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Comment on Seneca's adoption of new parents and conversing with sages

What follows is a two-part excerpt from a private exchange. I am sharing it with the express permission of my correspondent, without disclosing their identity. The quoted/indented text is the one I am commenting on.


The other day I read something that has stuck to mind like gum to shoe. This is from a English translation of The Shortness of Life by Seneca, “We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are house-holds of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too.” My question is have you any thoughts on Seneca and the stoics? Aswell, have you related to the excerpt ?

This is very interesting and I will comment at length. Can I publish this on my website together with your text right above? I will not disclose your contact details. I want to share it because others may find it interesting as well. What do you think?

I have not read any of Seneca’s works and am generally not familiar with the Stoic corpus of work: I am relying on this quote you are providing me with. I am missing the context and there is a good chance I will not make a fair counter-point to Seneca’s claim despite my best intentions. Please keep this in mind.

The notion that we can change our parents makes us think about how much control we exert over our life. If we can make a decision that undoes that which our birth determines, then maybe we are the architects of our condition. While I agree that we have power over our disposition, meaning how we relate to phenomena and conduct ourselves accordingly, I think that our impact on the parametric aspects is negligible or none at all.

Consider that parenthood is not a momentary event that belongs to some distant and irrelevant past. In this case, that which has transpired ramifies to the present and continues to affect it. It is, in this regard, “ever-present”.

Our genes condition our trajectory before we even get started and remain with us till death. Our physical traits as well as our mental attributes are passed down to us. Intelligence, strength, height, talents, proneness to all sorts of conditions and much more are part of our biological constitution. We do not get to opine on them, whether they will be a part of us or not. We can neither own nor disown them in the sense that we do not exert power over them. As such, we cannot refashion ourselves completely, such as for someone with the creative genius of Salvador Dalí to turn into an engineering genius of the likes of Linus Torvalds or, more commonly, for a sociopath to turn into a highly sensitive sweetheart.

Biology is not the sole determinant though. Our environment, and the stimuli we are subject to, amplify, suppress, or render actualisable that which is latent in us. This adds another dimension to parents and parenthood. It is our parents who decide our place of birth on our behalf as well as the milieu we grow up in. By extension, they set us on a cultural trajectory that will have a profound effect on our outlook, whether positive or negative.

By the time we have the maturity to make the kind of decision that Seneca describes, we have already been moulded by the natural and cultural environment we are immersed in. Since I already mentioned the former, consider some examples of the latter. We went to school or not, enrolled for dance classes or not, started learning music or not, spent all day outdoors playing football or not, studied for hours on end to become doctors or not, had many friends or not, went to parties or not, and so on. The influences from all those sources are considerable. We cannot draw an indelible line between “nature” and “nurture” as we do not have the means to test each set of hypotheses in vitro. Our life unfolds in vivo as an interplay between all those ever-evolving factors.

I feel that in this quote Seneca downplays how much we are the product of magnitudes that are not subject to our volition. Furthermore, he assumes that we always have the luxury of choice and will not face repercussions. Does, for example, a slave in the earlier days of the USA have the freedom to choose their parents? Does a woman in today’s Iran have it when they cannot even attend a football stadium? What about the 18-year-old Russian boy—yes, “boy”—who is unceremoniously sacrificed to the altars of imperialism?

It is easy to discount politics and draw a hagiographic representation of the individual in which only the person matters and the backdrop lacks any sort of detail. The fact, however, is that there is an instituted reality that envelops us and extends outside our reach. Just as our genetic makeup writes the ruleset that influences us biologically, our culture enforces the set of values that inform, frame, condition, or otherwise determine our thoughts and attitudes. Yes, we do have individuality and a kernel of will that manifests as purposeful action, though the parameters of our life are neither of our doing nor “ours”.

We thus have genetic and epigenetic forces at play. Both of those magnitudes are, in simple terms, of our parents’ making (or even of generations prior to them, but the point is the same).

My opinion is that Seneca is mistaken in exaggerating the control we have. Again though, I am missing the context and am not making a holistic critique of his work or the Stoic enterprise at-large. I am just commenting on a snippet of text and may be wrong.


Below is the second part of the exchange (I got separate permission for it as well). The quoted/indented text is from my correspondent.


Apologies on not providing enough context. Seneca was arguing that those who make time for philosophy in their life are those that are truly living. Those who do this not only live within their lifetime but look to the past and you could say aggregate to their own from other figures from history.

Here are some other excerpts that may provide more context, “We can argue with Socrates, express doubt with Carneades, cultivate retirement with Epicurus, over-come human nature with the Stoics, and exceed its limits with the Cynics. Since nature allows us to enter into a partnership with every age, why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves whole-heartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?”

This is a good point and I agree with it. We are doing it now, as we too are in the company of Seneca’s thoughts and benefit from those snippets of wisdom.

Tangentially, this is why I value the dissemination of knowledge: we provide a gift to all possible people and we do it for its inherent worth, not our personal gain. Once we realise that “our” thoughts are not ours to take somewhere else, once we escape from the narrow confines of our ego and understand the bigger picture, we develop an attitude of sharing.

I call this the “Promethean ideal” but I will not bother you now with a long exposition.

Before this subsequent excerpt he said something along the lines of how few people will be there for you in need.

“You should rather suppose that those are involved in worthwhile duties who wish to have daily as their closest friends Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus and all the other high priests of liberal studies, and Aristotle and Theophrastus. None of these will be too busy to see you, none of these will not send his visitor away happier and more devoted to himself, none of these will allow anyone to depart empty-handed. They are at home to all mortals by night and by day.”

“None of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die. None of them will exhaust your years, but each will contribute his years to yours. With none of these will conversation be dangerous, or his friendship fatal, or attendance on him expensive. From them you can take whatever you wish: it will not be their fault if you do not take your fill from them. What happiness, what a fine old age awaits the man who has made himself a client of these! He will have friends whose advice he can ask on the most important or the most trivial matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, who will tell him the truth without insulting him and praise him without flattery, who will offer him a pattern on which to model himself.”

These are some peculiar statements to me, in the same manner I feel like you have left an impression through your blogs & especially videos the way seneca describes these men.

This is true, though it also goes the other way: the dead will not be there for us either. Few people will be there for us, though “few” is better than none. Humans are flawed and we cannot be friends with everyone—that’s okay. The people we encounter are fully fledged and so we get to see all their facets, whereas we have limited knowledge of an ancient figure. For example, what kind of person was Zeno? (Zeno is a popular name in the Greek-speaking parts of Cyprus, by the way—a derivative of an inclination of “Zeus” (Ο Ζευς, Του Ζηνός)). Was Zeno funny? Could one rely on him for emotional support? Was he an introvert? Did he enjoy the city life of Athens or was he there by necessity? I have so many questions about the actual person!

My point is that we have a prettified image of ancient sages. We only get to see the parts that make them great and we then add the details using our imagination. In filling in those blanks, we run the risk of projecting our biases onto them or, else, of justifying our views on the basis of their authority.

A dead philosopher cannot converse with us. We do not have the luxury we are enjoying right now where we can continue exploring a given topic in order to understand it better. If I misunderstand Seneca, there is a good chance that I will live with that misunderstanding forever: I cannot contact the author to ask anything. Whereas if I misunderstand you in whatever it is we are discussing, I can send you another message asking the relevant questions. In theory, I can have a video chat with you and even meet you in person. I consider this a “luxury” we have, as it helps us minimise errors brought about by misunderstandings. We can be less biased in this way.

While we want to be in the company of past greats, we still need actual people around us who can enrich our life. Those people will be flawed as we will get their unfiltered version. So “enrich” is not just a matter of engaging in philosophical inquiry but also of partaking in all those other activities that make us human. These other experiences still have value to the philosopher, for they provide insight into aspects of our reality. As philosophers, we have the disposition of seeking and approximating the truth: we are not arbitrarily limiting ourselves to books or specific sources. At least this is how I see it: live fully.

The main theme from this body of text was about time. Many people say thing’s like “Oh if only I had to more time” or when they have already grown old remark on their lifetime as being wasted on so many things.

Yes, this is a valuable insight. We have plenty of time, but we must use it properly. Someone who is not considerate will reach 30, 60, 90 years of age and feel they did nothing. In a sense, the mindful life is eternal because each experience is lived purposefully in the here-and-now.

The ancient Greeks had a notion of posthumous fame (υστεροφημία, hystefemia). It is tempting to interpret this as vanity writ large, though I think it is a call for each person to aspire to their highest. Basically, the idea is to do something that future generations will find valuable. Do something for the greater good and others will benefit from it. Even if they do not “remember” you by name or by attributing the work to you, the impact of your work is nonetheless retained. You do not care about your posthumous fame, anyway, as you are already dead.