Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 37
XXXVII. On Allegiance to Virtue
1. You have promised to be a good man; you have enlisted under oath; that is the strongest chain which will hold you to a sound understanding. Any man will be but mocking you, if he declares that this is an effeminate and easy kind of soldiering. I will not have you deceived. The words of this most honourable compact are the same as the words of that most disgraceful one, to wit: "Through burning, imprisonment, or death by the sword." 2. From the men who hire out their strength for the arena, who eat and drink what they must pay for with their blood, security is taken that they will endure such trials even though they be unwilling; from you, that you will endure them willingly and with alacrity. The gladiator may lower his weapon and test the pity of the people; but you will neither lower your weapon nor beg for life. You must die erect and unyielding. Moreover, what profit is it to gain a few days or a few years? There is no discharge for us from the moment we are born.
3. "Then how can I free myself?" you ask. You cannot escape necessities, but you can overcome them.
By force a way is made.
And this way will be afforded you by philosophy. Betake yourself therefore to philosophy if you would be safe, untroubled, happy, in fine, if you wish to be, – and that is most important, – free. There is no other way to attain this end. 4. Folly is low, abject, mean, slavish, and exposed to many of the cruellest passions. These passions, which are heavy taskmasters, sometimes ruling by turns, and sometimes together, can be banished from you by wisdom, which is the only real freedom. There is but one path leading thither, and it is a straight path; you will not go astray. Proceed with steady step, and if you would have all things under your control, put yourself under the control of reason; if reason becomes your ruler, you will become ruler over many. You will learn from her what you should undertake, and how it should be done; you will not blunder into things. 5. You can show me no man who knows how he began to crave that which he craves. He has not been led to that pass by forethought; he has been driven to it by impulse. Fortune attacks us as often as we attack Fortune. It is disgraceful, instead of proceeding ahead, to be carried along, and then suddenly, amid the whirlpool of events, to ask in a dazed way: "How did I get into this condition?" Farewell.
- He refers to the famous oath which the gladiator took when he hired himself to the fighting-master; uri, vinciri, verberari, ferroque necari patior; cf. Petronius, Sat. 117. The oath is abbreviated in the text, probably by Seneca himself, who paraphrases it in Ep. lxxi. 23.
- Awaiting the signal of "thumbs up" or "thumbs down." Cf. Juvenal, iii. 36 verso pollice, vulgus Quem iubet occidunt populariter.
- Vergil, Aeneid, ii. 494.
- In the language of Stoicism, ἀμαθία, stultitia, "folly," is the antithesis of σοφία, sapientia, "wisdom."