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The Roman philosopher, dramatist and statesman talks with a modern day Stoic about what we can learn ...
2021-04-14 09:00:00

With Seneca Among Children
An Interview with Seneca the Younger

With Seneca Among Children

A “Przekrój” exclusive! An extraordinary posthumous interview with Seneca, about what we can learn from children and how not to get lost in the contemporary world – all thanks to our staff philosopher.

Read in 14 minutes

Piotr Stankiewicz: What’s the best way to introduce Your Excellency? Lucius Annaeus Seneca – the most famous Roman oligarch?

Seneca: That word is kind of modern, ‘oligarch’ – isn’t just ‘philosopher’ better?

Maybe ‘millionaire philosopher’? Or, counting two millennia worth of interest, perhaps ‘billionaire’?

I don’t know if I like this kind of identity. These, after all, are external things.

Well, you amassed some assets, accepted a few legacies...

Were they supposed to go to waste? The soul of a person wastes away if you don’t exercise it, but capital is also wasted if it gets bored. Weren’t we not supposed to talk about this?

We were supposed to talk about stoicism. For at least 2000 years people have been fascinated by how what Your Excellency wrote about life relates to how Your Excellency lived.

Has any author’s legacy ever freed them from this accusation? If the guide is supposed to show the road, can he follow it himself? By the way, in this 21st century of yours, do you always start with criticism?

OK, so we’ll move to praise. I’ll take up the subject I left off on with Marcus Aurelius in winter. We were talking about death.

The classics are just a barrel of laughs.

There’s an argument in Your Excellency’s Dialogues that stuck in my mind many years ago, and I’ve never had the opportunity to thank you. It was about how we can look at death as a transition to another stage of life. And in this sense, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. An infant ceases to be an infant and becomes a child. Then the child ceases to be a child and becomes a young adult; later we also discard young adulthood, entering into middle age, and so on. These steps aren’t clearly defined, of course. Each of them is a process, and each of them is somehow a death in miniature. Going through each of them means that we discard our previous incarnation. And we know what conclusion that leads to: death is just a transition to the next stage, casting off from ourselves yet another incarnation. As such, it’s not frightening at all. Once it seemed a bit funny to me, because – after all – dying is something different from growing up, but since I grew up myself, I’ve appreciated the deep wisdom of this argument.

In the end, I became convinced of this after death. I didn’t die entirely of my own will; as you know, I was forced to commit suicide. Not pleasant, but of course better that than to let Nero’s henchmen carry out the sentence. But philosophizing about death is certainly different from truly dying. Especially if – as happened to me – you don’t die penniless, but leave quite a bit behind in this world, and you have to part with all this wealth. Here lies the problem with this argument. The older we are, the more aware we are of what we’re losing. A child has less capacity to regret the past, because they don’t have as much of it. First of all, they live much more in the moment. Which does indeed make the figure of the child, and the childish way of thinking, an important reference point for Stoicism.

I often think that way, too. A child can be an example for the Stoic… but also a bad example.

Let’s start from the bad example, of course. A child’s attitude is a bad example for the Stoic in the sense that the child has a tendency to fear or get angry at things that from an adult’s point of view are insignificant. A child exaggerates the meaning of things. In this sense, they can’t be an example for the Stoic to follow.

I’m the father of a three-year-old and I can truthfully inform all generations, past and present, that no Greek tragedy can rival a pancake cut cross-wise when it was supposed to be cut lengthwise. Your Excellency calls this the exaggeration of a problem. But here at least there’s some discrepancy, or disappointment of expectations. It can be even more interesting: the object of a tragedy can be something that an adult doesn’t even see. Sometimes I like to joke that there’s some fundamental but invisible ontological difference between a pancake cut by Dad and a pancake cut in precisely the same way by Mum. The walls of family homes have witnessed plenty of Sturm und Drang in this area.

Exactly. Somebody who bursts out crying for such reasons is far from Stoicism.

Yes, in a way, but it’s relative, after all. For us adults, these childish reasons for anger or sadness seem unserious. But, in fact, we ourselves aren’t much smarter than children. We just have more experience with bigger things: literally and figuratively.

A child – like most non-Stoic adults – reacts to things in proportion to their life experience. These experiences are small, so small matters grow to the proportions of big problems.

How can we adults tell a child they shouldn’t be bothered by a wrongly-cut pancake, when we ourselves can’t not be bothered by things that – taking proportions into account – turn out to be problematic for us? I’d even say that this is simply forcing through our own point of view. As someone older and stronger, I force the child to adopt my evaluation scale. On top of that, I call this ‘education’ or ‘upbringing’. In a certain deeper sense, that seems very dubious.

You said adults scold children while they themselves can’t not be bothered by their own problems. That’s true, but there’s more: they can’t, until they become Stoics. Having said that, we can turn to the other side of the coin – the one on which we can see that a child is also a positive example for the Stoic. In at least two ways.

Should we start from the ability to be here and now, or should we end with that?

We can start there. In Stoicism, what’s key is the ability to concentrate, or actually to melt into the present, into what we’re doing and thinking in this very moment.

Not just Stoicism; mindfulness and Buddhism say the same thing.

Maybe they do, but these inventions didn’t exist in my day. But OK, I agree that this attitude can also be found outside Stoicism. As you know, I liked to drop by enemy camps – not as a deserter, but as a spy. I stole a few ideas from Epicurus, and I often saw that he independently arrived at similar conclusions as we Stoics did. Of course, he was mostly wrong, but sometimes he got it.

Children are really good at this. If a child is busy playing, the adults in the next room can call as much as they want. It’s like a voice from another planet.

The thought that soon play will have to be interrupted does not at all take away the joy of this play. In this sense, we Stoics should try to be like children.

But beware – right away, I’m going to point out a problem. Concentrating on the here and now, I stop thinking about climate change, slavery in Bangladesh, or about how my girlfriend can’t find a job.

Exactly. And now this: an adult, concentrating on the here and now, at the same time discards – at least temporarily – thinking with a broader perspective. But a child doesn’t give up anything! They enter the present moment in a way that’s a lot more natural, unforced. They don’t have this struggle that an adult has to undertake to learn to think this way. This is precisely the ideal. That it would happen organically, to be able to hold on to the here and now without loss.

In fact, this isn’t the only reason why a Stoic should value the attitude of a child. Because after all, children are perfect at finding ways to play, using whatever they have at hand.

Unless they happen to be crying because they want a toy that’s not there.

Yes, of course. But adults also behave this way, though the toys they want are different. Nevertheless, very often a child is able to use what they have at hand creatively and interestingly.

Parents of all eras know that – or at least the eras in which people started paying attention to children. It can be an expensive toy, or a stick in the sand. The quality of the play doesn’t depend on the quality of the toy.

That’s very Stoic! It’s a perfect illustration of our statement that what’s important isn’t the substrate that fate or the game of life has placed in my hands, but what slips through them. All things, regardless of our will, including all material things, are neither good nor bad. They just are. Raw and external. Each of us receives some of them, life sends one thing or the other our way. These circumstances or others, these means or others, these challenges or others. It’s not important what we receive from life, but what we’ll be able to do with it. Here a child turns out to be the perfect example to follow. Whether they have access to a lot of toys or just one, whether those toys are flashy or just wooden blocks – a child can play with anything.

That’s undoubtedly an ability that we forget in adult life.

And which the Stoics want to teach us again. Because we need it for happiness. Maturing, growing up, putting off this childish world, we start to place greater emphasis on what exactly these objects of our play are like, what value they have, and so on. And that’s a mistake.

We are, as we’d say today, socialized in this direction.

It’s the wrong direction! We can see that you don’t have enough of the Stoics in the curriculum of your schools and pre-schools. But I’m not picking on you; in Rome, we had the same problem. Over time, we have in our hands ever more serious and expensive toys, and we learn to look at them ever more seriously. One drives the other. It’s a loop which – like any loop – you can’t really get out of. Or rather, you can. The solution is Stoicism.

My daughter is three, but she distinguishes perfectly well between ‘for real’ and ‘make believe’. She can spend hours playing at driving a car: steering, driving up to people, inviting passengers in, and so on, but when I ask, she says completely consciously that she’s pretending. Yet that doesn’t keep her from having great fun. She understands the convention, which indeed she herself imposes.

She understands the convention, she understands the contract. She understands that play is something different, something bigger, and it takes place on a different plane from the objects that are the subject of the play. It’s similar when playing sports: supposedly it’s about the ball, about kicking it into the goal or throwing it into the basket, but it’s really not about the ball itself, but about what we do with it within the rules of the game. This is the attitude that as Stoics we need to learn, and that we should aim for.

Now let’s follow another subject. Does Your Excellency know the saying that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”?

What kind of wild metaphor is that?! I wouldn’t have written it in any of my tragedies. What’s it even supposed to mean? Do you still use our invention – paved roads?

Some of the roads in Italy have physically survived, that’s true. The idea of the technology has also survived, to the degree that it’s entered the language.

You’d think that the word would disappear, and the stones and pavement would survive... Well, it’s true, if something gets into the language, it becomes a monument forever. Or maybe not forever, because nothing lasts forever, but for centuries.

I like to say that the evidence of the greatness and endurance of Stoicism is that its name underwent – as the clever people say – appellativization, meaning it became a common noun. And actually an adjective – in Poland, we have the expression ‘stoic calm’. Even those who can’t maintain it use the expression, as do those who know absolutely nothing about philosophy. In English, you say that you approach a matter stoically. And it must be stressed that it’s a very rare situation where the name of a school of philosophy or the name of a philosopher gets into the language as just a normal word. Of course, we talk about Marxists, sometimes we say somebody has an epicurean lifestyle or loves platonically, but that’s about it. Nobody ever says in everyday speech that they’re an Aristotelian or a Wittgensteinist. The Stoics have received a truly high honour.

That’s nice to hear. I tried. It must be because of my writings. But let’s get back to this Hell… what exactly is it?

It’s this Christian concept...

Religion, I see, has made it into the language better than philosophy. By the way, you know that Jesus and I have a lot in common? We were born at almost exactly the same time. What’s more, we both ended our lives for similar reasons: conflict with the Roman authorities. It’s just that I managed not to cross those authorities for 30 years longer.

I’m proud of Your Excellency. I hope Your Excellency hasn’t forgotten what Your Excellency himself wrote? That the length of life itself isn’t what counts; what’s important is what we do with this life. But getting back to Hell – the idea is that depending on whether we act for good or evil in life, after death we go to a very good or a very bad place.

But philosophically speaking, that makes no sense!

Why not?

For 101 reasons, of which the most important is that philosophy should deal with our life here on Earth, not some kind of afterlife. That first of all. Second, what exactly does that mean, ‘act for good’? It’s fundamentally unclear. We Stoics are known for our paradoxes. So here you are. Let’s imagine that my friend gets into trouble. He asks for help. I sit down to talk with him, but in the end it turns out that I can’t help him. Have I acted rightly, or wrongly? You can even make it tougher: what if, wanting to help, I say something that just makes him feel worse? It often turns out like that. So is that a good act, or a bad one?

Exactly. I think when you put the question that way, it can’t be resolved. What’s more, it doesn’t lead you anywhere. Rather, it takes us further from understanding the truth about human life. It’s a bit like the trolley problem we have here in the 21st century. A trolley is heading down the track, and will run over five people. But I’m standing at the switch, and I can direct it onto a side track, where it will kill only one person. Which is the good choice here, and which is the bad one? To intentionally kill one person, or to look on passively as five die?

I won’t even get into what a ‘trolley’ or ‘tracks’ are, but of course I understand the idea, and I agree with it. Allow me to give an example from my era. If I know that a slave has made a mistake, as a result of which another slave has died, should I punish the perpetrator by death, or not? If I do, then I lose two slaves (who aren’t cheap), and if I don’t, the next 10 will have a bad example, that you can get away with things. It’s just that we never know in advance. The effects of our actions aren’t completely dependent on us, so a Stoic can’t be judged by their effects. Of course, it’s not obvious in and of itself, for example in material matters. Whoever wants to earn money has to make judgements according to effects. Money loves silence – which is why I don’t like all this sentiment, and drooling over intentions.

Which Your Excellency knows a thing or two about.

You are still in the grip of spite. My point is that there are spheres of life that judge us only by our results; in which nobody will ever look at our intentions.

This is another circle of non-obviousness, because another reason Stoicism enjoys popularity today is that it’s fashionable among business people, CEOs – among rich and influential people in general. Meaning those who are judged by their results.

That’s precisely where the strength of Stoicism lies. Whatever we do, we achieve the best results when we don’t put results first.

But let’s return to this proverb of yours. I say we don’t know in advance what’s paved with good intentions. Hell? Or maybe heaven? In Stoicism we don’t judge by intentions. Let’s look again at this example. If I help a friend just because I want to help him – or because I believe it’s my duty – that means I have within me an intention directed from outside myself, or a duty directed from outside myself, for something external, not dependent on me. But in Stoicism we believe it makes no sense to guide yourself by anything you don’t have control over. After all, it doesn’t depend on me whether I manage to help this friend or not. This is in the control of external circumstances, context, and the friend himself. In short: it makes no sense to define yourself in relation to something that doesn’t depend on you.

In that case, I’d like to ask how we should define ourselves, and what we should want. But I don’t have to ask, because I know. The intention to change one’s character makes sense. If I develop my generosity or usefulness for my friend, that’s good. But if I develop greed or egoism, that’s bad.

Here we agree. Each scenario must be judged by what virtues – or vices – it strengthens in us.

So we don’t agree too much – I don’t particularly like the word ‘virtue’.

But let’s save that for another day. Today let’s stress that the strength of this view, this perspective on our virtues and vices, lies in the fact that they’re wonderfully autonomous. This will always work, regardless of the context and the external circumstances. That’s precisely the power of Stoicism: this view is always constructive. We never lose if we adopt this perspective. We always benefit. At least a little. And not uncommonly – quite a lot.

Looking from today’s perspective, Stoicism is a kind of third way between utilitarianism and deontology.

It’s nice to see that the seed I planted back in Rome is sprouting today. Sometimes you have to wait 2000 years. But here we’re getting back to external things. Regardless of what virtues or vices we’re going to want to develop, what books we write and what interviews we grant – their final influence on the external world doesn’t depend on us.

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska

Seneca the Younger:

A Roman rhetorician, philosopher, writer and poet, brilliant in thought and style. An adherent of Stoicism. Nero’s educator and adviser, the emperor later accused him of taking part in a conspiracy, and he was forced to commit suicide, according to Roman tradition. Seneca lived from approximately 4 BCE to 65 CE.


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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