Seneca, Stoic Philosopher, Moral Epistles, Blog 5, On the Benefits of Friends and Keeping Score

Seneca was praised by early Church Fathers as being the most Christian of the Stoic Philosophers

My former friend, or maybe my former acquaintance, as I have not heard from my former friend in quite a long time, was always complaining about her other friends, who always took advantage of her friendship.  She kept a scorecard on her friends, how many times she called them, how many times they called her, how often she visited them, how often they visited her, how many favors she did them, how many favors she received in turn, and if her friends weren’t as friendly to her as she was to them, then they were no longer her friend.

Letter LXXXI On Benefits

Seneca no doubt had met people like my former friend.  Seneca says, “You complain you know an ungrateful person.  If this is a new experience for you, you should be thankful for either your good luck or your abundant caution, but beware, lest such caution makes you less generous.”  The keeper of the scorecard in a friendship risks running off his friends.  How should the good man keep his scorecard?  “The good man voluntarily cheats himself by adding to the benefits he receives and subtracting from the injuries he suffers.”  Perhaps this is another definition of patience and kindness, the first attributes of love and friendship.

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“It is better to get no return than confer no benefits.  Even after a poor crop one should sow again,” maybe next year’s crop will be a bumper crop.  It is worth being patient with many ingrates to find one grateful person.  “When the outcome of any undertaking is unsure, you must try again and again, so you may ultimately succeed.”

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Who truly benefits from our kindness?  “The reward for all virtues lies in the virtues themselves.”  Virtues do not seek recognition or plaques or even encouragement, “the wages of a good deed lie in the doing of the deed.  I am grateful, not so my neighbor should reward me for my act of kindness, but rather I am grateful to perform acts of loving kindness; I feel grateful, not to profit from my kindness, but for the pleasure of being kind.”

Seneca says, “Let us avoid being ungrateful, not for the sake of others but for our own sake.”  Likewise, Seneca warns, “evil drinks the largest portion of her own poison.”  “When we do wrong, only the least portion flows back upon our neighbor, the worst and densest portion blows back, troubling us instead.”  “The ungrateful man tortures and torments himself; he hates his gifts for he must return the favor, he tries to belittle their value, but when he does this he hurts himself instead.  What is more wretched than the man who forgets his benefits and clings to his injuries?”

The wise, on the other hand, are gracious, the wise look for the good, the wise are forgiving.  Those who are evil find fault with their neighbor but find excuses for their own faults, while those who seek to love their neighbor seek to see the good in their neighbor’s heart, excusing their faults, while searching their hearts and repenting of their shortcomings.  Seneca agrees, saying “wisdom lends grace to every benefit, and delights her soul by recollecting the benefit.”  But the wise man “takes delight not so much from receiving the gift as in having received it, and this joy never perishes, abiding always.  Though the wise man may despise the wrongs done to him, he forgets them, not accidentally, but voluntarily.  The wise man does not put a wrong construction upon everything, or seek someone to blame, but rather he ascribes even the sins of men to chance.  The wise man will not misinterpret a word or a look, he makes light of all mishaps by interpreting them in a generous way.  He does not remember the injury, rather, the wise man remembers the earlier and better deed,” except when the bad deeds totally overwhelm the good deeds.  The wise man lives a life of purposeful naivety.[1]

The best example is Joseph, whose brothers contemplating murdering him for the favor shown to him by Jacob, but who was sold into slavery in Egypt instead.  After suffering much he rose in power to be the viceroy to the Pharaoh.  Famine struck, no grain grew, the land was hungry, and the brothers traveled to Egypt to avoid starvation, not knowing Joseph’s fate.  Joseph did not reveal himself to his brothers and put them through many trials to see if they had repented of their great sin, and when they showed they had Joseph revealed himself, and they and their father settled in Egypt to escape the famine.

After some years their father died.  Scriptures tell us, “Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’  But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”[2]

The story has some wonderful details, Scriptures say Jesus wept for the widow’s departed son, and he wept for Lazarus.  Joseph wept when he first revealed himself to his brothers.  The most important detail is he was able to forgive them, and the story relates that he had a hard time forgiving them, for it is hard to forgive who tries to totally destroy your life, and he was able to forgive them because God intended it for good.

When someone causes us grievous harm rarely can we say that God intended it for good, but we can console ourselves that we were likely collateral damage, that they were really seeking retribution for harm done by evil men sometimes in their dark past, sometimes in the dark past of their parents or their parents’ parents, that somebody learned the wrong lesson, that you should not be purposely naïve, that you should seek to destroy others before they destroy you, that you should never be trusting, you should never let the guard of your heart down, that you should never accept or hand out love without recompense.  They hurt you today because somebody hurt them yesterday, or some time in the dark past dimly remembered.

Seneca has some rather brilliant thoughts in the last few paragraphs of this essay, but alas, I cannot parse certain meaning from several key sentences, their exact meaning is lost.  Does the problem lie with the translator, or with several centuries of copyists who garbled the text, or with Seneca, who may not have properly rendered his thoughts in this probable first draft of an epistle to a friend?  But we have a general sense of what he is trying to say.

We cannot expect recompense for doing what is right, or sometimes for even helping an acquaintance or a friend.  Indeed, sometimes we are not only recompensed or thanked for trying to help someone, sometimes we are persecuted, like the fool who feeds a bear, and is surprised when the bear mauls him when the food has all been eaten up.  Some people behave like our hungry bears, some people take and take and take from you and when you can give no more turn on you and try to destroy you like that hungry bear.  Some of these some people are as dimly aware as a hungry bear of their tendencies because the hard life they have lived has so harshly warped their self-worth that they do not fully realize how savage they have become.

When you do what is right, rather than expect a pat on the back or a reward or even recognition, and be not dismayed when your efforts are not appreciated, or when you are denigrated for your honest intentions, but rather be thankful when you are allowed to do what is right, but always be thankful for knowing what is right and doing it.

“The first and worst penalty of sin is to have committed sin,” and although the thief may grow rich through crime, though Fortune may protect the thief, “crime never goes unpunished, since the punishment lies in committing the crime itself,” for the criminal lives in “constant fear, constant terror,” never secure, never sleeping peacefully, always wakened by the pangs of conscience.  “Even men who hide their sins can never count on remaining hidden, for their conscience convicts them and reveals them to themselves.”[3]

“The worst punishment for crime lies in the crime itself.”[4]

This is best illustrated by a story told by Epictetus.  One night a thief stole his lamp one night.  The thief thought he got the best part, but actually Epictetus got the better end of the exchange.  For Epictetus only lost his lamp, but he kept his faith.  The man who stole his lamp, in exchange for the lamp he consented to become a thief, becoming faithless.[5]  Epictetus tells us further, “Forgiveness is better than revenge.  Forgiveness shows gentleness, revenge shows savagery.”[6]

“The soul is more powerful than Fortune, on its own the soul can produce a happy life or a wretched life.”  “A bad man makes everything bad, but an upright and honest man can correct the wrongs of Fortune, softening hardship and bitterness through endurance, accepting prosperity with appreciation and moderation, standing up to troubles with steadfastness and courage.”[7]

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[1] Seneca, “Moral Discourses,” in Stoic Six-Park – Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and More, translated by Richard Gummere, (Enhanced Media, 2014, first published 1925), Letter LXXXI, 386-391.


[3] Seneca, Moral Discourses, Letter XCVII, 477

[4] Seneca, Moral Discourses, Letter LXXXVIII, 416.

[5] Epictetus, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, in Stoic Six-Park – Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and More, translated by George Long, (Enhanced Media, 2014, first published 1925), Saying XII, p. 83.

[6] Epictetus, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, Saying XCVI, p. 108.

[7] Seneca, Moral Discourses, Letter XCVII, 477

About Bruce Strom 167 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.