Two main ideas are addressed in this letter.
1. how to conduct philosophical discourse
2. three classes of prokoptons
Seneca briefly discusses that the purpose of discourse, which is to heal the soul. It is not to prove how eloquent one can be. While it doesn't hurt to be eloquent in philosophical discourse, eloquence is not the primary purpose.
Seneca hits on a very important point, one which is especially relevant in 2021 - speaking up; saying what is on your mind.
let us say what we feel, and feel what we say; let speech harmonize with life. That man has fulfilled his promise who is the same person both when you see him and when you hear him. We shall not fail to see what sort of man he is and how large a man he is, if only he is one and the same.
"Let speech harmonize with life." I love that so much it's worth repeating. How can we become better than we are if we can't enjoy the safety of open and free speech and honest dialogue? I've just finished reading "The Fearless Organization" by Amy Edmondson in which she advocated for managers and leaders to provide a culture which supports candor. Indeed, we all need to be temperate in our speech - we ought not to speak lies and actively deceive - and we should not use rhetoric to inflame the mob. But we ought to practice courage and speak our minds and raise concerns and awareness of important issues. Philosophy, which deals with matters of the soul, deserves the candid discourse which requires people to speak what the feel and feel what they speak.
The task is large and important and will require not only discourse, but practice and action.
You are required to cure a disease that is chronic and serious, – one which affects the general weal. You have as serious a business on hand as a physician has during a plague. Are you concerned about words? Rejoice this instant if you can cope with things. When shall you learn all that there is to learn? When shall you so plant in your mind that which you have learned, that it cannot escape? When shall you put it all into practice? For it is not sufficient merely to commit these things to memory, like other matters; they must be practically tested. He is not happy who only knows them, but he who does them.
There is a significant difference between a sage and a fool. But there are varying degrees of fools, especially those who are making progress (prokopton). Seneca distinguishes with three classes.
Class One - people who have
laid aside all passions and vices, who have learned what things are to be embraced; but their assurance is not yet tested. ... having escaped the diseases of the mind, but not yet the passions.
He notes the difference between disease and passion.
hardened and chronic vices, such as greed and ambition; they have enfolded the mind in too close a grip, and have begun to be permanent evils thereof. ... a persistent perversion of the judgment, so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or ... too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all, or to value highly things which ought to be valued but slightly or valued not at all.
Passion, on the other hand, is
objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement; [which] have come so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease.
Class Two - people who have
laid aside both the greatest ills of the mind and its passions, but yet are not in assured possession of immunity.
Class Three - people who are
beyond the reach of many of the vices and particularly of the great vices, but not beyond the reach of all. They have escaped avarice, for example, but still feel anger; they no longer are troubled by lust, but are still troubled by ambition; they no longer have desire, but they still have fear. And just because they fear, although they are strong enough to withstand certain things, there are certain things to which they yield; they scorn death, but are in terror of pain.
The task is urgent and while I read Seneca's letter, I am forced to admit I agree with his assessment. We make progress, but we have no great sense of urgency.
We hasten towards virtue while hampered by vices. I am ashamed to say it; but we worship that which is honourable only in so far as we have time to spare. But what a rich reward awaits us if only we break off the affairs which forestall us and the evils that cling to us with utter tenacity! Then neither desire nor fear shall rout us. Undisturbed by fears, unspoiled by pleasures, we shall be afraid neither of death nor of the gods; we shall know that death is no evil and that the gods are not powers of evil.
I try to infuse philosophy into all my life, but it does feel like I only address it as I "have time to spare." I seem to approach it on an 'as-needed' basis. I hear of 'bad' news about my performance assessment and I go into a mental tailspin. Then I delve into Stoic text and try to rouse myself out of the tailspin. It would seem it would be better if I never went into that tailspin to begin with! But I can't expect to be a sage after only practicing for a mere few years. I suspect this work will take another 40 to 50 years and even then, I won't accomplish the task before I die.
Will I ever reach Seneca's description of the ideal outcome? I'll try.
There await us, if ever we escape from these low dregs to that sublime and lofty height, peace of mind and, when all error has been driven out, perfect liberty. You ask what this freedom is? It means not fearing either men or gods; it means not craving wickedness or excess; it means possessing supreme power over oneself And it is a priceless good to be master of oneself.