This is quite the epic letter, coming in at over 70 verses. There is a lot to unpack here, but let me try to summarize the big ideas and themes, then support them with passages from the letter.
I won't claim I fully understand the letter; there are a lot of questions and quibbles throughout. But from what I can tell, the overarching theme which Seneca supports is: we need dogmas, precepts and constant admonitions (advice) to transform the human.
The quibbles, by and large, are around what is superfluous and what is essential when teaching and living philosophically.
Later in the letter, he gets more specific about the on-going need of help from "a guardian" (v. 55) who advises us constantly, until we are transformed. The reason we need this guardian is because the world is virtually saturated with bad logic and faults, stemming from the vices of greed, luxury and fame. In sum, we need help to overcome the inertia of the prevailing sentiment that indifferents are indeed good.
Before moving on, let me try to define a few words which Seneca uses in this letter. This might help provide clarity when discussing the ideas and themes.
Dogma - foundational ideas, something held as an established opinion or code of tenants. An example of a Stoic dogma might be: the only good is virtue and action motivated by virtue.
Precepts - these are principals and duties which a Stoic ought to live by; practical, applicable advice designated for a specific individual.
Advice - short-hand rules for living well, such as 'treat others as you would be treated' or the short-hand version 'the golden rule.'
And so, the aim of this letter is determining what the minimal amount of knowledge is needed. Can one be taught the dogmas alone? Is that sufficient and the rest is superfluous? Or is practical advice enough without needing precepts and dogmas? Or is 'all the above' needed?
It seems to me, that Seneca is saying, 'we need all of it.' While he didn't invoke any analogies such as the egg or garden, it seems he is saying that Stoicism should be taken in as a whole. To use the garden analogy, to have the fruit, you need the dirt and the fence. While those who advocate just for a part (i.e. - you just need dirt, not the fence, and the fruit will follow), are saying that the other stuff is extra, not essential.
To try to keep this organized, I'll note the CLAIMS by people Seneca quotes, and then the RESPONSES Seneca provides, as well as Seneca's framing QUESTIONS.
major CLAIM 1: Precepts and advice are the only "significant part, while the other departments are rejected on the ground that they stray beyond the sphere of practical needs."
major CLAIM 2: Aristo thinks precepts and advice are of "slight import" with Seneca stating, "he holds that it does not sink into the mind, having in it nothing but old wives' precepts, and that the greatest benefit is derived from the actual dogmas of philosophy and from the definition of the Supreme Good."
major CLAIM 3: "Cleanthes holds that [precepts & advice] is indeed useful, but that it is a feeble thing unless it is derived from general principles – that is, unless it is based upon a knowledge of the actual dogmas of philosophy and its main headings."
Seneca breaks down the discussion and problem thus:
QUESTION 1: Are precepts and advice useful or useless?
QUESTION 2: Are precepts and advice enough to produce a good man (i.e. dogmas are not essential)? Or is it the other way around (i.e. precepts and advice are not essential) and dogmas are enough to produce a good man?
Seneca tackles Aristo first. Aristo claims precepts and advice are of 'slight import' and therefore superfluous. Seneca quotes a very large portion of text by Aristo and then responds to it. I'll take each of Aristo's minor claims and summarize Seneca's response to each one.
minor CLAIM 1 by Aristo - if someone can't see because an object interferes their vision or if someone is ill or poor or starving, it does them no good to give them rules to live by when you ignore the root cause of their ailment. He advises that the object be removed first so the person can see; to restore the health of the ill person first; to pull them out of poverty first; to feed the hungry person first before giving them rules (precepts and advice) by which they can live well.
only when the cloud is dispersed will it be clear what one's duty is in each case.
The false opinion of the miser will continue to make him a miser and he will never apply precepts and advice about the proper use of money. Therefore, correct the false opinion.
Seneca's RESPONSE seems to be in agreement, but he does not want to simply stop after the cure has been applied, therefore, Seneca continues to advocate for the use of precepts and advice.
The mind, on the other hand, needs many precepts in order to see what it should do in life; although in eye-treatment also the physician not only accomplishes the cure, but gives advice into the bargain. ... The physician's art supplements remedies by advice.
minor CLAIM 2 - after Aristo finishes with the analogies, he continues with his argument that if we solve the root, the advice will not be needed.
When by means of such doctrines you have brought the erring man to a sense of his own condition, when he has learned that the happy life is not that which conforms to pleasure, but that which conforms to Nature, when he has fallen deeply in love with virtue as man's sole good and has avoided baseness as man's sole evil, and when he knows that all other things – riches, office, health, strength, dominion – fall in between and are not to be reckoned either among goods or among evils, then he will not need a monitor for every separate action (emphasis added).
Seneca's RESPONSE - he continues to find value in not only addressing the root cause, but giving advice in all stages of the healing.
I admit that precepts alone are not effective in overthrowing the mind's mistaken beliefs; but they do not on that account fail to be of service when they accompany other measures also.
He contends that precepts, advice, consolation, exhortation and counsel "refresh the memory" and help the person see the grand picture of "the whole." To Seneca, it is not so much an order of operations, as educating the ill person of the grand picture - to point to them the goal of all activities. He advocates for sound advice for both sick and sound men; "sick men and sound men [have] something in common, concerning which they need continual advice."
He succinctly summarizes the claim and his response.
"Do away with error, and your precepts become unnecessary." That is wrong; for suppose that avarice is slackened, that luxury is confined, that rashness is reined in, and that laziness is pricked by the spur; even after vices are removed, we must continue to learn what we ought to do, and how we ought to do it.
He further refines his point.
Advice is not teaching; it merely engages the attention and rouses us, and concentrates the memory, and keeps it from losing grip. ... you must be continually brought to remember these facts; for they should not be in storage, but ready for use. And whatever is wholesome should be often discussed and often brought before the mind, so that it may be not only familiar to us, but also ready to hand. And remember, too, that in this way what is clear often becomes clearer.
minor CLAIM 3 - if you offer advice and precepts, they must be very clear to remove all doubt and therefore you must use proofs; and in the use of proofs you will have corrected the person fully, so why use precepts and advice when proofs and clarity are all that is needed? Precepts and advice are superfluous.
are such precepts useful to him who has correct ideas about good and evil, or to one who has them not? The latter will receive no benefit from you; for some idea that clashes with your counsel has already monopolized his attention. He who has made a careful decision as to what should be sought and what should be avoided knows what he ought to do, without a single word from you. Therefore, that whole department of philosophy may be abolished.
Seneca's RESPONSE - he begins his response by writing,
But cannot the influence of the monitor avail even without proofs? It is like the opinions of a legal expert, which hold good even though the reasons for them are not delivered. Moreover, the precepts which are given are of great weight in themselves.
It seems that Seneca is advocating the use of a good teacher (monitor). All the wisdom and intelligence in the world cannot correct a person unless they have someone who can explain it; hence the use of precepts and advice - which are ideas delivered in layman's terms. And a savvy teacher, who knows the proofs, can make them applicable to heal the ailed person.
The precepts and advice, in a sense, cut through the need of proofs and directly influence emotion. Precepts and advice, well-crafted, are like a fan which whips up a spark into a flame. And the tiny spark is in each person's soul.
Such maxims need no special pleader; they go straight to our emotions, and help us simply because Nature is exercising her proper function. The soul carries within itself the seed of everything that is honourable, and this seed is stirred to growth by advice, as a spark that is fanned by a gentle breeze develops its natural fire.
As I read both sides of this issues, it does feel like a quibble. While some people only need to be taught the 'why' with proofs and off they go towards a life of wisdom, others may be less sharp and therefore need to be lead to the source. I tend to agree with Seneca and think we ought to cast a wide net to catch as many people as possible and if they get hooked by a precept or advice and it leads them to study the proofs, then it was worth it. But to strictly advocate for only the use of proofs, it seems the filter would cut too many out, too easily.
one man is lively and alert of wit, another sluggish and dull, while certainly some men have more intelligence than others. The strength of the wit is nourished and kept growing by precepts; it adds new points of view to those which are inborn and corrects depraved ideas.
minor CLAIM 4 - avoid the use of precepts and advice altogether and instead, do one of two things. 1) be precise and careful in the curing of the diseased mind - cure it fully and completely (don't do a half-assed job) or 2) before false / bad ideas infect the mind, get in there and fill it fully with good opinions and ideas.
There are two reasons why we go astray: either there is in the soul an evil quality which has been brought about by wrong opinions, or, even if not possessed by false ideas, the soul is prone to falsehood and rapidly corrupted by some outward appearance which attracts it in the wrong direction. For this reason it is our duty either to treat carefully the diseased mind and free it from faults, or to take possession of the mind when it is still unoccupied and yet inclined to what is evil. Both these results can be attained by the main doctrines of philosophy
And unless you do #1 or #2, precepts and advice will only ever prove futile because they won't have the full force and effect of sound doctrine and dogmas, so why even try or advocate for precepts and advice.
The madness itself must be shaken off; otherwise, your words of advice will vanish into thin air.
Seneca's RESPONSE - Try as you might, to be careful and to intervene as soon as possible, all the theory won't get you anywhere unless you practice what you've learned and precepts and advice help you to remember to practice the theory.
for this person has indeed learned to do things which he ought to do; but he does not see with sufficient clearness what these things are. For we are hindered from accomplishing praiseworthy deeds not only by our emotions, but also by want of practice in discovering the demands of a particular situation.
Seneca advocates for 'all of the above' - learn the dogmas, leverage precepts and then practice your duties.
[one may claim] "Cast out all false opinions concerning Good and Evil, but replace them with true opinions; then advice will have no function to perform." Order in the soul can doubtless be established in this way; but these are not the only ways. For although we may infer by proofs just what Good and Evil are, nevertheless precepts have their proper role. Prudence and justice consist of certain duties; and duties are set in order by precepts. Moreover, judgment as to Good and Evil is itself strengthened by following up our duties, and precepts conduct us to this end. For both are in accord with each other; nor can precepts take the lead unless the duties follow. They observe their natural order; hence precepts clearly come first.
In sum, Seneca would say, study the dogmas --> use precepts to reinforce --> advice for how to act --> act.
The next part of the letter, from verses 35 to 52 are variations on the theme that precepts and advice are indeed useful. Below are a few highlights.
if we have removed false opinions, insight into practical conduct does not at once follow.
warning, and exhortation, and scolding, and praising; since they are all varieties of advice. It is by such methods that we arrive at a perfect condition of mind. Nothing is more successful in bringing honourable influences to bear upon the mind, or in straightening out the wavering spirit that is prone to evil, than association with good men. For the frequent seeing, the frequent hearing of them little by little sinks into the heart and acquires the force of precepts.
Virtue is divided into two parts – into contemplation of truth, and conduct. Training teaches contemplation, and admonition teaches conduct. And right conduct both practises and reveals virtue. But if, when a man is about to act, he is helped by advice, he is also helped by admonition. Therefore, if right conduct is necessary to virtue, and if, moreover, admonition makes clear right conduct, then admonition also is an indispensable thing.
Virtue depends partly upon training and partly upon practice; you must learn first, and then strengthen your learning by action.
the approach to these qualities is slow, and in the meantime in practical matters, the path should be pointed out for the benefit of one who is still short of perfection, but is making progress. Wisdom by her own agency may perhaps show herself this path without the help of admonition; for she has brought the soul to a stage where it can be impelled only in the right direction. Weaker characters, however, need someone to precede them, to say: "Avoid this," or "Do that." Moreover, if one awaits the time when one can know of oneself what the best line of action is, one will sometimes go astray and by going astray will be hindered from arriving at the point where it is possible to be content with oneself. The soul should accordingly be guided at the very moment when it is becoming able to guide itself.
Beginning with verse 53, Seneca discusses if precepts and advice are sufficient alone to produce a good man (QUESTION 2).
He doesn't answer the question right away and instead writes,
The question next arises whether this part alone is sufficient to make men wise. The problem shall be treated at the proper time; but at present, omitting all arguments, is it not clear that we need someone whom we may call upon as our preceptor in opposition to the precepts of men in general?
In fact, he won't answer the question of if precepts and advice alone are sufficient alone to produce wisdom, until Letter 95.
The remainder of Letter 94, instead, will support Seneca's CLAIM that precepts and advice are useful and needed.
Why are they useful? Because we live in a world saturated by false goods.
There is no word which reaches our ears without doing us harm; we are injured both by good wishes and by curses. The angry prayers of our enemies instill false fears in us; and the affection of our friends spoils us through their kindly wishes.
And this saturation creates a vicious cycle of infectious desire.
people sprinkle folly among their neighbours, and receive it from them in turn. For this reason, in an individual, you find the vices of nations, because the nation has given them to the individual. Each man, in corrupting others, corrupts himself; he imbibes, and then imparts, badness the result is a vast mass of wickedness, because the worst in every separate person is concentrated in one mass.
How can we stop this cycle? Guardians, monitors, teachers should point these vices out to help people begin to escape the cycle.
We should, therefore, have a guardian, as it were, to pluck us continually by the ear and dispel rumours and protest against popular enthusiasms. For you are mistaken if you suppose that our faults are inborn in us; they have come from without, have been heaped upon us. Hence, by receiving frequent admonitions, we can reject the opinions which din about our ears. Nature does not ally us with any vice; she produced us in health and freedom.
Nature would have us gaze towards the heavens, rather than dig in the earth for treasure. In other words, greed plays into this vicious cycle.
She ordained that all these bodies should proceed above our heads; but gold and silver, with the iron which, because of the gold and silver, never brings peace, she has hidden away, as if they were dangerous things to trust to our keeping. It is we ourselves that have dragged them into the light of day to the end that we might fight over them; it is we ourselves who, tearing away the superincumbent earth, have dug out the causes and tools of our own destruction; it is we ourselves who have attributed our own misdeeds to Fortune, and do not blush to regard as the loftiest objects those which once lay in the depths of earth.
And living in a world full of greed, Seneca writes that it is
indispensable that we be admonished, that we have some advocate with upright mind, and, amid all the uproar and jangle of falsehood, hear one voice only. But what voice shall this be? Surely a voice which, amid all the tumult of self-seeking, shall whisper wholesome words into the deafened ear.
He then provides examples of greed run rampant - in Alexander the Great who "by a mad desire to lay waste other men's territory" or Gnaeus Pompeius who "was his mad craving for unreal glory."
They disturbed the world because "they were themselves disturbed."
To disrupt that vicious cycle,
We must unravel all such cases as are forced before our eyes and crammed into our ears; we must clear out our hearts, for they are full of evil talk. Virtue must be conducted into the place these have seized, – a kind of virtue which may root out falsehood and doctrines which contravene the truth.
Fame and the desire for fame fans the flames of greed. If people didn't have an audience, how much vice could be quelled? How much would infectious desire be curtailed?
when witnesses and onlookers are removed, faults which ripen in publicity and display sink into the background. Who puts on the purple robe for the sake of flaunting it in no man's eyes? Who uses gold plate when he dines alone? ... You can make us cease to crave, if you only make us cease to display. Ambition, luxury, and waywardness need a stage to act upon; you will cure all those ills if you seek retirement.
Because of the vicious cycle of greed and fame spread throughout the world, an advisor, teacher or wise person should use and share precepts and advice with people; to counter the prevailing notion that greed and fame are good.
there should be an adviser standing near us. When men praise great incomes, he should praise the person who can be rich with a slender estate and measures his wealth by the use he makes of it. In the face of those who glorify influence and power, he should of his own volition recommend a leisure devoted to study, and a soul which has left the external and found itself.
This was an exceptionally long letter and it took me quite a bit of time to read it, comprehend it and learn something from it. Seneca can be quite long-winded. And, as we see, he hasn't addressed his 2nd question regarding if precepts and advice alone are sufficient for the good man. The next letter will hopefully tackle that question. And it appears it takes him just as long to answer it!