Seneca’s On Benefits

A series of short audio meditations on Seneca’s On Benefits, a book that deals with how to give and receive gifts, understood as an important glue that keeps human relationships harmonious.

image from bbc.com/culture

I.1: Among the numerous faults of those who pass their lives recklessly and without due reflexion, I should say that there is hardly any one so hurtful to society as this, that we neither know how to bestow or how to receive a benefit.

I.1: Let us bestow benefits, not put them out at interest.

I.1: It is the property of a great and good mind to covet, not the fruit of good deeds, but good deeds themselves.

I.2: The book-keeping of benefits is simple: it is all expenditure; if any one returns it, that is clear gain; if he does not return it, it is not lost, I gave it for the sake of giving.

I.2: Do not grow weary, perform your duty, and act as becomes a good person. Help one with money, another with credit, another with your favor; this one with good advice, that one with sound maxims.

I.5: What value has the crown in itself? or the purple-bordered robe? or the judgment-seat and car of triumph? None of these things is in itself an honour, but is an emblem of honour.

I.7: Seneca reminds us that virtue ethics is about motivations and the improvement of one’s character, not just about material help, as much as the latter may be needed.

I.10: Our ancestors before us have lamented, and our children after us will lament, as we do, the ruin of morality, the prevalence of vice, and the gradual deterioration of mankind; yet these things are really stationary.

I.11: The next point to be defined is, what kind of benefits are to be given, and in what manner. First let us give what is necessary, next what is useful, and then what is pleasant, provided that they be lasting.

I.15: Since no impulse of the human mind can be approved of, even though it springs from a right feeling, unless it be made into a virtue by discretion, I forbid generosity to degenerate into extravagance.

II.10. You should be satisfied with the approval of your own conscience; if not, you do not really delight in doing good, but in being seen to do good.

II.14: As we refuse cold water to the sick, or swords to the grief-stricken or remorseful, so must we persist in refusing to give anything whatever that is hurtful, although our friends earnestly and humbly beg for it.

II.18: No one incurs any obligation by receiving what it was not in his power to refuse; if you want to know whether I wish to take it, arrange matters so that I have the power of saying ‘No.’

II.21: Someone may be a worthy person for me to receive a benefit from, but it will hurt them to give it. For this reason I will not receive it, because they are ready to help me to their own prejudice, or even danger.

II.26: Ingratitude is caused by excessive self-esteem, by that fault innate in all mortals, of taking a partial view of ourselves and our own acts, by greed, or by jealousy.

II.29: They call the gods neglectful of us because we have not been given health which even our vices cannot destroy.

III.3: Being always intent upon new objects of desire, we think, not of what we have, but of what we are striving to obtain. Those whose mind is fixed entirely upon what they hope to gain, regard with contempt all that is their own already.

III.7: Seneca explains why it makes no sense to pass laws to enforce virtuous behavior, such as some modern laws against marital infidelity.

III.10: No day is appointed for repayment of a benefit, as there is for borrowed money; consequently he who has not yet repaid a benefit may do so hereafter: for tell me, pray, within what time a person is to be declared ungrateful?

III.22: Whereby Seneca displays a bit too casual of an attitude toward slavery, a particular instance of a broader problem for Stoicism when it comes to social and political issues.

III.31: It is not a good thing to live, but to live well.

IV.2: Seneca, though he acknowledges that women are perfectly capable of virtue, characterizes Epicureans as “effeminate.” And in today’s passage he comes across as far more critical of Epicurus than he is usually regarded to be.

IV.2: If you were to call God Fate, you would not lie; for since fate is nothing more than a connected chain of causes, he is the first cause of all upon which all the rest depend.

IV.12: Seneca makes an argument that we have a duty to help others based on the providential nature of the universe. But the universe does not have a providential nature. Fortunately, there is a way to rescue Seneca’s conclusion.

IV.17: Nature bestows upon us all this immense advantage, that the light of virtue shines into the minds of all alike; even those who do not follow her, behold her.

IV.18: While all other animals have sufficient strength to protect themselves, man is covered by a soft skin, has no powerful teeth or claws with which to terrify other creatures, but weak and naked by himself is made strong by union.

IV.21: A good conscience is of value on the rack.

IV.33: We proceed in the way in which reason, not absolute truth, directs us.

IV.34: The wise person begins everything with the saving clause, “If nothing shall occur to the contrary.”

V.4: Diogenes was far more powerful, far richer even than Alexander, who then possessed everything; for there was more that Diogenes could refuse to receive than that Alexander was able to give.

V.9: A benefit is a voluntary act, but to do good to oneself is an instinctive one.

V.12: Just as the stomach, when disordered by disease, turns every kind of sustenance into a source of pain, so whatever you entrust to an ill-regulated mind becomes to it a burden, an annoyance, and a source of misery.

V.16: Seneca discusses the widespread ingratitude of politicians toward their country and fellow citizens. Which raises the obvious question: why is it so difficult to find virtuous politicians?

VI.3: That which you esteem so highly, that by which you think that you are made rich and powerful, owns but the shabby title of “house” or “money;” but when you have given it away, it becomes a benefit.

VI.15: Some things are of greater value than the price which we pay for them. You buy of a physician life and good health, the value of which cannot be estimated in money; from a teacher you buy the education of a gentleman and mental culture.

VI.30: Do you not see how powerful people are driven to ruin by the want of candor among their friends, whose loyalty has degenerated into slavish obsequiousness?

VI.42: You do wrong if you are grateful only for the sake of your reputation, and not to satisfy your conscience.

VII.1: The cynic Demetrius had an admirable saying about this, that one gained more by having a few wise precepts ready and in common use, than by learning many without having them at hand.

VII.1: There is nothing which is hard to discover except those things by which we gain nothing beyond the credit of having discovered them. Whatever things tend to make us better or happier are either obvious or easily discovered.

VII.10: Wretched is he who can take pleasure in the size of the audit book of his estate, in great tracts of land cultivated by slaves in chains, in huge flocks and herds which require provinces and kingdoms for their pasture ground.

VII.24: Seneca tells the story of when Socrates asked his friends for money to buy a cloak, and reminds us of our duty to bestow benefits on our friends before they even ask.

VII.28: Consider within yourself, whether you have always shown gratitude to those to whom you owe it, whether no one’s kindness has ever been wasted upon you, whether you constantly bear in mind all the benefits which you have received.

VII.32: It is no proof of a great mind to give and to throw away one’s bounty; the true test of a great mind is to throw away one’s bounty and still to give.