Seneca’s World-Weary Wisdom

“There is only one liberal study that deserves the name—because it makes a person free—and that is the pursuit of wisdom.”—Seneca, Letter LXXXVIII

The epistles of the Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca are full of jaded charm and acidulous wit. Having lived a privileged life we wonder if he was not like so many insincere celebrities today who inveigh against the evils of money and fame. We have no idea if Seneca put his theories of moral austerity into practice. Perhaps over time he grew weary with his upper class existence and discovered in philosophy a refuge for mind and spirit. In any event, he bequeathed to subsequent generations priceless insights into ancient society and enduring reflections on the human condition.

In a letter to his friend Lucillius, Seneca discusses the nature of the “liberal arts”—so called because they were subjects “worthy of a free man.” This included the study of literature, music and mathematics. Seneca was certainly a erudite individual, known in his day as both a statesman and a successful playwright. Yet he asks, “What is there in all this [learning] that dispels fear, roots out desire or reins in passion?” Speaking of geometry’s practical applications, he wonders if it is possible  to “measure a man’s soul.” It is not that he dismisses the value of learning. It is necessary to the intellectual life as food is to bodily health.

Why then do we give our sons a liberal education? Not because it can make them morally good but because it prepares the mind for the acquisition of moral virtues.

That said, he admits it is quite possible for a person to be wise without book learning. If we care for nothing more than acquiring knowledge it is just as possible to be an intellectual glutton as it is to be a physical one, with equally debilitating results. Putting that knowledge to use is a different matter. Seneca discusses the importance of such qualities as courage, self-restraint, modesty and kindness.

Finally, in addressing the pedantry and speculative triviality of many thinkers, he ends his letter on an appropriately sardonic note:

To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance…. The scholar Didymus wrote four thousands works: I should feel sorry for him if he had merely read so many useless works. In these works he discusses such questions as Homer’s origin, who was Aeneas’ real mother, whether Anachreon’s manner of life was more that of a lecher or that of a drunkard, whether Sappho slept with anyone who asked her, and other things that would be better unlearned if one actually knew them!

Excerpts are taken from Letters from a Stoic (Penguin Classics). For related commentary see my earlier post.

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