Lucius Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca or “Seneca the Younger,” was born around 4 BCE in Corduba and raised in Rome, where he was trained in rhetoric and philosophy. In 41 CE, Seneca was exiled to the island of Corsica by the emperor Claudius, but was allowed to return in 49 to become a tutor to Nero. When Nero became emperor in 54, Seneca became his adviser. Seneca’s influence over Nero declined with time, and in 65 Seneca was forced to take his own life for alleged complicity in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero, in which he was likely to have been innocent.
Seneca wrote philosophical letters and tragedies.
On The Shortness of Life
Here is how I would summarize this letter:
Many feel life is short, but it is long enough if—instead of wasting it laboring, drinking, lusting, sporting, studying trivia, accruing wealth, or chasing fame—you study philosophy and contemplate the past.
Here is the central idea, in Seneca’s words:
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.
Seneca believes many activities are wasteful, as demonstrated by some of my favorite quotes:
How many find riches a burden! How many burst a blood vessel by their eloquence and their daily striving to show off their talents! How many are pale from constant pleasures! How many are left no freedom by the crowd of clients surrounding them!
People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.
You will hear many people saying “When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure; when I am sixty I shall give up public duties.” And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!
Assuredly your lives, even if they last more than a thousand years, will shrink into the tiniest span: those vices will swallow up any space of time. The actual time you have—which reason can prolong though it naturally passes quickly—inevitably escapes you rapidly: for you do not grasp it or hold it back or try to delay that swiftest of all things, but you let it slip away as though it were something superfluous and replaceable.
It is the mind which is tranquil and free from care which can roam through all the stages of its life: the minds of the preoccupied, as if harnessed in a yoke, cannot turn round and look behind them. So their lives vanish into an abyss; and just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.
They are not at leisure whose pleasures involve a serious commitment. For example, nobody will dispute that those people are busy about nothing who spend their time on useless literary studies: even among the Romans there is now a large company of these. It used to be a Greek failing to want to know how many oarsmen Ulysses had, whether the Iliad or the Odyssey was written first, and whether too they were by the same author, and other questions of this kind, which if you keep them to yourself in no way enhance your private knowledge, and if you publish them make you appear more a bore than a scholar. But now the Romans too have been afflicted by the pointless enthusiasm for useless knowledge.
I doubt that Seneca thinks reading literature is useless, or even that analyzing it has no merit. I spend a lot of time analyzing literature. Usually I write detailed outlines and transcribe my favourite quotes. Seneca’s comments have made me ask myself: Why bother with a detailed outlines of, for example, Ovid’s Metamorphoses? Perhaps this is useless, but I enjoy it, and familiarity with the classics lets one follow other authors’ (including philosophers) and painters’ references. Selecting and transcribing quotes and writing outlines helps me remember and appreciate what I read.
Why read fiction? Non-fiction, like the Philosophy Seneca urges us to read, condenses experience into lessons. Fiction provides the raw experiences, and the reader is left to learn what they will from them. The Iliad teaches you about war and how the ancient Greeks viewed it. Seneca may regard the physical world as brute and dirty, but as a materialist I think the most abstract Philosophy is built up from experiences of the real world, and it may be foolish to skip to the reduction others have made vs experiencing it yourself. For this reason, I think fiction can be worthwhile too.
Some men, after they having crawled thought a thousand indignities to the supreme dignity, have been assailed by the gloomy thought that all their labors were for the sake of an epitaph.
I can imagine myself falling into this trap, pursuing fame and honor, only to realize you have spent your whole life. I have noticed that the opinion of others motivates me more than it should.
Even their pleasures are uneasy and made anxious by various fears, and at the very height of their rejoicing, the worrying thought steals over them ‘how long will this last?’ This feeling has caused kings to bewail their power, and they were not so much delighted by the greatness of their fortune as terrified by the fear of its inevitable end.
So how should we act? We should live as if tomorrow is our last day:
Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and a weariness of the present. But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day. For what new pleasures can an hour now bring him? He has tried everything, and enjoyed everything to repletion. For the rest, Fortune can dispose as she likes: his life is now secure. Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles. He has only existed long.
We should spend more time recalling the past:
Life is divided into three periods, past, present, and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain. For this last is the one over which Fortune has lost her power, which cannot be brought back to anyone’s control. But this is what preoccupied people lose: for they have not time to look back at their past, and even if they did, it is not pleasant to recall activities they are ashamed of. So they are unwilling to cast their minds back to to times ill spent, which they dare not relive if their vices in recollection become obvious.
The past is durable, so we can enjoy it. Recollection helps us identify waste.
We should also study philosophy:
Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light. We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all; and if we are prepared to loftiness of mind to pass beyond the narrow confines of human weakness, there is a long period of time through which we can roam.
Reading philosophy allows us to extend our years with the wisdom of great writers, who, unlike living friends, won’t make demands of our precious time.
Seneca believed philosophy could teach us:
the substance of god, and his will, his mode of life, his shape; what fate awaits your soul; where nature lays us to rest when released from our bodies; what is the force which supports all the heaviest elements of this world at the center, suspends the light elements above, carries fire to the highest part, and sets the stars in motion with their proper changes—and learn other things in succession which are full of tremendous marvels
I agree with most of Seneca’s thoughts and advice in this letter. Most people do complain about the shortness of life while also spending their time poorly. I do. But Seneca’s metaphysical beliefs—the existence of the soul and driving purpose of the universe, in particular—may make him dismiss the good things in life too quickly. There may be an afterlife, but it seems unlikely, and so I am left to regard our earthly lives as more valuable than he. Based on the way Seneca acted, he may have had his doubts about the unseen afterlife too.
Due to On the Shortness of Life, I will read more philosophy and less literature, contemplate my past to identify pointless activities, spend less time pursuing these activities.
Quotations are taken from C.D.N Costa’s 1997 translation.
Consolation to Helvia
Here is how I would summarize this letter:
You are grieving over my son’s death, but recall the challenges you have overcome. I, though exiled, am happy. You should be happy too; liberal studies will make you happy forever, but in the interim your family can.
Here is an outline of the letter:
- Why I hadn’t written earlier
- My approach: Enumerate past misfortune to toughen you
- List of Helvia’s past misfortunes
- Don’t worry about me: Exile hasn’t been too bad; find happiness within
- It is part of our divine nature to move
- Historically, humans are always migrating
- We take universal nature and our individual virtue with us
- Barren Corsica focuses one on the spiritual over material
- Counter: masking poverty with philosophy; Rebuttal: poor are happier
- If one trouble can be born, many can
- Don’t worry about lost protection
- Don’t miss me
- Don’t make excuses because you are a woman
- Study philosophy, which is better than temporary diversions
- Consolations, needed until you master philosophy
- Your other two sons
- Your father
- Your sister; respectable in Egypt; save husband in shipwreck
- Conclusion: I’m happy studying earth and heaven; don’t miss me
Here are several interesting quotes:
Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.
We are born under circumstances that would be favorable if we did not abandon them. It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself.
No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favors. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own for ever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasures desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change.
In this letter, Seneca makes a couple reasonable claims but provides, what we now know to be incorrect, natural explanations for them.
For example, when discussing the pains of being deprived of Rome, he makes a statement about wanderlust:
I’ve come across people who say that there is a sort of inborn restlessness in the human spirit and an urge to change one’s abode; for man is endowed with a mind which is changeable and unsettled: nowhere at rest, it darts about and directs its thoughts to all places known and unknown, a wanderer which cannot endure repose and delights chiefly in novelty.
Observations of myself and my friends lead me to believe this is true, yet Seneca’s explanation is certainly not true:
This will not surprise you if you consider its original source. It was not made from heavy, earthly material, but came down from that heavenly spirit: but heavenly things are by nature always in motion, fleeing and driven on extremely fast. Look at the planets which light up the world: not one is at rest … How silly then to imagine that the human mind, which is formed of the same elements as divine beings, objects to movement and change of abode, while the divine nature finds delight and even self-preservation in continual and very rapid change.
For how little have we lost, when the two finest things of all will accompany us wherever we go, universal nature and our individual virtue. Believe me, this was the intention of whoever formed the universe, whether all-powerful god, or incorporeal reason creating mighty works, or divine spirit penetrating all things from greatest to smallest with even pressure, or fate and the unchanging sequence of causation—this, I say, was the intention, that only the most worthless of our possessions would come into the power of another. Whatever is best for a human being lies outside human control: it can be neither given nor taken away. The world you see, nature’s greatest and most glorious creation, and the human mind which gazes and wonders at it, and is the most splendid part of it, these are our own everlasting possessions and will remain with us as long as we ourselves remain. So, eager and upright, let us hasten with bold steps wherever circumstances take us, and let us journey through any countries whatever: there can be no place of exile within the world since nothing within the world is alien to men.
Seneca’s suggests his mother read philosophy:
Return now to these studies and they will keep you safe. They will comfort you, they will delight you; and if they genuinely penetrate your mind, never again will grief enter there, or anxiety, or the distress caused by futile and pointless suffering. Your heart will have room for none of these, for to all other failings it has long been closed. Those studies are your most dependable protection, and they alone can snatch you from Fortune’s grip.
On the poor:
For how little is needed to support a man. And who can lack this if they have any virtue at all? As far as I am concerned, I have not lost wealth but distractions.
Righteousness is tied to the size of the sacrifice:
All the poets have given renown to the woman who offered to die in place of her husband. But this is nobler, to risk one’s life to bury one’s husband for that love is greater which wins less through equal danger.
Quotations are taken from C.D.N Costa’s 1997 translation.
On Tranquillity of Mind
Serenus asks Seneca for help with problems of the mind. He opens with:
When I look at myself, Seneca, some of my vices appeared clearly on the surface, so that I could lay my hands on them; some were more hidden away in the depths; some were not there all the time but return at intervals.
What apparent, hidden, and intermittent vices do you have?
Serenus next provides three examples where his mind wavers between good and poor states. I relate to all three. The first is simplicity vs wealth. It is difficult, when in the presence of others, to not waver in one’s desire for simple material things. It is easy to let go of the sensory desires, but more difficult to relax the desire for social validation. One asks, “do my dinner guests think I am poor, unmotivated, or inept?”
After being long given up to frugality I have found myself surrounded by the lavish splendor of luxury echoing all about me. My vision wavers somewhat, for I can raise my mind to face it more easily than my eyes. And so I come back not a worse but a sadder man; I don’t move with my head so high among my trivial possessions; and a secret gnawing doubt undermines me whether that life is superior.
I also relate to the second source of Serenus’ doubts—helping others. Serenus waivers between a monastic inward focus and an external interest in humankind. The ripples in his resolve for the public good originate in the time-consuming and mundane nature of the endeavor; most of my attempts to volunteer are abandoned for the same reasons. One feels that the time is poorly spent.:
I decide to achieve public office—not, of course, because of the purple robe and the lictors’ rods, but so that I can be more ready with help for my friends and relations, for all my fellow-citizens, and then for all mankind. But when something has assailed my mind, which is not used to being battered; when something has happened which either is unworthy of me or cannot easily be dealt with; when unimportant things become time-consuming; I take refuge in leisure and make my way more quickly home. I decide to restrict my life within its walls, saying, “Let no one rob me of a single day who is not going to make me an adequate return for such a loss. Let my mind be fixed on itself, cultivate itself, have no external interest—nothing that seeks the approval of another; let it cherish the tranquility that has no part in public or private concerns.” But when my mind is excited by reading a convincing account of something and spurred on by noble examples, I long to rush into the forum, to speak on behalf of one man and offer help to another, which will at least be an attempt to assist even if it does not succeed, or to curb the pride of someone else grown arrogant by success.
Like Serenus, emotive movies and stories push back my desire to contribute to others.
Finally, I strongly feel the impulse to write for posterity. Fame is a powerful force.
“Where is the need,” I ask, “to compose something to last for ages? Why not stop trying to prevent posterity being silent about you? You were born to die, and a silent funeral is less bothersome. So if you must fill your time, write something in a simple style for your own use and not for publication: less toil is needed if you study only for the day.”
Seneca, as seems typical, provides a general response:
We are, therefore, seeking how the mind can follow a smooth and steady course, well disposed to itself, happily regarding its own condition and with no interruption to this pleasure, but remaining in a state of peace with no ups and downs: that will be tranquility. Let us consider in general how this can be achieved: you will then extract what you like from the communal remedy.
I find it somewhat annoying that he does not recognize the particulars of Serenus’ questions, but instead provides general advice and tells him to “extract what you like” from it.
You must consider whether your nature is more suited to practical activity or to quiet study and reflection, and incline in the direction your natural faculty and disposition take you.
Let us learn to increase our self-restraint, to curb luxury, to moderate ambition, to soften anger, to regard poverty without prejudice, to practise frugality, even if many are ashamed of it, to apply to nature’s needs the remedies that are cheaply available, to curb as if in fetters unbridled hopes and a mind obsessed with the future., and to aim to acquire our riches from ourselves rather than from Fortune. It is not possible that all the manifold and unfair disasters of life can be so repelled so that storm winds will not still assail those who spread their sails ambitiously.
He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man.
Even in our studies, where expenditure is most worth while, its justification depends on its moderation. What is the point of having countless books and libraries whose titles the owner could scarcely read through in his whole lifetime? The mass of books burdens the student without instructing him, and it is far better to devote yourself to a few authors than to get lost among many.
In any situation in life you will find delights and relaxations and pleasures if you are prepared to make light of your troubles and not let them distress you.
Seneca’s comments sound religious:
So what you need is not those more radical remedies which we have now finished with—blocking yourself here, being angry with yourself there, threatening yourself sternly somewhere else—but the final treatment, confidence in yourself and the belief that you are on the right path, and not lead astray by the many tracks which cross yours of people who are hopelessly lost, though some are wandering not far from the truth path. But what you are longing for is great and supreme and nearly divine—not to be shaken.
On picking friends:
Still, you must especially avoid those who are gloomy and always lamenting, and who grasp at every pretext for complaint. Though a man’s loyalty and kindness may not be in doubt, a companion who is agitated and groaning about everything is an enemy to peace of mind.
On the certainty of troubles:
But he who knows that this was the condition laid down for him at the moment of his conception will live on those terms, and at the same time he will guarantee with a similar strength of mind that no events take him by surprise. For by foreseeing anything that can happen as though it will happen he will soften the onslaught of all his troubles, which present no surprises to those who are ready and waiting for them, but fall heavily on those who are careless in the expectation that all will be well. There is disease, imprisonment, disaster, fire: none of these is unexpected—I did know in what riotous company Nature had enclosed me.
On resting the mind:
The mind should not be kept continuously at the same pitch of concentration, but given amusing diversions. Socrates did not blush to play with small children; Cato soothed his mind with wine when it was tired from the cares of state … Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest.
On pulling inward:
The mind must be recalled from external objects into itself: it must trust in itself, rejoice in itself, admire its own things; it must withdraw as much as possible from the affairs of others and devote its attention to itself; it must not feel losses and should take a kindly view even of misfortunes.
On occasional intoxication:
Occasionally we should even come to the point of intoxication, sinking into drink but not being totally flooded by it; for it does wash away cares, and stirs the mind to its depths, and heals sorrow just as it heals certain diseases. Liber was not named because he loosens the tongue, but because he liberates the mind from its slavery to cares, emancipates it, invigorates it, and emboldens it for all its undertakings. But there is a healthy moderation in wine, as in liberty.
On living a fake life:
There is also another not inconsiderable source of anxieties, if you are too concerned to assume a pose and do not reveal yourself openly to anyone, like many people whose lives are false and aimed only at outward show. For it is agonizing always to be watching yourself in fear of being caught when your usual mask has slipped.
On despairing of immorality:
But there is no point in banishing the causes of private sorrow, for sometimes we are gripped by a hatred of the human race. When you consider how rare is simplicity and how unknown is innocence, how you scarcely ever find loyalty except when it is expedient, what a host of successful crimes you come across, and all the things equally hateful that men gain and lose through lust, and how ambition is now so far from setting limits to itself that it acquires a lustre from viciousness—all this drives the mind into a darkness whose shadows overwhelm it, as though those virtues were overturned which is not possible for and not useful to possess. We must therefore school ourselves to regard all commonly held vices as not hateful by ridiculous, and we should imitate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. For whenever these went out in public, the latter used to weep and the former to laugh; the latter thought all our activities sorrows, the former, follies. So we should make light of all things and endure them with tolerance: it is more civilized to make fun of life than to bewail it. Bear in mind too that he deserves better of the human race as well who laughs at it than he who grieves over it; since the one allows it a fair prospect of hope, while the other stupidly laments over things he cannot hope will be put right. And, all things considered, it is the mark of a greater mind not to restrain laughter than not to restrain tears, since laughter expresses the gentlest of our feelings, and reckons that nothing is great or serious or even wretched in all the trappings of our existence.
Quotations are taken from C.D.N Costa’s 1997 translation.