Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 95 - On the Usefulness of Basic Principles

On the Usefulness of Basic Principles

Letter 95 is a continuation of letter 94.  In letter 95, he will answer the QUESTION:

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 writes at the beginning of letter 95:

inform you by letter whether this department of philosophy which the Greeks call paraenetic, and we Romans call the "preceptorial," is enough to give us perfect wisdom.

In the intro to the letter, he cheekily tells Lucilius, 'be careful what you ask for!'

Seneca, throughout this letter, will make the claim that all the above is needed: doctrines, principals, precepts and advice are all needed; to work together to create the good man.

Below are claims he states and his rebuttals or support for the claims.

minor CLAIM: "The happy life consists in upright conduct; precepts guide one to upright conduct; therefore precepts are sufficient for attaining the happy life."

Seneca argues precepts are not enough.  Sometimes the precept does not lead to right conduct.  Sometimes the person's will is not receptive at all to the precepts.  And then, even if the person agrees with the precept and takes action, but does not do so with knowledge as to why they are taking action, you cannot call this person 'good' in the Stoic / philosophical sense.  Training (answering the why) is needed to have correct knowledge and right conduct are what produce arete or virtue.

minor CLAIM: "if the other arts are content with precepts, wisdom will also be content therewith; for wisdom itself is an art of living. And yet the pilot is made by precepts which tell him thus and so to turn the tiller, set his sails, make use of a fair wind, tack, make the best of shifting and variable breezes – all in the proper manner. Other craftsmen also are drilled by precepts; hence precepts will be able to accomplish the same result in the case of our craftsman in the art of living."

In this claim, the idea is trying to compare other arts such as boating or sailing to the art of life.  In which case, if the sharing of precepts may be sufficient.  But the analogy falls apart, in that hope, fear and greed can influence the application of those arts.  But the art of life will inform you how to rise above even these.

He further notes that it is

more pardonable to err voluntarily rather than by accident; but in the case of wisdom the worst fault is to commit sin wilfully.

I comprehend why, in the case of wisdom, that the worst fault is to commit 'sin' willfully, but I'm not sure how a voluntary error in, say, sailing, be more pardonable than an accidental one.  I would think the accidental one would be more pardonable - not sure I understand this part from Seneca.

The art of living - philosophy - seeks answers to deep questions, whereas the other 'arts' are much more tactical.

In sum, Seneca contends we need theory, precepts and actions - to be able to carry out right actions for right rational reasons.

Because no man can duly perform right actions except one who has been entrusted with reason, which will enable him, in all cases, to fulfil all the categories of duty. These categories he cannot observe unless he receives precepts for every occasion, and not for the present alone. Precepts by themselves are weak and, so to speak, rootless if they be assigned to the parts and not to the whole. It is the doctrines which will strengthen and support us in peace and calm, which will include simultaneously the whole of life and the universe in its completeness.

minor CLAIM: "The old-style wisdom advised only what one should do and avoid; and yet the men of former days were better men by far. When savants have appeared, sages have become rare. For that frank, simple virtue has changed into hidden and crafty knowledge; we are taught how to debate, not how to live."

In response to this claim, Seneca goes off on a bit of a rant about food.  He seems to be using the "declinism bias" where in the old days, people needed little persuasion and therefore only needed precepts and their lives were governed well and therefore the men in former days were better than the men today.  He then compares it to how men are worse off today (physically) than in former times because people have given into luxury.

I think he makes a good point about the complexities of food (i.e. processed) and how they lead to ill health.  But I'm not so sure the argument fully ties back to the claim.

Regardless, when reading his passage about the ails of luxurious eating and all the ill health it produces, I could see the parallels with our day.  Sugars, refined grain (grain in general) and all sorts of ingredients (which cannot be pronounced) are mixed into our foods today.  And therefore, in lux america the population of people with co-morbidities grows.  How many have died needlessly because of malnutrition?  The current pandemic of covid-19 strikes hard at people with poor diet and lungs.

Below are passages which stood out to me.  They mimic what many say today.

medicine had less to do! Men's bodies were still sound and strong; their food was light and not spoiled by art and luxury, whereas when they began to seek dishes not for the sake of removing, but of rousing, the appetite, and devised countless sauces to whet their gluttony, – then what before was nourishment to a hungry man became a burden to the full stomach.


belly growing to a paunch through an ill habit of taking more than it can hold.


Why should I mention the other innumerable diseases, the tortures that result from high living?


it took elaborate courses [of food] to produce elaborate diseases.


What wonder, then, that we can trip up the statement of the greatest and most skilled physician.


This is the interest which we pay on pleasures which we have coveted beyond what is reasonable and right.  You need not wonder that diseases are beyond counting: count the cooks! All intellectual interests are in abeyance; those who follow culture lecture to empty rooms, in out-of-the-way places. The halls of the professor and the philosopher are deserted; but what a crowd there is in the cafés!


How many men are kept busy to humour a single belly!


Do you judge that the corrupted dishes which a man swallows almost burning from the kitchen fire, are quenched in the digestive system without doing harm? How repulsive, then, and how unhealthy are their belchings, and how disgusted men are with themselves when they breathe forth the fumes of yesterday's debauch! You may be sure that their food is not being digested, but is rotting.


as the food itself is complicated, so the resulting diseases are complex, unaccountable, manifold, variegated; medicine has begun to campaign against them in many ways and by many rules of treatment.

Returning to the key thought - he says that back in the day, because people had not been introduced to luxury, they were not in need of dogmas, precepts and advice.  But because of greed, desire for fame and pleasure, people have been swayed too much and it takes much to correct them.

It was once more simple because men's sins were on a smaller scale, and could be cured with but slight trouble.


Men seek pleasure from every source. No vice remains within its limits; luxury is precipitated into greed. We are overwhelmed with forgetfulness of that which is honourable. Nothing that has an attractive value, is base. Man, an object of reverence in the eyes of man, is now slaughtered for jest and sport; and those whom it used to be unholy to train for the purpose of inflicting and enduring wounds, are thrust forth exposed and defenceless; and it is a satisfying spectacle to see a man made a corpse.

And in the midst of decadence, at all levels of society, precepts are ineffective.  Precepts must be married with doctrine.  Deep persuasion are needed to correct the ailments of individuals and society.

Amid this upset condition of morals, something stronger than usual is needed, – something which will shake off these chronic ills; in order to root out a deep-seated belief in wrong ideas, conduct must be regulated by doctrines. It is only when we add precepts, consolation, and encouragement to these, that they can prevail; by themselves they are ineffective.

minor CLAIM: "But what, then, have not certain persons won their way to excellence without complicated training? Have they not made great progress by obeying bare precepts alone?"

Seneca says yes, but!  Where it is true that some make their way to excellence only with precepts, then it was due to the temperament and inherent qualities of the person.

their temperaments were propitious ...  fitted with unusual qualities and reach without a long apprenticeship ... choice minds which seize quickly upon virtue, or else produce it from within themselves.

But for the rest of us, the 'rust' does not rub off so easily and a harder, on-going scrubbing is needed.  Our dull and sluggish natures are "hampered by evil habits, must have this soul-rust incessantly rubbed off."

Therefore, doctrine must be taught; dogmas instilled; and constant precepts heard and applied.  Virtue is doing the right thing for the right reason.

precepts will perhaps help you to do what should be done; but they will not help you to do it in the proper way; and if they do not help you to this end, they do not conduct you to virtue.

Consider the same action, but done for different reasons:

When people sit by the bedsides of their sick friends, we honour their motives.  But when people do this for the purpose of attaining a legacy, they are like vultures waiting for carrion. 

Hence, the instruction as to why we should do what we ought to do is just as important as the action.

there should be deeply implanted a firm belief which will apply to life as a whole: this is what I call a "doctrine." And as this belief is, so will be our acts and our thoughts. As our acts and our thoughts are, so will our lives be. It is not enough, when a man is arranging his existence as a whole, to give him advice about details.

He then gets into the duties to god and people.  In this section is this lovely thought about the connectedness we all have to each other and the Cosmos.

all that you behold, that which comprises both god and man, is one – we are the parts of one great body.  Nature produced us related to one another, since she created us from the same source and to the same end. She engendered in us mutual affection, and made us prone to friendships. She established fairness and justice; according to her ruling, it is more wretched to commit than to suffer injury. Through her orders, let our hands be ready for all that needs to be helped.

We should consider ourselves as stones in an arch; which need each other for support.

Our relations with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way.

Next, he reminds us that we need to know what indifferents are and how to make use of them.  Precepts are useless, unless we know the doctrine.

The same is applied to the virtues (prudence, bravery and justice).  These things are fixed and we will not find or retain equanimity unless we fix our character to them.

learned the laws of life as a whole and has worked out a proper judgment about everything, and unless he has reduced facts to a standard of truth. Peace of mind is enjoyed only by those who have attained a fixed and unchanging standard of judgment; the rest of mankind continually ebb and flow in their decisions, floating in a condition where they alternately reject things and seek them.

In sum, doctrines, principals, precepts and advice are all needed; to work together.  Like a tree that produces fruit, both roots and branches are needed.  While the branches are evident and readily perceived, they would be nothing without the roots to support the.  And likewise, if there were only a root system, it would remain hidden and never produce branches or fruit.

reason is not satisfied by obvious facts; its higher and nobler function is to deal with hidden things. Hidden things need proof; proof cannot come without doctrines; therefore, doctrines are necessary.  That which leads to a general agreement, and likewise to a perfect one, is an assured belief in certain facts; but if, lacking this assurance, all things are adrift in our minds, then doctrines are indispensable; for they give to our minds the means of unswerving decision.


But let us unite the two. For indeed branches are useless without their roots, and the roots themselves are strengthened by the growths which they have produced. Everyone can understand how useful the hands are; they obviously help us. But the heart, the source of the hands growth and power and motion, is hidden.

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