Saturday, October 16, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 115 - On the Superficial Blessings

On the Superficial Blessings

The superficial blessings, of which Seneca discusses are riches and power.  The rub of the letter appears towards the end, where he notes that we should consider the prayer of those who possess riches and power.  If we could be a fly on the wall of those who possess such things, when we hear them pray, then we would know that these "blessings" are indeed superficial.  The gist of the letter is: be careful what you ask and prayer for.

The beginning of the letter discusses one of the important aspects of writing.  We write to impress upon our minds.

You should seek what to write, rather than how to write it – and even that not for the purpose of writing but of feeling it, that you may thus make what you have felt more your own and, as it were, set a seal on it.

He returns to the topic of 'style' and calls certain styles defects.

Style is the garb of thought: if it be trimmed, or dyed, or treated, it shows that there are defects and a certain amount of flaws in the mind.

Then he tries to paint a picture of a virtuous soul and how if we saw such a soul, we would be enamored by them, rather than by riches and power.  Note the various virtues in the passage below (I've italicized them).

If we had the privilege of looking into a good man's soul, oh what a fair, holy, magnificent, gracious, and shining face should we behold – radiant on the one side with justice and temperance, on another with bravery and wisdom! And, besides these, thriftiness, moderation, endurance, refinement, affability, and – though hard to believe – love of one's fellow-men, that Good which is so rare in man, all these would be shedding their own glory over that soul. There, too, forethought combined with elegance and, resulting from these, a most excellent greatness of soul (the noblest of all these virtues) – indeed what charm, O ye heavens, what authority and dignity would they contribute!

Later he lists things which cut off our vision of virtue, namely the body, poverty, lowliness, disgrace, unloveliness, the gleam of riches.

We need to become fully grown, rational adults.  We should consider what pleases children, as there is an analog in fully grown adults too.

how contemptible are the things we admire – like children who regard every toy as a thing of value, who cherish necklaces bought at the price of a mere penny as more dear than their parents or than their brothers. And what, then, as Aristo says, is the difference between ourselves and these children, except that we elders go crazy over paintings and sculpture, and that our folly costs us dearer? Children are pleased by the smooth and variegated pebbles which they pick up on the beach, while we take delight in tall columns of veined marble brought either from Egyptian sands or from African deserts

Then too, is status - how much we are driven to gain status among others.  Much of the high status in Seneca's time as well as our own, is mere falsities; it's all rot underneath.

all the famous men whom you see strutting about with head in air, have nothing but a gold-leaf prosperity. Look beneath, and you will know how much evil lies under that thin coating of titles.  Note that very commodity which holds the attention of so many magistrates and so many judges, and which creates both magistrates and judges – that money, I say, which ever since it began to be regarded with respect, has caused the ruin of the true honour of things; we become alternately merchants and merchandise, and we ask, not what a thing truly is, but what it costs; we fulfil duties if it pays, or neglect them if it pays, and we follow an honourable course as long as it encourages our expectations, ready to veer across to the opposite course if crooked conduct shall promise more.

Money, riches, power, fame - these give people status.  We are a culture obsessed with gaining it.  We grab at money and wish to 'go viral' in order to gain a position of status off which to influence others.  We fail to focus on becoming a better virtuous person.  We fall into the trap of thinking that by gaining status we help ourselves and others, when in fact we perpetuate the problem of producing "style" on the outward, while we rot on the inside.

Most likely, our parents, or teachers, or co-workers or friends trained us to think this way.  The culture of "prosperity" rolls forward and an entire nation, which argues over virtually everything, will agree on this one thing.  It will take an exceptional effort to overcome the desire infection.

Our parents have instilled into us a respect for gold and silver; in our early years the craving has been implanted, settling deep within us and growing with our growth. Then too the whole nation, though at odds on every other subject, agrees upon this; this is what they regard, this is what they ask for their children, this is what they dedicate to the gods when they wish to show their gratitude – as if it were the greatest of all man's possessions! And finally, public opinion has come to such a pass that poverty is a hissing and a reproach, despised by the rich and loathed by the poor.

He quotes Ovid and this one part stood out to me:

All ask how great my riches are, but none
Whether my soul is good.

Seneca continues,

What tears and toil does money wring from us! Greed is wretched in that which it craves and wretched in that which it wins! Think besides of the daily worry which afflicts every possessor in proportion to the measure of his gain!


though Fortune may leave our property intact, whatever we cannot gain in addition, is sheer loss!

And here is the part of the letter where Seneca asks us to consider the whole perspective of those who chase greed.  If we could peer into their souls, me may not then desire riches and power.

Do you think that there is any more pitiable lot in life than to possess misery and hatred also? Would that those who are bound to crave wealth could compare notes with the rich man! Would that those who are bound to seek political office could confer with ambitious men who have reached the most sought-after honours! They would then surely alter their prayers, seeing that these grandees are always gaping after new gain, condemning what is already behind them. For there is no one in the world who is contented with his prosperity, even if it comes to him on the run. Men complain about their plans and the outcome of their plans; they always prefer what they have failed to win.

What is the cure for greed and this desire infection?  Philosophy.

philosophy can settle this problem for you, and afford you, to my mind, the greatest boon that exists – absence of regret for your own conduct.


Let words proceed as they please, provided only your soul keeps its own sure order, provided your soul is great and holds unruffled to its ideals, pleased with itself on account of the very things which displease others, a soul that makes life the test of its progress, and believes that its knowledge is in exact proportion to its freedom from desire and its freedom from fear.

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