119. Moral Letters to Lucilius | Seneca


Letter 119

CXIX. On Nature as our Best Provider

1. Whenever I have made a discovery, I do not wait for you to cry “Shares!" I say it to myself in your behalf. If you wish to know what it is that I have found, open your pocket; it is clear profit. What I shall teach you is the ability to become rich as speedily as possible. How keen you are to hear the news! And rightly; I shall lead you by a short cut to the greatest riches. It will be necessary, however, for you to find a loan; in order to be able to do business, you must contract a debt, although I do not wish you to arrange the loan through a middle-man, nor do I wish the brokers to be discussing your rating.

2. I shall furnish you with a ready creditor, Cato’s famous one, who says:  “Borrow from yourself!" No matter how small it is, it will be enough if we can only make up the deficit from our own resources. For, my dear Lucilius, it does not matter whether you crave nothing, or whether you possess something. The important principle in either case is the same – freedom from worry. But I do not counsel you to deny anything to nature – for nature is insistent and cannot be overcome; she demands her due – but you should know that anything in excess of nature’s wants is a mere “extra” and is not necessary.

3. If I am hungry, I must eat. Nature does not care whether the bread is the coarse kind or the finest wheat; she does not desire the stomach to be entertained, but to be filled. And if I am thirsty, Nature does not care whether I drink water from the nearest reservoir, or whether I freeze it artificially by sinking it in large quantities of snow. Nature orders only that the thirst be quenched; and it does not matter whether it be a golden, or crystal, or murrine goblet, or a cup from Tibur, or the hollow hand.

4. Look to the end, in all matters, and then you will cast away superfluous things. Hunger calls me; let me stretch forth my hand to that which is nearest; my very hunger has made attractive in my eyes whatever I can grasp. A starving man despises nothing.

5. Do you ask, then, what it is that has pleased me? It is this noble saying which I have discovered: “The wise man is the keenest seeker for the riches of nature.” “What”, you ask, “will you present me with an empty plate? What do you mean? I had already arranged my coffers; I was already looking about to see some stretch of water on which I might embark for purposes of trade, some state revenues that I might handle, and some merchandise that I might acquire. That is deceit – showing me poverty after promising me riches.” But, friend, do you regard a man as poor to whom nothing is wanting? “It is, however,” you reply, “thanks to himself and his endurance, and not thanks to his fortune.” Do you, then, hold that such a man is not rich, just because his wealth can never fail?

6. Would you rather have much, or enough? He who has much desires more – a proof that he has not yet acquired enough; but he who has enough has attained that which never fell to the rich man’s lot – a stopping-point. Do you think that this condition to which I refer is not riches, just because no man has ever been proscribed as a result of possessing them? Or because sons and wives have never thrust poison down one’s throat for that reason? Or because in war-time these riches are unmolested? Or because they bring leisure in time of peace? Or because it is not dangerous to possess them, or troublesome to invest them?

7. “But one possesses too little, if one is merely free from cold and hunger and thirst.” Jupiter himself however, is no better off. Enough is never too little, and not-enough is never too much. Alexander was poor even after his conquest of Darius and the Indies. Am I wrong? He seeks something which he can really make his own, exploring unknown seas, sending new fleets over the Ocean, and, so to speak, breaking down the very bars of the universe. But that which is enough for nature, is not enough for man.

8. There have been found persons who crave something more after obtaining everything; so blind are their wits and so readily does each man forget his start after he has got under way. He who was but lately the disputed lord of an unknown corner of the world, is dejected when, after reaching the limits of the globe, he must march back through a world which he has made his own.

9. Money never made a man rich; on the contrary, it always smites men with a greater craving for itself. Do you ask the reason for this? He who possesses more begins to be able to possess still more. To sum up, you may hale forth for our inspection any of the millionaires whose names are told off when one speaks of Crassus and Licinus. Let him bring along his rating and his present property and his future expectations, and let him add them all together: such a man, according to my belief, is poor; according to yours, he may be poor some day.

10. He, however, who has arranged his affairs according to nature’s demands, is free from the fear, as well as from the sensation, of poverty. And in order that you may know how hard it is to narrow one’s interests down to the limits of nature – even this very person of whom we speak, and whom you call poor, possesses something actually superfluous.

11. Wealth, however, blinds and attracts the mob, when they see a large bulk of ready money brought out of a man’s house, or even his walls crusted with abundance of gold, or a retinue that is chosen for beauty of physique, or for attractiveness of attire. The prosperity of all these men looks to public opinion; but the ideal man, whom we have snatched from the control of the people and of Fortune, is happy inwardly.

12. For as far as those persons are concerned, in whose minds bustling poverty has wrongly stolen the title of riches – these individuals have riches just as we say that we “have a fever,” when really the fever has us. Conversely, we are accustomed to say: “A fever grips him.” And in the same way we should say: “Riches grip him.” There is therefore no advice – and of such advice no one can have too much – which I would rather give you than this: that you should measure all things by the demands of Nature; for these demands can be satisfied either without cost or else very cheaply. Only, do not mix any vices with these demands.

13. Why need you ask how your food should be served, on what sort of table, with what sort of silver, with what well-matched and smooth-faced young servants? Nature demands nothing except mere food. Dost seek, when thirst inflames thy throat, a cup of gold? Dost scorn all else but peacock’s flesh or turbot When the hunger comes upon thee?

14. Hunger is not ambitious; it is quite satisfied to come to an end; nor does it care very much what food brings it to an end. Those things are but the instruments of a luxury which is not “happiness"; a luxury which seeks how it may prolong hunger even after repletion, how to stuff the stomach, not to fill it, and how to rouse a thirst that has been satisfied with the first drink. Horace’s words are therefore most excellent when he says that it makes no difference to one’s thirst in what costly goblet, or with what elaborate state, the water is served. For if you believe it to be of importance how curly-haired your slave is, or how transparent is the cup which he offers you, you are not thirsty.

15. Among other things, Nature has bestowed upon us this special boon: she relieves sheer necessity of squeamishness. The superfluous things admit of choice; we say: “That is not suitable "; “this is not well recommended"; “that hurts my eyesight.” The Builder of the universe, who laid down for us the laws of life, provided that we should exist in well-being, but not in luxury. Everything conducive to our well-being is prepared and ready to our hands; but what luxury requires can never be got together except with wretchedness and anxiety.

16. Let us therefore use this boon of Nature by reckoning it among the things of high importance; let us reflect that Nature’s best title to our gratitude is that whatever we want because of sheer necessity we accept without squeamishness.