Whatever is true, is my own: Seneca’s open-minded enquiry

Barnaby Taylor

Say that you subscribe to a particular set of values, which you believe are the key to being truly good and happy. You haven’t mastered them yet, but you pursue them with increasing devotion, and feel yourself making progress. Say now that your friend, about whom you care very much, feels some attraction to these values, to this way of life, but is yet to cultivate a deep and lasting interest. He has other intellectual temptations, and, what’s more, he is weighed down by the cares and troubles of the world. How can you help him to develop his nascent interest in your philosophy of the good life? And what attitude should you encourage him to hold towards those with whom you disagree? These questions are explored in Seneca’s Moral Epistles, written over the last few years of his life to his friend and philosophical fellow-traveller, Lucilius.

Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) was a Stoic, and so thought that virtue is the only thing that matters for a truly good life. Nothing else – including health, wealth, possessions, and family – makes any contribution to happiness. This may sound austere, and indeed there was a certain unrelenting quality to Stoic ethics, but the Epistles are not an austere work by any measure. Across 124 letters, in which the narrative exploration of life is generally preferred to abstract theorising, Seneca engages in a deep and intimate evaluation of what it means to be good, discussing at length, and with much wit and uncompromising self-scrutiny, his own faltering moral progress.

Bust of Seneca, Plaza de España, Seville, Spain.

In the first 29 letters – those on which I’ll concentrate here – we find discussions of reading (what should one read, and how should one read it?) – friendship, moral and social imagination, candidness, perfectionism, self-awareness, vulnerability, solitude, sociability, emotion, mental discipline, old age, and death. Above all, Seneca focuses on the question of how to pursue a life of introspection in the midst of worldly responsibilities and concerns – a focus which may be especially attractive to those who, like me, have often felt the tension between the obligations of the world and the possibility of an inner life.

These early Senecan letters appeal to me in several ways. Partly it’s the elegance, wit and economy of his Latin style; partly it’s the thoughtful depiction and exploration of the didactic process, which interests me as someone who, being a teacher, spends a lot of time helping others to develop and cultivate their intellectual interests and values; partly it’s simply the richness and depth of the discussion; and partly it’s the sense of Seneca’s own flawedness and failure – these are not the writings of a moral saint.

Seneca committing suicide with his foot in a bath, Simon Ravenet after Richard Earlom after Giordano Luca, 1768.

I’d like here to focus on one surprising feature of these early letters, namely their treatment of a certain philosopher with whose doctrines Seneca elsewhere expresses fundamental disagreement. While acknowledging that the strictness of Stoic doctrine may need to be relaxed for those who are just getting started, Seneca is clear that what he is engaged in, and what he is encouraging Lucilius towards, is the cultivation of a Stoic life. Now, one might think that a good way of getting ahead with Stoicism would be to focus on Stoic texts, and indeed Seneca does give a few select quotations from the Stoic philosopher Hecaton (noster, “one of ours,” 5.7).

“Don’t read too widely,” Seneca advises Lucilius in the second letter, where the focus on books and reading is programmatic for the whole work. It is better, he says, to focus your attention on a few particularly valuable authors, and to really learn something from them, than to try to read everything and absorb nothing from it. This second letter ends, though, with a quotation not from a fellow Stoic, but from Epicurus (341–271 BC), the founder of Epicureanism, a doctrine whose central ethical tenets were held to be quite incompatible with Stoic thought. Epicurus goes on to become by far the most regularly quoted philosopher in the first books of the Epistles.

The opening of Seneca’s Moral Epistles in a manuscript of 1458 (Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Plut. 45.33, 1r).

Seneca is not an Epicurean, nor is he encouraging Lucilius to become one. Indeed, in the ninth letter – one of the more philosophically ambitious early letters – he explicitly rejects Epicurean teachings on friendship in favour of the Stoic model, and in later letters he will engage directly and critically with several fundamental tenets of Epicurean thought. None the less, Seneca ends 23 of the first 29 letters of the collection with a quotation from Epicurus, offered in each case as something on which Lucilius can reflect and from which he may learn. Seneca is quite open about the fact that in these passages he is borrowing material from a school of thought to which he does not belong: “it is my custom,” he says, “to cross even into the other camp, not as a deserter but as a spy” (2.5). What is Seneca doing here?

In the eighth letter, he acknowledges the strangeness of a Stoic relying so heavily on Epicurean material, and gives something of a defence of his activities, asserting that he draws on the texts of Epicurus in so far as they contain universally accepted truths:

Perhaps you will ask me why I mention so many fine sayings from Epicurus rather than from our own school. But is there any reason why you should consider them to belong to Epicurus rather than to the public?

Even in the thoughts of one’s opponents, Seneca suggests, there is truth and value to be found, provided that one reads carefully and selectively, identifying ideas which may be thought of not as doctrines specific to a particular school, but rather as the common possession of humanity.

Frontispiece of Epicurus from John Digby’s translation of Epicurus’s Morals (S. Briscoe, London, 1712), readable here.

This theme of philosophical common ground, accessible through selective reading, is reprised at the end of the twelfth letter, following another of Seneca’s numerous Epicurean quotations:

“Epicurus said that,” you say. “What business have you with another’s property?” Whatever is true, is my own. I shall persist in showering you with Epicurus, for the benefit of those people who repeat their oaths verbatim and regard not what is being said but who says it. By this they may know that the best sayings are held in common.

How, then, does Seneca advise one who is setting out on the path to Stoic wisdom and sagehood to think about, and respond to, representatives of other schools of thought? One should avoid, he says, the familiar traps of intellectual insecurity and knee-jerk sectarian polemic, seeking, as a preliminary to later disagreement, the common ground of consensus, and worrying less about which philosophical school ‘owns’ a given expression, and more about whether that expression is true and valuable for philosophical progress. Part of that progress, says Seneca, must be the identification and appreciation of philosophical common ground, even, or perhaps especially, in the writings of those with whom one disagrees. It’s a remarkable gesture to make in a discursive context which, perhaps not unlike our own, could be highly polemical, marked by division and disharmony between competing schools of thought.

Barnaby Taylor teaches Classics at Exeter College, Oxford.

Further Reading

Seneca’s surviving oeuvre is large, varied, and endlessly fascinating. The best available English translation is The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, edited by Elizabeth Asmis, Shadi Bartsch, and Martha Nussbaum (Chicago UP, 2010-2017). The translation of the Epistles in that series (and used throughout this article) is by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (Chicago UP, 2015). Catharine Edwards’ Seneca: Selected Letters (Cambridge UP, 2019) contains an invaluable introduction to the work, together with the Latin text of, and illuminating commentary on, letters from throughout the collection. John Sellars’ Stoicism (Acumen, Chesham, 2006) is an excellent introduction to that doctrine. The best work on Seneca’s life remains Miriam Griffin’s Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics (Oxford UP, 1976).