Seneca’s Call to Live Well

Seneca (ca. 4 BC–AD 65) is my favorite thinker studied in Core Philosophy at Concordia University Irvine. Alas, he also comes at the end of the semester, and I rarely have a chance to marinate in his work for as long as I’d like. Seneca isn’t just concerned with bare concepts; he’s interested in how ideas help us cope with this complex and sometimes maddening world. He also tells students (and professors) to remember to live while they have the chance. We read selections from his Epistles on Virtue and Vice, including a letter entitled, “On the True Joy which Comes from Philosophy (XXIII).” His epistle’s closing line is memorable:

“Some men only begin to live when it is time for them to leave off living. And if this seems surprising to you, I shall add that which will surprise you still more: Some men have left off living before they have begun. Farewell.”

So, how does Seneca think we should live? To fully understand the answer to that question, one must read the rest of his letters.  But here we have a sign pointing in the right direction.

Studying the big questions of intellectual history—as we do through conversations in the Core at Concordia—we turn not simply to skills that will help us acquire the things we need to survive and live comfortably.  Instead, we learn to cultivate virtue.

Virtue—and understand the term here to involve personal integrity and living faithfully—is the only thing the powers of this world can’t wrest from us. Even the most successful employees can get fired unjustly. The most creative writers and artists can be misunderstood. Significant discoveries can be overlooked. People can slander us. But, for Seneca, virtue is its own reward.

Students need to hear this as they scramble to make their way in our volatile economy. In such a world, students who merely seek professional success are subject to market changes beyond their control or even our ability to predict. What goes unchanged is the need for critical thinkers, creative leaders, and cultural heroes who can respond to economic and cultural fluctuations.

The Wall Street Journal noted this fact a few years ago in an article on how solid liberal arts universities can be more rewarding in such a climate than elite schools. Seneca himself once told a young man that one can be a philosopher without prestigious pedigrees. Nonetheless, a well-conceived university is a great place for exploring these themes.

We must remember what a blessing it is that God has allowed our age to see so many students entering higher education. But what are we teaching?

Are we teaching students how to survive, or how to live well? Are we teaching students merely how to make enough money that they can retire at 65 and only then begin to live? Or, are we teaching students to live well now?

I remain ever thankful for the opportunity to work with students in Concordia’s Core toward the goal of beginning to live well, and with integrity, starting in their freshman year. As we do this, we might listen to a biblical philosopher: “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment” (Ecclesiastes 11:9 ESV). May our students find deep joy in their studies, and may their studies ever lead them to lives of creativity and excellence.

Jeff Mallinson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Concordia University Irvine