Seneca on the true purpose of philosophy

Seneca diagnosed the problem with philosophy two thousand years ago. In one of his letters that make up the Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (often called Letters from a Stoic when in translated book form), he writes that “What I should like those subtle teachers (philosophers)… to teach me is this: what my duties are to a friend and to a man, rather than the number of senses in which the expression ‘friend’ is used and how many different meanings the word ‘man’ has.” He goes on:

“One is led to believe that unless one has constructed syllogisms of the craftiest kind, and has reduced fallacies to a compact form in which a false conclusion is derived from a true premise, one will not be in a position to distinguish what one should aim at and what one should avoid. It makes one ashamed—that men of our advanced years should turn a thing as serious as this (philosophy) into a game.”

There are some of us who have had a strong gut reaction against every formal philosophy class we’ve ever taken, yet have been quite unable to say why. Was it a certain professor or teacher? No, because my views have been that way across every class and every professor. Was it a certain period of philosophy, a certain philosopher? It can’t be, because I’ve tried such a range, each time thinking it was just that class I didn’t like, and then trying another to find it exactly the same. Just what is it exactly that repels us so? Philosophy is meant to help us live an examined life, and yet in class all we examine are the constructions of sentences and arcane arguments.

Seneca mocks precisely these kinds of things in philosophy:

“‘Mouse is a syllable, and a mouse nibbles cheese; therefore, a syllable nibbles cheese.’ Suppose for the moment I can’t detect the fallacy in that. What danger am I placed in by such lack of insight? What serious consequences are there in it for me? What I have to fear, no doubt, is the possibility, one of these days, of my catching a syllable in a mousetrap or even having my cheese eaten up by a book if I’m not careful… What childish fatuities these are! Is this what we philosophers acquire wrinkles in our brow for?… Is this what we teach with faces grave and pale?”

I criticise my philosophy classes at the same time as I read philosophy each day in my spare time. The two are not the same. I read philosophy, and do not know what I’d do without it; I study philosophy, and wonder what the point of it is. Maybe the difference is, I enjoy philosophy, but do not enjoy the study of philosophising, which often seems to be what we do in university—the constructions a thinker used to make a point, rather than whether and how their point can help us live our lives.

When I read philosophy, I love it for its practicality. It’s often like having a chat about the important things in life with an old friend. In your head, you argue back and forth, put a philosopher’s argument up against another’s that you’ve read, and listen while they debate what you should do in a given situation. There are no rules, no rights and wrongs, though they can help you discover what you believe to be right and wrong, good and bad, wise and stupid. When studying philosophy at school and university, however, there are rules: it’s all about the precise meaning of words, the structure of your sentences, the strictness of your prose. This all becomes so important in this kind of philosophy—and your professor always demands it—that the more real purpose of reading philosophy is completely forgotten.

Seneca tells us exactly what philosophy is for, what it should aim at:

“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—whether 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 the gods. What’s the point of concocting whimsies for me of the sort I’ve just been mentioning (the mouse trap example)? This isn’t the place for fun—you’re called in to help the unhappy… All right if you can point out to me where those puzzles are likely to bring such people relief. Which of them removes cravings or brings them under control? If only they were simply unhelpful! They’re actually harmful.”

I think we all understand, at some deep level, the real kind of philosophy that Seneca describes; it’s just a shame that philosophy in universities, developing as they have along the analytic tradition, have become focussed on exactly the kind that he writes against. It’s easier, after all, for a teacher to grade a paper on logical fallacies or mechanics of argument than it is to grade a paper on how philosophy can help us live. But when it comes to our lives—and that’s what education is for—the former matters very little, and the latter a great deal. So it’s up to us to find a teacher who understands this (and they do exist, don’t get me wrong!), or whether we can learn from university philosophy while working around its frustrating requirements. Whatever the case is, philosophy is too important to ignore entirely, and let’s hope studying philosophy at university hasn’t put some people off forever.

Author: mmoorejones

New Zealander and Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at Yale-NUS College.

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