Sail, therefore, not just past one insidious place because of its treacherous delights, but past every city. Be deaf to those who love you most of all; they good natured [bono animo] pray for the wrong sort [mala] of things on your behalf. And, if you would be happy [felix], entreat the gods that none of their fond desires for you may be brought to pass. What they wish to have upon you are not really good things; there is only one good, the cause and the main prop [firmamentum] of a happy life,-trust in oneself [sibi fidere].--Seneca, Letter 31
It is often the case that unsolicited advice from others is more informative about the person proffering the advice than the one receiving it. It can be allowed that practical wisdom may not be rare (even if as Seneca suggests in this letter it involves a certain skill or artistry [prudens atque artifex]), but that, in practice, other people tend not to see your circumstances with the clarity they deserve because it is your path to be trodden not theirs. This is familiar enough.
In our age of religious pluralism, it is not uncommon for an atheist, say, to receive well wishes by way of prayers to a deity. It does not take any effort to show gratitude and among friends to comment that even if the success of the procedure is doubted, the effort is appreciated and, when efficacious, the benefits welcomed. After all, we can all use all the help we can get when the sailing gets rough. (Seneca deliberately echoes Socrates's understanding of philosophers as the true sailors at Republic 488-9.)
Seneca, however, challenges us to reject, even actively challenge (at least with their gods!), other people's good wishes even prayers because they tend to desire the wrong sorts of things (success, beauty, money, etc.) for us. What we should desire is to become the kind of person that does honorable, enduring things; others have a tendency not to pray for that on our behalf.
And this gets me to the two radical thoughts lurking here. For one may well think surely the god(s) won't listen to and heed misguided prayers. And why is there even a need to ask the gods to ignore the wrong sort of prayers? And Seneca's answer is not to deny the power of the common gods, but to suggest that they don't know what's good for us. Rather, we ought to make ourselves happy [fac te ipse felicem] by doing the right sorts of things.
For, the point of the highest good is not to be a supplicant of the gods but to become godlike (or to be joined in fellowship with god) [incipis deorum socius esse, non supplex]. And to make clear what this entails, Seneca sketches the contours of what we may call (and I now get to the first of two radical things), a philosophical non-anthropomorphic (without beauty or violence) god: the highest and most powerful of beings, who is the true support of all things [deus ille maximus potentissimusque ipse vehit omnia.] With such an (philosophical) godly exemplar, we should turn ourselves into great souls who exhibit integrity and goodness [playing around a bit with animus, sed hic rectus, bonus, magnus]. I emphasize integrity because the highest good for Seneca is to be virtuous and have an internally harmonious and proportionate life [aequalitas ac tenor vitae per omnia consonans sibi] which relies on knowledge of human and divine things.
As an aside, Seneca quotes Virgil's Aeneid "et te quoque dignum/finge deo" to emphasize the point that we should model ourselves on a godly exemplar. He had used the same fragment in Letter 18. (There he had (recall my post) done so to illustrate the rejection of riches as fellowship with the gods.) Seneca hereby shows, without having to say it, that true philosophy needs to rely poetry when it teaches virtue. (He uses a passage in which Aeneas is being exhorted to emulate Hercules by humble Evander--the exact spot is where Rome's symbols of imperial might will stand.)
And, second, Seneca emphasize that each of us [e.g., a Roman knight just as well as into a freedman's son or a slave] can become godlike in this fashion. One can leap to the heights from the slums [Subsilire in caelum ex angulo licet].* For -- and here Seneca puts his own political career in its proper perspective -- human hierarchy is always and everywhere the offspring of human ambition and misdeeds [nomina ex ambitione aut iniuria nata].
Let me come to a close. Seneca poetically introduces his philosophical conception of God at the very moment when he rejects the very idea of any human exemplar to the best form of life. He does so, however, with a kind of anti-poetics, which anticipates Romans 9.21 (and, recall, Smith and Spinoza), because the god we must emulate is molded not from gold or silver, but clay. The point is to inspire us to become generous souls [Generosos animos] who promote noble causes through hard work. And to do this we must dare to be steadfast and turn our backs on the wisdom and wishes of crowds.
And, yet, by withdrawing from popular opinion, and inspiring heroic deeds, Seneca flirts with abjuring kindness and disowning gentle love. And so his prototype of self-reliance edges perhaps too closely to the sort of fanatic who shudders at human touch.
*Richard M. Gummere translates caelum as heaven and so one can leap to heaven. But this has unfortunate connotations in a Christian context.