Seneca part 8: We have work to do

This article is part of the weekly Seneca series. New articles will be published every Thursday.

In his eight letter, Seneca expresses his ideas about valuable work. Stoics advocate an active life in service of society. We should find how we can contribute and then contribute in that way. Since Seneca advised us in his last letter to avoid crowds, Lucilius now challenges him by asking:

Where are the counsels of your school, which order a man to die in the midst of active work?

Seneca replies:

my object in shutting myself up and locking the door is to be able to help a greater number. I never spend a day in idleness; I appropriate even a part of the night for study. I do not allow time for sleep but yield to it when I must, and when my eyes are wearied with waking and ready to fall shut, I keep them at their task. I have withdrawn not only from men, but from affairs, especially from my own affairs; I am working for later generations, writing down some ideas that may be of assistance to them. (…) When I commune in such terms with myself and with future generations, do you not think that I am doing more good than when I appear as counsel in court, or stamp my seal upon a will, or lend my assistance in the senate, by word or action, to a candidate?

In other words: you can be active without seeming active. You can be busy without running through the city from one job to the next. In fact, philosophers probably work best when they have the opportunity to think and reflect – in a quiet space.

Which brings me to a more general question. How can a man (or woman) best contribute to society? To me, the answer would be this: the best contribution he can make, is to use his specific talents for the public good. Are you an excellent carpenter? Then practise carpentry. Are you a great doctor? Then cure people. Do you have the ability to understand and apply the law? Then become a lawyer. Whatever you are good at: that is where your true value for society is. And if you don’t know, then find something. Try new things to discover your talents. If you have multiple talents, then either combine them if possible, or choose one to excel in. Your talents are not only of value to yourself, but to others as well.

To end this reflection, I want to share another statement that Seneca makes in this letter. Earlier, he stated that we should dress ourselver not too extravagantly, nor too shabby. The next advice follows that:

Eat merely to relieve your hunger; drink merely to quench your thirst; dress merely to keep out the cold; house yourself merely as a protection against personal discomfort. It matters little whether the house be built of turf, or of variously coloured imported marble; understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a thatch as by a roof of gold.

Enough is enough. Luxury is unnecessary, as long as less expensive products get you the same result. We should do our work – whatever that may be – not primarily for the money, but to contribute to society and its development. So: find your talent and use it.


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