15. Moral Letters to Lucilius | Seneca


Letter 15

XV. On Brawn and Brains

1. The old Romans had a custom which survived even into my lifetime. They would add to the opening words of a letter: “If you are well, it is well; I also am well.

Persons like ourselves would do well to say: “If you are studying philosophy, it is well.” For this is just what “being well” means.

Without philosophy the mind is sickly, and the body, too, though it may be very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or a lunatic is strong.

2. This, then, is the sort of health you should primarily cultivate; the other kind of health comes second, and will involve little effort, if you wish to be well physically.

It is indeed foolish, my dear Lucilius, and very unsuitable for a cultivated man, to work hard over developing the muscles and broadening the shoulders and strengthening the lungs.

For although your heavy feeding produce good results and your sinews grow solid, you can never be a match, either in strength or in weight, for a first-class bull.

Besides, by overloading the body with food you strangle the soul and render it less active.

Accordingly, limit the flesh as much as possible, and allow free play to the spirit.

3. Many inconveniences beset those who devote themselves to such pursuits:

In the first place, they have their exercises, at which they must work and waste their life-force and render it less fit to bear a strain or the severer studies.

Second, their keen edge is dulled by heavy eating.

Besides, they must take orders from slaves of the vilest stamp, – men who alternate between the oil-flask and the flagon, whose day passes satisfactorily if they have got up a good perspiration and quaffed, to make good what they have lost in sweat, huge draughts of liquor which will sink deeper because of their fasting. Drinking and sweating, – it’s the life of a dyspeptic!

4. Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account:

These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping, – high-jumping or broad-jumping, or the kind which I may call, “the Priest’s dance,” or, in slighting terms, “the clothes-cleaner’s jump.

Select for practice any one of these, and you will find it plain and easy.

5. But whatever you do, come back soon from body to mind. The mind must be exercised both day and night, for it is nourished by moderate labour.

And this form of exercise need not be hampered by cold or hot weather, or even by old age. Cultivate that good which improves with the years.

6. Of course I do not command you to be always bending over your books and your writing materials; the mind must have a change, – but a change of such a kind that it is not unnerved, but merely unbent.

Riding in a litter shakes up the body, and does not interfere with study: one may read, dictate, converse, or listen to another; nor does walking prevent any of these things.

7. You need not scorn voice-culture; but I forbid you to practise raising and lowering your voice by scales and specific intonations.

What if you should next propose to take lessons in walking!

If you consult the sort of person whom starvation has taught new tricks, you will have someone to regulate your steps, watch every mouthful as you eat, and go to such lengths as you yourself, by enduring him and believing in him, have encouraged his effrontery to go.

What, then?" you will ask; “is my voice to begin at the outset with shouting and straining the lungs to the utmost?"

No; the natural thing is that it be aroused to such a pitch by easy stages, just as persons who are wrangling begin with ordinary conversational tones and then pass to shouting at the top of their lungs.

No speaker cries “Help me, citizens!" at the outset of his speech.

8. Therefore, whenever your spirit’s impulse prompts you, raise a hubbub, now in louder now in milder tones, according as your voice, as well as your spirit, shall suggest to you, when you are moved to such a performance.

Then let your voice, when you rein it in and call it back to earth, come down gently, not collapse; it should trail off in tones half way between high and low, and should not abruptly drop from its raving in the uncouth manner of countrymen.

For our purpose is, not to give the voice exercise, but to make it give us exercise.

9. You see, I have relieved you of no slight bother; and I shall throw in a little complementary present, – it is Greek, too. Here is the proverb; it is an excellent one:

The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears;
its course lies wholly toward the future.

Who uttered these words?" you say.
The same writer whom I mentioned before.

And what sort of life do you think is meant by the fool’s life? That of Baba and Isio?

No; he means our own, for we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago;

nor do we reflect how pleasant it is to demand nothing, how noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon Fortune.

10. Therefore continually remind yourself, Lucilius, how many ambitions you have attained:

When you see many ahead of you, think how many are behind!

If you would thank the gods, and be grateful for your past life, you should contemplate how many men you have outstripped. But what have you to do with the others? You have outstripped yourself.

11. Fix a limit which you will not even desire to pass, should you have the power.

At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better to those who hope for them than to those who have attained them. If there were anything substantial in them, they would sooner or later satisfy you; as it is, they merely rouse the drinkers’ thirst.

Away with fripperies which only serve for show!

As to what the future’s uncertain lot has in store, why should I demand of Fortune that she give rather than demand of myself that I should not crave?

And why should l crave? Shall I heap up my winnings, and forget that man’s lot is unsubstantial? For what end should I toil? Lo, today is the last; if not, it is near the last.