by © Maurizio Bisogno 2015, 2020

“What ruins our characters is the fact that none of us looks back over his own life”, Seneca, Letter LXXXIII. Our thoughts are directed always to the future, to what is ahead of us; but all future is based on the past and yet we avoid the exam of the latter. How can we achieve any wisdom in this race to the future?

If we follow Seneca, the only study that deserves to be pursued is the study of wisdom because it makes a man free. All the other studies should bring man to the realization of this goal. Seneca’s views are not historically circumscribed, and on can understand this by asking: ‘What is wisdom today? Are the passions endangering men’s freedom in the same way that they were during Seneca’s times?’ Is the whole education system geared at creating wiser people or people with just technical knowledge? Although they were providing valid knowledge, in Seneca’s time the liberal arts did not contribute in making a better man: one’s character does not receive any improvement, one’s wisdom does not progress, there isn’t any advancement in the knowledge and the practice of virtues. It sounds so familiar!

Wisdom is also the application of virtues to your life. Seneca tells us that if you were a coward before starting studying grammar and rhetoric you will be as coward as you were once you have completed their study. The aim of real learning should be to know how to be wise. This involves that, for example, instead of studying music one should learn how to bring harmony in his mind, one should learn how not to become plaintive when things go wrong in his life. Each liberal art is criticized following this criterion: what does it do to my character, to the knowledge of virtues, to the practice of virtue, how does this contribute toward the aim of a free man?

The main point for Seneca is the control of passions; the liberal arts have one and only one justification, i.e. they should prepare man to the acquisition of moral values like: bravery, loyalty, self-control, humanity. The desire to know more than it is necessary is also a form of intemperance. That’s why we should cultivate the ability to separate the essential knowledge from the superfluous one. The main question we should be able to answer in order to avoid superfluous knowledge is the following: what do I need to know?(Letter LXXXVIII)

In a previous letter (the XLVIII) Seneca questions the importance of linguistic and logical analysis of sentences and words – he says something of this order: I do not want know the number of senses the word ‘friends’ can be used or how many meaning the word ‘man’ has, but it matters to me to know ‘what my duties are to a friend and to a man’.

«Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out to humanity? Counsel. One person is facing death, another is vexed by poverty, while another is tormented by wealth – weather his own or someone else’s; one man is appalled by his misfortunes while another longs to get away from his own prosperity; one man is suffering at the hands of men, another at the hands of gods. What’s the point of concocting whimsies for me of the sort I’ve just been mentioning? This isn’t the place for fun – you’re called in to help the unhappy.»

The function of the philosopher should be to help those who are facing ruin or are already ruined, those who are confused and in disarray, by showing them the light of truth.

«Tell them how simple are the laws she has laid down, and how straightforward and enjoyable life is for those who follow them and how confused and disagreeable it is for others who put more trust in popular ideas than they do in nature.»

Seneca goes further:

«For that is what philosophy has promised me – that she will make me God’s equal.»

Seneca’s system propose simplicity, discernment between what is essential and what is superfluous, making sure that you have all the necessary things.

«…isn’t it the height of folly to learn inessential things when time’s so desperately short!»

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