Seneca part 14: Withdraw or participate?

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

Seneca’s fourteenth moral letter is titled ‘On the reasons for withdrawing from the world’ in Richard Gummere’s translation. This is interesting, because for some, it might reinforce the common conception that Stoics seclude from society and only tend to their own virtue. As we have seen before, this is not true. On the contrary: Stoicism advocates an active contribution to society, since we are the ‘limbs’ of the ‘body’. It is our nature to work together as social beings. Because of this, the contents of this letter of Seneca surprised me. He says:

Let us, however, in so far as we can, avoid discomforts as well as dangers, and withdraw to safe ground, by thinking continually how we may repel all objects of fear.

I must admit, he uses the clause ‘in so far as we can’, but it still seems Seneca advises us to withdraw from social life. Withdrawal removes risk – risk for distress, risk for harm, risk for breaking our peace of mind. At the same time, however, withdrawal removes opportunity – opportunity to learn, opportunity to improve, opportunity to become a better, more virtuous person. Yet Seneca continues:

So the wise man will never provoke the anger of those in power; nay, he will even turn his course, precisely as he would turn from a storm if he were steering a ship.

And even more clearly:

Let us withdraw ourselves in every way; for it is as harmful to be scorned as to be admired. (…) philosophy is peaceful and minds her own business

Seneca even suggests that the actions against Caesar of Marcus Cato – one of the great Stoics, and a personal example for myself – were useless and only brought him distress. In line with this, Seneca says:

The wise man will not upset the customs of the people, nor will he invite the attention of the populace by any novel ways of living.

So, this letter tells us that we should shun public life and politics insofar as we can’t control it. Of course, this is good advice, since we should not concern ourselves with matters we don’t control. However, I believe that a withdrawal from the world is not only cowardly, but even amoral. It is a safe way out: but Seneca stresses ‘safe’, while I would stress ‘out’. We can have influence and we should strive to make the world a better place. This is our duty as social beings equipped with the capacity for reason. Adaptation to customs and men in power is less important than living a good and virtuous life. Sure enough, we should not concern ourselves with the things we cannot influence. But as far as we can contribute to a better world, we should consider it our duty to act. And not withdraw.
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