Friday, October 1, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 110 - On True and False Riches

On True and False Riches

In Seneca's time, many believed a personal god or protector accompanied each person.

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."

This is not unlike the Stoic view of deity.  The Stoics believe that there is a bit of god in each of us - our own daimon.  Marcus refers to the daimon often and this is where the word eudaimonia comes from - to have a good god-soul within us; to align our unique part of us with the Whole or Nature.

Seneca makes the point that regardless if you have a bit of god in you or not (and we are therefore neglected), he observes, 

you can curse a man with no heavier curse than to pray that he may be at enmity with himself.

If we are at enmity with ourselves, then we deny our very existence!

He then pivots to the observation that 'evils' do not really turn out to be evils, especially if we take the perspective of the view from above - seeing things from the perspective of God or Nature.

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!

Our lives may be built up over many years; we may enjoy decades of health and savings and prosperity.  But then along comes some misfortune.  We may become ill or lose a job.  How often do we see people reinvent themselves and start anew?  Was the illness or job loss really a misfortune?

But let us also never forget that regardless of the 'highs' and 'lows' of life, the very end for everyone ends up the same.  When compared to our final state (death), all 'lows' and 'downs' in life (e.g. illness, job less, exile, etc.) are nothing.

But this very fall has in it nothing evil, if you consider the end, after which nature lays no man lower.

Wise people consider the Whole.  The wise aim for equanimity - neither tormented by the fears of 'lows' nor overcome with joy by the 'highs.'

measure all things according to the state of man; restrict at the same time both your joys and your fears.

Wise people also remember that externals are nothing to us.  They do not depend on us.  Therefore, we should never get worked up about them!

All these things which stir us and keep us a-flutter, are empty things.

Referring to externals, Seneca observes,

how fleeting, how unsure, and how harmless are the things which we fear.

What is the antidote to succumbing to externals?  To learn what is truly good and evil: our moral choice.  We can learn this.

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 honour and baseness, and Providence.

Furthermore, we may frequently take flight and return often to the view from above; and ignore what the majority incorrectly deem as good: riches, fame, status.

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.

When Seneca admonishes us to 'explore outside the universe' it sound very familiar to Marcus:

Further, the rational soul traverses the whole universe and its surrounding void, explores the shape of it, stretches into the infinity of time, encompasses and comprehends the periodic regeneration of the Whole. It reflects that our successors will see nothing new, just as our predecessors saw nothing more than we do: such is the sameness of things, a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has in a sense seen all the past and all the future" (Meditations 11.1.2).

Hadot often speaks of this practice of 'taking flight' and traversing the Cosmos.  See this entry on my blog.

Returning to the Seneca quote above, he also notes that greed is the cause for humanity to turn away from the heavens and towards the earth - to dig for gold, silver and minerals.  Our greed drives us to 'pry beneath the earth and seek what evil it can dig up' as we are 'discontented with that which is freely offered.'  Seneca says something similar in Letter 94.  In this letter he adds,

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.

Our goal; and what is freely ours, is

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 endeavour.

We ought to despise greed, gluttony and luxury.  These are all for show.  These are externals and truly are not a part of us nor 'up to us.'  To acquire, to eat to excess, to bask in riches are merely activities of display, but do not demonstrate actual human excellence.

Seneca closes with a quote from Attalus, who speaks of a procession of wealth by an empire, of which a few parts I've copied below.

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


the riches seemed to me to be as useless to the possessors as they were to the onlookers.


It is all show; such things are displayed, not possessed; while they please they pass away. 18. Turn thyself rather to the true riches. Learn to be content with little


Do you ask what is the cure for want? It is to make hunger satisfy hunger


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.

Think often of these things.

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. 

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