Lessons from Seneca
What can we learn today from his life and philosophy?
Who was Lucius Annaeus Seneca? On one view he was a privileged hypocrite who preached virtue while silently endorsing unspeakable crimes and who praised the simple life while enjoying fabulous wealth. Originally from Spain, he ended up moving in the highest political circles of Rome in the first century AD. After a run-in with the wife of the Emperor Claudius he found himself banished to Corsica for a decade, only to be recalled on condition that he take on the role of tutor to a young boy who would go on to become the Emperor Nero.
The charitable view would hold that Seneca did his best to reign in the excesses of the young Nero but when he accepted that this was a lost cause he did his best to extricate himself from the situation and retire from public life as much as he could. A subsequent plot against Nero became connected with his name and he was forced to commit suicide, an event graphically described by the historian Tacitus. However one looks at it, Seneca’s life was marked by a series of extreme ups and downs.
Seneca as Philosopher
Seneca was also a philosopher, a self-proclaimed follower of Stoicism. Again, the critical view would present him as a mere dilettante, dressing up a few high-minded ethical maxims in showy rhetoric but with little interest in the technical details of serious philosophy. While it is true that Seneca was not a philosopher in the mould of a modern academic, neither were many other philosophers from antiquity or, indeed, a good deal of the history of philosophy since. For Seneca, philosophy was above all else a source of guidance about how to live and his philosophical reflections deal for the most part with highly practical issues that are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote them.
As a Stoic, Seneca aligned himself with a school of philosophy that was already hundreds of years old. The school had been founded in Athens around 300BC by Zeno of Citium. Unfortunately, all of the works of Zeno and his Athenian successors are now lost. As a consequence, Seneca’s works are the oldest complete works that survive by a Stoic and on some topics, such as their signature theory of the emotions, he is a vital source of information. On other topics he confirms what we know from other sources, but unlike those often dry and formal accounts, Seneca vividly brings to life just what would be involved in living a Stoic life — both the challenges and the benefits.
It is also easy to underestimate his intellectual range. Not only did Seneca write a series of essays dealing with such practical issues — mortality, adversity, anger, but also leisure, tranquillity, happiness — he also wrote about a number of topics in the natural sciences — rivers, thunder and lightning, earthquakes, comets — and he produced a substantial body of dramatic work. That’s before we get to his lengthy correspondence with Lucilius, which probably remains his most famous work. Anyone else who could produce works of moral philosophy, science, and literature would rightly be called a polymath. But for some reason Seneca has struggled to attain that sort of widespread acclaim.
It was not always so. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance his reputation was quite different. One striking medieval miniature in a manuscript containing a series of philosophical texts places Seneca centre-stage, flanked either side by Plato and Aristotle. Writing in the twelfth century, Peter Abelard called him the greatest of moral philosophers. Two hundred years later Francesco Petrarch hailed him the greatest of teachers. Around the same time the University of Piacenza in Italy founded a Chair in Seneca Studies. He, alongside Cicero, shaped many of the attitudes of the early Humanists. Erasmus, who edited printed editions of Seneca’s works in the sixteenth century, wrote “anyone who reads him with a desire for improvement will be left a better man”.
What did Seneca have to say that generated such praise? What advice did he offer and, as importantly, what practical advice can we extract from Seneca’s works that might be useful today? Here are some key ideas:
Keep calm. There is nothing more destructive than a violent emotion out of control, or so Seneca argued in his essay On Anger. He knew all too well how dangerous anger could be, especially when it took control of someone with the power of life or death over others. Once it gets a grip on someone there is literally no reasoning with them. In a memorable image Seneca likened it to being thrown off a tall building, hurtling towards the ground unable to do anything about it. The problem is that reacting angrily to things can easily become a habit: the more often we are angry, the quicker we will be to anger in the future. Destructive emotions like anger, jealousy, or fear of others are, he argued, unnatural in so far as they undermine our natural sociability. So how best to break this unnatural cycle? Seneca’s response was simple and humane: we just need to show a bit more toleration towards each other, acknowledging that neither they nor us are perfect.
Avoid constant distraction. In his essay On the Shortness of Life Seneca argued that living in the full, engaged sense of the word is something most people experience only in brief moments. For the rest of the time they are distracted by trivialities, not really paying attention to anything at all, and certainly not to anything that matters. It becomes impossible to do any one thing well, if one is busy with many things at once. Before we know it, we’ve not done anything, despite being in a constant state of busyness. “Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man, yet nothing is harder to learn.” To anyone who complains that life is too short, Seneca responds by saying that it only seems so because so much of it gets wasted. Often people give away their time to others, in a way that they would never do with their money, despite the fact that time is incomparably more valuable. Unlike money, time can never be replaced. The distracted person is often constantly busy, pursuing things, acquiring things, but never with the time to enjoy whatever it is they think they need in order to live well. Once someone has fallen into this mode of being, as soon as a distraction ends, they become restless, desperate for a new preoccupation, and anxious if they cannot find one. They become unable simply to sit still alone, even for a few moments.
Prioritize leisure. The opposite of the constant busyness of the preoccupied person is the quiet of leisure. Seneca devoted a whole essay to the topic. For us ‘leisure’ often means a whole series of activities outside of paid work that can be just as hectic as work itself. That’s not what Seneca had in mind. By ‘leisure’ he meant, in the first instance, doing nothing, being neither distracted nor pre-occupied, but fully awake in the present moment. Any ‘leisure activity’ that requires a serious effort — Seneca mentions games, sports, even sunbathing — don’t count. So the first stage involves simply slowing down, doing nothing, becoming fully aware of the here and now. He saw this as primarily a solitary affair; we are often better when we are by ourselves, free from the influence of others. But what then? If time is so valuable, surely we ought not to waste it all doing nothing. What is our newly found leisure for? For Seneca a truly worthwhile use of one’s leisure time is to devote it to intellectual pursuits. Inevitably he mentions philosophy, but he takes this in a broad sense, encompassing what we could now classify as science and history alongside archetypal philosophical questions, and Seneca spent some of his own leisure time writing tragedies. What unites all these things is that they involve rational reflection about the world and our place within it. Such reflection is not only valuable in itself but it also contextualizes our own lives and helps us to determine what truly matters to us.
Live modestly. Too many people, Seneca observed, waste a large part of their lives in the pursuit of wealth that they’ll never have the time to enjoy. Not only will they toil to acquire it, they’ll then become anxious about losing it. The more they get, the more resentful they become: “although they have received much, they count it an injury that they did not receive more”. They constantly look ahead at those even wealthier than themselves, but rarely pause to look back at all those behind them. If they are successful and attain an affluent lifestyle they are unlikely to have any time left over for the sort of leisure that Seneca thought really matters. Such success is won at the cost of life, as he put it. The way out of all this is easy, he argued: be content with a simple and frugal way of life. Once the essentials are covered there is no need to strive for anything further. While some people suffer genuine deprivation, a far greater number already have everything they need without fully realizing it, trapped as they are in a constant struggle to acquire more and more. While poverty certainly generates real anxieties, excessive wealth has its own problems too, and is equally best avoided.
Learn from challenges. In Seneca’s essay On Providence he responded to the traditional problem of evil: why do bad things happen to good people if the universe is organized in a providential way? As a Stoic, Seneca did believe that the universe was organized by a rational and providential power permeating all of nature, which the Stoics identified with Zeus. What’s interesting about his response, though, is that it turns on what one thinks counts as a bad thing to happen. He argued that many of the things that people usually count as adversities ought instead to be seen as benefits. His argument depends upon wider claims in Stoic ethics, in particular the view that the only thing that is genuinely good is an excellent, virtuous character, while external things and events are mere ‘indifferents’ with no inherent value, even if some might be preferable over others. All things being equal, we’d all prefer to be healthy rather than sick, but, the Stoics claimed, it is still possible to enjoy a good life even when sick, so long as one has a virtuous character. With this in mind, Seneca argued that many so-called adversities are not only not genuinely bad but in fact do us good. It is only through experiencing bad luck that people get the chance to develop their characters. Admirable traits such as resilience, courage, and perseverance don’t just appear out of nowhere; they are hard won through the experience of misfortune. Seneca’s key point is this: insofar as these experiences enable us to develop our characters for the better, they are in fact beneficial and so should be welcomed. Bad fortune turns out to be good for us. By contrast, excessive good fortune can make people ungrateful, lazy, and complacent. However, there’s not much point getting overly concerned by either good or bad fortune, given that both are out of our control, but when faced with some difficult challenge, Seneca reminds us that we might actually come out the other side stronger and better for it, even if it might not feel like it at the time.
Don’t be too ambitious. Many people have taken up Stoic ideas about resilience as useful advice for people in the modern workplace. One needs to toughen up and learn from setbacks if one is ultimately to succeed. Seneca’s view was quite different. He was all too conscious of the perils of ambition, having made it to the very top and fallen down more than once. Ambition fuels our desires and expectations, leading to frustration and disappointment when we fail, which we inevitably will at least some of the time. The ideal, of course, is to avoid those sorts of emotional responses to setbacks, but all of us will have them from time to time, because none of us are perfect. In the light of what we have already seen we might also want to pause and reflect on what it is that we are striving so hard to achieve. For Seneca, it’s not material wealth beyond what’s required for a modest, comfortable life. Instead, what’s most valuable is the time for meaningful leisurely activity, and all too often ambition eats into our time rather than freeing it up.
Find a meaningful activity. So, what did Seneca think we ought to do with our lives? We have already seen him praise the value of intellectual pursuits such as philosophy. He wasn’t particularly prescriptive about this, but he did advise that everyone needs an important, meaningful activity in their lives, no matter what it is. Too many people, he wrote in On the Shortness of Life, have no aim in their life at all; they simply drift along wasting time and before they know it, it’s over. Find something, he recommends, whatever it is, something that feels like a worthwhile use of the limited time you have, so that at the end of your life, whenever it comes, you’ll have something to show for your brief time on earth.
On the one hand Seneca presents living a happy life as relatively easy; it’s the hyper-busy, constantly-distracted, emotionally-invested, over-ambitious life that is hard work. On the other, finding the right meaningful activity around which to shape our lives is no easy feat. For Seneca himself, it was without doubt philosophy. As he put it, “if I were not allowed access to these [philosophical] questions, it would not have been worth being born … take away this invaluable blessing, and life is not worth the sweat and the panic”. For Seneca, philosophy not only teaches us how to live but it also gives our lives meaning. It is the most appropriate activity for a rational, reflective animal. The trouble is that many of us are too distracted by trivialities to find the time for it — the time simply to think.