Saturday, July 31, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 89 - On the Parts of Philosophy

On the Parts of Philosophy

Studying the parts of philosophy help to comprehend the whole.  But in so doing, be mindful not to break it down into too many parts as well as trying to bite off more than you can comprehend.

Modern Stoicism is mainly studied with three break-downs: physics, logic and ethics.  In this letter, Seneca references the three divisions as moral, natural, and rational.  I can't help but see

  • moral related to ethics 
  • natural related to physics
  • rational related to logic
I'll get into these a bit more, but let's jump back to the beginning of the letter.

Why study philosophy in parts?

studying the parts we can be brought more easily to understand the whole.

However, we must not divide it too much.

useful that philosophy should be divided, but not chopped into bits. ... the parts, as I have remarked, must not be countless in number and diminutive in size. For over-analysis is faulty in precisely the same way as no analysis at all.

Is there a difference between wisdom and philosophy?  Wisdom is the aim; philosophy is the process.

Wisdom is the perfect good of the human mind; philosophy is the love of wisdom, and the endeavour to attain it. ... Philosophy does the going, and wisdom is the goal.

The two cannot be separated.

Certain of our school, however, although philosophy meant to them "the study of virtue," and though virtue was the object sought and philosophy the seeker, have maintained nevertheless that the two cannot be sundered. ... the path by which one reaches virtue leads by way of virtue herself; philosophy and virtue cling closely together.

He then briefly elaborates on the various divisions of philosophy and what their study entails.


He states that the moral division is further divided into three parts.  As I read his notes on this, it does seem that the moral division deals with proper duties and actions.

First, we have the speculative part, which assigns to each thing its particular function and weighs the worth of each; it is highest in point of utility. For what is so indispensable as giving to everything its proper value? The second has to do with impulse, the third with actions.  For the first duty is to determine severally what things are worth; the second, to conceive with regard to them a regulated and ordered impulse; the third, to make your impulse and your actions harmonize, so that under all these conditions you may be consistent with yourself.


The natural division is also further divided and indeed seems roughly correlated to the study of [meta]physics.  The two main divisions of the natural division are,

bodily and non-bodily.  Each is divided into its own grades of importance, so to speak. The topic concerning bodies deals, first, with these two grades: the creative and the created; and the created things are the elements. Now this very topic of the elements, as some writers hold, is integral; as others hold, it is divided into matter, the cause which moves all things, and the elements.


The last division deals with learning and logic and mostly aligns with reading and writing.

Now all speech is either continuous, or split up between questioner and answerer. It has been agreed upon that the former should be called rhetoric, and the latter dialectic. Rhetoric deals with words, and meanings, and arrangement. Dialectic is divided into two parts: words and their meanings, that is, into things which are said, and the words in which they are said. Then comes a subdivision of each – and it is of vast extent.

He concludes the letter to Lucilius, with an exhortation that no matter how he studies philosophy, he puts what he learns into practice.

promptly relate to conduct all that you have read.  It is your conduct that you must hold in check; you must rouse what is languid in you, bind fast what has become relaxed, conquer what is obstinate, persecute your appetites, and the appetites of mankind, as much as you can; and to those who say: "How long will this unending talk go on?" answer with the words: "I ought to be asking you 'How long will these unending sins of yours go on?'"

Seneca then goes on to ask prompting questions with the intent of laying down vices and passions.  He lambasts greed in owning land, many and spacious villas and estates, embracing luxury, as well as having insatiable appetites.  Here are a couple which stood out to me.

What profit to you are your many bed-chambers? You sleep in one. No place is yours where you yourselves are not.


How slight a portion of all those shell-fish, imported from so far, slips down that insatiable gullet? Poor wretches, do you not know that your appetites are bigger than your bellies?

Regardless of how you study philosophy, direct your learning back to wise living.

everything you hear or read, is to be applied to conduct, and to the alleviation of passion's fury. Study, not in order to add anything to your knowledge, but to make your knowledge better.

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