valuing people for what is internal not external

letter XLI to lucilius from seneca has this passage that really resonated with me:

For what is more foolish than to praise in a man the qualities which come from without? And what is more insane than to marvel at characteristics which may at the next instant be passed on to someone else? A golden bit does not make a better horse. The lion with gilded mane, in process of being trained and forced by weariness to endure the decoration, is sent into the arena in quite a different way from the wild lion whose spirit is unbroken; the latter, indeed, bold in his attack, as nature wished him to be, impressive because of his wild appearance, – and it is his glory that none can look upon him without fear, – is favoured in preference to the other lion, that languid and gilded brute.

No man ought to glory except in that which is his own. We praise a vine if it makes the shoots teem with increase, if by its weight it bends to the ground the very poles which hold its fruit; would any man prefer to this vine one from which golden grapes and golden leaves hang down? In a vine the virtue peculiarly its own is fertility; in man also we should praise that which is his own. Suppose that he has… a beautiful house, that his farm is large and large his income; none of these things is in the man himself; they are all on the outside. Praise the quality in him which cannot be given or snatched away, that which is the peculiar property of the man.

i think what i really like about seneca’s letters to lucilius are the simple way that he expressed big truths. this insight, for example, isn’t a new point. in fact, it aligns with most of my christian upbringing where possessions are perceived as a liability. Jesus himself tells people that some of them are actually hindered on getting into heaven because they have too much stuff:

Truly I tell you, it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” —Jesus

but what seneca’s phrasing adds to it (which the bible says, just in other places and not that same passage) is that it’s ones internal characteristics that should be celebrated and praised. if our society could get a real handle on that truth, we’d be such a different reality.

on a similar note, my friend caroline, i were talking the other day and she came to a similar conclusion though from a different angle. she’s had a really tough year. when we were chatting she said something like: “at some point in life, everything external that we have will be stripped away or taken from us (if we don’t die first, which is the ultimate stripping). and yet, who we really are still exists in those moments of having almost everything taken away.”

both of these insights have reminded me this week that what’s internal is more important than what’s external. as much as society repeatedly tells us that material possessions matter, they really just don’t.

writing: 9:34
spell-check, link-finding, & formatting: 8:02