The shadow of the Roman politician Seneca looms large in Stoic philosophy. His work is among the most well-preserved and quoted Stoic texts throughout history, and countless generations have been influenced by his insights into the human condition.
Perhaps this is best seen in The Letters to Lucilius, where Seneca discusses universal themes with his friend. While the letters contain timeless wisdom, Seneca’s ideas are spread across hundreds of pages, and distilling them down could seem like an intimidating task to some.
Not for David Fideler.
In Breakfast With Seneca: A Stoic Guide To The Art Of Living, Fideler has provided a wonderful overview of Seneca’s ideas, and here are my ten biggest takeaways from the book.
1. Spend time wisely
“Continue, dear Lucilius, to free yourself: gather and protect your time, which until now was being taken from you, stolen from you, or simply vanished. Convince yourself of these words: some moments are robbed from us, some are stolen, and some slip away.” — Seneca, Letter 1
Seneca made a big deal about time management, saying that we often find more value in external things like money and fame than time itself. This also extended to busyness for the sake of being busy.
Fideler points out that while writing his first letter to Lucilius, Seneca was around 66 years old and that the Emperor Nero was possibly trying to poison him at the time.
Seneca may have been contemplating the regret he held for all the work he’d done for Nero in the pursuit of physical wealth.
2. Strive for mental freedom
Like a good Stoic, Seneca wrote often of the desire to achieve mental freedom in various ways, and Fideler has some great insight on this topic. He points the reader to the first line of Seneca’s first letter:
“Seneca reveals the key to understanding the entire project behind his Letters in the very first line of his very first letter…the very first line of Seneca’s letter reads like this in English: ‘Continue, dear Lucilius, to free yourself: gather and protect your time, which until now was being taken from you, stolen from you, or simply vanished.’
But the first part of this line in the Latin more accurately states: ‘Continue, dear Lucilius, to free yourself for yourself.’ The key phrase here is ‘free yourself for yourself’, which in the original Latin refers to freeing someone from slavery.”
In other words, Seneca believed psychological enslavement was one of the biggest challenges of his time. Slavery to wealth, vices, shiny objects, etc.
He stressed the importance of making small steps towards progress and Stoic philosophy being a way to unshackle the mind.
3. Delay anger
Seneca believed anger was the worst kind of emotion, calling it a “temporary form of insanity.” His perspective on anger is so profound that it’s impacted the advice of modern associations like the American Psychological Association (APA) (A comparison Fideler attributes to Massimo Pigliucci)
Fideler explains Seneca’s cure to anger:
“The most important thing we can do is slow down the process when there is the first, initial sense that anger may be coming on. The first movements of anger, Seneca explains, cannot be controlled by reason because they are instinctual feelings. However, ‘practice and constant watchfulness will weaken them.’
Once the second step is reached, judgement or deliberation is in effect, which is rationality at work; as Seneca notes, only the power of rationality, or a good judgement, can erase a bad judgement.
Time and again, Seneca states that the most powerful tool for defeating anger is delay.”
4. Lay down roots within yourself
If you’re like me, you’ll have wanted to get away for a break or a trip. Maybe you’ve felt like a change of location will make you a different person or change your thoughts.
I’ve had that opinion, and it turned out I was wrong. You are still the same person no matter where you go in the world.
Seneca didn’t disapprove of travel, but he believed that inner troubles could only be solved by making conscious choices.
“Since Seneca was a Stoic, his attention was focused on how to realistically improve our inner character. Because of that, he opposed the idea that someone could improve his or her mental state, at least in a lasting way, by simply going on a trip. Whatever problems we suffer from internally, they do follow us:
“The fault is not in one’s circumstances but in the mind itself…His malady follows him.”
5. Rehearse for adversity
Those familiar with Seneca’s work will know of the premeditation of adversity exercise. It’s the rehearsal of the worst-case scenario, so you become better prepared for dealing with it should the worst come to pass.
A powerful metaphor I was unaware of until reading the book that Seneca liked to use was comparing a Stoic to a lion tamer. Naturally, a lion can be fierce and deadly. Yet under the influence of a trainer, the lion can become gentle and a trusted companion.
“Similarly, the wise person is a skilled expert at taming misfortune. Pain, poverty, disgrace, imprisonment and exile are feared by everyone. But when they encounter the wise person, they are tamed.”
6. Love your fate
The idea of amor fati (a love of one’s fate) was referenced by Friedrich Nietzsche. But Seneca was keenly aware of this practice, and in this context, he presented Lucilius as being a massive complainer who did not love his fate.
“In his Letters, Seneca portrays his friend Lucilius as being something of a complainer. And in several letters, Seneca, like the good Stoic therapist he was, helps Lucilius see the futility of complaining. For example, at the beginning of Letter 96, Seneca writes back to Lucilius and explains why his complaining is wrong:
“You are still upset about something — you still complain. Don’t you see that the only bad thing in these situations is your own annoyance and complaining? If you ask me, nothing can be upsetting for anyone unless he thinks something perfectly natural should be upsetting.
I will no longer tolerate myself on the day I cannot tolerate something else.”
7. Present yourself as you really are
Seneca was an independent thinker who advocated that everyone should live authentically. The problem was that many people put on fake personas and were highly neurotic in his time. Even 2000 years later, these issues continue to crop up.
A great Seneca quote that Fideler references is an explanation of neurotic behaviour:
“There isn’t anyone who doesn’t change his plans and desires every day. One minute he wants a wife, the next moment only a girlfriend. One minute he wants to rule like a king, then he acts more obliging than the lowest servant.
One minute he acts so grandly that he attracts envy, then he acts more humble than the most self-effacing. At one moment he scatters money grandly and the next moment he steals it.
This is the clearest sign of a mind that lacks awareness: it constantly changes its identity. In my view, there is nothing more shameful than a mind that is inconsistent with itself.”
8. Live like each day is your last
The ancient Stoics famously referenced the concept of memento mori as a way to meditate on the limited time we all have.
Seneca practised memento mori often, as he suffered chronic illness throughout his life. What’s striking about Seneca’s work in this area is that he’s one of the few philosophers who wrote favourably about old age.
“Let us embrace and love old age. It is full of pleasure if you know how to experience it. Fruits are sweetest when ripe, just before they spoil. Boyhood’s charm is greatest at its end. For those devoted to wine, it’s the very last drink that delights — the one that puts you under, delivering the final push to inebriation.
Every pleasure delays its sweetest moments for last. The most pleasurable time of life is on its downhill slope, but before going over the edge. Even the time spent standing on the outermost edge can have its own pleasures, I believe.”
9. Be grateful
For Seneca, gratitude and love form the heart of Stoicism. Gratitude for people, the universe, nature, and everything that happens, good and bad.
Fideler provides some interesting commentary on how gratitude should be seen as an emotion and a virtue because it’s about how we relate to others. He summarises gratitude across three types:
- Personal and civic gratitude: We experience this in a social setting, e.g., when someone does something nice for us.
- Theistic gratitude: A religious kind of gratitude towards God, gods, or God as a person.
- Cosmic gratitude: A feeling channeled towards nature and the universe. Spiritual gratitude, of which the Stoics and Seneca felt strongly.
10. Don’t follow the mob
Seneca had tremendous insight into the psychology of crowds and bad influences. He was dubious of going along with a mob or ideas that led to chaotic decisions.
I’m particularly drawn to Seneca’s use of medical imagery in his writing, and so is Fideler:
“Using a metaphor from medicine, Seneca explains that we can become ‘infected’ with the bad qualities of others. In a plague he noted, we can catch a disease by merely being ‘breathed on,’ so we must choose our friends with great care, based on the health of their character.
“Make an effort to take on the least infected,” he wrote, because “it’s the beginning of a disease to expose healthy things to sickness.”
The takeaway is that you should always think for yourself and associate with people who improve your character.
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