How To Give (De Beneficiis) by Seneca: Summary & Notes

Front cover of How To Give (De Beneficiis) by Seneca.

In short

How To Give is a new translation of Seneca’s De Beneficiis, an essay dealing with generosity, gifts, and good deeds. Seneca argues that giving is at the core of society and human nature, and that generosity and gratitude are important virtues to cultivate. If you enjoy Seneca’s writing then this will be of interest to you as well. However, to me it’s not his strongest essay so if you’re new to Stoic literature it’s probably better to start with his other work (On the Shortness of Life for example).

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Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.

Seneca states that many of us simply don’t know how to give and receive. Often we don’t even select worthy recipients when we give something – in contrast to when we lend something, because in that case we spend time investigating the recipient in every detail.

“The fault lies not only in those who won’t even admit to a sense of gratitude, but also in ourselves. We find many ingrates, but we make more; we are sometimes harshly demanding and critical, sometimes flighty and regretful of our gift just after we give it, sometimes quarrelsome and prone to pick fights over tiny things. Thus, we ruin all sense of gratitude, not just after we give but even while we are giving.”

Gifts and good deeds

“Gifts and good deeds can’t be touched by the hand; they’re enacted in the mind. Between the product of giving and the gift itself lies a huge gulf. The gift is not the gold, or the silver, or any of those things we think most important; it’s the very intent of the one who gives.”

“It’s the ignorant who take note only of those things that meet their eyes, that can be passed down and owned, while giving little weight to that which is in fact dear and precious. The things we hold in our hands and see with our eyes, the things our desire fasten on, are frail; both Fortune and human wrongs can take them away. But a gift or good deed endures, even after the object, the vehicle through which it was given, has perished. It’s a virtuous act. No power can render it meaningless.”

“What then are gifts and good deeds? They’re generous acts, done in an eager and voluntary spirit, that bring joy, and also reap joy, from the act of giving. It doesn’t matter what’s done or given, but the attitude, since the gift is not the thing done or given, but lies in the heart of the one who does or gives.”

What should be given as a gift? Seneca’s hierarchy is 1) what’s needed, 2) what’s useful, and 3) what’s pleasing.

“All generosity is speedy. It’s natural to one who does something gladly to do it quickly. Whoever gives aid slowly, dragging it out from one day to the next, doesn’t give it from the heart. That person loses the two greatest things, time, and the demonstration of friendly intent. Wanting slowly is the sign of not wanting.”

“Compare the nature of both giver and receiver, and assess too the gift you will give, asking whether it’s too large or too small for the giver, and also whether the one on the receiving end will either disdain it or refuse the accept it.”

“[G]ifts are different; repaying them is just as crucial as not demanding repayment. The best sort of person gives freely, never makes demands, is delighted by returns, forgets what was given (honestly and truly), and takes payback in the spirit of one accepting a gift.”


What makes people ungrateful? Seneca gives several reasons:

“All people judge themselves generously. That leads them to believe that they deserve everything, to accept gifts as though receiving payments, and to consider their worth undervalued.”

“Second, it’s greed that prevents people from feeling grateful. What’s been given never lives up to our wanton hopes. We want more the more has come our way. Greed becomes much more virulent when focused on collecting great wealth, just as the strength of a flame becomes immeasurably fiercer, the greater the blaze from which it leaps forth.”

“Similarly, ambition won’t let us rest content with out quantity of honors, even if that amount meets what we once, immodestly, wished for. We give no thanks for a tribuneship, but instead complain that we weren’t advanced to the praetorship; and this won’t do, if there’s no consulship; and not even a consulship satisfies, if there’s only one. Greed keeps reaching even farther, not comprehending its own happiness, since it looks only to where it’s heading, not where it came from.”

“Then there’s jealousy, an evil more powerful and insistent than all these. It deranges us with comparisons: “He gave to me, but gave more to him, and gave sooner to him.” Jealousy never speaks on behalf of another, but promotes its own cause ahead of all.”

Accepting gifts

When receiving a gift the first question is: do you accept it or not? If you decide to accept “we should do so cheerfully, expressing our joy in a way that the givers can’t miss, so they’ll get an immediate reward. It’s a righteous source of happiness to see a friend made happy, and even more righteous to have made him so.”

“There are other factors that strip good deeds, sometimes even very great ones, from our minds, but the foremost and most influential is that we’re preoccupied by fresh desires and look to what we want, not what we have. Reaching out for the next acquisition makes the one in your home seem worthless. It follows that, if desire for new things makes what you’ve gotten seem trivial, the one who helped you get it won’t be appreciated. We adore and admire our benefactors, and declare that our entire condition is due to them, so long as the things we sought continue to please us.”

Why give?

“Why does one give? In order not to fail to give, not to lose the chance of doing good.”

“Other creatures have enough strength for their own protection; those born to be rovers, destined for a solitary life, have been armed with defenses, but only a frail layer of skin cloaks humankind. We possess no strength of claw or fang to frighten other creatures. Naked and weak, we have only fellowship for protection.”

“Let’s give, even if much that we give ends up useless. Let’s give to other nonetheless; let’s give even to those who caused our losses. Collapse never stopped anyone from raising up houses, and, when fire has consumed everything, down to the shrines of the gods, we lay foundations on the still-smoldering ground and commit new cities to the same soil where others sank.”

“[T]he reward of all virtues is in the virtues themselves. They are not practiced according to a price chart. The payment for having done a virtuous deed is that you have done it.”

“You’ll meet no one who wouldn’t prefer to enjoy the rewards of wickedness if he could do so without being wicked. We have from nature this greatest award of all: Virtue casts its light into the souls of all people, and those who do not follow it, see it nonetheless.”

“For if moral evil makes people unhappy, and virtue makes them happy, and to be grateful is a virtue, then you’ve made return of an ordinary thing but obtained an invaluable one: the consciousnesses of gratitude, which enters only into the divine and blessed mind.”

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