The human mind is incredible. As a child, I would day dream so much, my teachers were always trying to get my attention back into the classroom. One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the floor in my bedroom and play with my toys - imaging the small figurines and cars were armies or football teams fighting against each other. But over the years, I've been disciplined by teachers and the demands of school and work to focus on the here and now. I will admit, that frequently (especially at 2pm on most days) my mind drifts off in contemplation.
What does this have to do with Seneca's letter about Vatia's Villa? It's this unique ability of the human mind to give itself an instant vacation while at work and engaged in society. We do not need a villa to escape. We can practice instantaneous escape and then snap right back into the present moment.
Before making this point, Seneca commentates a bit about luxuries and how they make us weak.
Nature gave us legs with which to do our own walking, and eyes with which to do our own seeing. Our luxuries have condemned us to weakness; we have ceased to be able to do that which we have long declined to do.
If this were true for Seneca's time, it is truer still today in the year 2021. I recently read a comment on-line where a person said that it has never been easier to be strong, than now. Everyone is weak and with a little effort, you can appear strong.
Back to Vatia and his village. Seneca notes,
people used to cry out: "O Vatia, you alone know how to live!" But what he knew was how to hide, not how to live; and it makes a great deal of difference whether your life be one of leisure or one of idleness.
To me, it sounds like Seneca is saying Vatia does not have a meaningful life and all he is doing is hiding out in his villa. His life is not one of leisure, but of idleness.
He goes on,
the mass of mankind consider that a person is at leisure who has withdrawn from society, is free from care, self-sufficient, and lives for himself;
Seneca begins to make the point here. You do not need to withdraw from society in a villa or in the mountains to be at leisure. Rather, you main attain leisure in your mind alone.
The person who hides from society does not know how to live. You must learn how to live in order to learn how to attain leisure. Therefore, the person who shuts himself off from the world does not know how to live nor does he know leisure.
Does he even know (and that is of first importance) how to live at all? For the man who has fled from affairs and from men, who has been banished to seclusion by the unhappiness which his own desires have brought upon him, who cannot see his neighbour more happy than himself, who through fear has taken to concealment, like a frightened and sluggish animal, – this person is not living for himself; he is living for his belly, his sleep, and his lust, – and that is the most shameful thing in the world.
Therefore, we now know that the place you are at or where you live cannot bring fulfillment. If you are always wanting to be somewhere else, then you will always be malcontented. You fail to fix the very thing you take with you no matter where you go!
The place where one lives, however, can contribute little towards tranquillity; it is the mind which must make everything agreeable to itself. I have seen men despondent in a gay and lovely villa, and I have seen them to all appearance full of business in the midst of a solitude. For this reason you should not refuse to believe that your life is well-placed merely because you are not now in Campania.
The trick - the lesson - is to learn to be content where you are at, no matter where you are. If you can do this, then you can allow yourself the freedom and leisure to drift off to the villa for a moment of respite. This is what wise men do.
If you develop this ability, you may also develop the ability to converse with people who are not now with you. You will always have a friend with you if you can think on them and talk with them in your mind.
You may hold converse with your friends when they are absent, and indeed as often as you wish and for as long as you wish.
This is precisely what Seneca and Lucilius are attempting to do. While they are not corresponding in letters, they are advising each other - in a sense, they are living in each other's heads.
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