Seneca part 10: Being alone

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

Is it good for us to be alone? Is our own company sufficient to be happy? Or do we need others? In his previous letter, Seneca told us that even Stoics desire friends. In this letter, however, he states that being alone can be beneficial.

Yes, I do not change my opinion: avoid the many, avoid the few, avoid even the individual

Yet not everyone can be left alone. If you are calm, composed and virtuous, then your own company is enough to be happy. You can keep yourself in check and you know what is good for you. But if you are in an emotional state, unable to tell right from wrong, then being alone can be bad.

When persons are in mourning, or fearful about something, we are accustomed to watch them that we may prevent them from making a wrong use of their loneliness. No thoughtless person ought to be left alone; in such cases he only plans folly, and heaps up future dangers for himself or for others; he brings into play his base desires; the mind displays what fear or shame used to repress; it whets his boldness, stirs his passions, and goads his anger.

If a person is in such an irrational state, then “he betrays himself”. On the other hand, a person of good mental composure can flourish when being alone, since he is not corrupted by the crowd. If you can trust yourself, then you can be alone; if you can’t be trusted (for instance, because of a disturbing event that happened), then you might need someone to keep an eye on you.

On a side note, I noticed that the position of Seneca with regards to being alone, being with others and being in crowds is complex and seems somewhat contradictory. In letter 7, he tells us that crowds are dangerous and should be avoided. In letter 9, he praises our need of friendship. And in the current letter, he seems to prefer being alone for virtuous men, while being with others for people with less self-control. That is definitely something to think about.


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