113. Moral Letters to Lucilius | Seneca


Letter 113

CXIII. On the Vitality of the Soul and Its Attributes

1. You wish me to write to you my opinion concerning this question, which has been mooted by our school – whether justice, courage, foresight, and the other virtues, are living things. By such niceties as this, my beloved Lucilius, we have made people think that we sharpen our wits on useless objects, and waste our leisure time in discussions that will be unprofitable. I shall, however, do as you ask, and shall set forth the subject as viewed by our school. For myself, I confess to another belief: I hold that there are certain things which befit a wearer of white shoes and a Greek mantle. But what the beliefs are that have stirred the ancients, or those which the ancients have stirred up for discussion, I shall explain to you.

2. The soul, men are agreed, is a living thing, because of itself it can make us living things, and because “living things” have derived their name therefrom. But virtue is nothing else than a soul in a certain condition; therefore it is a living thing. Again, virtue is active, and no action can take place without impulse. And if a thing has impulse, it must be a living thing; for none except a living thing possesses impulse.

3. A reply to this is: “If virtue is a living thing, then virtue itself possesses virtue.” Of course it possesses its own self! Just as the wise man does everything by reason of virtue, so virtue accomplishes everything by reason of itself. “In that case,” say they, “all the arts also are living things, and all our thoughts and all that the mind comprehends. It therefore follows that many thousands of living things dwell in man’s tiny heart, and that each individual among us consists of, or at least contains, many living beings.” Are you gravelled for an answer to this remark? Each of these will be a living thing; but they will not be many separate living things. And why? I shall explain, if you will apply your subtlety and your concentration to my words.

4. Each living thing must have a separate substance; but since all the things mentioned above have a single soul, consequently they can be separate living things but without plurality. I myself am a living thing, and a man; but you cannot say that there are two of me for that reason. And why? Because, if that were so, they would have to be two separate existences. This is what I mean: one would have to be sundered from the other so as to produce two. But whenever you have that which is manifold in one whole, it falls into the category of a single nature, and is therefore single.

5. My soul is a living thing, and so am I; but we are not two separate persons. And why? Because the soul is part of myself. It will only be reckoned as a definite thing in itself when it shall exist by itself. But as long as it shall be part of another, it cannot be regarded as different. And why? I will tell you: it is because that which is different, must be personal and peculiar to itself, a whole, and complete within itself.

6. I myself have gone on record as being of a different opinion; for if one adopts this belief, not only the virtues will be living things, but so will their contrary vices, and the emotions, like wrath, fear, grief, and suspicion. Nay, the argument will carry us still further – all opinions and all thoughts will be living things. This is by no means admissible; since anything that man does is not necessarily the man himself.

7. “What is Justice?" people say. Justice is a soul that maintains itself in a certain attitude. “Then if the soul is a living being, so is Justice.” By no means. For Justice is really a state, a kind of power, of the soul; and this same soul is transformed into various likenesses and does not become a different kind of living thing as often as it acts differently. Nor is the result of soul-action a living thing.

8. If Justice, Bravery, and the other virtues have actual life, do they cease to be living things and then begin life over again, or are they always living things? But the virtues cannot cease to be. Therefore, there are many, nay countless, living things, sojourning in this one soul.

9. “No,” is the answer, “not many, because they are all attached to the one, being parts and members of a single whole.” We are then portraying for ourselves an image of the soul like that of a many-headed hydra – each separate head fighting and destroying independently. And yet there is no separate living thing to each head; it is the head of a living thing, and the hydra itself is one single living thing. No one ever believed that the Chimaera contained a living lion or a living serpent; these were merely parts of the whole Chimaera; and parts are not living things.

10. Then how can you infer that Justice is a living thing? “Justice,” people reply, “is active and helpful; that which acts and is helpful, possesses impulse; and that which possesses impulse is a living thing.” True, if the impulse is its own; (but in the case of justice it is not its own;) the impulse comes from the soul.

11. Every living thing exists as it began, until death; a man, until he dies, is a man, a horse is a horse, a dog a dog. They cannot change into anything else. Now let us grant that Justice – which is defined as “a soul in a certain attitude,” is a living thing. Let us suppose this to be so. Then Bravery also is alive, being “a soul in a certain attitude.” But which soul? That which was but now defined as Justice? The soul is kept within the first-named being, and cannot cross over into another; it must last out its existence in the medium where it had its origin.

12. Besides, there cannot be one soul to two living things, much less to many living things. And if Justice, Bravery, Restraint, and all the other virtues, are living things, how will they have one soul? They must possess separate souls, or else they are not living things.

13. Several living things cannot have one body; this is admitted by our very opponents. Now what is the “body” of justice? “The soul,” they admit. And of bravery? “The soul also.” And yet there cannot be one body of two living things.

14. “The same soul, however,” they answer, “assumes the guise of Justice, or Bravery, or Restraint.” This would be possible if Bravery were absent when Justice was present, and if Restraint were absent when Bravery was present; as the case stands now, all the virtues exist at the same time. Hence, how can the separate virtues be living things, if you grant that there is one single soul, which cannot create more than one single living thing?

15. Again, no living thing is part of another living thing. But Justice is a part of the soul; therefore Justice is not a living thing. It looks as if I were wasting time over something that is an acknowledged fact; for one ought to decry such a topic rather than debate it. And no two living things are equal. Consider the bodies of all beings: every one has its particular colour, shape, and size.

16. And among the other reasons for marvelling at the genius of the Divine Creator is, I believe, this, – that amid all this abundance there is no repetition; even seemingly similar things are, on comparison, unlike. God has created all the great number of leaves that we behold: each, however, is stamped with its special pattern. All the many animals: none resembles another in size – always some difference! The Creator has set himself the task of making unlike and unequal things that are different; but all the virtues, as your argument states, are equal. Therefore, they are not living things.

17. Every living thing acts of itself; but virtue does nothing of itself; it must act in conjunction with man. All living things either are gifted with reason, like men and gods, or else are irrational, like beasts and cattle. Virtues, in any case, are rational; and yet they are neither men nor gods; therefore they are not living things.

18. Every living thing possessed of reason is inactive if it is not first stirred by some external impression; then the impulse comes, and finally assent confirms the impulse. Now what assent is, I shall explain. Suppose that I ought to take a walk: I do walk, but only after uttering the command to myself and approving this opinion of mine. Or suppose that I ought to seat myself; I do seat myself, but only after the same process. This assent is not a part of virtue.

19. For let us suppose that it is Prudence; how will Prudence assent to the opinion: “I must take a walk"? Nature does not allow this. For Prudence looks after the interests of its possessor, and not of its own self. Prudence cannot walk or be seated. Accordingly, it does not possess the power of assent, and it is not a living thing possessed of reason. But if virtue is a living thing, it is rational. But it is not rational; therefore it is not a living thing.

20. If virtue is a living thing, and virtue is a Good – is not, then, every Good a living thing? It is. Our school professes it. Now to save a father’s life is a Good; it is also a Good to pronounce one’s opinion judiciously in the senate, and it is a Good to hand down just opinions; therefore the act of saving a father’s life is a living thing, also the act of pronouncing judicious opinions. We have carried this absurd argument so far that you cannot keep from laughing outright: wise silence is a Good, and so is a frugal dinner; therefore silence and dining are living things.

21. Indeed I shall never cease to tickle my mind and to make sport for myself by means of this nice nonsense. Justice and Bravery, if they are living things, are certainly of the earth. Now every earthly living thing gets cold or hungry or thirsty; therefore, Justice goes a-cold, Bravery is hungry, and Kindness craves a drink!

22. And what next? Should I not ask our honourable opponents what shape these living beings have? Is it that of man, or horse, or wild beast? If they are given a round shape, like that of a god, I shall ask whether greed and luxury and madness are equally round. For these, too, are “living things.” If I find that they give a rounded shape to these also, I shall go so far as to ask whether a modest gait is a living thing; they must admit it, according to their argument, and proceed to say that a gait is a living thing, and a rounded living thing, at that!

23. Now do not imagine that I am the first one of our school who does not speak from rules but has his own opinion: Cleanthes and his pupil Chrysippus could not agree in defining the act of walking. Cleanthes held that it was spirit transmitted to the feet from the primal essence, while Chrysippus maintained that it was the primal essence in itself. Why, then, following the example of Chrysippus himself, should not every man claim his own freedom, and laugh down all these “living things,” so numerous that the universe itself cannot contain them?

24. One might say: “The virtues are not many living things, and yet they are living things. For just as an individual may be both poet and orator in one, even so these virtues are living things, but they are not many. The soul is the same; it can be at the same time just and prudent and brave, maintaining itself in a certain attitude towards each virtue.”

25. The dispute is settled, and we are therefore agreed. For I shall admit, meanwhile, that the soul is a living thing with the proviso that later on I may cast my final vote; but I deny that the acts of the soul are living beings. Otherwise, all words and all verses would be alive; for if prudent speech is a Good, and every Good a living thing, then speech is a living thing. A prudent line of poetry is a Good; everything alive is a Good; therefore, the line of poetry is a living thing. And so “Arms and the man I sing,” is a living thing; but they cannot call it rounded, because it has six feet!

26. “This whole proposition,” you say, “which we are at this moment discussing, is a puzzling fabric.” I split with laughter whenever I reflect that solecisms and barbarisms and syllogisms are living things, and, like an artist, I give to each a fitting likeness. Is this what we discuss with contracted brow and wrinkled forehead? I cannot say now, after Caelius,  “What melancholy trifling!" It is more than this; it is absurd. Why do we not rather discuss something which is useful and wholesome to ourselves, seeking how we may attain the virtues, and finding the path which will take us in that direction?

27. Teach me, not whether Bravery be a living thing, but prove that no living thing is happy without bravery, that is, unless it has grown strong to oppose hazards and has overcome all the strokes of chance by rehearsing and anticipating their attack. And what is Bravery? It is the impregnable fortress for our mortal weakness; when a man has surrounded himself therewith, he can hold out free from anxiety during life’s siege; for he is using his own strength and his own weapons.

28. At this point I would quote you a saying of our philosopher Posidonius: “There are never any occasions when you need think yourself safe because you wield the weapons of Fortune; fight with your own! Fortune does not furnish arms against herself; hence men equipped against their foes are unarmed against Fortune herself.”

29. Alexander, to be sure, harried and put to flight the Persians, the Hyrcanians, the Indians, and all the other races that the Orient spreads even to the Ocean; but he himself, as he slew one friend or lost another, would lie in the darkness lamenting sometimes his crime, and sometimes his loss; he, the conqueror of so many kings and nations, was laid low by anger and grief! For he had made it his aim to win control over everything except his emotions.

30. Oh with what great mistakes are men obsessed, who desire to push their limits of empire beyond the seas, who judge themselves most prosperous when they occupy many provinces with their soldiery and join new territory to the old! Little do they know of that kingdom which is on an equality with the heavens in greatness!

31. SelfCommand is the greatest command of all. Let her teach me what a hallowed thing is the Justice which ever regards another’s good and seeks nothing for itself except its own employment. It should have nothing to do with ambition and reputation; it should satisfy itself. Let each man convince himself of this before all else – “I must be just without reward.” And that is not enough; let him convince himself also of this: “May I take pleasure in devoting myself of my own free will to uphold this noblest of virtues.” Let all his thoughts be turned as far as possible from personal interests. You need not look about for the reward of a just deed; a just deed in itself offers a still greater return.

32. Fasten deep in your mind that which I remarked a short space above: that it makes no difference how many persons are acquainted with your uprightness. Those who wish their virtue to be advertised are not striving for virtue but for renown. Are you not willing to be just without being renowned? Nay, indeed you must often be just and be at the same time disgraced. And then, if you are wise, let ill repute, well won, be a delight.