This is yet again one of my favorite letters by Seneca the Younger, the Roman Stoic philosopher and one of the main pillars of Stoicism.
This is such a rich letter, short and sweet and full of nuggets of wisdom which means I’m merely going to point out my favorite bits in it.
Seneca was an affluent and influential individual, also a very wise man. He starts his letter noting to his friend that he is writing from one of his many houses. Right off the bat, you know that this is someone who is no stranger to luxury and wealth. Yet, the letter’s title here tells you the main takeaway that there is such a thing as taking it too far and going overboard with displays of wealth, power, and, most of all, vanity.
He begins with a beautiful greeting telling his friend that he wishes the letter finds him ‘keeping a sound spirit within himself,’ a state of being that would render a person the favor of all the gods of nature. Something that even people of means do not always have easy access to, for they don’t always enjoy the company in their own minds.
So, according to Seneca–and every single wise person all throughout history–the shortest way to having a wonderful streak of good luck (aka the favor of the gods), is to be of sound spirit, or at peace with oneself.
It’s possible this is exactly why he alludes to the discussion of the best way to manage joy and fear, two opposite emotions that wreak havoc on a person’s state of mind.
He advocates the Stoic imperative of not letting oneself be at the mercy of high peaks of joy and low valleys of fear.
It’s not always clear that events that on the surface could only be construed as setbacks could somehow herald a new beginning of something new and meaningful.
On the flip side of the same coin, there are no guarantees that what we greet with the most generous welcome could turn out to be as auspicious as initially believed and not mired in a type of evil that would be the downfall of a person.
So sure, when it’s framed like that you can see the logic and merit in curbing one’s enthusiasm and pulling the reins on one’s anxieties if for nothing else, to reach a baseline of a mindset that can face up to the strikes of fortune with unfazed steadfastness and fortitude.
In contrast to that calm state of mindful awareness, there is that turbulence and turmoil inlaid in the minds of some people. A recipe for cultivating one’s own personal hell is to be at enmity with oneself. I can almost envision it as a self-inflicted curse that will almost always, even if not immediately, accrue the wrath and hostility of the gods.
Alas, that is not clear from the vantage point of a person who is struggling to make ends meet. All one could see from the outside are the signs of extravagance, excess behavior, and self-indulgence. And yes, it’s awe-inspiring, but it’s also a sign of an empty hole in one’s soul that this person is trying to fill with truckloads of whims and indiscretions.
Life is truly empty on the top to those who do not savor the journey and make sure they have the proper insulation of a loving family and warm friendships.
It doesn’t matter how much jewelry you can adorn yourself with if you can’t share that joy with a person near and dear who would equally be enthusiastic with a simple thoughtful gift instead.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have accumulated in your bank account if you can’t afford to surround yourself with people you can trust explicitly.
It doesn’t matter how many fancy shoes, sports, luxury cars, and private planes you can afford if you’re always running from yourself.
It doesn’t matter how many houses, ranches, and vacation homes you have if you cannot live with yourself or sit in a room alone without being haunted by your own ghosts and buried skeletons of the past.
It doesn’t matter how many beds you can share if you can’t close your eyes and fall to sleep in peace at the end of a long day.
A man can truly be his own worst enemy, even with the trappings of affluence surrounding him on all sides.
This leaves us with the moral of Seneca’s words, what is true riches, and what is false. True riches are those of the soul, of one’s own making, intrinsic to his thoughts, and inseparable from his very core. Such richness will endure the lack of power and means of physical wealth and will infinitely increase the value of the essence of any one person no matter his wealth relative to others.
A person in control of his own mind and his own emotions and at peace and harmony with his own thoughts is much wealthier than any emperor or conqueror no matter how much gold the latter is hoarding in his coffers.
The example lies in the story of the philosopher Diagones who apparently did not seek the favor of Alexander the Great, and when Alexander sought him out instead and asked the sun-bathing, and quite indifferent to the majesty of power of Alexander, what his desires would be, Diogenes scornfully asked Alexander that he would like him to move out of the path of sunlight.
Seneca’s quote from this very letter puts it all in proper perspective: “We are not afraid in the daylight; we have turned everything into a state of darkness.”
Thank you for taking the time to read these words. Now, I leave you with the brilliance of Seneca’s own thoughts.
Love and peace.
LETTER 110 On True and False Riches
From my villa at Nomentum I send you greeting and bid you keep a sound spirit within you—in other words, gain the blessing of all the gods, for he is assured of their grace and favor who has become a blessing to himself.
Lay aside for the present the belief of certain persons—that a god is assigned to each one of us as a sort of attendant—not a god of regular rank, but one of a lower grade—one of those whom Ovid calls “plebeian gods.” Yet, while laying aside this belief, I would have you remember that our ancestors, who followed such a creed, have become Stoics; for they have assigned a Genius or a Juno to every individual.
Later on, we shall investigate whether the gods have enough time on their hands to care for the concerns of private individuals; in the meantime, you must know that whether we are allotted to special guardians, or whether we are neglected and consigned to Fortune, you can curse a man with no heavier curse than to pray that he may be at enmity with himself.
There is no reason, however, why you should ask the gods to be hostile to anyone whom you regard as deserving of punishment; they are hostile to such a person, I maintain, even though he seems to be advanced by their favor.
Apply careful investigation, considering how our affairs actually stand, and not what men say of them; you will then understand that evils are more likely to help us than to harm us.
For how often has so-called affliction been the source and the beginning of happiness! How often have privileges which we welcomed with deep thanksgiving built steps for themselves to the top of a precipice, still uplifting men who were already distinguished—just as if they had previously stood in a position whence they could fall in safety! But this very fall has in it nothing evil, if you consider the end, after which nature lays no man lower.
The universal limit is near; yes, there is near us the point where the prosperous man is upset, and the point where the unfortunate is set free. It is we ourselves that extend both these limits, lengthening them by our hopes and by our fears.
If, however, you are wise, measure all things according to the state of man; restrict at the same time both your joys and your fears. Moreover, it is worthwhile not to rejoice at anything for long, so that you may not fear anything for long.
But why do I confine the scope of this evil? There is no reason why you should suppose that anything is to be feared. All these things which stir us and keep us a-flutter, are empty things. None of us has sifted out the truth; we have passed fear on to one another; none has dared to approach the object which caused his dread, and to understand the nature of his fear—aye, the good behind it. That is why falsehood and vanity still gain credit— because they are not refuted. Let us account it worthwhile to look closely at the matter; then it will be clear how fleeting, how unsure, and how harmless are the things which we fear.
The disturbance in our spirits is similar to that which Lucretius detected: Like boys who cower frightened in the dark, so grown-ups in the light of day feel fear. What, then? Are we not more foolish than any child, we who “in the light of day feel fear”? But you were wrong, Lucretius; we are not afraid in the daylight; we have turned everything into a state of darkness.
We see neither what injures nor what profits us; all our lives through we blunder along, neither stopping nor treading more carefully on this account. But you see what madness it is to rush ahead in the dark.
Indeed, we are bent on getting ourselves called back from a greater distance; and though we do not know our goal, yet we hasten with wild speed in the direction whither we are straining.
The light, however, may begin to shine, provided we are willing. But such a result can come about only in one way—if we acquire by knowledge this familiarity with things divine and human, if we not only flood ourselves but steep ourselves therein, if a man reviews the same principles even though he understands them and applies them again and again to himself, if he has investigated what is good, what is evil, and what has falsely been so entitled; and, finally, if he has investigated honor and baseness, and Providence.
The range of the human intelligence is not confined within these limits; it may also explore outside the universe—its destination and its source, and the ruin towards which all nature hastens so rapidly. We have withdrawn the soul from this divine contemplation and dragged it into mean and lowly tasks, so that it might be a slave to greed, so that it might forsake the universe and its confines, and, under the command of masters who try all possible schemes, pry beneath the earth and seek what evil it can dig up therefrom—discontented with that which was freely offered to it.
Now God, who is the Father of us all, has placed ready to our hands those things which he intended for our own good; he did not wait for any search on our part, and he gave them to us voluntarily. But that which would be injurious, he buried deep in the earth.
We can complain of nothing but ourselves; for we have brought to light the materials for our destruction, against the will of Nature, who hid them from us. We have bound over our souls to pleasure, whose service is the source of all evil; we have surrendered ourselves to self-seeking and reputation, and to other aims which are equally idle and useless.
What, then, do I now encourage you to do? Nothing new—we are not trying to find cures for new evils—but this first of all: namely, to see clearly for yourself what is necessary and what is superfluous. What is necessary will meet you everywhere; what is superfluous has always to be hunted-out—and with great endeavor.
But there is no reason why you should flatter yourself overmuch if you despise gilded couches and jeweled furniture. For what virtue lies in despising useless things? The time to admire your own conduct is when you have come to despise the necessities.
You are doing no great thing if you can live without royal pomp, if you feel no craving for boars which weigh a thousand pounds, or for flamingo tongues, or for the other absurdities of a luxury that already wearies of game cooked whole, and chooses different bits from separate animals; I shall admire you only when you have learned to scorn even the common sort of bread, when you have made yourself believe that grass grows for the needs of men as well as of cattle, when you have found out that food from the treetop can fill the belly—into which we cram things of value as if it could keep what it has received.
We should satisfy our stomachs without being over-nice. How does it matter what the stomach receives, since it must lose whatever it has received?
You enjoy the carefully arranged dainties which are caught on land and sea; some are more pleasing if they are brought fresh to the table, others, if after long feeding and forced fattening they almost melt and can hardly retain their own grease. You like the subtly devised flavor of these dishes. But I assure you that such carefully chosen and variously seasoned dishes, once they have entered the belly, will be overtaken alike by one and the same corruption.
Would you despise the pleasures of eating? Then consider its result! I remember some words of Attalus, which elicited general applause:
“Riches long deceived me. I used to be dazed when I caught some gleam of them here and there. I used to think that their hidden influence matched their visible show. But once, at a certain elaborate entertainment, I saw embossed work in silver and gold equalling the wealth of a whole city, and colors and tapestry devised to match objects which surpassed the value of gold or of silver—brought not only from beyond our own borders, but from beyond the borders of our enemies; on one side were slave-boys notable for their training and beauty, on the other were throngs of slave-women, and all the other resources that a prosperous and mighty empire could offer after reviewing its possessions. What else is this, I said to myself, than a stirring-up of man’s cravings, which are in themselves provocative of lust? What is the meaning of all this display of money? Did we gather merely to learn what greed was? For my own part I left the place with less craving than I had when I entered. I came to despise riches, not because of their uselessness, but because of their pettiness. Have you noticed how, inside a few hours, that programme, however slow-moving and carefully arranged, was over and done? Has a business filled up this whole life of ours, which could not fill up a whole day?“
I had another thought also: the riches seemed to me to be as useless to the possessors as they were to the onlookers. Accordingly, I say to myself, whenever a show of that sort dazzles my eyes, whenever I see a splendid palace with a well-groomed corps of attendants and beautiful bearers carrying a litter: Why wonder? Why gape in astonishment? It is all show; such things are displayed, not possessed; while they please they pass away.
Turn thyself rather to the true riches. Learn to be content with little, and cry out with courage and with greatness of soul: ‘We have water, we have porridge; let us compete in happiness with Jupiter himself.’
And why not, I pray thee, make this challenge even without porridge and water? For it is base to make the happy life depend upon silver and gold, and just as base to make it depend upon water and porridge.
‘But,’ some will say, ‘what could I do without such things?’ Do you ask what is the cure for want? It is to make hunger satisfy hunger; for, all else being equal, what difference is there in the smallness or the largeness of the things that force you to be a slave? What matter how little it is that Fortune can refuse to you? Your very porridge and water can fall under another’s jurisdiction; and besides, freedom comes, not to him over whom Fortune has slight power, but to him over whom she has no power at all.
This is what I mean: you must crave nothing, if you would vie with Jupiter; for Jupiter craves nothing.” This is what Attalus told us. If you are willing to think often of these things, you will strive not to seem happy, but to be happy, and, in addition, to seem happy to yourself rather than to others. Farewell.