Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 106

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Moral letters to Lucilius by Seneca
Letter 106. On the corporeality of virtue

CVI. On the Corporeality of Virtue[edit]

1. My tardiness in answering your letter was not due to press of business. Do not listen to that sort of excuse; I am at liberty, and so is anyone else who wishes to be at liberty. No man is at the mercy of affairs. He gets entangled in them of his own accord, and then flatters himself that being busy is a proof of happiness. Very well; you no doubt want to know why I did not answer the letter sooner? The matter about which you consulted me was being gathered into the fabric of my volume.[1] 2. For you know that I am planning to cover the whole of moral philosophy and to settle all the problems which concern it. Therefore I hesitated whether to make you wait until the proper time came for this subject, or to pronounce judgment out of the logical order; but it seemed more kindly not to keep waiting one who comes from such a distance.[2] 3. So I propose both to pick this out of the proper sequence of correlated matter, and also to send you, without waiting to be asked, whatever has to do with questions of the same sort.

Do you ask what these are? Questions regarding which knowledge pleases rather than profits; for instance, your question whether the good is corporeal.[3] 4. Now the good is active: for it is beneficial; and what is active is corporeal. The good stimulates the mind and, in a way, moulds and embraces that which is essential to the body. The goods of the body are bodily; so therefore must be the goods of the soul. For the soul, too, is corporeal. 5. Ergo, man's good must be corporeal, since man himself is corporeal. I am sadly astray if the elements which support man and preserve or restore his health, are not bodily; therefore, his good is a body. You will have no doubt, I am sure, that emotions are bodily things (if I may be allowed to wedge in another subject not under immediate discussion), like wrath, love, sternness; unless you doubt whether they change our features, knot our foreheads, relax the countenance, spread blushes, or drive away the blood? What, then? Do you think that such evident marks of the body are stamped upon us by anything else than body? 6. And if emotions are corporeal, so are the diseases of the spirit – such as greed, cruelty, and all the faults which harden in our souls, to such an extent that they get into an incurable state. Therefore evil is also, and all its branches – spite, hatred, pride; 7. and so also are goods, first because they are opposite poles of the bad, and second because they will manifest to you the same symptoms. Do you not see how a spirit of bravery makes the eye flash? How prudence tends toward concentration? How reverence produces moderation and tranquillity? How joy produces calm? How sternness begets stiffness? How gentleness produces relaxation? These qualities are therefore bodily; for they change the tones and the shapes of substances, exercising their own power in their own kingdoms.

Now all the virtues which I have mentioned are goods, and so are their results. 8. Have you any doubt that whatever can touch is corporeal?

Nothing but body can touch or be touched,

as Lucretius[4] says. Moreover, such changes as I have mentioned could not affect the body without touching it. Therefore, they are bodily. 9. Furthermore, any object that has power to move, force, restrain, or control, is corporeal. Come now! Does not fear hold us back? Does not boldness drive us ahead? Bravery spur us on, and give us momentum? Restraint rein us in and call us back? Joy raise our spirits? Sadness cast us down? 10. In short, any act on our part is performed at the bidding of wickedness or virtue. Only a body can control or forcefully affect another body. The good of the body is corporeal; a man's good is related to his bodily good; therefore, it is bodily.

11. Now that I have humoured your wishes, I shall anticipate your remark, when you say: "What a game of pawns!"[5] We dull our fine edge by such superfluous pursuits; these things make men clever, but not good. 12. Wisdom is a plainer thing than that; nay, it is clearly better to use literature for the improvement of the mind, instead of wasting philosophy itself as we waste other efforts on superfluous things. Just as we suffer from excess in all things, so we suffer from excess in literature; thus we learn our lessons, not for life, but for the lecture-room. Farewell.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Presumably (cf. Ep. cviii. § 1) into this collection of Epistles.
  2. As Lucilius, in his letter, has come from far away.
  3. This subject is discussed more fully in Ep. cxiii. For a clear account of the whole question of "body" see Arnold, Roman Stoicism, pp. 157 ff.
  4. De Rerum Nat. i. 304.
  5. The Romans had a ludus latrunculorum, with features resembling both draughts and chess. The pieces (calculi) were perhaps of different values: the latrunculus may have been a sort of "rover," cf. Martial, Epig. vii. 72.