On the Value of Human Connection: A Review of Seneca and Sandel

The Restoration of Nero and Seneca by Eduardo Barrón - Museo Nacional del  Prado
Nero and Seneca by Eduardo Barrón (Credit: Museo del Prado)


On Benefits by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (trans. Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood)

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel

When the ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca set out to write his various works of philosophy, it’s unlikely that he could have even imagined the world as it would be two millennia hence. But as an astute observer of the human condition, Seneca probably could have predicted that we’d be dealing with many of the same enduring facets of human nature that he saw in his day and age. That’s readily apparent when reading Seneca’s treatise On Benefits alongside the contemporary academic philosopher Michael Sandel’s recent book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Despite myriad differences in time and place, both philosophers stress the paramount value of basic human connection for both individuals and society writ large. They both make strong cases that transactional ways of thinking about life corrupt and corrode these connections in ways that eat away at the foundations of shared social life. When transactional and pecuniary mindsets take hold, they argue, we cannot build the sort of intimate personal relationships we crave as individuals or forge the social bonds necessary to pursue the common good. Taken together, these two philosophers remind us that precious little good comes our way when we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

In his aptly-titled critique, Sandel offers the persuasive and damning argument that we’ve let market and financial thinking crowd out our individual and collective senses moral reasoning. He describes it as a form of pervasive moral corruption that defines our age and leaves us unable to talk meaningfully about the things that truly matter in life. As Sandel makes clear, notions of the common good and other values that money can’t buy persist despite the omnipresence of transactional and financial considerations across society. Through a number of intriguing and compelling examples – the story of a Swiss village that voted against hosting a nuclear waste site when offered financial inducements stands out – he shows how the actions of actual human beings in the real world confound the confident predictions of market theorists. 

This forceful broadside is principally valuable for its clear and convincing moral argument against the intrusion of market logic and financial incentives into every nook and cranny of our personal and public lives. But Sandel sticks mainly to criticism, more concerned with putting market thinking in its proper place and shaking us out of our intellectual complacency than anything else. The case for the common good is present, but Sandel makes it only indirectly and in relief. It’s largely eclipsed by his acute critique of market logic, and in that sense Sandel ironically winds up recapitulating his own case.

Still, Sandel does put his finger directly one of the major challenges of our time. His line of reasoning obliges us to recognize that there are, in fact, things that money can’t – and shouldn’t – buy. As he points out, most if not all of the things that truly matter in life derive their value from the meaning they hold for us and the relationships they embody rather than the price that can be put on them. Intimate relationships with other people – whether friends or romantic partners – rely on beliefs, ideas, and attitudes that can’t be reduced to the transactional logic of the marketplace. “A hired friend,” Sandel notes, “is not the same as a real one.” 

Diagnosing this challenge amounts to a service in and of itself. Sandel opens the door to a wider discussion and lays out the stakes in a clear and concise fashion. But he doesn’t presume to engage in that discussion here, and we have to look elsewhere to find fuller exploration of the ideas he articulates so well.

Fortunately, we have Seneca and his treatise On Benefits to help us dig deeper. For Seneca, benefits represent more than a simple exchange of gifts or favors; they offer crucial insights into human nature. Properly understood, benefits reveal the indispensable role of basic human connection plays in our individual and social lives. Indeed, these connections all but comprise the cement that holds society together. It’s no surprise, then, that Seneca considers “our ignorance of how to give and receive benefits” to be the most harmful of the “wide range of mistakes made by those who live recklessly and without reflection.”

Like Sandel, Seneca harshly criticizes transactional attitudes toward life and human relationships. “No one records benefits in an account book,” he writes, “and then, like a greedy collection agent, demands payment at a set day and time.” According to Seneca, this perspective views benefits as mere loans to be called in when needed or deemed appropriate. It sees human relationships as commodities to be bartered for social advancement, a way to climb the next rung on a social or professional ladder. At best, however, this back-scratching attitude profoundly misconstrues the true nature of benefits. As Seneca reminds us, “The most important things in life cannot be repaid.”

But Seneca is more intent on establishing a full and deep account of the nature and purpose of benefits; his philosophical enterprise goes well beyond Sandel’s in scope and ambition. So what counts as a benefit in Seneca’s eyes? For him, many things define a benefit – none of them material. It “is not the gold, the silver, or any of the other things which are thought to be most important; rather, the benefit is the intention of the giver.” They’re more than that, however: benefits are “a correct deed” that “no violence can nullify,” “a well-intentioned action that confers joy and in so doing derives joy,” and “something to be chosen for its own sake,” among other things.

By Seneca’s lights, then, benefits only occur when they are conceived, given, and received in the right spirit. They embody relationships between individuals, and transcend whatever material form they may take. We bestow benefits when we give to others willingly and with good intentions, seeking nothing but good intentions in return. When recipients accept what they’re given “with a kindly attitude,” they have repaid us and vice versa. It is not simply the exchange itself but the nature of the connection that’s forged between individuals that makes a benefit. In other words, the benefit itself resides in the meanings we confer on it through our intentions in both giving and receiving.

It’s for this reason that Seneca considers benefits to be indispensable to social life. Through “the supreme delight of merely doing good,” the giving and receiving of benefits fosters the individual and civic virtues that make society possible. A transactional approach to life dominated by self-seeking and ingratitude, Seneca tells us, “dissolves and disrupts” the essential human connections and relationships that allow for even a modicum of a shared social life. “Only one thing,” he writes, “protects our lives and fortifies them against sudden attacks: the exchange of benefits.”

That’s because without benefits and the social solidarity they promote – what Seneca terms “fellowship” – individuals would be left to fend for themselves in a brutal and hostile world. Bound together in fellowship by benefits, however, humanity can fend off disease, old age, and other vagaries of fortune. “Remove fellowship,” Seneca warns, “and you will destroy the unity of mankind on which our life depends.” When we transform benefits into commodities, we don’t just spoil the inherent value of the benefits themselves and demean the human connections they express – we sever the social ties that bind us all together.

There’s much more philosophical ground to cover in On Benefits, but the core of Seneca’s argument rests on the supreme value of human connection in our individual and social lives. Benefits, as Seneca understands them, amount to the most visible – and therefore most important – manifestation of these relationships. Moreover, they’re a potent reminder of our shared humanity. Without an accurate appraisal of their significance to society at large, we devalue benefits and the connections they represent at our own individual and collective peril. Put simply, our shared social life cannot exist in the absence of benefits.

It’s a thesis that’s very much in accord with the more narrow arguments made by Sandel in What Money Can’t Buy. Indeed, Sandel echoes Seneca’s emphasis on the proper understanding of gifts in romantic relationships and friendships. He writes that giving gifts to a romantic partner or friend “engages and connects with the recipient, in a way that reflects a certain intimacy.” Like Seneca, Sandel worries that the intrusion of transactional market logic into parts of life it does not belong erodes our ability to “share in a common life” and come to mutual agreement as to what constitutes the common good.

The fact that Sandel can express many of the same concerns Seneca did two millennia ago testifies to the persistence of basic aspects of human nature across space and time. Most notably, for both philosophers basic human connections assume vital importance. That’s largely implicit in Sandel, though occasionally explicit and often present as a background assumption. It’s shot through On Benefits and, for that matter, the rest of Seneca’s body of philosophical work. After all, humanity’s social nature (along with our capacity for reason) remains a central tenet of the Stoic philosophy Seneca practiced. 

But Seneca and, to a lesser extent, Sandel both also speak to humanity’s constant struggle against our own worst instincts and intentions – in particular our misguided tendency to reduce life to material transactions and financial incentives. Seneca, for one, isn’t surprised by this propensity to succumb to such erroneous impressions; as he notes toward the end of On Benefits, ingratitude “is so commonplace that even those who complain about it fall prey to it.” That’s no excuse for failing to bestow benefits, however. “Let us give,” Seneca advises, “even if many of our gifts are in vain.”

In the end, both Seneca and Sandel remind us individuals and societies require more than material incentives and financial logic to succeed. They both call us to think more clearly and carefully about the what really matters in life: our connections and relationships with our fellow human beings.