No man has ever been so advanced by Fortune that she not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths.—Seneca, Letter 4.
In context, Seneca’s acceptance of epistemic uncertainty (or here) is as much about natural events (the sea) as political events—in the previous line we’re reminded of the fates of Pompey, Crassus, and Lepidus. Political mastery does not guarantee immunity against a violent end. Seneca is not blind to the probable destination of his political fall. More important, the violent underpinning of Roman political institutions means that nobody is truly master [dominus] in their “own homes” [domesticis]: “just as many have been killed by angry slaves as by angry kings.” Somebody that “scorns his own life” [vitam suam contemptsit] will not be afraid to die, in order to kill. Seneca offers a veritable picture of a state of nature under the rule of law: “every one possesses the power which you fear.”*
One might think that Seneca is anticipating Spinoza: the state of nature is never fully absent in civil society. But Seneca’s position here is compatible with a more optimistic possibility: if one can remove the sources of anger and scorn of self, one might have a more secure and, perhaps, even less uncertain environment. One may not be able to calms the sea, but the ship of state might be made more even-keeled. It is an open question if Seneca’s proposed emendation of minds [emendato animo] is strictly limited to a kind of enjoyable [freuris] self-help (recall), or (if we cheating-ly glace ahead toward Letter 7) also by way of improved state institutions and social norms.
In keeping with the two axiologies – one that adopts the probable values of the market, the other, private necessity -- that dominate the first three letters, Seneca distinguishes between a frivolous [frivolis (recall and here),] fear-induced [formidant] scorn of one’s life and a joyful [gaudium] scorn. Seneca’s philosophical therapy is meant to get his pupil to embrace a kind of joyful scorn. He does so on consequentialist grounds: (a) the therapy itself is pleasing; (b) we will be happier in this life if we are capable of not fearing death (because nothing can really harm us).
Seneca’s philosophical therapy does not rely primarily on logic or metaphysics; that it is necessary that all of us are mortal is not sufficient to make the to be emendated mind shine [splendidae]. As Hadot has taught, Seneca relies more on spiritual exercises; each letter ends not just with a maxim, but in this letter we are also encouraged to meditate daily [cotidie meditare] on some crucial insights. Moreover, despite the brevity of these first four letters (this is the longest one at a mere 575 words), Seneca is not above -- not unlike Cato the elder -- of repeating himself that the popular conception of poverty is compatible with riches [dives].
It would be misleading, however, to suggest that philosophical argument plays no role in these spiritual exercises. In every letter thus far Seneca appeals to non-trivial metaphysics or argument (recall my treatment of the first and third letters.++ The fourth letter is no exception: it pivots on this non-trivial doctrine, “nothing is really bad, when it is the last such bad.” [Nullum malum est magnum, quod extremum est.]** Seneca proceeds to argue (and to appeal again to a maxim derived from reading Epicurus) that because death is not a proper state of us (recall, only our living-time, that is dying, is necessary proper to us), it shouldn’t be feared.
Seneca’s argument does not work in the market-place, where other people’s lives (slavery) and deaths can be bought and sold, and where one sometimes (i.e., the slave) lacks (purchasing) power to prevent one’s death.*** (Adam Smith teaches that Christianity has its origin in providing the "empty handed" Roman slaves with purchasing power with (the) God(s.)) This means that joyous scorn cannot be bought. It is, rather, the joint product of Seneca’s (linguistic) gifts (and wisdom) and the student’s efforts. But as I have emphasized this is not an utopian enterprise; even Seneca admits that the bare “necessities” required to “banish hunger and thirst” require some manual effort.
Seneca proposes that we must face up to the undeniable (natural) necessary truth of our death in order to be cured of our fear of it, or at least calm [placidi] enough to face it. Our self-deceptions are counter-productive. Here he gives no hint that some such truth-saying therapy would also be appropriate for a polity of strangers that face, say, mass extinction.
*The Latin [Quid ad te itaque quam potens sit quem times, cum id propter quod times nemo non possit?] is more poetic here, but, unusually, Gummere’s English translation is more direct.
++ In my treatment of the second letter, I skipped the significance of Seneca’s embrace of “nusquam est, qui ubique est.”
**Apparently the manuscript reads, “Nullum magnum, quod extremum est,” which has a kind of laconic directness: the end is no big deal.
In fact, Seneca makes clear that in his day a lot of more extended wants are met by servile dependency on others or foreign conquest. (He sees little role for the market as a locus of free exchange as such.)