Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – AD 65) was a Roman Stoic philosopher and stateman. As with Marcus Aurelius, Seneca saw Stoicism as a philosophy that would help one cope with the trials and tribulations that life throws at us. In the passages that follow, we have concentrated on the role he believes that philosophy can play in one’s life (and by philosophy he means stoic philosophy), including at one point referring to such study as belonging to liberal education.
Is Seneca’s stoicism a helpful response to our own current difficulties?
I have surrendered myself to wise men … They have ordered me to take a firm stand, like a sentry on guard, and to foresee all the attacks and all the onslaughts of Fortune long before they hit me. She falls heavily on those to whom she is unexpected; the man who is always expecting her easily withstands her.
You really should leave the ground and turn your thoughts to these studies. Now while the blood is hot you should make your way with vigour to better things. In this kind of life you will find much that is worth your study: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, the knowledge of how to live and die, and a life of deep tranquillity.
[None of the wise men] will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die. None of them will exhaust your years, but each will contribute his years to yours. With none of these will conversation be dangerous, or his friendship fatal, or attendance on him expensive. From them you can take whatever you wish: it will not be their fault if you do not take your fill from them. What happiness, what a fine old age awaits the man who has made himself a client of these! He will have friends whose advice he can ask on the most important or the most trivial matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, who will tell him the truth without insulting him and praise him without flattery, who will offer him a pattern on which to model himself.
And so I am leading you to that resource which must be the refuge of all who are flying from Fortune, liberal studies.
Seneca suggests that your studies, and not property or wealth, will stand the test of time.
Honours, monuments, whatever the ambitious have ordered by decrees or raised in public buildings are soon destroyed: there is nothing that the passage of time does not demolish and remove. But it cannot damage the works which philosophy has consecrated: no age will wipe them out, no age diminish them.
Seneca says that Stoicism teaches one not to trust Fortune, as it is a false god.
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.
Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me – money, public office, influence – I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away. No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. 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.
The idea that you have control over events, or over life and death especially, is an illusion says Seneca. To learn this is to be on the path to a restful soul and a life of tranquillity.
Whatever is best for a human being lies outside human control: it can be neither given nor taken away.
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 led astray by the many tracks which cross yours of people who are hopelessly lost, though some are wandering not far from the true path. But what you are longing for is great and supreme and nearly divine – not to be shaken. The Greeks call this steady firmness of mind ‘euthymia’ (Democritus wrote a good treatise about it), but I call it tranquillity, as there is no need to imitate and reproduce the form of Greek words: the point at issue must be indicated by some term which should have the sense but not the form of the Greek name. 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 tranquillity.
And how is this tranquillity to be achieved? For Seneca it is alongside study.
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 that many storm winds will not still assail those who spread their sails ambitiously. We must restrict our activities so that Fortune’s weapons miss their mark.