The Contradictions of Seneca

Seneca, who lived in turbulent ancient rome, is an interesting man to know. He was a prolific writer, playwright, philosopher, and adviser to emperor. His stoic philosophy is much admired even today. His moral writings on how to lead a good life are compelling reads — practical & logical.

His essays, letters, speeches & dramas are full of ideas, advice, & suggestions on how to live well. Sample these

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

If you compare all the other things from which we suffer, deaths, illnesses, fears, desires, endurance of pains and toils, with the evils which money brings us, the latter will far outweigh the others.

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.

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.

Let us not envy those who stand higher than we do: what look like towering heights are precipices.

One man is bound by high office, another by wealth; good birth weighs down some, and a humble origin others; some bow under the rule of other men and some under their own; some are restricted to one place by exile, others by priesthoods: all life is a servitude. So you have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it.

What can happen to one can happen to all.’ If you let this idea sink into your vitals, and regard all the ills of other people (of which every day shows an enormous supply) as having a clear path to you too, you will be armed long before you are attacked.

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.

It is not that we have a brief length of time to live, but that we squander a great deal of that time.

It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil.

The man who … organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day…

Seneca was obviously wise.

Yet his life was full of contradictions. He amassed huge fortune even as he spoke out against wealth & material pleasures. He threw parties in his villas, was accused of adultery and hypocrisy, but was also considered a great stoic sage of his times. His reputation for wisdom & rhetoric led to his appointment as the king’s tutor & advisor, but his alleged involvement in palace intrigues & conspiracies doesn’t exactly fit the ideal of a sage & philosopher.

Seneca thought deeply about the world, people around him, their behaviors in good & bad situations, and how to best live & die. Many of his ideas make practical sense, and can be used in our daily lives, even today.

But he was a complex man. He struggled with a life so different from his teachings. His dramas & writings are alive with characters facing dilemmas hauntingly similar to his own. The significant departure from his teachings was his choice to remain actively engaged in politics & society, rather than a quiet & contemplative life as preferred by many other stoics.

Even his death was complex, as if befitting a man who often thought & wrote about dying. He was forced to commit suicide, after being accused of plotting to kill the very king he tutored & advised. He cut his wrists, but blood didn’t flow out fast enough. He then cut his ankles & behind his knees, and drank poison, all in vain. Finally, he had to step into a steam bath to suffocate himself to death.

Interesting man to know.

Read Dialogues & Letters by Seneca, The Greatest Empire : A Life of Seneca and Dying Every Day : Seneca at the Court of Nero

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