The trait of self-sufficiency was one that I always admired, so I felt a sense of affirmation when I read in Seneca’s letters that the good life was comprised of self-sufficiency and tranquility. Although he lists those two things separately, self-sufficiency is actually a large, necessary cause of tranquility (which is the end goal. See earlier post On Tranquility).
There are two kinds of self-sufficiency: one pertaining to the outside world and the other to the inner world of the mind. The first kind is practical and physical and means, basically, being able to take matters into your own hands effectively. I might revere that trait because I am an American and admire the iconic pioneer who set out in a covered wagon entirely self-sufficient. Of course, importing that image into the modern world too literally can lead to Jeremiah Johnson delusions: people who think they have to hunt animals, inflicting pain and suffering–as if those acts were part of any meaningful self-provision or necessity and not just plain old cruelty. For physical self-sufficiency, the paradigm for me is Aaron Ralston. Not only does he navigate in the wilderness, but, when all else fails, he cuts off his own arm, rappels down the side of a mountain, and survives.
Aside from self-sufficiency in the physical, outside world, self-sufficiency in the inner realm has even greater relevance for current, everyday life and is the trait which Seneca praised–a mind that can abide itself when left to itself. That means having inner resources, such that your tranquility is not dependent on the outside world. Seneca observed: “A man is happy when no circumstance can reduce him; he keeps to the heights and uses no buttress but himself, for a man sustained by a bolster is liable to fall. If this is not so, then many factors outside ourselves will begin to have power over us.” One such outside influence that we should not be dependent upon if we are to maintain our tranquility is the opinion of others. Trust to your own reason. First of all, who says that such and such other person, or group of people, is right or worthwhile. Seneca warned about heeding the mob: “It is so easy to go over to the majority. Neither become like the bad because they are many, nor hostile to the many because they are different. Retire into yourself, as far as you can. The many admire you, but do you have grounds for self-satisfaction if you are the kind of man the many understand? Your merits should face inward.” It is against the backdrop of inner self-sufficiency that Seneca offered one of my favorite phrases, which I have quoted before: “Do not ask why you learned these things; you did it for yourself.” And he reminded one of his followers of the aphorism of another philosopher, that no number of readers is necessary for a writer or thinker to be self-satisfied: “Few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.”
Even if achieving mental self-sufficiency may be challenging, is it harder than physical self-sufficiency? Regardless, it is a worthy and helpful goal to avoid being elevated or cast down by every wind that blows, since winds are always blowing. Given that the power to reason is our special gift, why sacrifice it to emotion or to others to define us or think for us. Jeremiah Johnson finds his own food, Aaron Ralston his way out of the canyon, and we our own self-worth and tranquility.