Seneca, Epistles 5

1 Because you lead stubbornly your studies and, all else aside, this one thing makes you yourself better daily, I approve of and laud you, nor do I only urge that you persevere, but I entreat that you do. However, I warn you, do not go on in the custom of those who desire not to improve, but be noted, that those things which you do be noteworthy in your manner or way of life.

2 Harsh dress, uncut hair, unruly beard, noted dislike for silver, couch placed on bare dirt, and other perverse ambitions, avoid. The name of philosophy, modestly pursued, is itself enough to be scorned. What if we should compel ourselves to separate from the customs of man? Inwardly, let all things be unique; our front should conform with the people. 3 Let your toga not be resplendent, nor yet sordid. Let us not have silver plate gilded of solid gold, but let us not think lack of gold and silver a mark of frugality. Let us do this that we mat pursue sweeter life than the common people, but not that it be contrary. Otherwise we shall avert those whom we try to improve. We do this that they not wish to emulate us in anything, for they fear, lest they imitate us in everything.

4 The first thing philosophy undertakes is a sense for common good, humanity, and sociability. We shall part from our promise with those dissimilar. We must mind lest that by which we wish to exact admiration is ridiculous and hateful. Our known motto is to live favorably to nature: it is against nature, to contort the body and to hate easy-coming elegance, and to seek squalor and to use foods not only plain, but horrid and disgusting. 5 As it is a manner of luxury to desire delicacies, so is it madness to avoid what is of frequent use and procured for not much price. Philosophy calls for frugality, not unpleasantness. However, it is possible to be frugal and not ill-kept. This to me is a pleasing manner: life should be moderated between wise and popular customs; let all admire our life, but also understand it.

6 “Why thus? Why should we do as others? Should nothing lie between us and them?” Much should. Let he know us to be apart from the people who should have looked closely. Let he who enters our house admire us the more than our decoration. He is great who uses earthenware as if silver, nor is he the less who thus uses silver as earthenware. It is of an infirm mind to be unable to endure wealth.

7 But I also wish to share with you my find of the day: in the writings of out Hecato I have found that limit of hope helps to remedy fear, too. “Desist,” he writes, “to fear if you cease to hope.” You will say, “May things so different have parity?” It is true, me Lucilius: though they seem to differ, they are joined. Just as the same chain binds prisoner and guard, so may those which are so unalike advance with parity. Thus fear follows hope. 8 Nor do I marvel that they go on thus: each is to a pendant mind, each fretted with future expectations. However, a great cause of both is that we do not make ourselves fit for the present, but we send our thoughts to the future. Thus, foresight, greatest gift of the human kind, is made perverse.

9 Beasts flee dangers which they see; when they flee, they are safe. We torment ourselves with what is to come and what is past. Many of our good things are harmful to us. Truly, memory recalls torment of fear; foresight anticipates such. No man is so wretched as in the present. Farewell.


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