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Letter 87

(No Book number is preserved.) This starts with a lively description of a two-day trip with his friend Maximus by mule cart with only bare supplies and a minimum (!) of slaves, which Seneca proudly contrasts with the false display of wealth by extravagant debtors—an ancient equivalent of the modern society of maxed-out credit cards. At §11 Seneca turns to the disputes of philosophical schools over the nature of the good, and the problem of detaching material goods from their origin in vicious activities. In fact material goods, or wealth, are the underlying issue of the whole letter. As Inwood, The Stoic Reader (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008), 239, says: 'the main theme of the letter is wealth … in the conventional sense.' This is why the letter is important to our understanding of Seneca. His own wealth was an embarrassment to him in several ways. Ethically it was an obstacle to moral progress (cf. Mark 10: 23–5, esp. 25, where Jesus tells the rich man seeking to live virtuously that 'it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God'). Although Seneca declared in letter 5, §6 that it was a weak soul that could not handle wealth, he knew that his own self-imposed games of poverty were not an answer. Worse, though, was the danger that Seneca's wealth imposed on him. Nero wanted/needed Seneca's riches, but refused to let Seneca make a present of them (see Introduction, pp. xi–xiv). It was hardly less dangerous to talk about this in personal terms, and the obliquities of this letter discussing whether wealth could be a good or was morally neutral or, worse still, a source of evil, are as near as Seneca approaches to his personal condition. (Letters 20 and 119, not in this selection, are also relevant.)

The letter is typical of Seneca's hostile and inconsistent engagement with philosophical syllogisms. To make it easier to follow I have used Inwood's numbering of arguments, and set in italics all claims not endorsed by Seneca himself—whether made by Peripatetics, by Posidonius, or by pg 162certain other Stoics. For connoisseurs of philosophy there is a full discussion in Inwood, The Stoic Reader, 239–60.

1I suffered shipwreck before I even went on board ship; I am not going to add how this happened, in case you think this should be counted among the Stoic paradoxes, which I shall prove are in no case so false or surprising as they seem at first sight, whether you like this or even if you don't Meanwhile this trip showed me how many superfluous things we have and how easily we can deliberately put down things which we don't notice are taken from us when necessity has removed them. 2I and my friend Maximus* have just finished a very happy two-day journey, with the few slaves one vehicle could hold and without any possessions except what were carried on our bodies. The pillow lies on the ground and I on the pillow; of my two cloaks one became a groundsheet and the other a coverlet. 3Nothing could be subtracted from lunch; it was ready in less than an hour. We went nowhere without figs and never without notebooks; these serve as a relish if I have bread, and if not, for bread itself. They turn every day into a New Year* which I make 'happy and blessed' with good thoughts and the generosity of my spirit, which is never greater than when it has set aside eternal matters and made its peace by fearing nothing and its wealth by desiring nothing. 4The vehicle in which I rode is a country cart; the mules prove they are alive by walking; the muleteer is unshod, but not because of summer. I can scarcely persuade myself to want this vehicle to seem my own; my perverse modesty over what is right still persists, and whenever we come into some more elegant company I blush in spite of myself, a proof that those values which I approve and praise do not yet hold a fixed and immovable place. A man who blushes at a shabby vehicle will vaunt himself in a costly one.

5I haven't made much progress yet; I dare not display my thrift; I still care for the opinions of other travellers. Instead, I should have uttered this protest against the opinions of all the human race: 'You are mad, going astray, gaping at superfluous things and esteeming no one at his own value. When it comes to property you canny calculators establish the accounts of each man to whom you will either trust money or favours (for you count these too as outlay): 6this fellow has wide possessions, but owes a great deal; the other has a handsome home, but bought with borrowed money; no one will present a more handsome household, but it doesn't match his debts; if he pays his pg 163creditors he will have nothing left. You will have to do the same thing in assessing the rest, scrutinizing how much each man has.' 7You think he is rich because golden equipment follows him in the street, because he has ploughlands in all the provinces, because his account-book is bulky, because he owns as much land outside the city as a man would be envied for possessing in the uninhabited parts of Apulia; when you have said all this, he is poor. Why? Because he has debts. 'How much?' you say. Everything, unless you judge there is a difference between borrowing from a man or from Fortune. 8What difference does it make that his mules are all dressed in one livery? What about those decorated vehicles?

  •            Winged steeds spread with purple embroidered cloths,
  •            Gold pendants hang from their breasts, and clad in gold,
  •            They chew gold bits between their teeth.*

9Those things can neither make a master superior nor a mule. M. Cato the censor,* whose birth was as valuable to the state as Scipio's (for one waged war with our enemies, the other with our morals), used to ride on a hack with pack-saddles laid upon it to carry his necessities. How I would love him to encounter one of those cavaliers, displaying their wealth on the road, driving runners and Numidians and a cloud of dust before him! This man would certainly seem more refined and better escorted than M. Cato, this fellow who among all those fancy trappings is hesitating right now whether to hire himself out to the sword or the knife.* 10What a credit to the age that a commander, triumphant general, and censor, indeed something excelling all these things, a Cato, should be content with one riding-hack, and not even the whole of that: for baggage occupied part of it hanging from either flank. So would you not prefer that one horse rubbed down by Cato to all those plump ponies and Spanish thoroughbreds and trotting-horses?

11I see there will be no end to this topic unless I impose it on myself. So I will fall silent here as far as concerns those hampers which the man who first named them doubtless foresaw would turn out hampering.* Now I want to render to you a very few of our men's syllogistic arguments which concern virtue, which we maintain is sufficient for a blessed life.

12'What is good makes men good (for in music what is good makes a musician). But the gifts of Fortune do not make a man good; so they are not goods.'

pg 164(First argument) The Peripatetics* answer this challenge by declaring our first proposition false. They say that 'good men are not made at all costs from what is good. In music there is something good like a pipe or string or organ adjusted to the practice of singing: but none of these makes a musician.' 13We will answer them: 'You don't understand how we have determined what is good in music. For we are not talking of what equips the musician, but what he does. You are dealing with the tools of the art, not the art itself. But if anything is good in the art, that at least will make a musician.' 14Even now I want to make this clearer. A good thing in the art of music can be meant in two ways, one which helps the effect of the musician, the other which helps the art itself. Instruments, pipes and organs and strings, are relevant to the effect, but not to the art. For a man is an artist even without them; perhaps he cannot use his art. This is not equally ambiguous in a man, for the same thing is the good of a man and of his life.

15(Second argument) 'Anything that can be the lot of the most contemptible and shameful person is not good: now wealth is the lot of a pimp and a gladiator trainer; so it is not a good thing.'

They say: 'What you propose is false; for in grammar and the art of healing or piloting we see goods coming to the most humble men.' 16But these arts do not claim greatness of the mind, they do not rise to the heights or shun the gifts of fortune; whereas virtue raises a man up and places him above what is dear to mortals; he neither longs for nor fears excessively what are called good or evil. Chelidon, one of Cleopatra's eunuchs, possessed a great property. Recently Natalis,* a man whose tongue was as foul as it was impure, who fellated women, was the heir of many men and made himself many heirs.* Well then, did money make him impure or did he befoul the money? It falls into the hands of some men like a shilling into a sewer. 17Virtue takes its stand above such things; it is rated in its own coinage; it judges that none of those random incidental things is good. Medicine and piloting do not forbid themselves and their adherents from admiring such things; someone who is not a good man can still be a doctor or a pilot, or a grammarian, as much, by Jove, as a cook. You would say that a man whose lot it is to possess an extraordinary thing is not himself an ordinary man; for a man is what he possesses.

18An account is worth as much as it contains; indeed, what it contains comes into its receipts. Whoever put a price on a full purse except the sum of the amount of money it contained? The same thing pg 165applied to the masters of great properties; they are merely accessories and attachments of the estates. So why is the wise man great? Because he has a great spirit. So it is true that something that can accrue to even the most contemptible fellow is not a good. 19So I will never call idleness good, since a cicada and a flea enjoy it. I would not even call being calm and free of trouble a good; for what is more at ease than a worm? You ask what makes a wise man? What makes a god. You must give him something divine, heavenly, and glorious; the good does not come to everyone nor suffer any ordinary owner. See

  • 20             What each region bears and what it rejects;
  •              Here crops, there grapes grow up more happily,
  •              Elsewhere the shoots of trees and grasses sprout
  •              Unbidden. Don't you see how Tmolus sends saffron,
  •              India ivory, and soft Sabaeans incense,
  •              But the bare Chalybes rough iron?*

21Those products are separated by regions, so that trade with each other was necessary to mortals, if anyone wanted something from another man. So that highest of goods has its own place, it is not born where ivory or where iron is produced. You ask what is the place of the highest good? The spirit. Unless it is pure and chaste it cannot contain God.

22(Third argument) 'A good thing is not made out of a bad one: but wealth is made from avarice; so wealth is not a good.' He says: 'It is not true that a good thing is not born from a bad one; for money is made from sacrilege and theft. So sacrilege and theft are indeed an evil. But this is because it causes more bad things than good; for it gives profit, but along with fear anxiety and torture of mind and body.' 23Whoever says this must accept that sacrilege, just as it is bad because it causes many evils, is also good in some part, because it causes some good: but what could be more monstrous than this? And yet we have utterly persuaded men that sacrilege, theft, and adultery are thought good. How many men do not blush at theft, how many boast of adultery! For petty sacrilege is punished, but the loot of great ones is carried in triumphal processions.* 24Now add that sacrilege, if it is at all good in any part, will also be honourable and treated as done rightly: for the action is ours, a claim not accepted by the reflection of any mortal man. So good things cannot arise from bad ones. For if, as you say, sacrilege is bad for this one reason that it brings a lot of evil, if you pg 166cancel the punishments, if you guarantee freedom from risk, it will be entirely good. And yet the greatest punishment for crimes lies in themselves. 25I tell you, you are mistaken if you postpone punishment to the executioner or to prison: these deeds are punished immediately when they are committed, even while they are being committed. So good does not arise from evil, no more than a fig-tree from an olive; shoots match their seed, and good things cannot be inferior to their origin. Just as what is honourable does not arise from what is shameful, so good does not arise from evil, for the honourable and the good are the same.

26Some of our sect answer this as follows: 'Let us think money is good from wherever it derives; yet the money does not arise from the sacrilege even if it is taken by the sacrilege. Understand this in this way. There is gold and a viper in the same vessel; if you take the gold from the vessel you have not taken it because there is also a viper there, and, I repeat, the vessel does not give me gold because it contains a viper, but it gives gold although it also contains a viper. In the same way, profit comes from sacrilege not because sacrilege is shameful and criminal, but because it also contains profit. Just as the viper in that vessel is a bad thing, not the gold which lies there with the viper, so in sacrilege the crime is bad but not the profit.' 27I disagree: for the circumstances of each situation are totally different. I can remove the gold from there without the viper, but I cannot make the profit without the sacrilege; that profit is not attached to the crime but blended with it.

28(Fourth argument) Anything which makes us fall into many evils when we want to obtain it is not a good thing: and while we want to obtain wealth we fall into many evils, so wealth is not a good thing.

He says: 'Your proposition has two implications: one, that in wanting to obtain wealth we fall into many evils. Now we also fall into many evils when we want to obtain virtue: one man was shipwrecked while he was sailing on a study voyage, another was captured. 29The other implication is this; anything which causes us to fall into evils is not a good thing. It will not be a consequence of this proposition that we fall into evils through wealth or pleasures; or if we fall into many evils because of wealth, wealth is not only not a good thing but a bad thing, but you are only saying that it is not a good thing. Besides,' he says, 'you admit that wealth has some benefit; you count it among advantages, but on this same argument they will not even be advantageous, for through wealth many disadvantages pg 167come to us.' 30Some people reply to these arguments: 'You are mistaken in blaming wealth for misfortunes. Wealth does not harm anyone; either each man is harmed by his own stupidity or another's wickedness, just as a sword does not kill anyone: it is the weapon used by the killer. So wealth does not harm you if you are harmed because of wealth.' Link 31Posidonius* had a better argument, as I think, in saying wealth was the cause of bad things, not because in itself it had any effect, but because it provoked those who would do harm. For an efficient cause, which inevitably does direct harm, is different from an antecedent cause. Wealth contains this antecedent cause: it puffs up men's spirit and begets arrogance and attracts envy, and carries the mind so far from itself that the repute for money delights us even when it will bring us harm. 32Now all good things should be free of blame; they are pure and do not corrupt minds or provoke them: they raise them up and expand them but without causing a swelling. Good things create confidence, but wealth creates rashness; things that are good give greatness of the spirit, but wealth gives insolence. Now insolence is nothing but a false appearance of greatness. 33Posidonius says: 'In that way wealth is even a bad thing, it does not just fall short of being a good thing.' It would be bad if it itself did harm, if, as I said, it contained an efficient cause; but as it is, wealth has an antecedent cause, one that does not incite the mind but attracts it; for it spreads before it a plausible appearance of good believed by most people. 34Virtue also has an antecedent cause for envy; for many men are envied for wisdom and many for justice. But this case does not come from it nor is it plausible. On the contrary, it is more plausible that virtue presents an appearance to men's minds which invites them to love and admiration.

35(Fifth argument) Posidonius says we should put the question like this: 'Things that do not give greatness or confidence or freedom from anxiety are not good; now wealth and good health and things like these do none of these things, so they are not goods.' In fact he expresses this problem even more clearly in this way. 'Things that do not give greatness to the mind or confidence or freedom from anxiety, but produce insolence, pride, and arrogance, are bad things; now we are driven into these faults by the gifts of fortune, so they are not good.'

36In fact, he says, 'on this principle they are not even assets or advantages. For the nature of advantages and of good things is different: an advantage is something containing more benefit than trouble; a good pg 168thing should be pure and harmless in all respects. A thing is not good which gives more benefit, but which gives nothing but benefit. 37Besides, an advantage also belongs to animals and imperfect men and fools. So an advantage can be mixed, but it is called an advantage because it is assessed from its greater part; the good only belongs to the wise man; it ought to be free of damage.'

38(Sixth argument) Keep cheerful; only one knot remains but it is the knot of Hercules. 'A good thing does not arise from bad, but wealth comes from many instances of poverty, so wealth is not a good thing.'

Men of our school don't accept this problem, whereas the Peripatetics both invent it and resolve it. For Posidonius says* that this quibble, tossed around in all the schools of dialectic, is refuted by Antipater in this way: 39'Poverty is not named in terms of property, but in terms of loss (or as the men of old used to say, deprivation; the Greeks call this "according to emptiness"); he is not talking about what the poor man has but what he doesn't have.' So nothing can be filled from many empty things; many things add up to riches, but not many deprivations. He says: 'You are not understanding poverty as you should. For poverty is not what possesses few things, but what does not possess many things; so it is not called after what it has, but from what it lacks.'

40I could express my meaning more easily if there was a Latin word that meant anhuparxia—'lack of resources'. Antipater assigns this meaning to poverty; I do not see what else poverty can be than the possession of very little. We will see about that question, if ever we have a lot of leisure, what is the essence of wealth and of poverty; but at that time we shall also consider whether it is better to soothe poverty and remove the arrogance from wealth than to quarrel about words, as if we had already cast our verdict about things.

41Let us imagine we have been summoned to a public assembly and a law is being passed to abolish wealth. Are we going to support or resist these proposals? By these we shall ensure that the Roman people desires and praises poverty, the foundation and cause of its empire, but fears its own wealth; that the Romans bear in mind that they found wealth in the conquered, and from wealth ambition and bribery and riots invaded this most chaste and restrained of cities, that the spoils taken from nations were displayed too extravagantly, and that what one people snatched from all could more easily be snatched from this one by all of them? It is better to urge this and take their pg 169desires by storm, not just curtail them. If we can, let us speak more boldly; if not, more openly. Keep well.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
87.2 my friend Maximus: Caesennius Maximus, a close friend in private life.
Editor’s Note
87.3 a New Year: Romans exchanged gifts of dried figs and dates on New Year's day.
Editor’s Note
87.8 between their teeth: these are the luxury riding horses sent by Latinus to Aeneas as a guest gift in Aeneid, VII.277–9.
Editor’s Note
87.9 Cato the censor: (see the previous letter). Consul in 196 bce and censor in 184, Cato left fragments of political speeches proclaiming his economy as governor of Hither Spain and denouncing the extravagance of elite politicians, many of whom he prosecuted.
Editor’s Note
to the sword or the knife: the typical profligate after losing his family property had to sell his own skills in the arena, either as a gladiator or a bestiarius (fighter of wild beasts).
Editor’s Note
87.11 hampering: Seneca is punning on Latin impedimenta (burdens) and impedire (hinder, hamper).
Editor’s Note
87.12 The Peripatetics: these followers of the school of Aristotle were the principal adversaries of Stoic moral teaching, making their claims relative (e.g. a little anger can be useful and a good thing!), where the Stoics were absolute.
Editor’s Note
87.16 Chelidon … Natalis: these contemptible persons are put beneath contempt by accusing them of sexual perversions. But Antonius Natalis would betray first Scaevinus, then Piso and Seneca himself (Tacitus, Annals, XV.55 f.) within two years of this letter.
Editor’s Note
hairs: illegitimate children.
Editor’s Note
87.20 rough iron: why does Seneca cite Virgil, Georgics, I.53–8? Surely because of the context, warning that nature's laws limit what can be produced from each terrain. The highest good, virtue, cannot come from purely material sources.
Editor’s Note
87.23 carried in triumphal processions: this is an echo of Cato's dictum that small thieves were punished but great thieves rode in triumph.
Editor’s Note
87.31 Posidonius: fr. 170 (Kidd). Seneca quotes the philosopher, historian, and contemporary of Cicero fifteen times in these later letters. Here he credits him with two arguments against wealth: first that it was a cause of evil not because of its own actions but because it provoked men to commit evil, and secondly (§35: apparently a direct quotation) that it could not be a good thing because it did not confer courage or confidence or freedom from care; Seneca extends this to imply that in not giving these good states of mind wealth was actually an evil.
Editor’s Note
87.38 Posidonius says: the other direct Posidonius citation, adopting the argument of the second century Antipater, is more complex and tries to answer the sociological criticism of wealth as the product of many men's poverty by the logical reclassification of poverty as defined by its lack of possessions. Kidd questions the extent that this later argument is taken from Posidonius rather than Seneca's own contribution. For a serious analysis of Seneca's informal method of syllogism see Inwood, Senca's Philosophical Letters, ad loc.
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