Interplanetary colonization? Seneca advices against it

Massimo Pigliucci
Mar 26 · 6 min read

When I was a kid I was fascinated by astronomy, and particularly planetology, the study of the atmospheres, geologies, and — possibly — biologies of other planets in the solar system (extrasolar planets where yet to be discovered). And of course I was also attracted by science-based speculation about the possibility of colonizing, terraforming, even, places like Mars, or some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Despite loud pronouncements to the contrary by Elon Musk, we are still nowhere near sending people to the Red Planet, and it isn’t at all clear whether that would be a good idea anyway. (Full disclosure: my opinion of Musk is fairly low, at least after his encounter with Diogenes the Cynic…) Interestingly, the first century Stoic philosopher Seneca would probably advice against moving to Mars, and for good reasons. Let me explain.

Seneca’s 104th letter to his friend Lucilius is entitled “On care of health and peace of mind,” and it contains a number of passages where Seneca is skeptical of the common notion that if one has problems one should escape to a different place, at least temporarily, to take a break and see things differently.

The letter begins with Seneca telling Lucilius that — against the advice of his wife Paulina — he has run off to his villa in Nomentum (modern Mentana, 18 miles northeast of Rome). He went there because his health was deteriorating, and he was convinced that getting out of the city would do him good. It worked: walking in his vineyards and eating in a more healthy fashion did the trick, and Seneca reports: “I am my old self again, feeling now no wavering languor in my system, and no sluggishness in my brain. I am beginning to work with all my energy.” (CIV.6)

Immediately after, however, he tells Lucilius that travel is not a cure for every disease, particularly if the disease is of the mind, not the body:

“Socrates is reported to have replied, when a certain person complained of having received no benefit from his travels: ‘It serves you right! You traveled in your own company!’ O what blessing it would be for some to wander away from themselves! As it is, they cause themselves vexation, worry, demoralization, and fear! What profit is there in crossing the sea and in going from one city to another? If you would escape your troubles, you need not another place, but another personality. Perhaps you have reached Athens, or perhaps Rhodes; choose any state you fancy, how does it matter what its character may be? You will be bringing to it your own.” (CIV.7–8)

I just love this passage. It’s insightful and deliciously ironic. The point actually reminds me of one of my favorite Italian novels, The Late Mattia Pascal, by Luigi Pirandello, in which the protagonist has a chance to completely start over because, due to a misunderstanding, everyone thinks he’s dead. He moves to Rome, where he begins a new life with a new identity. But of course, just as Socrates and Seneca say, he is still the same person, and he begins to entangle himself in the same ways he had done before. Apparently not having learned the lesson, he decides to fake his death and return to his previous life. A plan that in turn miserably fails, leaving Mattia outside of society, estranged from everyone who had known him and cared for him.

Seneca continues:

“What benefit has travel by itself ever been able to give anyone? … Traveling cannot give us judgment, or shake off our errors; it merely holds our attention for a moment by a certain novelty, as children pause to wonder at something unfamiliar.” (CIV.13)

Notice the caveat “by itself” at the beginning of the quote. Obviously, travel does provide some benefits. Seneca himself began the letter by acknowledging that moving away from Rome had improved his health. In fact, health-related travel had saved his life already when he was in his mid-twenties and suffered from what was probably tuberculosis. He was sent by his family to live with his aunt in Egypt, where he recovered over the course of a decade.

And of course traveling in order to satisfy one’s curiosity about other peoples and places and to learn about them is also a very reasonable motive to spend some time away from home. Indeed, Seneca says this much at CIV.15, adding “But this sort of information will not make better or sounder persons of us.”

He then returns to his main point:

“Indeed, as long as you are ignorant of what you should avoid or seek, or of what is necessary or superfluous, or of what is right or wrong, you will not be traveling, but merely wandering. There will be no benefit to you in this hurrying to and fro; for you are traveling with your emotions and you are followed by your afflictions. … It is medicine, not scenery, for which the sick person must go a-searching.” (CIV.16–17)

The medicine in question, of course, is philosophy, the only rational guide to what is right or wrong, necessary or superfluous, to be avoided or to be sought. One way to apply this medicine, Seneca tells us, is to take a hard look at the company we keep. If we hang around with a hangman, he says, we will not get rid of our cruelty; and if our friends include an adulterer, that’s not going to be helpful if we want to overcome our own lust. And this advice goes beyond people with actually frequent, to include what we read (or, nowadays, watch). Seneca suggests reading Socrates, Zeno, or Chrysippus, so that we may get some help reflecting on whatever issues trouble us while we are trying to figure out the best way forward.

Now, what does any of the above have to do with Mars? It depends on why we contemplate going to the Red Planet. If it is for curiosity, to learn about the universe, then this is certainly something that travel can do for us — though a number of scientists have been arguing that automated missions are far safer and just as efficient as human ones, if the goal truly is scientific exploration (which, famously, was not the case in the only other instance so far of human space missions to another planet: the Moon race).

But if we are going to Mars because we want to start a new life afresh, leaving behind a planet that we have raped and brought to the brink of environmental collapse, then Seneca’s warning is very apt indeed: we travel with ourselves, and unless we have addressed our problems, we bring them with us, simply transferring them to the new place, as Mattia Pascal discovered at the end of Pirandello’s novel.

Interestingly, I’m writing this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when pretty much no one can travel because of obvious public health related reasons. So I wonder if this isn’t a particularly good time to pick up Socrates, or Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius, or Epictetus. Read these philosophers — and many others, Stoic or not — with the aim of improving yourself as a human being. Once the emergency will be over, you’ll be able to travel with renewed peace and clarity of mind, going places not in order to find yourself, but so that you may learn from others and help make the world a better place.


A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in…

Massimo Pigliucci

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Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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