The Exercise of the Mind

“I think to myself how many men exercise their bodies, and how few their intellects; what a great gathering there is to see an unreliable show put on in play, and what a great isolation around the noble arts; how weak in mind are the fellows whose arms and muscles we admire.  And I am brooding in particular over the question: if the body can be led on by exercise to such endurance that it will bear the fists and kicks of more than one opponent, endurance in which a man spends the day suffering the most burning sun in scorching dust and soaked in his own blood.  How much more easily the mind could be strengthened to take the blows of Fortune unbeaten, to rise when cast down and trampled on.  For the body needs many things to be strong, whereas the mind grows from itself, feeds itself, and exercises itself.  They need great quantities of food and drink and great quantities of oil and finally prolonged effort.  Virtue will come to you and without equipment or expense.  Whatever can make you a good man is there in you.” Seneca, Letter 80 in Seneca: Selected Letters, trans. Elaine Fantham (Oxford 2010), p. 142. [Emphasis added]

In this letter Seneca compares and contrasts the exercise of the body for the physical exercise of boxing-match with the exercise of the mind through study of the arts.  While the former prepares one to physically defeat an opponent, the latter trains the soul toward virtue.  If an athlete can train his body to perform in physical contests under difficult circumstances, the intellectual may exercise her mind through the noble arts to overcome Fortune’s blows.  For Seneca, in this manner, the anyone could attain true freedom thought virtue.

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