A naturall foole that could never learn by heart the order of numerall words, as One, Two, and Three, may observe every stroak of the Clock, and nod to it, or say one, one, one; but can never know what houre it strikes...Nor is it possible without Letters for any man to become either excellently wise, or (unless his memory be hurt by disease, or ill constitution of organs) excellently foolish. For words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon by them: but they are the mony of fooles...one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth Feare; and one Cruelty, what another Justice; one Prodigality, what another Magnanimity...such names can never be true grounds of any ratiocination. No more can Metaphors, and Tropes of speech: but these are less dangerous, because they profess their inconstancy; which the other do not.--Leviathan, 1.4
Night nursed not him in whose dark mind
The clambering wings of birds of black revolved,
Making harsh torment of the solitude.
The walker in the moonlight walked alone,
And in his heart his disbelief lay cold.--Wallace Stevens.
Despite the helpful reminder of 3AM Magazine, we at NewAPPS failed to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Wallace Stevens' Harmonium. Seneca's mysterious, terse (under 325 words) tenth Letter, brought me back to Stevens' early poetry. Stevens talks of the (nightly) "torment of solitude," faced by the poetic mind (who happens to be a religious skeptic). Yet, Seneca seems to suggest that some of the very best people should seek solitude; in particular they should living with their conscience [conscientia] (recall eight letter). But presumably Stevens's poetic disbeliever is expressing his conscience faitfully.
At first sight, Seneca's letter turns on the idea that there are two kinds of prayer: (i) prayers in which one asks for commodities that are alienable (recall); (ii) prayers in which one asks for things that need not belong to others. We learn thereby, first, something about Seneca's metaphysics: that while time is our only intrinsic property, there are other qualities -- such as sound mind and the health of mind and body -- that are accidentally ours, but not themselves to be located in the exchange economy. (Recall his two axiologies: one of the market-place/politics, the other of true friendship.)
In context Seneca claims that the first kind of prayer is madness [dementia]. Now, it is foolish because it expresses the wrong, shameful kind of desires, that is, covetousness. It may also be thought shameful because (as Plato argued in Laws X) it implies that one might be able to bribe the Gods in favor of oneself at the expense of others. No wonder people only "whisper" the first kind of prayers.* Citing a proverb from Athenodorus (the Stoic philosopher), a student of the great Posidonius, Seneca encourages the second kind of prayer and exhorts his recepient to "live among men as if god beheld you; speak with god as if men were listening." To put this in terms familiar from Adam Smith: we should live as if an impartial, all-knowing spectator watches us; we should not want anything for ourselves we would be willing to hide from others. Once one embraces that one acts under the guise of such a spectator the first universal law of nature governing all rational agents is lurking around the corner.Seneca does not say if god responds favorably to the second kind of prayer. That could be because he hopes with Athenodorus that we pray openly once all desire has been extinguished (such that we really are not asking for anything), or because Seneca thinks that while it cannot hurt to keep praying, at bottom only excellent fools think that god is in the business of granting anything to anybody, in particular.
One might object to the idea that Seneca embraces the Epicurean stance on the Gods. But it is worth stressing that Seneca is not straightforward in the letter; the tenth letter vacillates between (simultaneously) addressing the fool [stulto & inprudentibus & dementia] and the great-souled [magno animo]. In context, Seneca says that the official recipient, Lucilus, had spoken words in an great souled fashion, but he does not report the words. He implies, however, that two features of Lucilus' words are indicative of magnanimity: (i) not being one of the people [homo non est unus e populo]; (ii) he looks after his well-being [salutem spectat]. Now, the Loeb translator turns (ii) into an elitist-a-political comment in which Lucilus is held up above the vulgar "many" by being better at keeping trim. But it is worth reminding ourselves that the claim can also be understood in a more political fashion; the 'populo' are one of the constitutive units, "senatus populusque," that are said to compose Rome under the Republic. So, an alternative way to read Seneca is that the Roman polity is not looking after its well-being (under Nero after Seneca's fall).
Unfortunately, we do not learn in what way Lucilus does look after his well-being; nor do we learn if that him doing so makes him great-souled, or if he was being praised merely for his rhetoric. We already know that the character 'Seneca' is not above flattery.
This is the first letter in which Seneca officially refers back to an earlier letter, teaching his readers that they are meant to be read in light of each other. In an earlier letter, (recall) the eight, Seneca had already introduced the idea that some can be great-souled: "for the soul, if it be great, naught is great" [cui magno nihil mahnum est.] Does a great soul, who hankers after a literary immortality and who deals with the human and the divine at the same time [humana divinaque simul tractant], recognize god's greatness? The eight letter seems to imply not.
In the last paragraph I made a tacit slide between the great soul and 'Seneca' (the persona projected by Seneca).But the slide is invited by 'Seneca', who in a very odd passage switches from what he hopes for his recipient to what he promises himself "inasmuch hope is merely the title of an uncertain good [boni]." Now it is a mark of true friends that they share in the same noble desires, such that they are alone-together (recall letter 3).
If we return after our excursion via Seneca (and with a nod to Hobbes, or Plato's Phaedrus) back to Stevens' nighttime solitary walker. We notice that
That is to say, our poet is located a particular place: outside the city-walls. The cause of his "torment" may not be his religious skepticism or loss of religious faith, but his sense that his walk takes him outside the polity, imagined or real. For such a walk requires true friends.
The disbeliever walked the moonlit place,
Outside of gates of hammered serafin,
Observing the moon-blotches on the walls.
*Seneca pretends as if he doesn't know that a people loudly prays to their god(s) for aid against other people(s) and their god(s).