficult to imagine a person with healthy social relations who is not also highly resilient.

Little known probable and actual facts about Seneca

- He probably had his elder brother, Gallio, with him in exile on Corsica and they probably returned to Rome together when Seneca was called back. Gallio became proconsul of the newly constituted senatorial province of Achaea under Claudius and the emperor referred to him as his friend. During Gallio's time in Achaea some Jews came to him with a guy called Paul who they said were causing trouble... - He was probably not wealthy at all during the eight years on Corsica but relied on the allowance granted to exiles. He made fun of that allowance and described it as quite big when he tried to convince his mother that everything was fine on Corsica - but it probably wasn't. - Both of Seneca's brothers became involved in high-level intrigues in the early 60s AD - just like Seneca - and both were forced to kill themselves - just like Seneca. Sources: Seneca: Consolation to Helvia

Stoic passions:The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Cicero on the Stoic idea of bad passions vs good passions  (he calls them "emotions" and "consistencies"): "This, then, is Zeno’s definition of an emotion (which he calls a pathos): “a movement of mind contrary to nature and turned away from right reason.” Others say, more briefly, that an emotion is “a too-vigorous impulse,” where “too vigorous” means “having deviated too far from the consistency of nature.” The different classes of emotions, they say, arise from two kinds of things thought to be good and two thought to be evil. Thus there are four possibilities: those arising from goods are desire and gladness, gladness being directed at present goods and desire at future goods; while those arising from evils are fear and distress, fear being directed at future evils and distress at present ones. For the things we fear when they are in prospect are the very things that bring distress when they are upon us. Gladness and desire, on the other hand, are concern

The Ultimate Criteria for Wisdom is how you feel - not what you know

In many ways the point Seneca is making here is one of the most important in Stoicism: since we are striving to be happy - and wisdom is knowledge about how we become happy - it's easy to focus too much on knowledge and think that the basic criteria for when we are wise is how much we know. It's not. The basic criteria for wisdom is whether we are happy. "Now I will tell you how you may know that you are not wise. The wise person is filled with joy, cheerful and calm, unalarmed; he lives on equal terms with gods. Now look at yourself. If you are never downcast; if your mind is not bothered by any hopes concerning the future; if your mental state is even and consistent night and day, upright and content with itself, then you have indeed attained the fullness of the human good. But if you seek pleasure in every direction and of every kind, then be aware that you are as far removed from wisdom as you are from joy. Joy is your aim, but you are off course: you think that y

Was Seneca a Hypocrite?

Somehow it's ironic that Seneca  - by far the person in the history of philosophy who most often has been accused of being a hypocrite - next to Socrates is the one who most persistently emphasises that he do not see himself as wise. I think most Stoic authors assumed it was obvious that they were not wise (except Epictetus, perhaps :-) but this quote makes it very clear where Seneca sees himself as talking to us from. "How is it that you are advising me?” you say. “Have you already advised yourself? Have you got yourself straightened out? Is that why you have the time to correct others?” I am not such a hypocrite as to offer cures while I am sick myself. No, I am lying in the same ward, as it were, conversing with you about our common ailment and sharing remedies. So listen to me as if I were talking to myself: I am letting you into my private room and giving myself instructions while you are standing by." - Seneca, Letters 27.1 J. M. W. Turner: Modern Rome

What does it mean to be happy?

This is some of the better research in happiness I have read about - but, as usual, there are no philosophers involved which is even more bizarre in this case as the goal of the project is to give a precise definition of happiness. Still, at least they are aware of the cultural differences and some of the inherent ambiguities in thinking about happiness. One problem with this project that is immediately apparent is their category "good mood". The stoics would ask: "Which kind of good mood are you talking about? Gladness, which is a passion and - as such - should be avoided? Or joy, which is the rational feeling we are all striving for whether we know it or not?" buffer

Rational and Irrational Striving

In the opinion of the Stoics there are two forms of striving - a bad one and a good one. The bad is bad because it's irrational - it strives for something because it mistakenly think it is good (wealth, reputation etc). This version of striving is normally called desire in English translations. Since it assumes that something necessary for our happiness lies outside of ourselves it creates all forms of turmoil in the soul (and is, thus, seen as a passion). This is why the Stoics think that the first stage out of three in the process towards wisdom is to stop desiring anything. However, this does not mean that we should stop striving for anything. The good version of striving is normally called wish in English translations. There are several forms of wish but they all have in common that they do not assume that anything necessary for our happiness lies outside ourselves. The wise person would prefer to get food and water, for example, but if he is stranded in the wilderness, he does

Seneca: Selected philosophical letters

A striking thing about Seneca's letters is that Seneca constantly criticizes lengthy abstract philosophical analysis and yet frequently indulges in just that. This means that some of the letters, paradoxically, are quite challenging to read even for someone with formal training in philosophy. Brad Inwood is a towering pioneer in the Seneca-research and in this volume he has selected some of the most complex and interesting letters and added careful commentaries to each of them. On top of that there's a great introduction with lots of useful information about the letters and interesting thoughts on why Seneca wrote them in the first place. An indispensable book if you are up for a for a firmer grasp of Seneca's special brand of Stoicism. qLgpV8sZ6EkC

More on Self-sufficiency

The Stoics often say that there is only one true good and that is virtue. This has often been understood as saying that all we should care about is our own mental health - and everything else is either "preferred indifferents" or "dispreferred indifferents" (according to orthodox Stoic terminology). It's true that they generally agree that virtue is all that is necessary for happiness - and that virtue in that sense is "the only true good". But there are other kinds of good. In the sources for Greek Stoicism virtue is considered an "internal good" - meaning that it is in our "soul". But there are also "external goods" - meaning that they are still related to us even though they are not a requirement for our happiness. Examples are living in a good country and having good and happy friends. In Roman Stoicism, the explicit concept "external goods" seems to have been lost and so it's extremely easy to get the

Stoicism and the importance of writing

"We should not limit ourselves to either writing or reading; the former will depress one's powers and exhaust them, the other will relax and weaken them. One should pass in turn from one to the other and blend one with the other, so that the pen will shape whatever has been gathered from reading into a body." - Seneca, Letters 84.2 I realize that Seneca's letters are addressed to another writer - but I am pretty certain that Seneca wanted us all to write. The point he is making here is not that we should use Stoicism to become more successful authors but that we should think through writing. And I'm equally certain that this point has been overlooked entirely even by the recent practice-focused research on Stoicism (Foucault, Hadot and others). Which is strange even if we just look at Seneca - but even more extraordinary if we take Marcus Aurelius into account. Implicitly, his entire work makes the same point as Seneca is making here. It's diffi

Seneca on Fear

Seneca's letter no. 13 to Lucilius is a great example of how Seneca refines and expands orthodox Stoicism. Classic Stoicism would say that the best approach to any kind of fear we are experiencing is to realize that there is nothing to fear since nothing can harm a wise person. Seneca would agree that, ultimately, it's true that there is nothing to fear but he knows that there is much more to fear and he wants to give us something to work with right now. The standard Stoic analysis of fear is that it is simply a passion that is caused by lacking understanding of "what is terrible and what is not terrible". But Seneca shows us how we terrorise ourselves by using our imagination to anticipate things that might never happen. Suppose we are afraid of being fired from our job, for example. From the point of view of classical Stoicism the advice would probably be for us to realize that loosing our job can't possibly harm us since all that matters for happiness is virtue

More on the Scope of Wisdom

A widespread caricature of the Stoic idea of wisdom look something like: "Don't waste time on reading, thinking and discussing. Just go out and do the right thing". That's very far from Seneca's conception of wisdom - according to which wisdom requires extensive studies of the laws of life. "Wisdom is a great and extensive thing; it needs space; one must learn about matters divine and human, about the past and future, about transient and eternal matters, about time" - Seneca, Letters 88.33 "the condition of the mind will not be in its best state unless it has understood the laws of life in its entirety" - Seneca, Letters 95.57 

Happiness = living according to nature

An essential part of what makes us happy is seeing ourselves as healthy, natural creatures. We might have different conceptions of what "natural" means but our assessment of our own happiness - as well as our assessment of the happiness of others - is to a very large extent defined by our own definition of "natural". This is why it is so important to understand our place in the universe. "For these reasons it will be useful for us to investigate nature: first, we shall leave behind what is sordid; next, we shall keep our mind, which needs to be elevated and great, separated from the body; next, when our critical faculty has been exercised on hidden matters, it will be no worse at dealing with visible ones. And nothing is more visible than these remedies which are learned in order to counter our wickedness and madness, things we condemn but do not forsake" - Seneca, Naturales quaestiones 3.praef.18 "What will be the benefit?” you ask. The greatest p

Repeat the Basics

This - slightly edited - interpretation of the Japanese Zen concept of “shōshin” which I accidentally stumbled upon on the web is certainly a good approach to Stoicism as well: "shōshin  means “beginner’s mind”. As eager students, we always want to move on, move on. We always look up (forward) to the next thing and want to get there. But the expression “shōshin” teaches us to always return to the foundation. We must always do basics, master the basics, enjoy the basics. We all need lots of repetition" tinart_tong_0810sozan1.html

Fantham's Selection of Seneca's Letters

If you're looking for a less pricey English edition of Seneca's letters than the complete edition of the letters from Chicago University Press, this is the one to get. It contains the largest selection of the letters currently available in any English selection in an extremely readable and accurate translation and with a highly informative introduction. Each letter is prefaced with a precise and thorough summary and the original section numbers are preserved. The paperback version is a perfect gift to someone who doesn't now much about Stoicism yet and is willing to give it a closer look. For these reasons I highly recommend the paperback version of this book. A word of warning, though. The ebook version of the book is pretty badly produced. First of all, the text is very poorly formatted if you use the standard "flowing text" mode of the Google Play Books app. Furthermore, since each letter is not its own chapter, it's very hard to find a specific letter


The Stoic idea of self-sufficiency has been widely misunderstood. The most basic claim made by the Stoics is that we can learn to be happy at any moment under any condition because our happiness does not depend on anything outside ourselves. But it doesn't follow from this that a Stoic doesn't care about anything apart from his or her own happiness. As we human beings grow we naturally extend our idea of what "belongs" to us and of what we belong to - of who we are. This is the Stoic theory of oikeiosis. Unless we get sidetracked by bad influence and/or bad choices we end up seeing ourselves as part of all of humanity and seeing our own happiness as a small part of the happiness of the brotherhood of man. This does not mean that our happiness depends on the happiness of others. In theory, a Stoic can be happy even if the rest of humanity is deeply miserable. But in that scenario, the Stoic would see it as his or her task to try to make the world a better place for

Making ourselves happy

It's interesting that a lot of people who have experienced great adversity tend to agree with the thought expressed in this quote - whereas a lot of those who claim to fight for the oppressed people of the world tend to get extremely mad when it is suggested that it doesn't really matter that much whether we are rich or poor. "each and every individual is capable of making himself happy. External goods have trivial importance and exert little influence in one direction or the other: the sage is neither carried away by prosperity nor cast down by adversity, for he has always striven to rely to the fullest extent on himself, and to derive all his joy from within himself" - Seneca, Consolation to Helvia, 5.1

The Scope of Wisdom

It's easy to get the impression from Seneca's writings, that wisdom equals practical wisdom - that the goal of wisdom is simply to give us control over our passions and, thus, peace of mind. This is not the case. We can only call us wise when: "We have achieved knowledge of the universe. We know the origins of nature’s development, how it organizes the world, through what changes it restores the year, and how it contains all that will ever be and makes itself its own goal. We know that the stars move by their own force, that nothing besides the earth is stationary, and that the remaining bodies proceed with unceasing speed. We know how the moon overtakes the sun and why, though it is slower, it leaves what is faster behind; we know how the moon receives or loses its light, and the causes that bring on night and restore day" - Seneca, Letters 93.9 For, as Seneca says, "The virtue to which we aspire is marvelous not because freedom from evil is in itself wonder

A Fellow Patient

Seneca didn't think of himself as teacher but as a fellow patient. And he often reminds us that he is quite certain that he himself will never become fully wise. He is content if he will make a little bit of progress, he says. In fact, he frequently says that it is quite easy to make progress. The tricky part is not to give up when the target seems impossible to reach. In letter 89 he says that we shouldn't think of the target as separated from us by a great distance. The moment we strive towards wisdom we have already partly reached the goal. "Wisdom is the perfect good of the human mind; philosophy is the love of wisdom, and the endeavour to attain it. The latter strives toward the goal which the former has already reached. And it is clear why philosophy was so called. For it acknowledges by its very name the object of its love." - Seneca, Letters 89.4 "philosophy cannot exist without virtue, nor virtue without philosophy. Philosophy is the study of

When is life complete? An ambiguity in Seneca's letter no. 12

"Every day, then, should be treated as though it were bringing up the rear, as though it were the consummation and fulfillment of one’s life." - Seneca, Letters 12.8 " Anyone who has said, “I have done living” rises profitably each morning, having gained one day." - Seneca, Letters 12.9 In my opinion, there's a huge difference between living as if each day is what makes our life complete and living as if each day is an added bonus to a life that was already complete when we woke up. From the first point of view, our life is both not complete when we begin the day and also assumed to be only completed if we live through the entire new day. Since the core mission of Stoicism is to teach us how to be happy always and at any moment, this point of view does not seem to align with Stoicism at all. The second point of view seems to be much healthier and truly Stoic.

A few quick notes on committing injustice vs suffering it

Let's suppose that person A is entitled to, say, one piece of cake. If person B knowingly causes person A to not have that piece of cake without the consent of person A, then person B has done person A wrong - which is what the Stoics mean by committing an injury. But it doesn't follow from this that person A has suffered an injury. If person A doesn't mind that his or her piece of cake was given to someone else or was eaten by person B, then person A hasn't suffered an injury - even though person B have commited an injury. Now, let's imagine that person A is completely wise. This would mean that he or she is completely indifferent to things like bodily harm, poverty, sickness, reputation, insults, abuse and whatever else life or other human beings can throw at us. Obviously, it would still be possible to commit an injury in relation to a person like that - since this would simply require having the intention to harm that person. However, it would be impossible to