This letter relates to gratitude and ingratitude, and it delves into the social ledger of giving and receiving. As is the usual case with Seneca, he writes a lot to make a point. I'll try to summarize the gist of each paragraph and point.
The whole topic begins when Lucilius complains about meeting an ungrateful person. Seneca wishes to teach Lucilius that on the topic of gratitude, it is not so much about checking debits and credits in a social ledger as it is about embracing and expressing the attitude of gratitude. Seneca quips:
caution can effect nothing but to make you ungenerous. For if you wish to avoid such a danger, you will not confer benefits; and so, that benefits may not be lost with another man, they will be lost to yourself.
Stated differently, he instructs Lucilius that if he focuses on whether someone repays him (in the form of gratitude or benefits) or not, then he may exercise greater "caution" or reservation, so as to not harm his ego. But in so doing, Lucilius would only harm himself. Gratitude is not about squaring a debt or incurring a credit (although many people do think this way), rather gratitude is an inward disposition - an attitude one assumes and embraces - to his own benefit.
Seneca is of the opinion it is always better to assume a gracious attitude regardless of what others' response is. Therefore, it is better to always be gracious and to never have gratitude returned than to never be gracious in the first place. Being gracious is good for the person, even when the other person does not reciprocate.
It is better, however, to get no return than to confer no benefits. Even after a poor crop one should sow again ... In order to discover one grateful person, it is worth while to make trial of many ungrateful ones.
An excellent, rational human always chooses virtue regardless of others' response. But if you live your life according to the social ledger, you may soon find yourself quite a hermit and a nobody.
If one were compelled to drop everything that caused trouble, life would soon grow dull amid sluggish idleness; but in your case this very condition may prompt you to become more charitable. For when the outcome of any undertaking is unsure, you must try again and again, in order to succeed ultimately.
Ultimate success means the individual Stoic acts as a potential catalyst of igniting the fire of love throughout the Cosmos. While this may largely be unsuccessful in an individual's lifetime, the good thing to do is to try, try again!
Seneca then asks an interesting ethical question.
"Whether he who has helped us has squared the account and has freed us from our debt, if he has done us harm later."
Restated differently, the question asks if another person who has previously helped us, but then later does us harm - are we obligated to return the good favor they previously bestowed, since they have now harmed us?
Seneca analyzes the situation, but in the end, simply notes that the good man will give maximum benefit of the doubt to the person who has helped and then injured.
The good man so arranges the two sides of his ledger that he voluntarily cheats himself by adding to the benefit and subtracting from the injury.
Again, to restate his point: if someone has helped us and we, in a sense, 'owe them' for the favor, and this same someone later injures us, if we are good, then we will be grateful for the benefit that someone has given us and we will minimize the harm of that injury. In modern vernacular, we give them the most benefit of the doubt - we try to be generous of our opinion of them when they helped us, and we discount the injury as much as possible when they harm us.
"But surely," you say, "it is the part of justice to render to each that which is his due, – thanks in return for a benefit, and retribution, or at any rate ill-will, in return for an injury!" This, I say, will be true when it is one man who has inflicted the injury, and a different man who has conferred the benefit; for if it is the same man, the force of the injury is nullified by the benefit conferred.
In his opinion, if it is the same person who both helps and then injures, then we should give the best benefit of the doubt. But if the injury is by one person and the help is by a different, then perhaps a tit-for-tat strategy is more justified. Although, for my own part, I think we ought to give others the benefit of the doubt even if they have only injured us and have not helped us. I would implement a tit-for-tat if I were repeatedly injured by the same person over a long period of time.
The wise man will inquire in his own mind into all the circumstances: how much he has received, from whom, when, where, how. And so we declare that none but the wise man knows how to make return for a favour; moreover, none but the wise man knows how to confer a benefit, – that man, I mean, who enjoys the giving more than the recipient enjoys the receiving. ... In this balancing of benefits and injuries, the good man will, to be sure, judge with the highest degree of fairness, but he will incline towards the side of the benefit; he will turn more readily in this direction. ... the good man will be easy-going in striking a balance; he will allow too much to be set against his credit. He will be unwilling to pay a benefit by balancing the injury against it. The side towards which he will lean, the tendency which he will exhibit, is the desire to be under obligations for the favour, and the desire to make return therefor.
Again - the principal is revealed: give the benefit of doubt; assume the best of intentions in others.
If we are wise, we will assume an attitude of gratitude in all circumstances.
We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a sense in which justice, that is commonly supposed to concern other persons, is not; gratitude returns in large measure unto itself. There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbour, has not benefited himself ... I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me. ... your being grateful is more conducive to your own good than to your neighbour's good ... you have had a great experience which is the outcome of an utterly happy condition of soul, – to have felt gratitude.
The opposite is also true. An ungrateful person only harms himself.
The ungrateful man tortures and torments himself; he hates the gifts which he has accepted, because he must make a return for them, and he tries to belittle their value, but he really enlarges and exaggerates the injuries which he has received. And what is more wretched than a man who forgets his benefits and clings to his injuries?
Returning to more fully describing what 'giving the benefit if the doubt' means:
He despises the wrongs done him; he forgets them, not accidentally, but voluntarily. He does not put a wrong construction upon everything, or seek for someone whom he may hold responsible for each happening; he rather ascribes even the sins of men to chance. He will not misinterpret a word or a look; he makes light of all mishaps by interpreting them in a generous way. He does not remember an injury rather than a service. As far as possible, he lets his memory rest upon the earlier and the better deed ... the spirit of kindliness always tries to bend every doubtful case toward the better interpretation
In sum, the grateful person does not walk around with a chip on his shoulder, daring any and all to knock it off!
Where does gratitude find its root? How does one gain, instill and embrace gratitude?
no man can be grateful unless he has learned to scorn the things which drive the common herd to distraction; if you wish to make return for a favour, you must be willing to go into exile, or to pour forth your blood, or to undergo poverty, or – and this will frequently happen, – even to let your very innocence be stained and exposed to shameful slanders. It is no slight price that a man must pay for being grateful.
This passage hearkens to the spiritual exercise of negative visualization or premeditatio malorum. To feel gratitude, subtract things from your life. Ponder your own exile, your own ill health, your own poverty and even your potential ill-repute. Practice thinking about experiencing these things and how they are nothing to be feared - how they are not up to you. And when you return to the present, you will note how much you have and you will feel gratitude. As you think of these things, your greed will diminish.
Do you ask what it is that makes us forget benefits received? It is our extreme greed for receiving others. We consider not what we have obtained, but what we are to seek.
We give in to hedonic adaptation. And when we become used to all these things, we take them for granted and when they are taken away, we feel offended. We ought to reflect that we have been infected with the 'common herd's' desires. Therefore, we ought to despise what the majority pursues.
those things possess no grandeur wherewith to enthrall our minds, except the fact that we have become accustomed to marvel at them. For they are not praised because they ought to be desired, but they are desired because they have been praised; and when the error of individuals has once created error on the part of the public, then the public error goes on creating error on the part of individuals.
He concludes with the point, that regardless of the many opinions in the world, gratitude is common among all people.
Amid all this diversity of opinion all men will yet with one voice, as the saying is, vote "aye" to the proposition that thanks should be returned to those who have deserved well of us.