Notes from Seneca’s “On Benefits”

Seneca’s works have been poured over by many, and his popularity only grows in modern times, the information age.

One of his least mentioned works, because it doesn’t provide relief for the wary, or focus during hardship, but is nonetheless an important Stoic text on how to live virtuously, is his book “On Benefits”.

This book may be one of the brightest examples of the Stoic notion of Justice, with passages like this one:

“What virtue do we admire more than benevolence? Which do we encourage more? Who ought to applaud it more than we Stoics, who preach the brotherhood of the human race?”

How does this line fit with your impression of the Stoics? Does it seem incongruent with your picture of them? When I read it, I realized what caliber of people these were, content as they were to focus on “what was in their power”, but driven, as if by a burning fire of passion, to be of service to their fellow humans.

How about this one :

“It is unpleasant, burdensome, and covers one with shame to have to say, “Give me.” You should spare your friends, and those whom you wish to make your friends, from having to do this; however quick he may be, a man gives too late who gives what he has been asked for. We ought, therefore, to divine every man’s wishes, and when we have discovered them, to set him free from the hard necessity of asking; you may be sure that a benefit which comes unasked will be delightful and will not be forgotten. If we do not succeed in anticipating our friends, let us at any rate cut them short when they ask us for anything, so that we may appear to be reminded of what we meant to do, rather than to have been asked to do it. “

This passage reminds me a lot of Musonius Rufus, who said

If I’m not mistaken, the Stoics were driven by these ideas, because this is what was meant by “Justice”.

Here’s another:

“Even wild beasts feel kindness, nor is there any animal so savage that good treatment will not tame it and win love from it.”

This, coming from the guy who spent so much energy trying to lead the Emperor Nero down a better path.

One of the remarkable things about this book, is that it paints a warm, caring image of a people often mischaracterized for being stoney faced, composed, and often indifferent. They were indifferent, to those things not pertaining to virtue.

But virtue was the only good, and sometimes looked a bit like Santa Claus:

“Is a man ungrateful for one benefit? perhaps he will not be so after receiving a second. Has he forgotten two kindnesses? perhaps by a third he may be brought to remember the former ones also.”

…although perhaps less stingy than Santa.

So, the practice of logic, the understanding of Stoic metaphysics, brought forth a unique fruit, which looked an awful lot like benevolence.

Next time you are trying to whip your Stoicism into gear, consider divining the needs and wishes of those closest to you, and watch what benefits you bring those spheres of affinity.

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