Review of Letters from a Stoic, by Seneca. Translated by Richard Mott Gummere.
One can imagine the ancient Greeks, at the second breakfast of human civilization, suddenly having enough agricultural surplus to sit down for a moment and think about things and to record what they thought. We live, they noticed. Why? And, what are we supposed to do now we’re here? Conquer the world and smite our enemies? Write the Great Greek Novel? Honor the Gods? Life, it seems, comes without even an indecipherable set of IKEA instructions.
The Stoics boldly attempted to write some. Seneca was Roman but riffed off the philosophers of the annexed Athenians. An adviser to Nero, he retired to think full-time and wrote letters of his ponderings to his mate Lucilius. Remain there any words of relevance for today?
You must either imitate or loathe the world.
Seneca wrote this before giant shopping centres or Miley Cyrus or modern political correctness or whatever new horror those snot-nosed little kids are into these days, so I suppose there were contemptible but jarringly popular phenomena in his own time. Circuses, lust for wealth and power, intrigues, orgies and the like. That which is popular is rarely good because most people are as deep as dog shit.
There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
Have you ever had that horrible fear of something terrible happening, and then it happened, and you were relieved? You should always ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen, and could I handle it?’ Often the terrible thing itself – losing your job, getting dumped, an angry confrontation, whatever – turns out to be less bad than the fear leading up to it.
It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.
To this end I have developed my own regime of ‘death meditation’. During a breathing exercise, I reflect upon the worst things that are are likely to one day happen – disease, danger, conflict, heart attack. Far from being traumatic, the practice is calming. When such thoughts recur during normal waking hours I can observe them in that same, serene state and confidently reassure myself that if it happens, I can handle it. To some, philosophy is preparation for death. In that vein:
No one is so ignorant as not to know that we must at some time die; nevertheless, when one draws near death, one turns to flight, trembles, and laments. Would you not think him an utter fool who wept because he was not alive a thousand years ago? And is he not just as much of a fool who weeps because he will not be alive a thousand years from now? It is all the same; you will not be, and you were not. Neither of these periods of time belongs to you. You have been cast upon this point of time; if you would make it longer, how much longer shall you make it? Why weep? Why pray? You are taking pains to no purpose. [. . .] You were born to this law; this fate befell your father, your mother, your ancestors, all who came before you; and it will befall all who shall come after you. [. . .] Think of the multitudes of men doomed to death who will come after you, of the multitudes who will go with you! You would die more bravely, I suppose, in the company of many thousands; and yet there are many thousands, both of men and of animals, who at this very moment, while you are irresolute about death, are breathing their last, in their several ways. But you, – did you believe that you would not some day reach the goal towards which you have always been traveling? No journey but has its end. [. . .]
We must make our aim already to have lived long enough.
Imagine, for a moment, you are sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. You are called in. After sitting you down, the doctor calmly explains that you are soon going to die.
What do you regret?
Write down those things, and do them. Then, when in real life you get called into the doctor’s surgery upon that most unwelcome day, you’ll smile at him and say, ‘No worries! I’ve already read the complete works of Shakespeare and hiked the length of the Andes. Was also gunna shag every last whore in Haiti but hey, two outta three ain’t bad’.
I bet doctors get blokes like that.
It was well that Seneca prepared for death because when it came, it came late but not peacefully. Nero suspected a plot and ordered him to commit suicide. He tried to emulate his hero, Socrates, but the hemlock didn’t take. He finally died, with some help from friends and slaves, after much cutting and an overly hot bath.
Returning to happier times, Seneca also reflected:
There is pleasure in being in one’s own company as long as possible, when a man has made himself worth enjoying. [. . .]
O what a blessing it would be for some men to wander away from themselves!
Most enjoyable are those quotes that demonstrate aspects of Seneca’s time and circumstances utterly incomparable and irrelevant to our own. In discussing the liberation of having few possessions and traveling light:
My friend Maximus and I have been spending a most happy period of two days, taking with us very few slaves . . .
He preached a life of minimalism but did not live one himself, often getting involved in political maneuvers and living high on the hog in the imperial capital. Which is perfectly fine by your dissipated reviewer, but he wrote as though he did not.
If you set a high value on liberty, you must set a low value on everything else.
Further reading: How stoical was Seneca?