Monday, October 20, 2014

Repost: Seneca on the Philosopher's Relation to Society

Excerpts from Letter 5: "On the philosopher's mean."

The mere name of philosophy, however quietly pursued, is an object of sufficient scorn; and what would happen if we should begin to separate ourselves from the customs of our fellow-men? Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society. [...] Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve. We also bring it about that they are unwilling to imitate us in anything, because they are afraid lest they might be compelled to imitate us in everything. [...]

"Well then, shall we act like other men? Shall there be no distinction between ourselves and the world?" Yes, a very great one; let men find that we are unlike the common herd, if they look closely. If they visit us at home, they should admire us, rather than our household appointments. He is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware. It is the sign of an unstable mind not to be able to endure riches.


Dr. Jeffery Bell's commentary:

The overarching concern that motivates Seneca’s fifth letter is that philosophy, by its very nature, is already contrary to the customary concerns of the “multitude.” Philosophy, in other words, is untimely and at odds with the concerns and motivations that are common to the time in which one lives. It is for this reason, no doubt, that Seneca recognizes that philosophy is already “an object of sufficient scorn,” and hence the philosopher would be best served by avoiding reinforcing this prejudice by willfully living contrary to the norms of society. Unlike the philosopher who broadcasts their untimely status through “repellent attire, unkempt hair, [and a] slovenly beard,” the philosopher should inwardly be “different in all respects” but outwardly “conform to society” if they are to encourage others to the benefits of philosophy. And benefits indeed are to be had, Seneca argues, for philosophy enables a person to live a higher life, a life that is different from the common life, the life of the multitude, but a life that is not contrary to the “fellow-feeling with all men” that comes with the “sympathy and sociability” that philosophy can engender. Philosophy, in short, enables a higher level of adaptability to the present in that it encourages one to think through the relationship with ourselves and others in the present, to take what is “most essentially ours” and “lay hold of today’s task” rather than live with excessive thought for the events of the past or future [....]

If done right, this laying hold of our present is a philosophical task that constitutes what Seneca sees as a “happy medium between the ways of the sage,” who Seneca describes as one who foregoes all of the customary goods of society, including those that can be had “at no great price,” and “the ways of the world at large”—that is, the ways of the multitude whereby one largely engages with the thoughtless pursuit of luxuries and goods without concern for how well they adapt us to the present.

It is in the context of this discussion regarding the philosophical life that is a happy medium between the sage and the common life of the multitude that Seneca brings hope and fear into relationship with one another. Despite being as “dissimilar as they are,” hope and fear “keep step together; fear follows hope.” And they keep step together precisely because both belong, Seneca argues, “to a mind that is in suspense, a mind that is fretted by looking forward to the future.” A result of this fretful suspense that comes with hope and fear, Seneca claims, is that “foresight, the noblest blessing of the human race, becomes perverted.” Without forsaking foresight, therefore, the philosopher is to live a life without hope, or pursue a philosophy with no future in order to fully live with conscious engagement in the present, for the “present alone,” as Seneca closes the letter, “can make no man wretched.”


Sources: Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, trans. by Richard Mott Gummere, Wikisource, accessed October 20, 2014,

Dr. Jeffery Bell, "A Higher Life; or No Future Revisited," Aberrant Monism (blog), April 7, 2014,

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