Wednesday, April 13, 2011

One of the best pieces of moral philosophy I've come across-- Letter 124 of Seneca

Roman stoic philosophy from the first century AD. Here's an excerpt from the new Oxford edition translated by Elaine Fantham:

"Everybody who sets pleasure as the chief object judges the good to b e perceptible, but we instead see it as intelligible, and assign it to the mind. If the senses passed judgement on the good we would not reject any pleasure, for there is none that does not invite and appeal to us; and on the contrary , we would not willingly undergo any pain, for there is no pain that does not jar the senses. Besides, those who choose excessive pleasure and whose greatest fear is of pain would not deserve reproach in that case. But surely we do condemn those given to gluttony and lust and we despise those who will not attempt any manly deed from fear of pain. Now what is their offense if they obey the senses, that is, as judges of good and evil? For you have surrendered to them the decision whether to seek or to shun. But clearly reason has been put in charge of this matter: it has made decisions on good and evil as it has on the blessed life, on virtue, and on the honourable. For among that school the verdict is given to the lowest part of the mind over the superior one, letting the perceptions pronounce on the good things although they are a dull and blunt thing, more sluggish in men than in other animals. Supposing someone wanted to distinguish tiny things not with his eyes but with his touch. No perception is more subtle than the eyes, and would be more focused, enabling man to distinguish good and evil. You see the vast ignorance of truth that besets blindness, and how the man whose touch makes judgement of good and evil has cast away matters lofty and divine."

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