On Leisure

To Serenus


(First Century A.D.)

. . .with great accord commend to us the vices. Although we attempt nothing else that would be beneficial, nevertheless retirement in itself will do us good; we shall be better by ourselves. And what of the opportunity to retire to the society of the best men, and to select some model by which we may direct our own lives? But we can do this only in leisure. Only then is it possible for us to maintain what we have once resolved upon, when there is no one who can interfere and with the help of the crowd turn aside our decision while it is still weak; only then is it possible for life, in which we are now distracted by the most diverse aims, to progress along an even and single course. For among all the rest of our ills this is the worst — the habit of changing our very vices. So we do not have even the good fortune to persist in an evil that we already know. We find pleasure first in one and then in another, and the trouble is that our choices are not only wrong, but also fickle. We are tossed about and clutch at one thing after another; what we have sought we abandon, and what we have abandoned we seek again, and oscillate ever between desire and repentance. For we depend wholly on the judgments of others, and that which the many seek and praise seems to us the best — not that which deserves to be sought and praised — and we do not consider whether the way in itself is good or bad, but the number of footprints it has; and none of these are of men who are coming back!

You will say to me: "What are you doing, Seneca? Are you deserting your party? Surely you Stoics say: 'We shall engage in affairs to the very end of life, we shall never cease to work for the common good, to help each and all, to give aid even to our enemies when our hand is feeble with age. We are those who grant no exemption from service by reason of years, and, as that most gifted poet puts it,

Upon our hoary heads we thrust the helm.

We are those who hold so strongly that there should be no leisure before death that, if circumstance permits, we take no leisure for death itself.' Why in the very headquarters of Zeno do you preach the doctrines of Epicurus? Why, if you are tired of your party, do you not with all speed desert it rather than betray it?" For the present I shall have only this reply to make to you: "What more do you expect of me than that I should imitate my leaders? And what then? I shall not go whither they despatch me, but whither they lead me."

Right now I shall prove to you that I am not in revolt against the teachings of the Stoics; for they themselves have not revolted against their own teachings either. And yet I might plead a very good excuse even if I did follow their examples and not their teachings. What I have to say I shall develop under two heads, showing, first, that it is possible for a man to surrender himself wholly to the contemplation of truth, to search out the art of living, and to practice it in retirement, even from his earliest years; secondly, that, when a man has now earned release from public service and his life is almost over, it is possible that he may with perfect justice do the same thing and turn his mind to quite different activities, after the manner of the Vestal virgins, whose years are allotted to varied duties while they are learning to perform the sacred rites, and, when they have learned, they begin to teach. I shall show, too, that the Stoics also accept this doctrine, not because I have made it my rule to set up nothing contrary to the teaching of Zeno or Chrysippus, but because the matter itself suffers me to adopt their opinion; for if a man always follows the opinion of one person, his place is not in the senate, but in a faction. Would that all things were now understood, that truth were uncovered and revealed, and that we never altered our mandates! As it is, we are in search of truth in company with the very men that teach it. The two sects, the Epicureans and the Stoics, are at variance, as in most things, in this matter also; they both direct us to leisure, but by different roads. Epicurus says: "The wise man will not engage in public affairs except in an emergency." Zeno says: "He will engage in public affairs unless something prevents him."

The one seeks leisure by fixed purpose, the other for a special cause; but the term "cause" has here broad application. If the state is too corrupt to be helped, if it is wholly dominated by evils, the wise man will not struggle to no purpose, nor spend himself when nothing is to be gained. If he is lacking in influence or power and the state is unwilling to accept his services, if he is hampered by ill health, he will not enter upon a course for which he knows he is unfitted, just as he would not launch upon the sea a battered ship, just as he would not enlist for service in the army if he were disabled. Consequently, it is also possible that a man whose fortunes are still unharmed may establish himself in a safe retreat before he experiences any of the storms of life, and thenceforth devote himself to the liberal studies and demand uninterrupted leisure to cultivate the virtues, which even those who are most retired are able to practice. It is of course required of a man that he should benefit his fellow-men — many if he can, if not, a few; if not a few, those who are nearest; if not these, himself. For when he renders himself useful to others, he engages in public affairs. Just as the man that chooses to become worse injures not only himself but all those whom, if he had become better, he might have benefited, so whoever wins the approval of himself benefits others by the very fact that he prepares what will prove beneficial to them.

Let us grasp the idea that there are two commonwealths — the one, a vast and truly common state, which embraces alike gods and men, in which we look neither to this corner of earth nor to that, but measure the bounds of our citizenship by the path of the sun; the other, the one to which we have been assigned by the accident of birth. This will be the commonwealth of the Athenians or of the Carthaginians, or of any other city that belongs, not to all, but to some particular race of men. Some yield service to both commonwealths at the same time — to the greater and to the lesser — some only to the lesser, some only to the greater. This greater commonwealth we are able to serve even in leisure — nay, I am inclined to think, even better in leisure — so that we may inquire what virtue is, and whether it is one or many; whether it is nature or art that makes men good; whether this world, which embraces seas and lands and the things that are contained in the sea and land, is a solitary creation or whether God has strewn about many systems of the same sort; whether all the matter from which everything is formed is continuous and compact, or whether it is disjunctive and a void is intermingled with the solid; what God is — whether he idly gazes upon his handiwork, or directs it; whether he encompasses it without, or pervades the whole of it; whether the world is eternal, or is to be counted among the things that perish and are born only for a time. And what service does he who ponders these things render unto god? He keeps the mighty works of God from being without a witness!

We are fond of saying that the highest good is to live according to Nature. Nature has begotten us for both purposes — for contemplation and for action. Let me now prove the first statement. But why anything more? Will not this be proved if each one of us shall take counsel simply of himself, and ponder how great is his desire to gain knowledge of the unknown, and how this desire is stirred by tales of every sort? Some sail the sea and endure the hardships of journeying to distant lands for the sole reward of discovering something hidden and remote. It is this that collects people everywhere to see sights, it is this that forces them to pry into things that are closed, to search out the more hidden things, to unroll the past, and to listen to the tales of the customs of barbarous tribes. Nature has bestowed upon us an inquisitive disposition, and being well aware of her own skill and beauty, has begotten us to be spectators of her mighty array, since she would lose the fruit of her labor if her works, so vast, so glorious, so artfully contrived, so bright and so beautiful in more ways than one, were displayed to a lonely solitude. That you may understand how she wished us, not merely to behold her, but to gaze upon her, see the position in which she has placed us.

She has set us in the center of her creation, and has granted us a view that sweeps the universe; and she has not only created man erect, but in order to fit him for contemplation of herself, she has given him a head to top the body, and set it upon a pliant neck, in order that he might follow the stars as they glide from their rising to their setting and turn his face about with the whole revolving heaven. And besides, guiding on their course six constellations by day, and six by night, she left no part of herself unrevealed, hoping that by these wonders which she had presented to man's eyes she might also arouse his curiosity in the rest. For we have not beheld them all, nor the full compass of them, but our vision opens up a path for its investigation, and lays the foundations of truth so that our research may pass from revealed to hidden things and discover something more ancient than the world itself — whence yon stars came forth, what was the state of the universe before the several elements separated to form its parts, what principle separated the engulfed and confused elements, who appointed their places to things, whether the heavy elements sank and the light ones flew aloft by reason of their own nature, or apart from the energy and gravity of matter some higher power has appointed laws for each of them, or whether that theory is true which strives especially to prove that man is part of the divine spirit, that some part, sparks, as it were, of the stars fell down to earth and lingered here in a place that is not their own.

Our thought bursts through the ramparts of the sky, and is not content to know that which is revealed. "I search out that," it says, "which lies beyond the world — whether the vastness of space is unending, or whether this also is enclosed within its own boundaries; what is the appearance of whatever exists outside, whether it is formless and disordered, occupying the same amount of room in every direction, or whether that also has been arranged into some show of elegance; whether it clings close to this world, or has withdrawn far from it and revolves there in the void; whether it is atoms by means of which everything that has been born and will be born is built up or whether the matter of things is continuous and throughout is capable of change; whether the elements are hostile to each other, or whether they are not at war, but while they differ are in harmony." Since man was born for inquiring into such matters as these, consider how little time has been allotted to him even if he claims the whole of it for himself. Though he allows none of it to be snatched from him by ease, none of it to be lost through carelessness, though he guards his hours with most miserly care, and attains to the utmost limit of human life, though Fortune wrecks no part of that which Nature has appointed for him, yet man is too mortal to comprehend things immortal. Consequently I live according to Nature if I surrender myself entirely to her, if I become her admirer and worshipper. But Nature intended me to do both — to be active and to have leisure for contemplation. And really I do both, since even the contemplative life is not devoid of action.

"But it makes a difference," you say, "whether you have resorted to that merely for the sake of pleasure, demanding nothing from it except unbroken contemplation without practical result; for that life is pleasant and has its own charms." In answer to this I say that it makes just as much difference in what spirit you engage in public life — whether you are always distraught, and never take any time to turn your eyes from human affairs to the things of heaven. Just as to seek wealth without any love of the virtues and without the cultivation of character, and to display an interest in bare work only is by no means to be commended — for all these must be combined and go hand in hand — so when virtue is banished to leisure without action it is an imperfect and spiritless good, that never brings what it has learned into the open. Who will deny that Virtue ought to test her progress by open deed, and should not only consider what ought to be done, but also at times apply her hand and bring into reality what she has conceived? But if the hindrance is not in the wise man himself — if what is lacking is not the doer, but the things to be done, will you then permit him to court his own soul? And with what thought does the wise man retire into leisure? In the knowledge that there also he will be doing something that will benefit posterity.

Our school at any rate is ready to say that both Zeno and Chrysippus accomplished greater things than if they had led armies, held public office, and framed laws. The laws they framed were not for one state only, but for the whole human race. Why, therefore, should such leisure as this not be fitting for the good man, who by means of it may govern the ages to come, and speak, not to the ears of the few, but to the ears of all men of all nations, both those who now are and those who shall be? In brief, I ask you whether Cleanthes and Chrysippus and Zeno lived in accordance with their teachings. Undoubtedly you will reply that they lived just as they taught that men ought to live. And yet no one of them governed a state. You reply: "They had neither the fortune nor the rank which ordinarily admit one to the management of public affairs." But, nevertheless, they did not lead a life of sloth; they found a way to make their own repose a greater help to mankind than all the pother and sweat of others. Therefore, though they played no public part, they none the less have been thought to have played a great part.

Moreover, there are three kinds of life, and it is a common question as to which of them is best. One is devoted to pleasure, a second to contemplation, a third to action. Having first put away our strife and having put away the hatred which we have relentlessly declared against those who pursue ends different from ours, let us see how all these, under different names, come to the same thing. For he who sanctions pleasure is not without contemplation, nor he who surrenders to contemplation without pleasure, nor is he whose life is devoted to action without contemplation. But you say: "Whether something is a chief aim or is merely attached to some other chief aim makes a very great difference." Yes, grant that there is a huge difference, nevertheless the one does not exist without the other. That man is not given to contemplation without action, nor this one to action without contemplation, nor does that third one — concerning whom we have agreed to form a bad opinion — give sanction to idle pleasure, but to the pleasure that he renders stable for himself by his reason; thus even this pleasure-loving sect is itself committed to action. Clearly is it committed to action! since Epicurus himself declares that he will at times withdraw from pleasure, will even seek pain if he foresees that he will either repent of pleasure, or will be able to substitute a lesser pain for one that is greater. And what is my purpose in stating these things? To make it clear that contemplation is favored by all. Some men make it their aim; for us it is a roadstead, but not the harbor.

Add, further, that on the authority of Chrysippus a man has a right to live a life of leisure; I do not mean, that he may tolerate leisure, but that he may choose it. Our school refuses to allow the wise man to attach himself to any sort of state. But what difference does it make in what manner the wise man arrives at leisure — whether because no state is available to him or because he is not available to the state — if he is nowhere to find a state? Besides, no state will ever be available to the fastidious searcher. I ask you to what state should the wise man attach himself? To that of the Athenians, in which Socrates was sentenced to death, from which Aristotle fled to avoid being sentenced? in which all the virtues are crushed by envy? Surely you will say that no wise man will wish to attach himself to this state. Shall the wise man, then, attach himself to the state of the Carthaginians, in which faction is always rife and all the best men find "freedom" their foe, in which justice and goodness have supreme contempt, and enemies are treated with inhuman cruelty and fellow-citizens like enemies? From this state also will he flee. If I should attempt to enumerate them one by one, I should not find a single one which could tolerate the wise man or which the wise man could tolerate. But if that state which we dream of can nowhere be found, leisure begins to be a necessity for all of us, because the one thing that might have been preferred to leisure nowhere exists. If anyone says that the best life of all is to sail the sea, and then adds that I must not sail upon a sea where shipwrecks are a common occurrence and there are often sudden storms that sweep the helmsman in an adverse direction, I conclude that this man, although he lauds navigation, really forbids me to launch my ship.

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