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Letter 44 (Book V.3)

On the difference between social and moral standing. Seneca reproaches Lucilius for feeling socially inferior as a mere knight, and compares the moral nobility and humble social origin of Socrates and other great philosophers. References to movement between slavery and free status point ahead to the direct discussion coming in letter 47.

1You are belittling yourself to me again and saying that first nature, then fortune, has been grudging to you, although you can detach yourself from the crowd and rise to the greatest success among men. If philosophy has any merit it is this, that it does not look at the family tree: all men, if we trace them to their first origin, come from the gods. 2You are a Roman knight,* and it was your enterprise that raised you to this rank; but by Jove, the fourteen rows shut out many and the senate does not let in everyone, and even military camps are selective in choosing whom they welcome into toil and danger: but good sense is open to all and we are all nobly born for this purpose. Philosophy does not reject or choose anyone; it shines for everyone. 3Socrates was not a patrician;* Cleanthes drew water and hired his services to irrigate a garden; as for Plato, philosophy did not welcome him as a noble but made him noble; why should you despair of becoming their equal? All of these are your ancestors if you behave worthily of them; and you will do if you persuade yourself forthwith that you are not surpassed by anyone in nobility. 4For all of us there are as many preceding us; there is no one whose origin does not lie beyond memory. Plato says that no king was not descended from slaves and no slave was not descended from kings.* A long series of vicissitudes mixed up all of these ranks and fortune turned them upside down. Link 5Who is well born? The man well set up by nature for virtue. pg 67We should look only for this, otherwise if you hark back to the old days there is no one who does not come from the time before creation. From the origin of the universe up to this time an alternating sequence has led us through glorious and humble circumstances. An entrance hall full of smoky wax masks* does not make us noble; no ancestor lived in order to give us glory, nor is what occurred before us our property; it is the spirit that makes one noble, which may rise from any rank above fortune. 6So imagine you are not a Roman knight but a freedman: you can achieve this, to be the only free man among the freeborn.* 'How is that?' you say. If you do not distinguish between good things and bad on the people's say so. You must fix your gaze not on the origin of things but their destination. If there is anything that can create a happy life, then it is good in its own right; for it cannot be distorted into evil. 7So where is it that people go wrong, since everyone chooses a happy life? Because they mistake the means of happiness for the end, and actually flee it while they are seeking it. For although a firm freedom from care and unshaken confidence is the essence of a happy life, they gather reasons for anxiety, and not only carry burdens on the treacherous journey of life but drag them along; so they are always falling further behind from what they are aiming for, and the more effort they spend, the more they hamper themselves and are carried backwards. This happens to men hurrying through a maze; their very speed entangles them. Keep well.

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Editor’s Note
44.2 You are a Roman knight: the second order at Rome, inferior only to the senatorial order, was called equestrian, because originally men of this property class served as cavalry officers (knights). They were privileged to sit in the front fourteen rows at the theatre. The Roman pyramidal hierarchy was of senatorial families, then equestrians or knights, then freeborn citizens: beneath them were the freedmen or former slaves, and below them only actual slaves; even among slaves, the home-bred vernae were deemed superior to slaves purchased in the market, and Greek-speaking slaves to 'barbarians'.
Editor’s Note
44.3 Socrates … not a patrician: Socrates was a craftsman (stonemason), but the word patrician, denoting a restricted birth-caste at Rome, is doing duty for the Greek concept of being eupatrid, 'of good father'. The Stoic Cleanthes apparently worked with his hands, but Plato was an aristocrat, so Seneca makes a different point; the word 'noble' originally meant 'well known', and only later denoted a man whose family had held high office.
Editor’s Note
44.4 not descended from slaves … kings: defeat in war turned queens like Hecuba, queen of Troy, and royal daughters into slaves who gave birth as concubines to children of Greek kings.
Editor’s Note
44.5 smoky wax masks: families descended from Roman magistrates kept waxen death-masks of their ancestors in the formal atrium, and paraded them in aristocratic funerals.
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