Permanence and Impermanence

A recurrent theme in Stoicism (repeated often by Marcus Aurelius) is that nothing is permanent and everything is subject to decay, and so becoming attached to things is a recipe for unhappiness. In one of Seneca’s longer letters (number 65), it emerges that in fact there is something that is permanent, namely Reason (or we could say the Logos).

This point arises from quote a long discussion of the cause(s) of things. Seneca contrasts the Stoic doctrine of causes, in which there is just one cause (Reason), with Aristotle and Plato’s theories. In particular, Plato identified five causes, one of which was the Idea or Pattern of a material thing (I am fairly sure that here Seneca is referring to the platonic Forms).

Seneca describes some interesting features of the Pattern, while arguing (in paragraph 13) that it is not actually the cause itself, but only “an indispensable tool of the cause”. In paragraph 7 he says that patterns/ideas come from the mind of God:

… his mind comprehends the harmonies and the measures of the whole totality of things which are to be carried out; he is filled with these shapes which Plato calls the “ideas,” – imperishable, unchangeable, not subject to decay.

Thus people (men) can die but idea of humanity lives on:

And therefore, though men die, humanity itself, or the idea of man, according to which man is moulded, lasts on, and though men toil and perish, it suffers no change.

As the Stoic God is identical with Reason and we all have a (divine) spark of Reason within us, it surely follows that we ourselves also contain something imperishable and unchanging. Thus while externals are perishable and impermanent, what we have internally, Reason or Virtue, is not. So while we shouldn’t become attached to externals (which are indifferent), we should on the contrary become attached to “internals”, i.e. Reason and Virtue.

I think this is a very therapeutic notion – the injunction to accept change can be quite unsettling, despite counter arguments for why it should not (for instance, that accepting change helps put things into context). I suspect most people have an inner longing for something fixed and secure in their lives. It can’t be things themselves but it can the causes of things, embodying the inexorable laws of Reason.

The problem with travel is you can’t leave yourself behind

Seneca (letter 104) credits Scocrates with this insight:

Socrates is reported to have replied, when a certain person complained of having received no benefit from his travels: “It serves you right!  You travelled in your own company!!” Oh what a blessing it would be for some men to wander away from themselves! As it is, they cause themselves vexation, worry, demoralization, and fear! What profit is there in crossing the sea and in going from one city to another?  If you would escape your troubles, you need not another place but another personality.

I’m a reluctant traveller myself, so Seneca’s critique really hit home:

What benefit has travel of itself ever been able to give anyone?  No restraint upon pleasure, no bridling of desire, no checking of bad temper, no crushing of the wild assaults of passion, no opportunity to rid the soul of evil. Travelling cannot give us judgment, or shake off our errors; it merely holds our attention for a moment by a certain novelty, as children pause to wonder at something unfamiliar.


There will be no benefit to you in this hurrying to and fro; for you are travelling with your emotions and are followed by your afflictions.

The real solution to all this anguish is not travel but philsophy:

We ought rather to spend our time in study, and to cultivate those who are masters of wisdom, learning something which has been investigated, but not settled. By this means the mind can be relieved of a most wretched serfdom, and won over to freedom.

Philosophy holds out a much higher promise than the fleeting relief of travel. By making the mind “fully master of itself”, philosophy allows us to “find seclusion even in the midst of business“.

The only harbour safe from the seething storms of this life is scorn of the future, a firm stand, a readiness to receive Fortune’s missiles full in the breast, neither skulking nor turning the back.

The letter is worth reading in full.

Expect the unexpected

…nothing ought to be unexpected by us.  Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems, and we should consider, not what is likely to happen, but what can happen.

Seneca, letter 91. The letter opens with the news of the unprecedented burning down of Lyons, so Seneca is referring here to what we might now call black swan events.

Attaining virtue

The final lines of Seneca’s letter 90:

A soul cannot be virtuous unless that soul has been trained and taught, and by unremitting practice brought to perfection.  We were born without virtue but we live to reach it. Even in the best of people, before you refine them by instruction, there is but the stuff of virtue, not virtue itself.


Seneca was very rich but that does not stop him from extolling the simple life! From letter 90:

The things that are indispensable require no elaborate pains for their acquisition; it is only the luxuries that call for labour

Does education make us into better people? (Part 4)

Seneca grudgingly concedes that education may be necessary for the attainment of wisdom, but even so the relationship is only indirect:

… you cannot attain virtue without food, either; and yet food has nothing to do with virtue. Wood does not offer assistance to a ship, although a ship cannot be built except of wood.

And in some cases education may not be needed at all:

What reason have I for supposing that one who is ignorant of letters [books] will never be a wise man, since wisdom is not to be found in letters?  Wisdom communicates facts and not words; and it may be true that the memory is more to be depended upon when it has no support outside itself.

(This also recalls Socrates, who is said to have mistrusted writing as a medium.)

Seneca then argues that the search for wisdom is too big and important an undertaking to be cluttered up with a lot of superfluous details.

[People] fail to learn the essentials just because they have learned the non-essentials. Didymus the scholar wrote four thousand books.  I should feel pity for him if he had only read the same number of superfluous volumes.

He finishes the letter with a rather delicious (though non-stoical!) rant (satire?) about the failings of philosophers themselves, and the perils of obsessive hair-splitting:

Protagoras declares that one can take either side on any question and debate it with equal success — even on the question of whether every subject can be debated from either point of view! Nausiphanes holds that in things which seem to exist, there is no difference between existence and non-existence.  Parmenides maintains that nothing exists of all this which seems to exist, except the universe alone. Zeno of Elea removed all the difficulties by removing one; for he declares that nothing exists.  The Pyrrhonean, Megarian, Eretrian, and Academic schools are all engaged in practically the same task; they have introduced a new knowledge, non-knowledge… If I cleave to Protagoras, there is nothing in the scheme of nature that is not doubtful; if I hold with Nausiphanes, I am sure only of this – that everything is unsure – if with Parmenides, there is nothing except the One; if with Zeno, there is not even the One.

Earlier in this passage, Seneca criticises philosophers who have “[by] their own accord … descended to determining the true meaning of conjunctions and prepositions”. This is significant because one of the three branches of classical Stocism — now largely forgotten in contemporary, popular treatments of the subject — was logic. The Stoics actually made advances in propositional logic, so Seneca’s attitude is interesting. I’ll return to the ‘forgotten Stoic logicians’ in a future post.


Whatever tomorrow may bring…

Still from letter 88:

“What,” you say, “does tomorrow never prove me wrong?  Whatever happens without my knowledge proves me wrong.” I, for my part, do not know what is to be, but I do know what may come to be.  I shall have no misgivings in this matter; I await the future in its entirety; and if there is any abatement in its severity, I make the most of it.  If the morrow treats me kindly, it is a sort of deception; but it does not deceive me even at that.  For just as I know that all things can happen, so I know, too, that they will not happen in every case. I am ready for favourable events in every case, but I am prepared for evil.

Seneca on self-control

Seneca is full of hidden gems. Still in his letter on education, he outlines a number of individual character traits which, he says, owe nothing to liberal studies! Here he is on self-control:

Self-control* takes command of our desires; some it hates and routs, others it regulates and brings within healthy limits; nor does it ever approach our desires for their own sake.  Self-control knows that the best measure of the appetites is not what you want to take, but what you ought to take.

*Translated as “temperance” in the Gummere passage above, but as “self-control” by Campbell.

Does education make us into better people? (Part 3)

I’m back after an unplanned break, which is mainly owing to a detour into Buddhist thought (on which more later, perhaps) . But now back to what I know better.

Seneca’s complaint about the liberal studies is that they teach us nothing that helps us achieve wisdom; instead they just distract us with tangential details:

Do you raise the question, “Through what regions did Ulysses stray?” instead of trying to prevent ourselves from going astray at all times?  We have no leisure to hear lectures on the question whether he was sea-tossed between Italy and Sicily, or outside our known world … we ourselves encounter storms of the spirit, which toss us daily, and our depravity drives us into all the ills which troubled Ulysses.

He also gives a prescient warning about the dangers of trying to measure everything:

You [geometers] know how to measure the circle; you find the square of any shape which is set before you; you compute the distances between the stars; there is nothing which does not come within the scope of your calculations.  But if you are a real master of your profession, measure me the mind of man!  Tell me how great it is, or how puny!