Seneca was a Roman highborn who studied law before launching a successful career as a statesman. He escaped execution twice by order of Roman emperors, but did have to endure an exile to Corsica. He was recalled back to tutor Nero and was said to be responsible for his most temperate side before the emperor went fully mad. A plot to kill Nero was uncovered and Seneca was wrongly included in the ensuing purge. He was ordered to commit suicide, which he did by cutting his wrists.
The amount of wealth he accumulated made him one of the richest men of his times, leading some of his modern-day critics to wonder how stoic he really was. They argue that he did not practice what he preached and lived in ravishing opulence that was a direct contradiction to the philosophy he taught. Should we place more weight to his teachings above that of other stoics such as Epictetus, who did practice what he preached? That’s a hard question to answer, but one does pick up on him expounding on all the lessons he learned after living in vice. When thinking of Seneca, the following quote comes to my mind: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Whether he lived ideally or not, Seneca’s wisdom can help us greatly today.
The philosophy of Stoicism can be summed up in the Serenity prayer, devised by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who must’ve been familiar with stoicism.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I’ll let Seneca explain stoicism further through his own words below.
What is stoicism?
Only the wise man is content with what is his. All foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself.
It is man’s duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, bringing his life into line with ‘nature’s laws’, and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him. Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true, unshakeable peace and contentment to which ambition, luxury and above all avarice are among the greatest obstacles.
The place one’s in, though, doesn’t make any contribution to peace of mind: it’s the spirit that makes everything agreeable to oneself. I’ve seen for myself people sunk in gloom in cheerful and delightful country houses, and people in completely secluded surroundings who looked as if they were run off their feet.
…cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do.
It is essential to make oneself used to putting up with a little. Even the wealthy and the well provided are continually met and frustrated by difficult times and situations. It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way. And a stomach firmly under control, one that will put up with hard usage, marks a considerable step towards independence.
To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life travelling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships. The same must be the case with people who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, paying flying visits to them all. Food that is vomited up as soon as it is eaten is not assimilated into the body and does not do one any good; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent changes of treatment; a wound will not heal over if it is being made the subject of experiments with different ointments; a plant which is frequently moved never grows strong.
When a person is following a track, there is an eventual end to it somewhere, but with wandering at large there is no limit. So give up pointless, empty journeys, and whenever you want to know whether the desire aroused in you by something you are pursuing is natural or quite unseeing, ask yourself whether it is capable of coming to rest at any point; if after going a long way there is always something remaining farther away, be sure it is not something natural.
How can novelty of surroundings abroad and becoming acquainted with foreign scenes or cities be of any help? All that dashing about turns out to be quite futile. And if you want to know why all this running away cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company. You have to lay aside the load on your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you.
What good has travel of itself ever been able to do anyone? It has never acted as a check on pleasure or a restraining influence on desires; it has never controlled the temper of an angry man or quelled the reckless impulses of a lover; never in fact has it rid the personality of a fault. It has not granted us the gift of judgement, it has not put an end to mistaken attitudes. All it has ever done is distract us for a little while, through the novelty of our surroundings, like children fascinated by something they haven’t come across before.
…travel won’t make a better or saner man of you. For this we must spend time in study and in the writings of wise men, to learn the truths that have emerged from their researches, and carry on the search ourselves for the answers that have not yet been discovered. This is the way to liberate the spirit that still needs to be rescued from its miserable state of slavery.
All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re traveling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way. If only they were really following you! They’d be farther away from you: as it is they’re not at your back, but on it! That’s why they weigh you down with just the same uncomfortable chafing wherever you are. It’s medicine, not a particular part of the world, that a person needs if he’s ill. Suppose someone has broken his leg or dislocated a joint; he doesn’t get into a carriage or board a ship: he calls in a doctor to have the fracture set or the dislocation reduced. Well then, when a person’s spirit is wrenched or broken at so many points, do you imagine that it can be put right by a change of scenery, that that sort of trouble isn’t so serious that it can’t be cured by an outing?
Fear keeps pace with hope. Nor does their so moving together surprise me; both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present. Thus it is that foresight, the great blessing humanity has been given, is transformed into a curse.
Think how often towns in Asia or in Greece have fallen at a single earth tremor, how many villages in Syria or Macedonia have been engulfed, how often this form of disaster has wrought devastation in Cyprus, how often Paphos has tumbled about itself! Time and again we hear the news of the annihilation of a whole city, and how small a fraction of mankind are we who hear such news thus often! So let us face up to the blows of circumstance and be aware that whatever happens is never as serious as [worry] makes it out to be.
For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.
Associating with people in large numbers is actually harmful: there is not one of them that will not make some vice or other attractive to us, or leave us carrying the imprint of it or bedaubed all unawares with it. And inevitably enough, the larger the size of the crowd we mingle with, the greater the danger. But nothing is as ruinous to the character as sitting away one’s time at a show—for it is then, through the medium of entertainment, that vices creep into one with more than usual ease. What do you take me to mean? That I go home more selfish, more self-seeking and more self-indulgent? Yes, and what is more, a person crueler and less humane through having been in contact with human beings.
When a mind is impressionable and has none too firm a hold on what is right, it must be rescued from the crowd: it is so easy for it to go over to the majority. A Socrates, a Cato or a Laelius might have been shaken in his principles by a multitude of any of us, even as we perfect our personality’s adjustment, to withstand the onset of vices when they come with such a mighty following. A single example of extravagance or greed does a lot of harm—an intimate who leads a pampered life gradually makes one soft and flabby; a wealthy neighbour provokes cravings in one; a companion with a malicious nature tends to rub off some of his rust even on someone of an innocent and open-hearted nature—what then do you imagine the effect on a person’s character is when the assault comes from the world at large.
The many speak highly of you, but have you really any grounds for satisfaction with yourself if you are the kind of person the many understand? Your merits should not be outward facing.
…a person who starts being friends with you because it pays him will similarly cease to be friends because it pays him to do so. If there is anything in a particular friendship that attracts a man other than the friendship itself, the attraction of some reward or other will counterbalance that of the friendship. What is my object in making a friend? To have someone to be able to die for, someone I may follow into exile, someone for whose life I may put myself up as security and pay the price as well. The thing you describe is not friendship but a business deal, looking to the likely consequences, with advantage as its goal.
Self-contented as [a man] is, then, he does need friends—and wants as many of them as possible—but not to enable him to lead a happy life; this he will have even without friends. The supreme ideal does not call for any external aids. It is home-grown, wholly self-developed. Once it starts looking outside itself for any part of itself it is on the way to be dominated by fortune.
It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs. In the midst of peace the soldier carries out manoeuvres, throws up earthworks against a non-existent enemy and tires himself out with unnecessary toil in order to be equal to it when it is necessary. If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes. This was the aim of the men who once every month pretended they were poor, bringing themselves face to face with want, to prevent their ever being terrified by a situation which they had frequently rehearsed.
Sickness assails those leading the most sensible lives, tuberculosis those with the strongest constitutions, retribution the utterly guiltless, violence the most secluded. Misfortune has a way of choosing some unprecedented means or other of impressing its power on those who might be said to have forgotten it. A single day strews in ruins all that was raised by a train of construction extending over a long span of time and involving a great number of separate works and a great deal of favour on the part of heaven. To say a ‘day’, indeed, is to put too much of a brake on the calamities that hasten down upon us: an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires.
Nothing is durable, whether for an individual or for a society; the destinies of men and cities alike sweep onwards. Terror strikes amid the most tranquil surroundings, and without any disturbance in the background to give rise to them calamities spring from the least expected quarter. States which stood firm through civil war as well as wars external collapse without a hand being raised against them. How few nations have made of their prosperity a lasting thing! This is why we need to envisage every possibility and to strengthen the spirit to deal with the things which may conceivable come about. Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. Misfortune may snatch you away from your country, or your country away from you, may banish you into some wilderness—these very surroundings in which the masses suffocate may become a wilderness.
It must come to see that there is nothing fortune will shrink from, that she wields the same authority over emperor and empire alike and the same power over cities as over men. There’s no ground for resentment in all this. We’ve entered into a world in which these are the terms life is lived on—if you’re satisfied with that, submit to them, if you’re not, get out, whatever way you please. Resent a thing by all means if it represents an injustice decreed against yourself personally; but if this same constraint is binding on the lowest and the highest alike, then make your peace again with destiny, the destiny that unravels all ties.
‘Rehearse death.’ To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. He is above, or at any rate beyond the reach of, all political powers. What are prisons, warders, bars to him? He has an open door. There is but one chain holding us in fetters, and that is our love of life. There is no need to cast this love out altogether, but it does need to be lessened somewhat so that, in the event of circumstances ever demanding this, nothing may stand in the way of our being prepared to do at once what we must do at some time or other.
An ordinary journey will be incomplete if you come to a stop in the middle of it, or anywhere short of your destination, but life is never incomplete if it is an honourable one. At whatever point your leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is a whole.
You want to live—but do you know how to live? You are scared of dying—and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different from being dead. Caligula was once passing a column of captives on the Latin Road when one of them, with a hoary old beard reaching down his breast, begged to be put to death. ‘So,’ replied Caligula, ‘you are alive, then, as you are?’ That is the answer to give to people to whom death would actually come as a release.
‘But I want to live because of all the worthy activities I’m engaged in. I’m performing life’s duties conscientiously and energetically and I’m reluctant to leave them undone.’ Come now, surely you know that dying is also one of life’s duties? You’re leaving no duty undone, for there’s no fixed number of duties laid down which you’re supposed to complete. Every life without exception is a short one.
To lose someone you love is something you’ll regard as the hardest of all blows to bear, while all the time this will be as silly as crying because the leaves fall from the beautiful trees that add to the charm of your home. Preserve a sense of proportion in your attitude to everything that pleases you, and make the most of them while they are at their best.
As it is with a play, so it is with life—what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will—only make sure that you round it off with a good ending.
One thing I know: all the works of mortal man lie under sentence of mortality; we live among things that are destined to perish.
We’re born unequal, we die equal. And my words apply as much to cities as to those who live in them.
…no one has power over us when death is within our own power.
Treatment of others
…treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors. And whenever it strikes you how much power you have over your slave, let it also strike you that your own master has just as much power over you. ‘I haven’t got a master,’ you say. You’re young yet; there’s always the chance that you’ll have one.
…no one has been able to strike terror into others and at the same time enjoy peace of mind himself.
‘He’s a slave.’ But he may have the spirit of a free man. ‘He’s a slave.” But is that really to count against him. Show me a man who isn’t a slave; one is a slave to sex, another to money, another to ambition; all are slaves to hope or fear. I could show you a man who has been a Consul who is a slave to his ‘little old woman’, a millionaire who is the slave of a little girl in domestic service. I could show you some highly aristocratic young men who are utter slaves to stage artistes. And there’s no state of slavery more disgraceful than one which is self-imposed.
For men in a state of freedom had thatch for their shelter, while slavery dwells beneath marble and gold.
Why does no one admit his failings? Because he’s still deep in them. It’s the person who’s awakened who recounts his dream, and acknowledging one’s failings is a sign of health. So let us rouse ourselves, so that we may be able to demonstrate our errors.
I am too great, was born to too great a destiny to be my body’s slave. So far as I am concerned that body is nothing more or less than a fetter on my freedom. I place it squarely in the path of fortune, letting her expend her onslaught on it, not allowing any blow to get through it to my actual self. For that body is all that is vulnerable about me: within this dwelling so liable to injury there lives a spirit that is free.
We are attracted by wealth, pleasures, good looks, political advancement and various other welcoming and enticing prospects: we are repelled by exertion, death, pain, disgrace and limited means. It follows that we need to train ourselves not to crave for the former and not to be afraid of the latter. Let us fight the battle the other way round—retreat from the things that attract us and rouse ourselves to meet the things that actually attack us.
The path that leads to pleasures is the downward one: the upward climb is the one that takes us to rugged and difficult ground. Here let us throw our bodies forward, in the other direction rein them back.
…any life must seem short to people who measure it in terms of pleasures which through their empty nature are incapable of completeness.
The things that are essential are acquired with little bother; it is the luxuries that call for toil and effort.
How nice it is to have outworn one’s desires and left them behind!
…virtue only comes to a character which has been thoroughly schooled and trained and brought to a pitch of perfection by unremitting practice. We are born for it, but not with it. And even in the best of people, until you cultivate it there is only the material for virtue, not virtue itself.
Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing. No value should be set on it: it’s something we share with dumb animals—the minutest, most insignificant creatures scutter after it.
Happiness and suffering
A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is. And complaining away about one’s sufferings after they are over (you know the kind of language: ‘No one had ever been in such a bad state. The torments and hardships I endured! No one thought I would recover. The number of times I was given up for lost by the family! The number of times I was despaired of by the doctors! A man on the rack isn’t torn with pain the way I was’ is something I think should be banned. Even if all this is true, it is past history. What’s the good of dragging up sufferings which are over, of being unhappy now just because you were then? What is more, doesn’t everyone add a good deal to his tale of hardships and deceive himself as well in the matter?
Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you. Life’s no soft affair. It’s a long road you’ve started on: you can’t but expect to have slips and knocks and falls, and get tired, and openly wish—a lie—for death. At one place you will part from a companion, at another bury one, and be afraid of one at another. These are the kind of things you’ll come up against all this rugged journey.
One can do nothing better than endure what cannot be cured and attend uncomplainingly the God at whose instance all things come about. It is a poor soldier that follows his commander grumbling. So let us receive our orders readily and cheerfully, and not desert the ranks along the march—the march of this glorious fabric of creation in which everything we shall suffer is a strand.
We therefore should keep to the path which nature has mapped out for us and never diverge from it. For those who follow nature everything is easy and straightforward, whereas for those who fight against her life is just like rowing against the stream.
Seneca’s philosophy not only prepares you for the hardships you will receive in life, but also death itself. When misfortune happens to you, instead of being angry or upset, you should ask yourself the following: “Is there anything about this outcome that is within my control to change?” If there is nothing, you must take the result with equanimity. Otherwise you must get to work.
Stoicism removes the fear (and hope) of your anxious thoughts about the future and allows you to accept the inevitable hardships and final end that all humans face. It does this by building up your mental fortitude to accept the present moment and the randomness of the next hour, whether it is one of pleasure or pain. Therefore it is a philosophy of acceptance, no matter who you are and where you are in life. At the same time, it gives you space to desire the finer things in life and work towards getting them, with the understanding that those things are part of a journey of a virtuous life instead of the final destination.
Whether you accept stoicism or not will depend on your individual character. It matches mine quite well, as I have come to a handful of stoic conclusions through my pursuit of hedonistic excess, and so it is the principal philosophy that I choose to live life by. It should be no surprise that this book is one of the most valuable in my library. Highly recommended.
Read More: “Letters From A Stoic” on Amazon