In the excerpts below, Seneca seems to contemplate on what the best state in life is; whether in riches or in poverty. He tries to state the benefits of both, however he seems to be leaning towards preparing those hearing him for bad times. Obviously it’s easier to survive good times… or so it seems. Amongst the advantages of poverty he listed, the most striking is that it will reveal to you true friends. Paradoxically however, the poor man may not really prefer his poverty which he claims to be contented with should he fall into riches.
The bottom line is to know that there will be ups and downs, with the downs not being the end of life, but rather good lessons. Seneca seems to say the quest for riches is mainly to keep up appearances; and that all our wants, and people we like to impress, do not matter because without our riches, they would take care of themselves.
His conclusion seems to say be that when next you are down, remember that wealth and poverty are societal constructs. It doesn’t matter the one born a prince or a born pauper, both were satisfied with breastmilk and rags as babies. Learn to remember the beginning of everyone, and be satisfied that we will all definitely end the same. With nothing we shall return.
… Observe yourself, then, and see whether your dress and your house are inconsistent, whether you treat yourself lavishly and your family meanly, whether you eat frugal dinners and yet build luxurious houses. You should lay hold, once for all, upon a single norm to live by, and should regulate your whole life according to this norm. Some men restrict themselves at home, but strut with swelling port before the public; such discordance is a fault, and it indicates a wavering mind which cannot yet keep its balance…
…”But what,” you say, “will become of my crowded household without a household income?” If you stop supporting that crowd, it will support itself; or perhaps you will learn by the bounty of poverty what you cannot learn by your own bounty. Poverty will keep for you your true and tried friends; you will be rid of the men who were not seeking you for yourself, but for something which you have….
…Although you may look askance, Epicurus will once again be glad to settle my indebtedness: “Believe me, your words will be more imposing if you sleep on a cot and wear rags. For in that case you will not be merely saying them; you will be demonstrating their truth.” I, at any rate, listen in a different spirit to the utterances of our friend Demetrius, after I have seen him reclining without even a cloak to cover him, and, more than this, without rugs to lie upon. He is not only a teacher of the truth, but a witness to the truth. “May not a man, however, despise wealth when it lies in his very pocket?” Of course; he also is great-souled, who sees riches heaped up round him and, after wondering long and deeply because they have come into his possession, smiles, and hears rather than feels that they are his. It means much not to be spoiled by intimacy with riches; and he is truly great who is poor amidst riches. “Yes, but I do not know,” you say, “how the man you speak of will endure poverty, if he falls into it suddenly.” Nor do I, Epicurus, know whether the poor man you speak of will despise riches, should he suddenly fall into them; accordingly, in the case of both, it is the mind that must be appraised, and we must investigate whether your man is pleased with his poverty, and whether my man is displeased with his riches…
…No man is born rich. Every man, when he first sees light, is commanded to be content with milk and rags. Such is our beginning, and yet kingdoms are all too small for us! Farewell…
Letters from a Stoic
Lucius Annaeus Seneca – Letters
(Translated by Richard Mott Gummere)
Dr Ande Elisha
The Amateur Philosopher