Letters of a Stoic
Seneca to Lucilius: 87, in favor of the simple life
Why so many things that people think are good are, in fact, no such thing
[previous entries in this series can be found here]
I’m sure you noticed that we live in a capitalistic, and therefore hyper-consumerist society. The logic of capitalism implies that the economy has to keep growing, and in order for that to happen more and more people have to buy lots of crap that they don’t need. Setting aside the obvious observation — made even by some economists — that indefinite growth is the goal of a cancer cell, that is why we are bombarded by advertisements that not so subtly aim at convincing us that if only we had the latest smart phone, a nicer car, a bigger house, and so forth then we would truly be happy.
Of course, all of that is plain bullshit. And the ancient Stoics figured out exactly why. Seneca — who was himself very wealthy and thereby was not talking out of envy — begins his 87th letter to his friend Lucilius in this manner:
“The journey showed me this: how much we possess that is superfluous; and how easily we can make up our minds to do away with things whose loss, whenever it is necessary to part with them, we do not feel.” (LXXXVII.1)
He was reflecting on his own experience. His life was drawing to a close by the time he wrote this letter and he had been the second richest man in Rome, after the emperor himself. But when he understood that he could no longer reasonably function as guide and counselor for Nero, Seneca tried to retire by literally bribing the tyrant, offering his fortune in exchange for peace and quiet in the countryside and the opportunity to read and philosophize away from Rome.
Seneca was not granted his wish, because Nero was shrewd enough to realize that he needed the philosopher by his side in order to continue lend legitimacy to a crumbling regime. The final outcome of this tension between the two was that Nero accused Seneca of being part of the failed Pisonian conspiracy and ordered him to commit suicide. Which Seneca did, in classic Stoic fashion, with dignity.
The letter continues with Seneca deploying a bit of logic, in the form of a…