When I think about my personal development over the last few months (very little), letter five is quite challenging. The recipient undergoes daily study and sacrifice to make himself a better man. Seneca thinks that this is great as long as it is not done for gaining the attention of others. He is very strong on the idea of doing things for our own internal pleasure - its something that is a lot easier said than done.
From my own experience I think that the only self-sustaining learning process is one that gives me internal pleasure and largely ignores what other people think of it. I am reminded of my idea that involved learning how to use Primervia - a work scheduling software for the construction industry - in order to have a better looking CV. Predictably the learning spurt lasted all of three days and died.
Seneca then rounds on the Amish, the Hippies and Gothic types by lampooning the idea of having an outspoken outer display, which he calls a misguided means to self-advertisement. He actually recommends outward conformity and inward nonconformity. This inward revolution will not sell any Che Cavargo tee shirts, hemp ponchos are not involved, and fifteen century Amish trouser arrangements will not be necessary. Seneca recommends a way of life that is better than the mob - he uses philosophy (a reflective view on life) for better living. We have talked about maximising mediocristan and making the most of the ordinary - this really fits in with this vein of thought.
Seneca sees the first promise of philosophy as being the feeling of fellowship and belonging to mankind and being members of a community. In the past I have approached learning and reflections on life with the idea that I will become an enlightened human and enter the top 20% of humanity - its an arrogant way of looking at things. I think what Seneca is saying here is that, if the battle is internal (on our own terms), we dont feel as judged or make judgements about other people. This allows us to enjoy the diversity of society a lot more and feel part of it. Buckle may wear dreadlocks and not eat meat, but I can just enjoy his company and not worry about on which side I stand on his position.
Seneca puts a lot of weight on the perception that other people have of our lives. He is more concerned with helping people through a good example then looking good for the sake of social value. He says that the goal is not to be so beyond the mob so that they cannot appreciate how they themselves can get there. The idea is that we must live in harmony with nature - the general direction of society at large is also directed by nature (or at least a force beyond our power so much that it might as well be nature), therefore there is no point in going against the mob - its better to live well within it. This is a very humble stance to take, and one of the points that made me enjoy this letter so much.
Seneca ends the letter with a section about the link between hope and fear. Cease to hope and you will cease to fear. Hope and fear are obviously important human emotions, but Seneca thinks that they should be limited to the present as much as possible. When hope and fear are introduced to looking into the future in large quantities, there tends to be a lot of anxiety attached to it. The ability of foresight and memory are humanitys greatest blessings and curses. The process of evolution did not give a shit about personal happiness - the people who used these abilities the best survived, regardless of the personal toll that it takes on us. Memory can easily allow us to remember past fears long after they happened, while foresight allows us to worry about things that have not happened. As Seneca says, no one confines his unhappiness to the present.