This week’s letter would fit well with a time of festivities such as the Carnival or Spring Break. In it Seneca warns Lucilius of the dangers of pleasures and vices, saying that we should seek out places that are healthy not only for the body but especially for the spirit, and says that there is no point in “witnessing people wandering drunkenly along the beach, the turbulent parties, noisy music, and all other forms of luxury:
“We ought to select abodes which are wholesome not only for the body but also for the character.” (LI, 4)
Stoic doctrine teaches that all virtues are one just as all vices are one
“The soul is not to be pampered; surrendering to pleasure means also surrendering to pain, surrendering to toil, surrendering to poverty. Both ambition and anger will wish to have the same rights over me as pleasure, and I shall be torn asunder, or rather pulled to pieces, amid all these conflicting passions.” (LI,8)
He says that we must strive for freedom, and defines it as something complete, not partitioned. We cannot be slaves to our pleasures:
“And what is freedom, you ask? It means not being a slave to any circumstance, to any constraint, to any chance; it means compelling Fortune to enter the lists on equal terms.” (LI,9)
Originally published at https://thestoicletters.com on May 1st, 2021.
1. Every man does the best he can, my dear Lucilius! You over there have Etna, that lofty and most celebrated mountain of Sicily; (although I cannot make out why Messala, — or was it Valgius? for I have been reading in both, — has called it “unique,” inasmuch as many regions belch forth fire, not merely the lofty ones where the phenomenon is more frequent, — presumably because fire rises to the greatest possible height, — but low-lying places also.) As for myself, I do the best I can; I have had to be satisfied with Baiae; and I left it the day after I reached it; for Baiae is a place to be avoided, because, though it has certain natural advantages, luxury has claimed it for her own exclusive resort.
2. “What then,” you say, “should any place be singled out as an object of aversion?” Not at all. But just as, to the wise and upright man, one style of clothing is more suitable than another, without his having an aversion for any particular colour, but because he thinks that some colours do not befit one who has adopted the simple life; so there are places also, which the wise man or he who is on the way toward wisdom will avoid as foreign to good morals.
3. Therefore, if he is contemplating withdrawal from the world, he will not select Canopus (although Canopus does not keep any man from living simply), nor Baiae either; for both places have begun to be resorts of vice. At Canopus luxury pampers itself to the utmost degree; at Baiae it is even more lax, as if the place itself demanded a certain amount of licence.
4. We ought to select abodes which are wholesome not only for the body but also for the character. Just as I do not care to live in a place of torture, neither do I care to live in a café. To witness persons wandering drunk along the beach, the riotous revelling of sailing parties, the lakes a-din with choral song, and all the other ways in which luxury, when it is, so to speak, released from the restraints of law not merely sins, but blazons its sins abroad, — why must I witness all this?
5. We ought to see to it that we flee to the greatest possible distance from provocations to vice. We should toughen our minds, and remove them far from the allurements of pleasure. A single winter relaxed Hannibal’s fibre; his pampering in Campania took the vigour out of that hero who had triumphed over Alpine snows. He conquered with his weapons, but was conquered by his vices.
6. We too have a war to wage, a type of warfare in which there is allowed no rest or furlough. To be conquered, in the first place, are pleasures, which, as you see, have carried off even the sternest characters. If a man has once understood how great is the task which he has entered upon, he will see that there must be no dainty or effeminate conduct. What have I to do with those hot baths or with the sweating-room where they shut in the dry steam which is to drain your strength? Perspiration should flow only after toil.
7. Suppose we do what Hannibal did, — check the course of events, give up the war, and give over our bodies to be coddled. Every one would rightly blame us for our untimely sloth, a thing fraught with peril even for the victor, to say nothing of one who is only on the way to victory. And we have even less right to do this than those followers of the Carthaginian flag; for our danger is greater than theirs if we slacken, and our toil is greater than theirs even if we press ahead.
8. Fortune is fighting against me, and I shall not carry out her commands. I refuse to submit to the yoke; nay rather, I shake off the yoke that is upon me, — an act which demands even greater courage. The soul is not to be pampered; surrendering to pleasure means also surrendering to pain, surrendering to toil, surrendering to poverty. Both ambition and anger will wish to have the same rights over me as pleasure, and I shall be torn asunder, or rather pulled to pieces, amid all these conflicting passions.
9. I have set freedom before my eyes; and I am striving for that reward. And what is freedom, you ask? It means not being a slave to any circumstance, to any constraint, to any chance; it means compelling Fortune to enter the lists on equal terms. And on the day when I know that I have the upper hand, her power will be naught. When I have death in my own control, shall I take orders from her?
10. Therefore, a man occupied with such reflections should choose an austere and pure dwelling-place. The spirit is weakened by surroundings that are too pleasant, and without a doubt one’s place of residence can contribute towards impairing its vigour. Animals whose hoofs are hardened on rough ground can travel any road; but when they are fattened on soft marshy meadows their hoofs are soon worn out. The bravest soldier comes from rock-ribbed regions; but the town-bred and the home-bred are sluggish in action. The hand which turns from the plough to the sword never objects to toil; but your sleek and well-dressed dandy quails at the first cloud of dust.
11. Being trained in a rugged country strengthens the character and fits it for great undertakings. It was more honourable in Scipio to spend his exile at Liternumthan at Baiae; his downfall did not need a setting so effeminate. Those also into whose hands the rising fortunes of Rome first transferred the wealth of the state, Gaius Marius, Gnaeus Pompey, and Caesar, did indeed build villas near Baiae; but they set them on the very tops of the mountains. This seemed more soldier-like, to look down from a lofty height upon lands spread far and wide below. Note the situation, position, and type of building which they chose; you will see that they were not country-places, — they were camps.
12. Do you suppose that Cato would ever have dwelt in a pleasure-palace, that he might count the lewd women as they sailed past, the many kinds of barges painted in all sorts of colours, the roses which were wafted about the lake, or that he might listen to the nocturnal brawls of serenaders? Would he not have preferred to remain in the shelter of a trench thrown up by his own hands to serve for a single night? Would not anyone who is a man have his slumbers broken by a war-trumpet rather than by a chorus of serenaders?
13. But I have been haranguing against Baiae long enough; although I never could harangue often enough against vice. Vice, Lucilius, is what I wish you to proceed against, without limit and without end. For it has neither limit nor end. If any vice rend your heart, cast it away from you; and if you cannot be rid of it in any other way, pluck out your heart also. Above all, drive pleasures from your sight. Hate them beyond all other things, for they are like the bandits whom the Egyptians call “lovers,” who embrace us only to garrotte us.
- ↑ Etna was of especial interest to Lucilius. Besides being a Govenor in Sicily, he may have written the poem Aetna. For Seneca’s own curiosity regarding the mountain compare Ep. lxxix. 5 ff.
- ↑ Not far from Naples, and across the bay from Puteoli. It was a fashionable and dissolute watering place.
- ↑ Situated at the mouth of the westernmost branch of the Nile, and proverbial in Latin literature for the laxity of its morals.
- ↑ There is considerable doubt whether symphonia was vocal or instrumental music. The passage probably refers either to glee-singers (as in Venice to-day) or to bands of flute-players playing part-music. Cicero (Verr. iii. 44. 105) mentions them as providing entertainment at banquets.
- ↑ See Letter lxxxvi.
- ↑ The Egyptians used the word φηλητής in the sense of “knave” or “foot-pad.” The word is found in the Hecate of Callimachus. Hesychius defines it as equal to κλώψ “thief.” It was pronounced in the same way as φιλητής “lover,” and in late Greek was spelt in the same way.