Distracting Puzzles and Life’s One Trick

Seneca, Moral Epistle 111

“You have been asking me how to say sophismata in Latin. Many have tried to give it a translation, but nothing has stuck. This seems predictable, given that we have not put the idea into regular use. There’s also some resistance to the word. Cicero, still, seems to me to have used the most fit translation when he calls them cavillationes. Whoever gives themselves over to them surely ties themselves into subtle little questions, but they make no advances in life, becoming neither braver, nor more temperate, nor any more elevated in thought.

But someone who has applied philosophy in their own healing has a depth of spirit, full of confidence, unconquerable and greater to one who approaches. It is the way with large mountains that seem rather small to someone gazing from afar: yet when you approach them, then it becomes abundantly clear, how high the summits lie above.

That’s what a true philosopher is like from his actions, my Lucilius, not his devices. They stand high above, worthy of admiration, towering in true greatness.  They don’t reach high or walk on their tiptoes by habit like those who increase their height with tricks and seem taller than they are. They are content in their own size. And Why not be content when you have grown into a place where fortune’s hand cannot reach?

The philosopher is beyond human things, enough for themselves in every state of things, whether life proceeds favorably or it surges and tosses them across hostile and difficult seas. Sophistic arguments of those kind I was mentioning before cannot prepare this resilience. The mind plays with these things but does not develop because of them–it drags philosophy down from its place to the flat ground.

I won’t tell you to avoid all these things all the time, but only do it when you want to accomplish nothing. The worst thing these disciplines possess is that they develop a kind of self-fulfilling allure, grabbing and detaining the mind with the appearance of sophistication. And we hear this even though serious affairs call to us–when an entire life is barely enough to learn one simple thing: to devalue life itself. What, you ask, don’t I mean to control life? No, that’s our second job. For no one has lived life well unless they learn contempt for it. BYE.”

Quid vocentur Latine sophismata, quaesisti a me. Multi temptaverunt illis nomen inponere, nullum haesit. Videlicet, quia res ipsa non recipiebatur a nobis nec in usu erat, nomini quoque repugnatum est. Aptissimum tamen videtur mihi, quo Cicero usus est: cavillationes vocat. Quibus quisquis se tradidit, quaestiunculas quidem vafras nectit, ceterum ad vitam nihil proficit, neque fortior fit neque temperantior neque elatior.

At ille, qui philosophiam in remedium suum exercuit, ingens fit animo, plenus fiduciae, inexsuperabilis et maior adeunti. Quod in magnis evenit montibus, quorum proceritas minus apparet longe intuentibus; cum accesseris, tunc manifestum fit, quo in arduo summa sint;

talis est, mi Lucili, verus et rebus, non artificiis philosophus. In edito stat admirabilis, celsus, magnitudinis verae. Non exsurgit in plantas nec summis ambulat digitis eorum more, qui mendacio staturam adiuvant longioresque quam sunt, videri volunt; contentus est magnitudine sua. Quidni contentus sit eo usque crevisse, quo manus fortuna non porrigit?

Ergo et supra humana est et par sibi in omni statu rerum, sive secundo cursu vita procedit, sive fluctuatur et it per adversa ac difficilia; hanc constantiam cavillationes istae, de quibus paulo ante loquebar, praestare non possunt. Ludit istis animus, non proficit, et philosophiam a fastigio suo deducit in planum.

Nec te prohibuerim aliquando ista agere, sed tunc, cum voles nihil agere. Hoc tamen habent in se pessimum: dulcedinem quandam sui faciunt et animum specie subtilitatis inductum tenent ac morantur, cum tanta rerum moles vocet, cum vix tota vita sufficiat, ut hoc unum discas, vitam contemnere. “Quid? Regere,” inquis. Secundum opus est; nam nemo illam bene rexit nisi qui contempserat. Vale.


Color photograph of an oil painting of the bust and head of a clown. The clown has a striped white and red shirt, a red nose, and somewhat discolored makeup.
Joseph Kutter, “Tête de clown / Head of a Clown” 1937

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