September 15, 2021 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Avoid the Crowd
Seneca wrote a series of letters to his young friend Lucilius on various topics. Taken together these letters can be considered as an exposition of Stoicism and how to apply it to our daily lives. This plain English version of the Letters closely follows the original. However, I have deleted some superfluous references, summarized Key Ideas and added subheadings to make it easy for the modern reader to follow.
- Crowds have a negative effect on us. You should avoid them as long as you cannot trust yourself when you are with them.
- Crowds bring out the worst in us. They make faults look attractive.
- We should not fall into the trap of seeking appreciation from a crowd. We should direct our good qualities inward.
Mingling with a crowd can be harmful
Do you ask me what you should avoid more than anything else? I say, a crowd. It is not safe for you yet. You cannot trust yourself in one.
In any case, let me admit my own weakness. I never return home with the same character that was with me when I left. Something that I made calm within me is disturbed. Some enemies I defeated are back. A sick person who has been weak for a long time cannot be taken out of the house without suffering a relapse. So it is with us: our minds are recovering from a long illness.
Crowds make faults attractive to us
To mingle with a crowd is harmful. There is always someone who makes a fault attractive to us, pins it on us, or smears us with it, without our realizing it. The bigger the crowd, the greater the danger. But nothing is more damaging to good character than lounging at some public spectacle. It is then that the faults slip in through the avenue of pleasure.
What do you think I mean? I come home greedier, more ruthless, and more decadent. And it gets worse. I become crueler and more inhuman, because I have been among humans.
Purely by chance, I happened to attend a mid-day exhibition. I was expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation so people’s eyes could get some relief from watching the slaughter of their fellowmen. What happened was the opposite. Compared to this, all earlier fights had been the essence of compassion. Now all small things are set aside and it is pure slaughter. They were not given any protective gear. Their bodies were totally exposed, and no strike was in vain. People liked this even better than the usual matches between the gladiators. Of course, they do! There is no helmet or shield to stop the blade. What’s the need for protective gear or skill? All they do is delay death!
In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears. At noon, they throw them to the spectators. Those who kill others are forced to submit to those who would kill them. They detain the winner for more slaughter. Every fight ends in death by means of fire and sword. And this goes on when the arena is empty!
“But he was a highway robber. He killed a man!”
So what? He is a murderer and deserves punishment. What crime have you committed, you poor guy, that you have to watch this?
In the morning they shouted “Kill him! Whip him! Burn him! Why is he so cowardly when facing the sword? Why does he strike so weakly? Why doesn’t he die more bravely? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blows on chests bare and exposed.”
When the games stop for the intermission, they announce, “Cut some throats in the meanwhile so there will be something going on!”
Bad examples affect us
Come now. Don’t you understand that bad examples affect those who set them? Thank the gods that the person you are teaching to be cruel cannot learn to be cruel. The mind that is too young to hold on to what is right must be kept from the crowd. It is all too easy to follow the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius could have had their moral strength shaken out of them by a crowd that was so different.
It is so true that none of us, no matter how developed we are in our abilities, can withstand the attack of faults that bring their company along. A single instance of indulgence or greed does great harm. A familiar friend, if he is luxurious, can weaken and soften you without your knowing it. A rich neighbour inflames our desires. A spiteful neighbour rubs some of his rust on us, even though we are spotless and sincere.
You learn when you teach
What then do you think will happen to your character when the whole world attacks it? You must either imitate or detest the world. But you should avoid both. You should not imitate the bad simply because they are the majority. You should not hate them either because they are not like you. Withdraw into yourself as much as you can. Spend time with those who will make you a better person. Welcome those whom you can improve. The process is reciprocal. You learn when you teach
There is no reason why you should be lured into publicity by your desire to display your talent for debate in public. I would want you to do that if you have something that is suitable to that mob. As it is, not a single one of them can understand you.
"For what purpose did I learn all these things?" you may say. You don’t have to worry that your time has been wasted. You have learned them for yourself.
Three lessons I learned today
However, what I learned today may not be exclusively for myself. So, I will share with you three excellent lessons that have a bearing on the current situation. One will pay what is due with this letter and the other two you may credit to my account.
One person means as much as a crowd to me and a crowd only as much as a person.
The following is also well said by someone or the other (we are not sure of the author). They asked him why he spent so much time on a work of art that very few would ever see. He replied,
I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.
The third saying is a particularly good one. It is by Epicurus, writing to one of his companions in philosophy:
I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.
Take these words to heart, Lucilius, so you may look down upon the pleasure that comes from the applause of the majority.
Many people praise you. But do you have any reason to be pleased with yourself, if you are one whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.
Think about this
You should not imitate the bad simply because they are the majority. You should not hate them either because they are not like you.