Timeless Virtues from Seneca the Younger

“There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.” – Seneca

Seneca at present times, may be called a forgotten author. Names of great philosophers like Plato, Socrates and Aristotle are ones of household stature and can be identified with ease.

I encourage studying Stoicism and more importantly, putting into practise the timeless virtues that are dispelled in wondrous brevity. Doors that were not visible become apparent when one is not coerced by the blinders of hope and fear. Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are the right place to start.

The Stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers, ruled by a supreme providence which could be spoken of, almost according to choice or context, under a variety of names or descriptions including the divine reason, creative reason, nature, the spirit or purpose of the universe, destiny, a personal God, even (by way of concession to traditional religion) ‘the gods’. 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 might 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 stoic Hecato of Rhodes writes “cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.” Seneca, in a letter to his dear friend Lucilius writes that they [fear and hope] are bound up together. Although they may appear to be unconnected, they march in unison “like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to.”  

Fear keeps pace with hope. Nor does their moving together surprise me; both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety though 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 greatest blessing humanity has been given, is transformed into a curse.

Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.

Seneca advises that a mass crowd be avoided. The crowd should not be rejected externally, but rather internally, avoiding alienation from the very crowd you seek to influence. He states inwardly, we should be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society.

You ask me what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd. Avoid I cry, whatever is approved of by the mob, and things that are the gift of chance.

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 craving 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?

Our merits should not be outward facing and we should scorn the approvals from the majority. You must not hate nor imitate the world. You should not become like the bad because they are many nor make enemies because they are not like you. Seneca advises we retire into ourselves as much as we can, associating with people who will improve you. No man was ever wise by chance. We are in control of our emotions and our thoughts, ignoring what is outside our realm of control.

From what you tell me and from what I hear, I feel that you show great promise. You do not tear from place to place and unsettle yourself with one move after another. Restlessness of that sort is symptomatic of a sick mind. Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in the mere passing. A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.

And if you say, But I feel like opening different books at different times, my answer will be this: tasting one dish after another is the sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they lead to contamination of the system, not nutrition.

Each day, too, acquire something which will help you to face poverty or death, and other ills as well.

It matters not what we say but how we feel. Specifically not how we feel on one particular day, but how we feel at all times and about our life. The Stoic also can carry himself/herself unimpaired through cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah; for he is self-sufficient. Perception of emotion and memory of ones experiences are two of the bounds to which we set our own happiness. [Kahneman: The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory]

Chrysippus (A philosopher Seneca quotes) was known to say,

that the wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things.On the other hand, nothing is needed by the fool, for he does not understand how to use anything, but he is in want of everything. The wise man needs hands, eyes, and many things that are necessary for his daily use; but he is in want of nothing. For want implies a necessity, and nothing is necessary to the wise man.

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