Born into a powerful Italian family in southern Spain more than two thousand years ago, Lucius Antaeus Seneca was educated in Rome. An early teacher and mentor was the Stoic philosopher Attalus. Seneca suffered from severe depression and physical ill health for much of his life but benefitted tremendously from a broad mind and love of learning.
As Romes most influential power broker, his life was a parallel path of political influence on the one hand and philosophical self reflection on the other.
Exiled to Corsica for arousing jealousy with emperor Claudius, he spent eight years in exile. During that time he wrote to his own mother consoling her for his exile. Seneca’s life took another twist when Agrippina, mother of future emperor Nero and wife of Claudius brought him back to Rome to become Nero’s personal tutor.
Later on Nero was to become one of the most notorious emperors ever in the history of the Roman Empire, which was to raise even more questions about Seneca’s mentorship and character. Ironically Senecas eventual death came at the hand of Nero who assumed him to be part of a conspiracy to assassinate him.
Throughout his life he borrowed ideas not only from Stoic influences but more widely from other philosophical schools especially the Epicureans. His teachings have inspired many great minds throughout the ages including Francis Bacon, Erasmus and Shakespeare.
As a powerful politician, renowned writer and playwright, as well as advisor to the emperor, he was at one time one of the richest people in the Roman Empire. Seneca knew he was far from perfect. ‘I am not a wise man and I never will be.’
In his work Seneca wrote extensively about how Stoic philosophy influenced his own life experiences and how it’s practical application enables him to deal with the vagaries of fortune and everyday ups and downs of life. From massive wealth to exile to handling with dignity the suicide order from his own pupil Nero, his reflections have life lessons for all, regardless of what you may be facing. He wrote that philosophy ‘mounds and constructs the soul.’
As an exemplar of Stoic philosophy, Seneca embodied the fragile moral nature of mankind AND the fiery inner strength, resilience, fortitude and indefatigable spirit in dealing with adversity.
Reputed to be one of the most readable of all ancient philosophers, Senecas most notable works came in the form of letters.
– Letters from a Stoic
Seneca gives timely trusted advice here to friends on how to deal with a variety of life challenges from betrayal and bereavement to wealth and education.
– Letter On Anger
Seneca was a brilliant psychologist and wrote fascinating insights into anger management.
Highlighting that you are influenced by your associations ‘vices move stealthily and swiftly pass to all those nearest….so in selecting friends we must pay attention to their characters.’
Encouraging you to repeatedly examine the beliefs that trigger your negative emotion. For Seneca a sense of entitlement, expectancy and ingratitude driven by an overactive ego are major triggers of anger. ‘We shall prevent ourselves from becoming angry if we repeatedly place before our eyes all angers faults and form a proper judgement of it.’ In other words to see the world as it really is rather than as you believe it should be.
Accepting the reality that life can be ‘harsh and unconquerable.’ Describing how you can choose how to respond in any given situation. ‘The greatest cure for anger is to wait.’
– Letter ‘On The Shortness of Life.’ where he reminds you of how valuable and non – renewable your greatest resource – your time – really is. ‘We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not Ill-supplied but wasteful of it.’ This is a perfect antidote to feelings of stress and anxiety, providing a much needed reality check.
On The Shortness of Life
Key Life Lessons
– Fight Your Untamed Ego
‘The chief obstacle is that we are quick to be satisfied with ourselves. So it follows that we don’t want to change because we believe we are already excellent.’
Seneca was acutely aware of how the ego brain with its focus on incessant praise and instant gratification, expectancy, entitlement and ’meitis’ can become major barriers to self development and real growth.
– Find A Role Model
‘Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight.’
As Plutarch wrote in Parallel Lives, Seneca advocates having a role model as a bedrock for your lived values and everyday actions. Having someone who is on higher ground can support you in principled living and act as a standard against which your own behavior and actions can be benchmarked.
- Values Over Valuables
‘For the wise man regards wealth as a slave, the fool as a master.’
‘For the wise man does not consider himself unworthy of any gifts from Fortune’s hands: he does not love wealth but he would rather have it; he does not admit into his heart but into his home; and what wealth is his he does not reject but keeps, wishing it to supply greater scope for him to practice his virtue.’
Seneca considered wealth as something to enjoy but not to pursue or become a prisoner of it. He saw himself as a master of his wealth and not it’s slave, making his wealth work for him in practicing his virtue.
– Develop Your Inner World
‘I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within.’
Seneca was masterful at protecting his inner world, a safe space where he could write essays so profound that they would impact the lives of millions up to the present day.This was achieved against a backdrop of constant noise and potential distraction, not just from the cacophony of Rome’s busy streets but from the constant chaos created by financial and political uncertainty. These distractions were enough ‘to make me hate my very powers of hearing.’
Seneca believed that nothing in the outside world can really do you harm. That every obstacle was an opportunity to cultivate your strength, reason and moral conscience. To connect with the Logos (cosmic consciousness).
This belief enables you to foster really resilience, to face adversity with detached indifference. To accept and adjust to life’s circumstances, letting inner virtue become its own reward.
Words that Inspire – Seneca Quotes
‘Think your way through difficulties: harsh conditions can be softened, restricted ones can be widened, and heavy ones can weigh less on those who know how to bear them.’
‘Let all your activity be directed to some object, let it have some end in view.’
‘Regard all adversity as a training exercise.’
‘Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.’
‘We say that nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation.’
‘Believe me it is better to understand the balance-sheet of one’s own life than of the corn trade.’
‘We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not Ill-supplied but wasteful of it.’
‘Nothing is more honourable
than a grateful heart.’
‘Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.’
‘We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.’
‘If a man knows not which port he sails, no wind is favorable.’
‘No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.’
‘Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.’
‘He who fears death will never do anything worth of a man who is alive.’
‘This is our big mistake: to think we look forward to death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.’
‘Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.’
‘A gift consists not of what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.’
‘I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.’
‘How does it help…to make troubles heavier by bemoaning 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 are scared of dying—and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different than being dead?’
‘True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, for he that is so wants nothing.’
‘Wherever there is a human being, we have an opportunity for kindness.’
‘Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those who you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.’
‘The greatest wealth is a poverty of desires.’
‘In the mean time, cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases.’
‘One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.’
‘Let the mind, then, stand in readiness, and let it never fear whatever must be, let it always expect whatever may be.’
‘Let no one rob me of a single day who is not going to make me an adequate return for such a loss.’
‘They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.’
‘Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.’
‘You are living as if destined to live forever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.’
‘Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.’
‘How does it help…to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them?’
‘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? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it? Aren’t you ashamed to keep for yourself just the remnants of your life, and to devote to wisdom only that time which cannot be spent on any business? How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end!’
‘Begin at once to live, and count each day as a separate life.’