By Micah White
As righteous people, how can we live in a world that is poisonous to our souls, harmful to our minds and at odds with our ideals?
Common sense counsels us that we have only two options: either imitate or hate the world. But if we remain stuck within this binary opposition, we will lose ourselves: if we imitate the world we sacrifice our spirit; if we hate the world we succumb to being reactionary and lose the positive passion that grounds our affirmation. What then can we do? This is the question that Seneca, the great Stoic sage, posed nearly two millennia ago. And his answer speaks to today’s struggle of being true to oneself in a corporatist society.
Roman imperial culture was as ruinous to Seneca’s ideals as endgame corporatism is to ours. In a well-known letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca writes that exposure to crowds and the entertainment they consume ought to be avoided because within the crowd we lose our inner resolve for living a good life. “To consort with the crowd is harmful,” Seneca writes in Letter VII of Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, “[because] there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” To prove his point, Seneca tells of his experience watching a gladiator death-match and returning home feeling “more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous and even more cruel and inhuman” than before.
In our era, Seneca’s observation will often be rejected on the presumption that his critique of mass culture is based on an aristocratic or antidemocratic philosophy. Proponents of this position will argue that Seneca’s dislike of crowds is due only to a prejudice toward common people and that his position is therefore not worthy of consideration. But this argument misses the deep philosophical insight that Seneca opens for us—there is a correlation between the culture that surrounds us and our inner life. If Seneca is correct then each of us has a legitimate reason to be concerned about involuntary exposure to violence, pornography, and lies because these cultural forms are destructive to our spirit. In other words, Seneca’s stoic philosophy provides another way to understand spiritual insurrection.
The pressing concern is how to resist the dominant culture in such a way that our ideals remain intact and our will to fight stays strong. And it is on this question that Seneca is most articulate. For Seneca, we must be on our guard at all times. He writes: “much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it!” But Seneca refuses to accept that we ought to either imitate or loathe the world.
Instead, Seneca proposes that we develop a parallel culture in which we commune among ourselves to strengthen our opposition to the dominant culture. Seneca’s counsel is simple: “Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better person of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve.” While this advice seems simple, it is actually the most difficult to accept because it foregoes the principles of mass participation and mass culture that underlie the majority of contemporary politics.
It would be a mistake to assume that what Seneca has in mind is a politics of neutral moderation. For a stoic, moderation fails to address the root cause of society’s ills. Instead, the art of stoicism is to live within the tension of two extremes without seeking the middle path of unprincipled moderation. Stoicism challenges us to live an affirmation amidst the world as it is, to maintain our inner resolve in the face of temptation and to teach resistance by way of personal example. It is a difficult task for which Seneca offers only one suggestion: decrease your desire.
Seneca writes that the key to attaining happiness, pleasure, riches and anything else of value is, paradoxically, to lower our desires. He relates the story of Epicurus who when asked by Idomeneus how to make his friend Pythocles rich replied, “If you wish to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.” This wisdom does not only apply to wealth, Seneca argues, and he goes on to give further examples of what Epicurus could have said: “‘if you wish to make Pythocles honourable, do not add to his honours, but subtract from his desires’; ‘if you wish Pythocles to have pleasure for ever, do not add to his pleasures, but subtract from his desires’; ‘if you wish to make Pythocles an old man, filling his life to the full, do not add to his years, but subtract from his desires.’” And I think Seneca would agree if we were to add one of our own to the list and say that if you wish to make a spiritual insurrection, do not wait for many people to join, instead subtract from your desires.
Seneca challenges us to imagine a positive cultural movement that is built on the shared practice of a radical decrease in desire. He suggests that we first build small friendship networks of resistance that are impervious to the influences of mass culture because their highest ideal is a life without consumption. Seneca encourages us to be like the wise man, who when asked why he devotes his life to a philosophy that may reach only a handful of people replied, “I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.”
— Micah White, PhD lives on the north coast of Oregon. Follow him at @BeingMicahWhite. A version of this article originally appeared in Adbusters