On self-control

Ary Scheffer, "The Shades of Francesco da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appear to Dante and Virgil" (1855)

1. The question has often been raised whether it is better to have moderate emotions, or none at all. Philosophers of our school reject the emotions; the Peripatetics keep them in check. I, however, do not understand how any half-way disease can be either wholesome or helpful. Do not fear; I am not robbing you of any privileges which you are unwilling to lose! I shall be kindly and indulgent towards the objects for which you strive – those which you hold to be necessary to our existence, or useful, or pleasant; I shall simply strip away the vice. For after I have issued my prohibitions against the desires, I shall still allow you to wish that you may do the same things fearlessly and with greater accuracy of judgment, and to feel even the pleasures more than before; and how can these pleasures help coming more readily to your call, if you are their lord rather than their slave!
2. “But,” you object, “it is natural for me to suffer when I am bereaved of a friend; grant some privileges to tears which have the right to flow! It is also natural to be affected by men’s opinions and to be cast down when they are unfavourable; so why should you not allow me such an honourable aversion to bad opinion?”
There is no vice which lacks some plea; there is no vice that at the start is not modest and easily entreated; but afterwards the trouble spreads more widely. If you allow it to begin, you cannot make sure of its ceasing. 3. Every emotion at the start is weak. Afterwards, it rouses itself and gains strength by progress; it is more easy to forestall it than to forgo it. Who does not admit that all the emotions flow as it were from a certain natural source? We are endowed by Nature with an interest in our own well-being; but this very interest, when overindulged, becomes a vice. Nature has intermingled pleasure with necessary things – not in order that we should seek pleasure, but in order that the addition of pleasure may make the indispensable means of existence attractive to our eyes. Should it claim rights of its own, it is luxury.
Let us therefore resist these faults when they are demanding entrance, because, as I have said, it is easier to deny them admittance than to make them depart. 4. And if you cry: “One should be allowed a certain amount of grieving, and a certain amount of fear.” I reply that the “certain amount” can be too long-drawn-out, and that it will refuse to stop short when you so desire. The wise man can safely control himself without becoming over-anxious; he can halt his tears and his pleasures at will; but in our case, because it is not easy to retrace our steps, it is best not to push ahead at all. 5. I think that Panaetius gave a very neat answer to a certain youth who asked him whether the wise man should become a lover: “As to the wise man, we shall see later; but you and I, who are as yet far removed from wisdom, should not trust ourselves to fall into a state that is disordered, uncontrolled, enslaved to another, contemptible to itself. If our love be not spurned, we are excited by its kindness; if it be scorned, we are kindled by our pride. An easily won love hurts us as much as one which is difficult to win; we are captured by that which is compliant, and we struggle with that which is hard. Therefore, knowing our weakness, let us remain quiet. Let us not expose this unstable spirit to the temptations of drink, or beauty, or flattery, or anything that coaxes and allures.”
6. Now that which Panaetius replied to the question about love may be applied, I believe, to all the emotions. In so far as we are able, let us step back from slippery places; even on dry ground it is hard enough to take a sturdy stand. 7. At this point, I know, you will confront me with that common complaint against the Stoics: “Your promises are too great, and your counsels too hard. We are mere manikins, unable to deny ourselves everything. We shall sorrow, but not to any great extent; we shall feel desires, but in moderation; we shall give way to anger, but we shall be appeased.” 8. And do you know why we have not the power to attain this Stoic ideal? It is because we refuse to believe in our power. Nay, of a surety, there is something else which plays a part: it is because we are in love with our vices; we uphold them and prefer to make excuses for them rather than shake them off. We mortals have been endowed with sufficient strength by nature, if only we use this strength, if only we concentrate our powers and rouse them all to help us or at least not to hinder us. The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability. Farewell.


Seneca Lucilio suo salutem.
[1] Utrum satius sit modicos habere adfectus an nullos saepe quaesitum est. Nostri illos expellunt, Peripatetici temperant. Ego non video quomodo salubris esse aut utilis possit ulla mediocritas morbi. Noli timere: nihil eorum quae tibi non vis negari eripio. Facilem me indulgentemque praebebo rebus ad quas tendis et quas aut necessarias vitae aut utiles aut iucundas putas: detraham vitium. Nam cum tibi cupere interdixero, velle permittam, ut eadem illa intrepidus facias, ut certiore consilio, ut voluptates ipsas magis sentias: quidni ad te magis perventurae sint si illis imperabis quam si servies? [2] ‘Sed naturale est’ inquis ‘ut desiderio amici torquear: da ius lacrimis tam iuste cadentibus. Naturale est opinionibus hominum tangi et adversis contristari: quare mihi non permittas hunc tam honestum malae opinionis metum?’ Nullum est vitium sine patrocinio; nulli non initium verecundum est et exorabile, sed ab hoc latius funditur. Non obtinebis ut desinat si incipere permiseris. [3] Inbecillus est primo omnis adfectus; deinde ipse se concitat et vires dum procedit parat: excluditur facilius quam expellitur. Quis negat omnis adfectus a quodam quasi naturali fluere principio? Curam nobis nostri natura mandavit, sed huic ubi nimium indulseris, vitium est. Voluptatem natura necessariis rebus admiscuit, non ut illam peteremus, sed ut ea sine quibus non possumus vivere gratiora nobis illius faceret accessio: suo veniat iure, luxuria est. Ergo intrantibus resistamus, quia facilius, ut dixi, non recipiuntur quam exeunt. [4] ‘Aliquatenus’ inquis ‘dolere, aliquatenus timere permitte.’ Sed illud ‘aliquatenus’ longe producitur nec ubi vis accipit finem. Sapienti non sollicite custodire se tutum est, et lacrimas suas et voluptates ubi volet sistet: nobis, quia non est regredi facile, optimum est omnino non progredi. [5] Eleganter mihi videtur Panaetius respondisse adulescentulo cuidam quaerenti an sapiens amaturus esset. ‘De sapiente’ inquit ‘videbimus: mihi et tibi, qui adhuc a sapiente longe absumus, non est committendum ut incidamus in rem commotam, inpotentem, alteri emancupatam, vilem sibi. Sive enim nos respicit, humanitate eius inritamur, sive contempsit, superbia accendimur. Aeque facilitas amoris quam difficultas nocet: facilitate capimur, cum difficultate certamus. Itaque conscii nobis inbecillitatis nostrae quiescamus; nec vino infirmum animum committamus nec formae nec adulationi nec ullis rebus blande trahentibus.’ [6] Quod Panaetius de amore quaerenti respondit, hoc ego de omnibus adfectibus dico: quantum possumus nos a lubrico recedamus; in sicco quoque parum fortiter stamus.
[7] Occurres hoc loco mihi illa publica contra Stoicos voce: ‘nimis magna promittitis, nimis dura praecipitis. Nos homunciones sumus; omnia nobis negare non possumus. Dolebimus, sed parum; concupiscemus, sed temperate; irascemur, sed placabimur.’ [8] Scis quare non possimus ista? quia nos posse non credimus. Immo mehercules aliud est in re: vitia nostra quia amamus defendimus et malumus excusare illa quam excutere. Satis natura homini dedit roboris si illo utamur, si vires nostras colligamus ac totas pro nobis, certe non contra nos concitemus. Nolle in causa est, non posse praetenditur. Vale.

—Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (CXVI)

2 thoughts on “On self-control”

So, what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s