Main Text

Letter 55 (Book VI.3)

Seneca uses his experience in being carried past the luxurious retirement villa of Servilius Vatia to distinguish between a retirement that is death-in-life and proper retirement applied to study and moral self-development.

1I have just returned from my ride: I am just as tired as if I had walked as far as I have been sitting. It is an effort to be carried for a long time, and pg 83I rather think the effort is greater because riding is contrary to nature, which gave us feet to do our own walking and eyes to do our own seeing. Our self-indulgence has imposed weakness upon us, and now we have ceased to be capable of doing what we for so long avoided. 2However, I needed to shake up my body, so that if bile was choking my throat it would be shaken off, or if my breathing was thicker for some reason the jolting, which I felt had done me good, would make it lighter. So I persisted in riding a little longer, enticed by the shore itself, which curves between Cumae and the villa of Servilius Vatia and is enclosed by the sea on one side and the lake on the other, like a narrow causeway. Indeed, it was compacted by the recent weather. For as you know, frequent and fierce breakers flatten it whereas a prolonged calm relaxes it when the juice drains from the sands bound together by the moisture.

3However, as is my habit I began to look around to see if I could find anything that would do me good, and I turned my eyes to the villa which once belonged to Vatia. There the rich ex-praetor, known for nothing else but his leisure, grew old and was regarded as a happy man on this account. In fact, whenever the friendship of Asinius Gallus or the hatred, then love, of Sejanus* had ruined a group of men (for it was as dangerous to have offended him as to have held him dear), men used to cry out: 4'Vatia, you are the only man who knows how to live!' But he actually knew how to hide, not to live. For there is a great difference between a life of leisure and one of inertia. I never passed this villa during his lifetime without saying: 'here lies Vatia.' However, dear Lucilius, philosophy is so sacred and deserving of worship that even if something resembles it, the deception wins approval. For the common crowd thinks a man at leisure is in retreat and carefree and content with himself, living for himself, although nobody except a man of wisdom can experience any of these conditions. He is not troubled by anything, and knows how to live for himself. For he knows—which is the first requirement—how to live. 5In fact the man who shuns business and people, who has been exiled by the frustration of his desires, and cannot bear to see other persons more successful, who has gone to ground like a timid and feeble animal, is not living for himself but—a great disgrace—for his greed, his sleep, and his lust; a man does not immediately live for himself because he is living for no one else. However, constancy and persistence in one's intent is such a great achievement that even obstinate idleness has some authority.

pg 846I cannot write anything specific about the villa itself, because I only know its façade and the parts left open which it displays even to passers-by. There are two open, elaborately constructed grottoes the equal of any large entrance hall, created artificially; one of them does not admit the sunlight, but the other holds it until sunset. A stream flowing through the middle and supplied by both the sea and Lake Acheron divides the plantation of plane trees like a Euripus, abundant enough to rear fish even if it is constantly drained. But when the sea is open to the winds, the channel is protected; when the weather imposes a holiday on the fishermen, one can reach a hand out for ready supplies.

7But the most convenient feature of the villa is that it has Baiae beyond its wall; it lacks the disadvantages of that place but enjoys its pleasures. I knew personally these assets of the villa, and I think they hold good for the whole year. In fact the villa faces the south wind and takes it in so as to deprive Baiae of the breeze. Vatia seems to have chosen this site quite shrewdly as a refuge for his lazy and elderly leisure. 8But situation does not contribute much to a man's calm; it is the mind which makes everything commendable to itself. I have known men to be gloomy in a cheerful and pleasant villa, I have known people preoccupied by business while in complete seclusion.

So you have no reason to think yourself unsettled because you are not in Campania. And why are you not settled? Direct your thoughts this far. 9You are free to converse with absent friends, as often as you like and for as long as you like. We enjoy this greatest of all pleasures all the more while we are apart. For being together makes us fussy, and just because we sometimes chat and walk and sit together, when we have been separated we don't think at all about the men we have just seen. 10This is why we should accept absence cheerfully, because no one is not often apart even from those who are his companions: count first the nights apart, then the different activities of each man, then their private studies and journeys out of town; you will see that there is not much for travel to steal from us. 11We must possess a friend in our heart, since it is never away from us: it sees every day whoever it wants. So study with me and dine with me and walk with me; we felt we were living in cramped quarters if there was anything excluded from our meditations. I can see you, Lucilius, and hear you right now. In fact I am so much with you that I wonder whether I should not begin to write notes instead of letters. Keep well.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
55.3 Asinius Gallus … Sejanus: Asinius Gallus, son of Pollio, offended Tiberius (Tacitus, Annals, I.12.6); Sejanus, on the other hand, was Tiberius' favourite and praetorian prefect: he even aspired to become Tiberius' heir, until the reclusive emperor was disillusioned by his sister-in-law Antonia and ordered the fall of Sejanus in 31 ce. Seneca's brother Gallio seems to have suffered for his earlier friendship with Sejanus.
logo-footer Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved.
Access is brought to you by Log out