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La Mettrie: Anti-Seneca

The following concludes a series of blogs dedicated to Julien de la Mettrie. Previous essays: An Epicurean System; The Canon; Against Creationism. This one focuses on his work titled “Anti-Seneca”.

While the Système d’Epicure focuses on the physics and was evidently influenced by Lucretius, Anti-Seneca embodies the ethics of La Mettrie and appears to be a response to Seneca’s On The Happy Life. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was an ancient Stoic philosopher and writer from the Roman province of Hispania.

In the initial portion of the work, La Mettrie begins his criticism of Seneca (and the Stoics) by saying:

They are all soul, ignoring their bodies; let’s be all body, ignoring our souls.

However, this must be understood as poetic language. A great part of La Mettrie’s intellectual legacy consists of studying the soul as a natural, physical part of our constitution, wholly embedded into the flesh. La Mettrie’s favoring the body over the soul reminded me of this quote from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra:

Once the soul looked contemptuously on the body, and then that contempt was the supreme thing: the soul wished the body meagre, ghastly, and famished. Thus it thought to escape from the body and the earth.

Oh, that soul was itself meagre, ghastly, and famished; and cruelty was the delight of that soul!

But ye, also, my brethren, tell me: What doth your body say about your soul? Is your soul not poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency?

La Mettrie locates many of the inherent tendencies of our character (melancholy, insight, tranquility, and happiness, among others) in the body. He says that much about what makes up our character is the result of our physical configuration, which we are born with.

Modern science of happiness research is still debating this issue, but some of the preliminary research seems to suggest that about 60 % of our happiness is up to nature–that is, genetics and environment–at least that’s what Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, claims. Other positive psychologists cite a 50/40/10 ratio where 50 % of our happiness is determined by genes, 40 % by our actions and attitudes (this includes what the ancient Epicureans knew as our “disposition”, of which we are in control), and they concede that 10 % depends on circumstances. This reminds us of Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, where he says that

… some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency.

While La Mettrie and Epicurus do not assign ratios, the idea here is similar. It would be imprudent to deny our facticity, the fact that so much of what makes up our lives was set from before our birth (necessity); and also, that life throws us challenges and difficulties from time to time (chance). And yet, philosophy teaches us that we are not only able but also responsible to sculpt our characters to more fully enjoy all the pleasures that nature easily makes available, in the same way that a lotus flower has the power to grow from out of the mud into the most fragrant and beautiful flower.

I’m convinced that it’s me who have taken the decision, and I exult in my liberty. Everyone of our freest actions are like these. An absolute and necessary determination pulls us along, we who would never opt for slavery. How mad we are! And all the more unhappy are we madmen for constantly castigating ourselves for failures where we have no power.

La Mettrie employs his qualified determinism (which allows for natural liberty and volition) in the service of the abolition of remorse–which he has added to fear of death and of the gods, and to limitless desires, as another one of the evils that we must banish in our souls in order to be able to better enjoy life.

I say “qualified determinism” because, while saying this, La Mettrie is arguing that, if wicked people are able to live happy lives without remorse, “it would take a rather bizarre and irrational person to refuse to accept that they could ever be happy“. La Mettrie wrote Anti-Seneca in defense of the thesis that happiness–particularly Epicurean, natural, fully embodied happiness–is possible, but only if we use philosophy to reduce the effects of culture and education, and avoid adding more prejudices and artificialities to the ones we have inherited. La Mettrie comes back again and again to the problem of education and how it interferes with our natural happiness. He is saying that, to some extent, happiness is made up of choices that a philosopher makes, together with a process of re-education of the character.

At one point in the book, La Mettrie nearly succumbs to a Cyrenaic type of hedonic solipsism, only to take us back to the study of nature. When La Mettrie says

Healthy or sick, awake or asleep, our imagination can make us glad.

he is echoing Epicurus’ retort against the Cyrenaics when he argued that the bodily pleasures and pains were more powerful than those of the mind. While Aristippus advised his followers to engage in a practice known as presentism, to be present to the pleasures of the moment, Epicurus told his followers that they could, in addition to that, engage in reminiscing past pleasures and anticipating future ones. In this way, they could abide in constant pleasures. In Principal Doctrine 20, he again taught that the mind (not the flesh) is able to grasp the limits of nature, and is therefore best equipped to procure pleasures.

La Mettrie also echoes Philodemus (for instance, in On Music) when he argues that reason must serve nature in aiding us to be happy. For instance, when discussing the need to remove the false opinions (added by “an all-too-onerous education”) that produce unwarranted remorse or guilt, he says:

No, I would like us to owe to reason what so many scoundrels owe to habit.

La Mettrie also paraphrases Vatican Saying 45, which says that “the study of nature does not make men productive of boasting“, when he says:

The fine knowledge on which our soul so liberally prides itself, does it more discredit than credit, by depriving it of what its acquisition presupposes.

In La Mettrie, this mockery of man’s pride is really a mockery of the hegemony of reason among the intellectual class. Like Nietzsche, he argues that men are not so rational, that reason merely rationalizes and masks the passions, often presenting them as virtues or hiding our ugliest instincts.

True philosophical education reconciles us with nature, but the education that arrogant people boast of typically is not of this kind. La Mettrie’s critique of virtue follows along the same lines: it distances people from nature, it’s artificial, and so it has no value. In A Few Days in Athens, this same idea is expressed:

Zeno hath his eye on man, I mine on men: none but philosophers can be stoics; Epicureans all may be.

This work, titled Anti-Seneca, was also titled “On Happiness” by the author, who believed that to speak against Seneca is to say something about happiness. We see a contrast between nature and culture expressed as Epicurean naturality and Stoic artificialness, of which the first is decidedly the one that brings true happiness. One of the central arguments of the entire book is, therefore, that education and culture (and reason) often tends to dismantle our initial, natural, innocent disposition, and that the study of true philosophy must restore this initial disposition (and must restore feeling).

While in paragraph 66 of Système d’Epicure, La Mettrie mentions in passing that he’s a Stoic only at the time of death, we find elsewhere in passage 74:

No, I shall not be the corrupter of that innate taste for life which we have, I shall not spread Stoicism’s dangerous poison on the fine days and even on the prosperity of our Luciliuses. On the contrary, I shall try to blunt life’s thorns if I cannot reduce their number, in order to increase the pleasure of gathering its roses. And I pray those who, due to a deplorably unfavourable organization, are dissatisfied with the world’s splendid spectacle, to stay here, for religion’s sake if they have no humanity or, which is grander, for humanity’s sake if they have no religion.

Anti-Seneca includes a passage on the pleasures of literature and the other intellectual pleasures.

Thinking is only another way of feeling: it’s a feeling that is withdrawn … To devote ourselves to reading and thinking about pleasant things is a way to implant a near-constant pleasant feeling in ourselves.

When addressing people with debauched tendencies, he tells them to “wallow like a pig, and you’ll be happy like one“. Later on, he explains that he is not encouraging evil:

I feel compassion for it, since I find its excuse in the organism itself, which as a rule is difficult and often impossible to tame.

La Mettrie then goes back to the idea that all the nerves have a rendez-vous point somewhere inside the brain, and that

… those whose nerves are most agreeably affected, no matter what causes it, are necessarily the happiest of all.

This is the trunk from which the branches of happiness sprout.

by which he intends to say that, not only is the soul physical, but the conditions that allow happiness are also physical and bodily.

La Mettrie closes Anti-Seneca with a comical mix of praise and insult for the Stoic thinker who is the subject of his treatise. The brilliance of this passage lies in that he is actually imitating many of the things he criticizes in Seneca, calling him an intellectual rather than a philosopher, and offering him a high dose of his own medicine and his own double-speech. Frankly, this passage is La Mettrie at his most deliciously smart-ass.

Anti-Seneca concludes by saying that each creature has its own share of happiness available to it according to its tendencies and its constitution.

While Anti-Seneca could have benefited from less verbosity, it has its brilliant and funny moments. This is a recommended essay if you’re interested in the centuries-old discussions and reproaches between Stoics and Epicureans.

Further Reading:

The essay reviewed above is part of the anthology The Hedonist Alternative: “Anti-Seneca” and Other Texts