On Real Ethics as Superior to Syllogistic Subtleties

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Letter CXVII.

You will be fabricating much trouble for me, and you will be unconsciously embroiling me in a great discussion, and in considerable bother, if you put such petty questions as these; for in settling them I cannot disagree with my fellow-Stoics without impairing my standing among them, nor can I subscribe to such ideas without impairing my conscience. Your query is, whether the Stoic belief is true: that wisdom is a Good, but that being wise is not a Good. I shall first set forth the Stoic view, and then I shall be bold enough to deliver my own opinion.

We of the Stoic school believe that the Good is corporeal, because the Good is active, and whatever is active is corporeal. That which is good, is helpful. But, in order to be helpful, it must be active; so, if it is active, it is corporeal. They (the Stoics) declare that wisdom is a Good; it therefore follows that one must also call wisdom corporeal. But they do not think that being wise can be rated on the same basis. For it is incorporeal and accessory to something else, in other words, wisdom; hence it is in no respect active or helpful.

"What, then?" is the reply; "Why do we not say that being wise is a Good?" We do say so; but only by referring it to that on which it depends — in other words, wisdom itself. Let me tell you what answers other philosophers make to these objectors, before I myself begin to form my own creed and to take my place entirely on another side. "Judged in that light," they say, "not even living happily is a Good. Willy nilly, such persons ought to reply that the happy life is a Good, but that living happily is not a Good." And this objection is also raised against our school: "You wish to be wise. Therefore, being wise is a thing to be desired. And if it be a thing to be desired it is a Good." So our philosophers are forced to twist their words and insert another syllable into the word "desired,"— a syllable which our language does not normally allow to be inserted. But, with your permission, I shall add it. "That which is good," they say, "is a thing to be desired; the desirable thing is that which falls to our lot after we have attained the Good. For the desirable is not sought as a Good; it is an accessory to the Good after the Good has been attained."

I myself do not hold the same view, and I judge that our philosophers have come down to this argument because they are already bound by the first link in the chain and for that reason may not alter their definition. People are wont to concede much to the things which all men take for granted; in our eyes the fact that all men agree upon something is a proof of its truth. For instance, we infer that the gods exist, for this reason, among others — that there is implanted in everyone an idea concerning deity, and there is no people so far beyond the reach of laws and customs that it does not believe at least in gods of some sort. And when we discuss the immortality of the soul, we are influenced in no small degree by the general opinion of mankind, who either fear or worship the spirits of the lower world. I make the most of this general belief: you can find no one who does not hold that wisdom is a Good, and being wise also. I shall not appeal to the populace, like a conquered gladiator; let us come to close quarters, using our own weapons.

When something affects a given object, is it outside the object which it affects, or is it inside the object it affects? If it is inside the object it affects, it is as corporeal as the object which it affects. For nothing can affect another object without touching it, and that which touches is corporeal. If it is outside, it withdraws after having affected the object. And withdrawal means motion. And that which possesses motion, is corporeal. You expect me, I suppose, to deny that "race" differs from "running," that "heat" differs from "being hot," that "light" differs from "giving light." I grant that these pairs vary, but hold that they are not in separate classes. If good health is an indifferent quality, then so is being in good health; if beauty is an indifferent quality, then so is being beautiful. If justice is a Good, then so is being just. And if baseness is an evil, then it is an evil to be base — just as much as, if sore eyes are an evil, the state of having sore eyes is also an evil. Neither quality, you may be sure, can exist without the other. He who is wise is a man of wisdom; he who is a man of wisdom is wise. So true it is that we cannot doubt the quality of the one to equal the quality of the other, that they are both regarded by certain persons as one and the same.

Here is a question, however, which I should be glad to put: granted that all things are either good or bad or indifferent — in what class does being wise belong? People deny that it is a Good; and, as it obviously is not an evil, it must consequently be one of the "media." But we mean by the "medium," or the "indifferent" quality that which can fall to the lot of the bad no less than to the good — such things as money, beauty, or high social position. But the quality of being wise can fall to the lot of the good man alone; therefore being wise is not an indifferent quality. Nor is it an evil, either; because it cannot fall to the lot of the bad man; therefore, it is a Good. That which the good man alone can possess, is a Good; now being wise is the possession of the good man only; therefore it is a Good. The objector replies: "It is only an accessory of wisdom." Very well, then, I say, this quality which you call being wise —- does it actively produce wisdom, or is it a passive concomitant of wisdom? It is corporeal in either case. For that which is acted upon and that which acts, are alike corporeal; and, if corporeal, each is a Good. The only quality which could prevent it from being a Good, would be incorporeality.

The Peripatetics believe that there is no distinction between wisdom and being wise, since either of these implies the other also. Now do you suppose that any man can be wise except one who possesses wisdom? Or that anyone who is wise does not possess wisdom? The old masters of dialectic, however, distinguish between these two conceptions; and from them the classification has come right down to the Stoics. What sort of a classification this is, I shall explain: A field is one thing, and the possession of the field another thing; of course, because "possessing the field" refers to the possessor rather than to the field itself. Similarly, wisdom is one thing and being wise another. You will grant, I suppose, that these two are separate ideas — the possessed and the possessor: wisdom being that which one possesses, and he who is wise its possessor. Now wisdom is Mind perfected and developed to the highest and best degree. For it is the art of life. And what is being wise? I cannot call it "Mind Perfected," but rather that which falls to the lot of him who possesses a "mind perfected"; thus a good mind is one thing, and the so-called possession of a good mind another.

"There are," it is said, "certain natural classes of bodies; we say: 'This is a man,' 'this is a horse.' Then there attend on the bodily natures certain movements of the mind which declare something about the body. And these have a certain essential quality which is sundered from body; for example: 'I see Cato walking.' The senses indicate this, and the mind believes it. What I see, is body, and upon this I concentrate my eyes and my mind. Again, I say: 'Cato walks.' What I say," they continue, "is not body; it is a certain declarative fact concerning body — called variously an 'utterance,' a 'declaration,' a 'statement.' Thus, when we say 'wisdom,' we mean something pertaining to body; when we say 'he is wise,' we are speaking concerning body. And it makes considerable difference whether you mention the person directly, or speak concerning the person."

Supposing for the present that these are two separate conceptions (for I am not yet prepared to give my own opinion); what prevents the existence of still a third — which is none the less a Good? I remarked a little while ago that a "field" was one thing, and the "possession of a field" another; of course, for possessor and possessed are of different natures; the latter is the land, and the former is the man who owns the land. But with regard to the point now under discussion, both are of the same nature — the possessor of wisdom, and wisdom itself. Besides, in the one case that which is possessed is one thing, and he who possesses it is another; but in this case the possessed and the possessor come under the same category. The field is owned by virtue of law, wisdom by virtue of nature. The field can change hands and go into the ownership of another; but wisdom never departs from its owner. Accordingly, there is no reason why you should try to compare things that are so unlike one another.

I had started to say that these can be two separate conceptions, and yet that both can be Goods — for instance, wisdom and the wise man being two separate things and yet granted by you to be equally good. And just as there is no objection to regarding both wisdom and the possessor of wisdom as Goods, so there is no objection to regarding as a good both wisdom and the possession of wisdom,— in other words, being wise. For I only wish to be a wise man in order to be wise. And what then? Is not that thing a Good without the possession of which a certain other thing cannot be a Good? You surely admit that wisdom, if given without the right to be used, is not to be welcomed! And wherein consists the use of wisdom? In being wise; that is its most valuable attribute; if you withdraw this, wisdom becomes superfluous. If processes of torture are evil, then being tortured is an evil — with this reservation, indeed, that if you take away the consequences, the former are not evil. Wisdom is a condition of "mind perfected," and being wise is the employment of this "mind perfected." How can the employment of that thing not be a Good, which without employment is not a Good? If I ask you whether wisdom is to be desired, you admit that it is. If I ask you whether the employment of wisdom is to be desired, you also admit the fact; for you say that you will not receive wisdom if you are not allowed to employ it. Now that which is to be desired is a Good. Being wise is the employment of wisdom, just as it is of eloquence to make a speech, or of the eyes to see things. Therefore, being wise is the employment of wisdom, and the employment of wisdom is to be desired. Therefore being wise is a thing to be desired; and if it is a thing to be desired, it is a Good.

Lo, these many years I have been condemning myself for imitating these men at the very time when I am arraigning them, and of wasting words on a subject that is perfectly clear. For who can doubt that, if heat is an evil, it is also an evil to be hot? Or that, if cold is an evil, it is an evil to be cold? Or that, if life is a Good, so is being alive? All such matters are on the outskirts of wisdom, not in wisdom itself. But our abiding-place should be in wisdom itself. Even though one takes a fancy to roam, wisdom has large and spacious retreats: we may investigate the nature of the gods, the fuel which feeds the constellations, or all the varied courses of the stars; we may speculate whether our affairs move in harmony with those of the stars, whether the impulse to motion comes from thence into the minds and bodies of all, and whether even these events which we call fortuitous are fettered by strict laws and nothing in this universe is unforeseen or unregulated in its revolutions. Such topics have nowadays been withdrawn from instruction in morals, but they uplift the mind and raise it to the dimensions of the subject which it discusses; the matters, however, of which I was speaking a while ago, wear away and wear down the mind, not (as you and yours maintain) whetting, but weakening it. And I ask you, are we to fritter away that necessary study which we owe to greater and better themes, in discussing a matter which may perhaps be wrong and is certainly of no avail? How will it profit me to know whether wisdom is one thing, and being wise another? How will it profit me to know that the one is, and the other is not, a Good? Suppose I take a chance, and gamble on this prayer: "Wisdom for you, and being wise for me! We shall come out even.

Try rather to show me the way by which I may attain those ends. Tell me what to avoid, what to seek, by what studies to strengthen my tottering mind, how I may rebuff the waves that strike me abeam and drive me from my course, by what means I may be able to cope with all my evils, and by what means I can be rid of the calamities that have plunged in upon me and those into which I myself have plunged. Teach me how to bear the burden of sorrow without a groan on my part, and how to bear prosperity without making others groan; also, how to avoid waiting for the ultimate and inevitable end, and to beat a retreat of my own free will, when it seems proper to me to do so. I think nothing is baser than to pray for death. For if you wish to live, why do you pray for death? And if you do not wish to live, why do you ask the gods for that which they gave you at birth? For even as, against your will, it has been settled that you must die some day, so the time when you shall wish to die is in your own hands. The one fact is to you a necessity, the other a privilege.

I read lately a most disgraceful doctrine, uttered (more shame to him!) by a learned gentleman: "So may I die as soon as possible!" Fool, thou art praying for something that is already thine own! "So may I die as soon as possible!" Perhaps thou didst grow old while uttering these very words! At any rate, what is there to hinder? No one detains thee; escape by whatsoever way thou wilt! Select any portion of Nature, and bid it provide thee with a means of departure! These, namely, are the elements, by which the world's work is carried on — water, earth, air. All these are no more the causes of life than they are the ways of death. "So may I die as soon as possible!" And what is thy wish with regard to this "as soon as possible"? What day dost thou set for the event? It may be sooner than thy prayer requests. Words like this come from a weak mind, from one that courts pity by such cursing; he who prays for death does not wish to die. Ask the gods for life and health; if thou art resolved to die, death's reward is to have done with prayers.

It is with such problems as these, my dear Lucilius, that we should deal, by such problems that we should mold our minds. This is wisdom, this is what being wise means — not to bandy empty subtleties in idle and petty discussions. Fortune has set before you so many problems — which you have not yet solved — and are you still splitting hairs? How foolish it is to practice strokes after you have heard the signal for the fight! Away with all these dummy-weapons; you need armor for a fight to the finish. Tell me by what means sadness and fear may be kept from disturbing my soul, by what means I may shift off this burden of hidden cravings. Do something! "Wisdom is a Good, but being wise is not a Good;" such talk results for us in the judgment that we are not wise, and in making a laughing-stock of this whole field of study — on the ground that it wastes its effort on useless things. Suppose you knew that this question was also debated: whether future wisdom is a Good? For, I beseech you, how could one doubt whether barns do not feel the weight of the harvest that is to come, and that boyhood does not have premonitions of approaching young manhood by any brawn and power? The sick person, in the intervening period, is not helped by the health that is to come, any more than a runner or a wrestler is refreshed by the period of repose that will follow many months later.

Who does not know that what is yet to be is not a Good, for the very reason that it is yet to be? For that which is good is necessarily helpful. And unless things are in the present, they cannot be helpful; and if a thing is not helpful, it is not a Good; if helpful, it is already. I shall be a wise man some day; and this Good will be mine when I shall be a wise man, but in the meantime it is non-existent. A thing must exist first, then may be of a certain kind. How, I ask you, can that which is still nothing be already a Good? And in what better way do you wish it to be proved to you that a certain thing is not, than to say: "It is yet to be"? For it is clear that something which is on the way has not yet arrived. "Spring will follow": I know that winter is here now. "Summer will follow:" I know that it is not summer. The best proof to my mind that a thing is not yet present is that it is yet to be. I hope some day to be wise, but meanwhile I am not wise. For if I possessed that Good, I should now be free from this Evil. Some day I shall be wise; from this very fact you may understand that I am not yet wise. I cannot at the same time live in that state of Good and in this state of Evil; the two ideas do not harmonize, nor do Evil and Good exist together in the same person.

Let us rush past all this clever nonsense, and hurry on to that which will bring us real assistance. No man who is anxiously running after a midwife for his daughter in her birth-pangs will stop to read the praetor's edict or the order of events at the games. No one who is speeding to save his burning house will scan a checker-board to speculate how the imprisoned piece can be freed. But good heavens! — In your case all sorts of news are announced on all sides — your house afire, your children in danger, your country in a state of siege, your property plundered. Add to this shipwreck, earthquakes, and all other objects of dread; harassed amid these troubles, are you taking time for matters which serve merely for mental entertainment? Do you ask what difference there is between wisdom and being wise? Do you tie and untie knots while such a ruin is hanging over your head? Nature has not given us such a generous and free-handed space of time that we can have the leisure to waste any of it. Mark also how much is lost even when men are very careful: people are robbed of one thing by ill-health and of another thing by illness in the family; at one time private, at another public, business absorbs the attention; and all the while sleep shares our lives with us.

Out of this time, so short and swift, that carries us away in its flight, of what avail is it to spend the greater part on useless things? Besides, our minds are accustomed to entertain rather than to cure themselves, to make an aesthetic pleasure out of philosophy, when philosophy should really be a remedy. What the distinction is between wisdom and being wise I do not know; but I do know that it makes no difference to me whether I know such matters or am ignorant of them. Tell me: when I have found out the difference between wisdom and being wise, shall I be wise?

Why then do you occupy me with the words rather than with the works of wisdom? Make me braver, make me calmer, make me the equal of Fortune, make me her superior. And I can be her superior, if I apply to this end everything that I learn. Farewell.

You've seen how it begins, now see how it ends.
Watch the dream die.