Seneca on Crowds

I’m back with another article on one of my favorite all time hypocrites, Seneca. There is a lot of irony in this letter on crowds. If you dig deeper on Seneca, mostly reading what his contemporaries thought about him, especially other stoic philosophers than you are well aware of all the contradictions between what this letter teaches and how the teacher himself acted. I will not get too much into that. If you want to know more, you just have to look at a few biographies on him, or check up the History of Literature podcasts on Seneca.

He starts the letter with:

YOU ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd. It is something to which you cannot entrust yourself yet without risk. I at any rate am ready to confess my own frailty in this respect. I never come back home with quite the same moral character I went out with; something or other becomes unsettled.

You can argue, in a sense, that we humans are a simple input output machine. Crowds can really overload our input. There is also a tendency of us humans, to accept opinion, or give more credibility to opinion that is presented in a highly emotional tone. Peer pressure also, be it when we are still young, or later in life, influences us greatly. There is a lot of reflexive thought, action and conclusion that is going on within us in any given moment. Seneca was aware of all that. But most of all, he was aware of just how weak he really was. And we all need to remember that. We are all weak, but that’s ok. To remedy our weaknesses, and to better our chances of succumbing to mass hysteria or delusion, you need to minimize your exposure to such a emotion driven mass of people, who are totally dogmatic in their ways. If you still have to be around people like that, be sure to do your homework. Come prepared. Be educated on given issues, so that you do not get swayed easily. Wind can blow in a variety of ways, but if you become solid enough it will not matter to you.

Later he remarks :

But nothing is as ruinous to the character as sitting away one’s time at a show – for it is then, through the medium of entertainment, that vices creep into one with more than usual ease.

This is certainly a overgeneralization. But, there is truth there as well. When we are relaxed, when our rational faculties are off somewhere else, and we are totally engaged at something that can bring a change in behavior. But they aren’t really that drastic as he makes it out to be. If Seneca lived today, he would be one of those people who would try to ban First Person Shooters, or any other game that has violent elements to it, thinking that young people will emulate such behaviors to a large degree. Here he underestimates people, and their ability to dissociate themselves from the spectacle that they participate in. Why does he do that? Well, to me it seems like he is making global conclusions based on his inward feelings and thoughts. Seneca was a weak person, and feared the majority of others were as well.

Towards the end of the letter he concludes:

▪ Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.

Our surroundings play a major role in who we are and who we might be in the future. To be live is to change. One of the best ways to change properly, according to Seneca is to learn from those who are worthy teachers. But he is also an optimist about the chances of the average person, living a full life and learning something along the way. Listen to yourself when you are alone and try to figure out why it is that you do what you do in a given situation. But also be open-minded, have ideas, not ideals. And finally, be generous with your time, compassion, be precise with your advice when the opportunity for ti presents itself.

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