Seneca to Lucilius: 44, philosophy as the great equalizer

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Philosophy is for everyone

“If there is any good in philosophy, it is this: it has no regard for genealogies.” (Letters to Lucilius, XLIV.1)

But that is simply not the case. No more than it is the case with Buddhism, which is practiced by half a billion people, or Christianity, which counts almost two and a half billion people among its followers. Of course, if one wishes to become sufficiently steeped in Stoicism to be able to write books or give lectures about it, one does need a somewhat sophisticated background in philosophy, and time to spare. But that person would be the equivalent of a Christian theologian, for instance, and most Christians don’t have to get to those levels in order to practice their religion.

The same goes with practical philosophies for everyday life, such as Stoicism. The basic precepts are easy to understand, and both ancient and modern Stoics (with some exceptions) speak plainly, in a way that can be understood by most people, regardless of background. That’s why it is such a powerful experience to read Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius. And that is why Seneca continues:

“Excellence of mind is available to all: in this regard we are all nobly born.” (Letters, XLIV.2)

“Philosophy neither rejects anyone nor chooses anyone; it shines for all. Socrates was no patrician; Cleanthes hauled water, and hired himself out to water people’s gardens; Plato did not come to philosophy a nobleman but was ennobled by it.” (Letters, XLIV.2–3)

“Everyone has the same number of ancestors. There is no one whose origins lie anywhere but in oblivion. Plato says that every king is of servile origin and every slave of kingly origin.” (Letters, XLIV.4)

“It is the mind that confers nobility, for the mind has license, regardless of estate, to rise above the vagaries of chance.” (Letters, XLIV.5)

“‘How?’ you ask. If you make your own distinctions of what is good and bad, without reference to popular notions. You should not consider where things come from but where they are headed.” (Letters, XLIV.6)

“What, then, is the mistake people make, seeing that everyone wants a happy life? They take the instruments used by happiness to be happiness itself, and so abandon the very thing they are seeking.” (Letters, XLIV.7)

This is true also within the specific practice of Stoicism, which is becoming more and more popular. A number of people, so-called Silicon Valley stoics (notice the lower case “s”), for instance, clearly confuse the tools for the goal. They take cold showers (a type of exercise in self-deprivation), for instance, in order to toughen themselves so that they can… make more money? That is not at all the goal of Stoicism. Again, money is a preferred indifferent. The only true good is arete, a life of excellence in which we become the best (moral) human beings we can be. If you think Stoicism is your ticket to success, fame, and wealth, you are profoundly mistaken about what Stoicism is. Which is why Seneca concludes this letter with a warning:

“The greater their efforts, the greater the hindrance they create for themselves. It is like hurrying in a maze: their very haste impedes them.” (Letters, XLIV.7)

Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

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