Seneca in the Popular (?) Press

May 1, 2009

You’ll need a subscription, but The Believer has a great article about friendship, happiness and other people that starts with this nugget about my current favorite:

In A.D. 64 the Stoic philosopher Seneca pondered friendship. The Stoics’ intellectual adversaries, the Epicureans, had claimed that a man sought friends for purely instrumental reasons, “for the purpose of having someone to come and sit beside his bed when he is ill or come to his rescue when he is hard up or thrown into chains.” But Seneca knew better. A wise man wanted friends “so that he may have someone by whose sickbed he himself may sit, or whom he may himself release when that person is held prisoner by hostile hands.” Kindness was man’s duty but also his joy: “No one can live a happy life if he turns everything to his own purposes. Live for others if you want to live for yourself.”

People need other people, not just for companionship or support in hard times but to fulfill their humanity. This theme ran through all of ancient thought but was strongest among the Stoics, who propounded a moral psychology based on oikeiôsis, the attachment of self to other. Stoics were famously self-reliant, but the self on which a Stoic relied was not singular but communal. Stoics regarded reality as governed by a Logos, a divine principle of rationality, which manifested itself as reason in every human soul. No man was an island, as John Donne wrote centuries later; all belonged to the great “community of reason” and were precious to each other for their common humanity. The world was but a “single city,” the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius averred, whose citizens were united by reason and “mutual affection.”


One Response to “Seneca in the Popular (?) Press”

  1. […] Speaking only for myself, my commitment to Christianity is somewhat limited, and I’m actually rather fond of Roman thinking, so the charge carries a bit less weight than it might for Christians […]

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