Dialogues and Letters (17 page)

15        them later to renown. Look at how greatly Epicurus is admired
not only by the learned but by crowds of unphilosophical men
everywhere: yet he was unknown even in Athens, near which he
had ‘lived unnoticed'.
That was why many years after his pupil
Metrodorus' death he wrote a letter in which, having extolled
their friendship with grateful reminiscences, he added at the end
that he and Metrodorus had enjoyed so many blessings that they
had suffered no hurt from the fact that Greece with all its fair
fame had not only not known them, but had scarcely heard of

16        them. Well, did not men discover him after he died, and did he
not then acquire a shining reputation? Metrodorus too admits in
a letter that he and Epicurus had scarcely become known, but
that after his and Epicurus' death anyone who wanted to follow

17        in their footsteps would find a great and ready-made name. No
virtue remains concealed, and to have been concealed does it no
damage, for time will bring it to light though it was suppressed in
obscurity by the spite of its own contemporaries. The man who
has in mind only his own generation is born for few people.
Thousands of years and many generations will follow: these are
what you must consider. Even if malice produces silence about
you during the lifetime of your contemporaries, others will come
who will judge you without animosity and without favour. Whatever
reward virtue enjoys from fame is not lost. Certainly we will
not be affected by what later generations say about us, but even
though we shall feel nothing they will cherish our memory with

18        naffection. Virtue rewards everyone both in his life and after his
death, provided he has sincerely cultivated it, and provided he has
not tricked himself out with adornments, but has remained the
same individual, whether warned in advance of your seeing him
or caught unaware. Pretence achieves nothing. A mask that is
easily slipped on doesn't fool many people: truth is the same
through and through. Things that deceive have no substance.
Falsehood is a flimsy thing, and if you look hard, you can see
through it.


A strong recommendation for a sane outlook on life: philosophy can help us to avoid groundless fears and reduce our needs to a minimum

1          I greet you from my place at Nomentum
and wish you health
of mind, that is, the favour of all the gods – and anyone who has
won his own favour has the gods at peace and well-disposed
towards him. Put aside for the time being the belief of certain
people that each of us has a god appointed to him as a guardian –
not, indeed, a god from the regular ranks, but one of lesser quality
belonging to the group which Ovid calls ‘lower-class gods'.However,
while you are putting aside this belief I want you to remember
that our ancestors who entertained it were essentially Stoics;
for they attributed to every single man or woman a Genius or

2          a Juno.
We shall see presently whether the gods have enough
time to look after the affairs of individuals; in the meantime
you must realize that whether we have been allotted to a god's
protection or abandoned to the whim of Fortune, you cannot
invoke a worse curse on anyone than to wish him to be on bad
terms with himself. But there is no reason for you to pray for
the hostility of the gods towards anybody you think deserves
punishment: he has their hostility, I tell you, even if he appears
to be getting on well through their favour.

3                Use your wits and look hard at human affairs as they are, not
as they are described, and you will realize that our troubles more
often turn out well than badly for us. See how often what was
described as a disaster proved to be the initial cause of a blessing!
How often an occurrence welcomed with loud rejoicing has, in
fact, created steps to the edge of a precipice, and has raised even
higher someone already highly placed, as if till then he was standing

4          where one might safely fall! Still, this fall is not in itself an evil
if you consider the final point beyond which nature has cast no
one down. At hand is the end of all things, at hand, I tell you, is
that point where the happy man is thrown out and the unhappy
man is let out. With our hopes and fears we Prolong and extend
both our happiness and our unhappiness. But if you're wise you
should measure all things in human terms, and contract the limits
of your joys and your fears. Noreover, it is worth while enjoying
nothing for long so that you don't fear anything for long.

5                But why am I trying to restrict this evil of fear? You have no
reason to regard anything as fearful: the things which disturb us
and keep us petrified are quite illusory. None of us has tested
their reality, but one man's fear rubs off on another. No one has
dared to approach the source of his anxiety and to learn the nature
of the fear and any good there might be in it. Consequently, a
false and empty circumstance still looks genuine because it has
not been refuted. We must think it worth while to look hard at

6          our fears, and it will soon be obvious how short-lived, uncertain
and reassuring they are. This is the sort of confusion in our minds
which struck Lucretius:

As at night children tremble, dreading all in the dark,

So even in daylight our fears do afflict us.

7          Well, then: with our daylight fears are we not more silly than any
child? But you are wrong, Lucretius: it is not that we have fears
in the daylight, but that we have entirely created darkness for
ourselves. We see nothing either to harm us or to do us good. All
our lives we rush around bumping into things, without pausing
on this account or treading more carefully. You see how lunatic
it is to run at something in the dark; yet, goodness me, that's what
we are doing, so that we have to be summoned back from further
away, and though we don't know whither we are rushing we still

8          keep on full tilt in our course. Yet daylight can come if we want
it to, but only if a man has acquired this knowledge of things
human and divine; if he has not just let it wash over him but has
become deep-dyed in it; if he has considered over and over again
the same notions, even though he may have grasped them, and
has applied them frequently to himself; if he has asked himself
what things are good and what are bad and what bear one of these
names falsely; if he has asked himself about things honourable and

9          disgraceful, and about providence. Nor is the keenness of the
human intellect restricted within these limits. It can also gaze
beyond the universe, pondering whither it is being borne, when
it arose, to what final end all that rushing mass of matter is
hurtling. From this divine spectacle we have withdrawn our
minds and dragged them to sordid and lowly areas, to be slaves to
greed, to abandon the universe and its limits and its all-powerful
masters, and to explore the earth and see what evils they can dig

10        out of it, not satisfied with what is freely offered. Whatever was
to be of benefit to us god, our parent, put within our reach: he
anticipated our searching for it and gave it unasked. The things
that would harm us he buried deep down. We have nothing to
complain of but ourselves. It is we who have brought to light the
instruments of our destruction against nature's wishes and when
she was hiding them from view. We have enslaved our souls to
pleasure, indulgence in which is the beginning of all evils; we
have betrayed them to ambition and public opinion, and everything
else which is equally empty and vain.

11              So, what am I urging you to do? Nothing new – it isn't for
new maladies that we are seeking cures – but this first and foremost,
that you distinguish clearly for yourself the essential and
the superfluous. Essentials you will find everywhere; superfluous
things have to be sought by a constant effort of the whole soul.

12        But there is no reason to overpraise yourself if you have come to
despise golden couches and bejewelled furniture: for what virtue
lies in despising superfluities? You can admire yourself when you
have come to despise essentials. It's no great achievement if you
can live without regal trappings, and do without boars weighing
a thousand pounds and flamingoes' tongues, and the other
extravagances of a luxury which is now disgusted with whole
animals and only chooses certain parts from individual ones. I
shall admire you if you come to despise coarse bread, if you can
persuade yourself that, when necessary, grass grows for man as
well as beast, if you have realized that shoots from trees can serve
to fill the belly, which we stuff full of expensive food as though
it could retain what it receives. No, it must be filled without
squeamishness; for how can it matter what it accepts, since

13        it is bound to get rid of all it has accepted? You love to see the
game taken on land and sea laid out in front of you, some all
the more desirable if brought fresh to your table, some if force-fed
and stuffed for so long it scarcely holds the fat it's overflowing
with – what you love is the sheen that is thus skilfully imparted
to it. Yet, goodness me, when those dishes, so anxiously sought
for and diversely seasoned, have entered the stomach they become
one uniform horrid mess. Do you want to despise the pleasure of
food? Look at what happens to it.

14              I remember Attalus
winning great admiration from all who
heard him with these words: ‘For a long time I was impressed by
riches. I was fascinated in whatever place their brilliance shone
forth, and I presumed that what lay concealed was similar to
what was displayed. But I happened to witness a ceremonial display of
all the city's wealth: objects carved in gold and silver and in
materials surpassing the value of gold and silver; choice dyes and
fabrics imported from beyond not only our boundaries but those
of our enemies; matching groups of boys and girls conspicuous
for their adornment and their beauty; and everything else that a
successful imperial power puts on parade when reviewing its

15        resources. “What else,” I said to myself, “does all this do but
kindle men's greedy passions, already naturally aroused? What is
the point of that parade of wealth? Have we assembled here only
to be taught avarice?” Yet, I do assure you I left that sight with
less capacity for greed than I took to it. I despised riches, not
because they are superfluous but because they are insignificant.

16        You saw in how few hours that procession passed by, though
organized in slow stages? Is that going to fill our whole lives
which could not fill a whole day? This point too occurred to me,
that these riches are as superfluous to the possessors as to the

17        spectators. So, whenever some such sight dazzles my eyes – a
luxurious house, an elegant troop of slaves, a litter carried by
handsome servants – I tell myself: “What are you admiring? What
are you gaping at? It's only a procession. Those things are for
show, not for possession, and even as they please us they pass

18        away.” Turn instead to real wealth; learn to be content with little
and call out loudly and boldly: we have water, we have barley:
we may vie with Jupiter himself in happiness. We may, I assure
you, even if those were lacking. It is disgraceful to base one's life
on gold and silver, and equally disgraceful to base it on water and

19        barley. “Then what am I to do if I don't have them?” You are
asking for the remedy for destitution? Hunger ends hunger. In
any case, what difference does it make if t he things are great or
scanty which enslave you? What does it matter how trifling is the

20        amount that Fortune can deny you? This very water and barley is
under someone else's control; but the free man is not the one
over whom Fortune has just a small hold, but the one over whom
Fortune has no hold at all. So there you are: you must want
nothing if you wish to challenge Jupiter who himself wants

Attalus has told us this; nature has told all men this. If you are willing to meditate on it constantly, you will be on the way to being happy, not just seeming happy, and seeming so not to others but to yourself.

. 1–10

Seneca urges Lucilius to enjoy the inspiration and benefits of philosophical study

1           Lucilius, best of men, it seems to me that there is the same amount
of difference between philosophy and the other studies as there is
within philosophy itself, between that branch which deals with
mankind and that which deals with the gods. The latter is bolder
and more elevated, and has allowed itself more licence. It has not
restricted itself to the visible, assuming that there is something
greater and more beautiful which nature has put beyond our

2          vision. In a word, between the two areas of philosophy there is
as much difference as between god and man. The one teaches us
what must be done on earth, the other what is done in the
heavens. The one dispels our mistakes, and affords us a light by
which to distinguish the uncertainties of life. The other passes far
above this fog in which we are floundering and, drawing us forth
from darkness, leads us to where there is light shining.

3              I myself am grateful to nature, both when I view it in the aspect
which is open to everyone, and when I have entered into its
mysteries: when I learn what is the material substance of the
universe; who is its author or guardian; what god is; whether he
is entirely wrapped up in himself or sometimes has regard for us
as well; whether he creates something daily or has created it only
once; whether he is part of the world or he is the world; whether
he can make a decision today and modify in some respect the law
of fate, or whether to have done things that need to be changed
is a diminution of his grandeur and a confession of his error.

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