The Parable of Seneca

The solution to living a simple life is to neither fully reject nor fully accept society.


In the midst of the Roman Saturnalia – a public festival of drunkenness and debauchery lasting several days in December – the stoic philosopher Seneca wondered how a person dedicated to living a life of voluntary simplicity ought to act. Should he publicly rebuke society for its excess by refusing to partake in the revelry; or should he take off his toga, throw a dinner party for friends and share the gaiety of society at large? For Seneca, the answer was not an easy one – while one path represented an affront to one's friends, the other was an insult to one's ideals.

In typical stoic fashion, Seneca resolved his dilemma by balancing two extremes. The solution was to neither fully reject nor fully accept society. In letter XVIII of his Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium, he writes, "Remaining dry and sober takes a good deal more strength of will when everyone about one is puking drunk; it takes a more developed sense of fitness, on the other hand, not to make oneself a person apart, to be neither indistinguishable from those about one nor conspicuous by one's difference, to do the same things but not in quite the same manner." The goal was not to embrace the cynic's rejection of society nor the hedonist's acceptance, but instead to live on the edge of the two opposing viewpoints – to live committed to one's ideals and to strengthen oneself against the temptations of excess consumption through exposure, not avoidance.

Although Seneca was a stoic philosopher who preached voluntary simplicity, he was also an extravagantly wealthy adviser to the infamous Nero, the tyrannical and decadent emperor of Rome whose lifestyle was antithetical to Seneca's philosophy. It was clear to Seneca that he lived a life of contradiction, but unlike other ancient philosophers – such as Diogenes the Cynic who chose to live on the street in open renunciation of society – Seneca chose another path.

Seneca believed that living a moral life did not consist of rejecting the world, but of doing away with the fear that motivates our frenetic consumption: the fear of poverty. In a letter every culture jammer should read On Festivals and Fasting, Seneca counsels a friend that the path to inner peace is to adopt a ritual of practiced poverty: "appoint certain days on which to give up everything and make yourself at home with next to nothing. Start cultivating a relationship with poverty. For no one is worthy of god unless he has paid no heed to riches. I am not, mind you, against your possessing them, but I want to ensure that you possess them without tremors; and this you will only achieve in one way, by convincing yourself that you can live a happy life even without them, and by always regarding them as being on the point of vanishing". In this way, Seneca hoped that the fear of becoming poor in the future would be banished and that the self would be liberated in the present to live a more genuine life.

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He is writing a book on the future of activism. or micah (at)