Retreat or Resist? Seneca and Plutarch Disagree on Peace of Mind

How do we maintain equanimity in the midst of chaos? It is probably not at all coincidental that I keep turning to authors from the Roman Imperial period for answers….

Seneca, Moral Epistle 94.68-69

“Don’t believe it is possible for anyone to be happy because of someone else’s unhappiness. The these examples placed before our ears and ears, must be taken apart—we have to empty our hearts of the corrupting tales that fill them. Virtue must be introduced into the place they held—a virtue which can uproot these lies and contrafactual ideologies; a virtue which may separate us from the people whom we have trusted too much, to return us to sane beliefs. This is wisdom, truly: to be returned to a prior state and to that place from where public sickness dislodged us. A great part of health is to have rejected the champions of madness and to have abandoned that union which was destructive for everyone involved.”

Non est quod credas quemquam fieri aliena infelicitate felicem. Omnia ista exempla, quae oculis atque auribus nostris ingeruntur, retexenda sunt et plenum malis sermonibus pectus exhauriendum. Inducenda in occupatum locum virtus, quae mendacia et contra verum placentia exstirpet, quae nos a populo, cui nimis credimus, separet ac sinceris opinionibus reddat. Hoc est enim sapientia, in naturam converti et eo restitui,unde publicus error expulerit. Magna pars sanitatis est hortatores insaniae reliquisse et ex isto coitu invicem noxio procul abisse.

Seneca seems to be unfamiliar with schadenfreude (probably because it was a Greek word). Or, perhaps he refuses to acknowledge it as real tranquility. Plutarch may have agreed that Seneca’s prescription was good for attaining ataraxia, but Plutarch does not see it as a efficacious for mental health. 

Plutarch, On the Tranquility of the Mind 465c-d

“The one who said that “it is necessary that someone who would be tranquil avoid doing much both in private and public” makes tranquility extremely pricey for us since its price is doing nothing. This would be like advising a sick man “Wretch, stay unmoving in your sheets” [Eur. Orestes 258.].

And certainly, depriving the body of experience is bad medicine for mental illness. The doctor of the mind is no better who would relieve it of trouble and pain through laziness, softness and the betrayal of friends, relatives and country. Therefore, it is also a lie that tranquility comes to those who don’t do much. For it would be necessary for women to be more tranquil than men since they do most everything at home….”

Ὁ μὲν οὖν εἰπὼν ὅτι “δεῖ τὸν εὐθυμεῖσθαι μέλλοντα μὴ πολλὰ πρήσσειν μήτε ἰδίῃ μήτε ξυνῇ,” πρῶτον μὲν ἡμῖν πολυτελῆ τὴν εὐθυμίαν καθίστησι, γινομένην ὤνιον ἀπραξίας· οἷον ἀρρώστῳ παραινῶν ἑκάστῳ
μέν᾿, ὦ ταλαίπωρ᾿, ἀτρέμα σοῖς ἐν δεμνίοις.
καίτοι κακὸν μὲν ἀναισθησία σώματος φάρμακον ἀπονοίας· οὐδὲν δὲ βελτίων ψυχῆς ἰατρὸς ὁ ῥᾳθυμίᾳ καὶ μαλακίᾳ καὶ προδοσίᾳ φίλων καὶ οἰκείων καὶ πατρίδος ἐξαιρῶν τὸ ταραχῶδες αὐτῆς καὶ λυπηρόν.
Ἔπειτα καὶ ψεῦδός ἐστι τὸ εὐθυμεῖν τοὺς μὴ πολλὰ πράσσοντας. ἔδει γὰρ εὐθυμοτέρας εἶναι γυναῖκας ἀνδρῶν οἰκουρίᾳ τὰ πολλὰ συνούσας·

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