Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Society Is Bad For You

Res Publica

August 2005

by Matthew Mingus

"You ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd."

I felt my heart sink deep into the pit of my stomach as I read these words written by the Roman philosopher Seneca aloud to my Western Civilization class. When I was finished, I looked around the classroom and was amazed at the lack of reaction from my peers.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s influential letter "Should A Philosopher Withdraw From the World?" is, by far, one of the more interesting ideas of the Roman era. Seneca discusses the importance of separating one’s self from the rest of mankind in order to be a "true" philosopher. He argues that the larger the crowd we mingle with, the more likely we are to allow our peer’s vices to impose upon our own. Seneca points out that society is too corrupt and immoral for a philosopher to withstand. He states that "You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world. But the right thing is to shun both courses." He claims that the only way to do this is to take leave into one’s self and attempt to only associate with those who will improve the self. If a person is not capable of improving or teaching you something useful and good, that person is not worth correlating with.

Seneca concludes this selection by quoting Epicurus: "To win true freedom you must be a slave to philosophy." He goes on to clarify that a person, when committing themselves to a life of philosophical thought, is "emancipated" immediately since chaining oneself to philosophy frees the mind. A true philosopher cannot allow the submission to his work to be delayed or overdue. He must act on it instantly and unapologetically. Seneca not only points out this ironic application, but also claims that such a quote should be considered "common property." He then goes on to support his argument with theatrical plays and expressions.

"Should A Philosopher Withdraw From the World?" was a very original and drastic view for a Roman to hold. Seneca attacked and shunned his own society and attempted to persuade others to do the same. However, what I consider to be one of the most significant things about this passage is its absence of religious support. Seneca wasn’t demanding that philosophers shelter themselves from the world because a god would be unhappy if they became part of the "mob" (as Christ did in The Holy Bible). He suggested it based solely on reason and thought: something that Roman society had not heard when addressing this topic. This was something that I had not heard when addressing this topic.

And my class just sat there, oblivious to my frustration and dissatisfaction. I secretly hoped (and somewhat expected) my professor to dismantle Seneca’s argument. I wanted solid justification to dismiss this "ridiculous" idea. My mind began to race with arguments as I started to set up my own personal defense against Seneca’s writing. I attempted to persuade myself that my peers didn’t influence me in any negative ways. And even if they did, I’m too social to just "abandon" society.

But then I began to realize that Seneca was right. In order to truly have intellectual freedom, I have to consistently separate myself from my surroundings mentally and often physically. This doesn’t mean I have to completely discard my friends, teachers, or even society. Seneca was simply pointing out that if I allow it, I can lose my morals, values, and integrity to "the world."

My attention quickly snapped back to the front of the room as the professor dismissed class. I slid my textbooks carefully into my book bag and took a deep drink of my ever—present Mountain Dew. While I followed the other students out of the classroom, I thought about how I could strive to protect myself from the negative impacts of society. It was then when I realized that, thanks to Seneca, I already was.

Matthew Mingus is a freshman from Catawba, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and Philosophy.

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