Elaine Fantham (ed.), Oxford World's Classics: Seneca: Selected Letters
pg 253Letter 116 (Book XIX.7)
Seneca does not directly tell his readers that Lucilius has written in mourning for the death of a dear friend, but reveals it obliquely in §2. It leads to a brief discussion of the main dispute between the Peripatetic followers of Aristotle and the Stoics, for whom any emotion was a weakness to be resisted. Seneca solves this issue by distinguishing desires from a more disciplined kind of wishing (§1), but warning against fostering one's own desires. The letter deserves to be better known because it is exceptional in discussing the problem of romantic love (§§5–6) before reverting to the theme of moderating desire.
1Philosophers have often investigated whether it is better to have moderate emotions or none. Men of our school reject them, the Peripatetics moderate them. For my part I don't see how any middling level of sickness can be healthy or useful. Don't be afraid. I am not snatching from you any of the emotions that you don't wish denied to you. I will show myself easy and indulgent to the causes you aim at and think either necessary for life or useful or pleasant: I shall take away the fault in them. For when I forbid you to desire things, I shall permit you to wish for them, so that you can act in the same way without fearing and with a more reliable intention, so that you can even be more aware of those pleasures: surely they will reach you more effectively if you command over them than if you are their slave?
2But, you will say: 'It is natural for me to suffer from the loss of my friend: grant a just right to my tears that fall so justly. It is natural to be moved by the opinions of men and saddened by their adverse judgements; why don't you allow me this honourable fear of bad opinion?' There is no fault without a patron's encouragement; no fault is not modest and curable at the start, but it spreads more widely from this first stage. You won't succeed in ending it if once you let it begin. 3Every emotion is weak at first, then it rouses itself and gathers strength as it advances; it is more easily kept out than driven out. Who denies that all emotions originate in a natural beginning? Nature has entrusted us with care for ourselves, but when you indulge in it too much, it is a fault. Nature has mixed pleasure in with necessary things, not so that we would seek it, but so that this additional gain would make the things we cannot live without more pleasing. If you let it come in its own right, then it is luxury. So we must resist pleasures as they enter because, as I said, it is easier to admit them than to get them to leave. 4'Well, allow me to grieve up to a certain point, pg 254to fear up to that point.' But your 'up to a certain point' extends a long way and does not come to an end when you want. A wise man can safely keep watch over himself without anxiety, and he will staunch his tears and pleasures when he wants: in our case, since it is not easy to step back, it is best not to step forward at all. 5It seems to me that Panaetius* gave an elegant reply to a young man who asked whether the wise man would fall in love. 'We will find out about the wise man,' he said, 'but for you and me, still far away from the wise man, we can't risk falling into a condition that is troubled, uncontrolled, enslaved to another and cheap in our own eyes. For if the beloved looks kindly on us we are provoked by that person's kindness, but if the beloved despises us we are inflamed by pride. Ease in love is as harmful as difficulty; we are beguiled by ease but struggle with difficulty. So let us keep aloof, staying aware of our weakness: let us not trust our weak spirit to wine nor beauty nor flattery nor anything that attracts with charm.' 6What Panaetius said to the man who asked about love I am saying about all emotions: let us withdraw from the slippery slope as far as we can; even on dry ground we are not standing firmly enough.
7At this point you will counter with that popular criticism against the Stoics: 'You promise too much, and your instructions are too severe. We are poor ordinary fellows and cannot deny ourselves everything. We will mourn, but not excessively; we will feel desire but moderately; we will be angry but we will be appeased.' 8Do you know why we cannot do that? Because we don't believe we can. No, I swear it, another factor is involved: we defend our faults because we love them and prefer to excuse them rather than shake them off. Nature has given man enough strength if we use it, if we gather our powers and rouse them all up on our behalf, or at least not against our interests. The real issue is that we won't, it is only a pretence that we can't. Keep well.