Who was Seneca?
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher. He was an advisor to emperor Nero who later ordered his suicide because of the alleged involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate emperor Nero. It seems that he, however, was innocent. Nevertheless, the influence of Seneca is undeniable — which is, in no small part, due to the letters he wrote.
In total Seneca wrote 124 letters, which were all sent to his friend Lucilius, advising him on how to become a better Stoic.
These letters have had a profound impact on philosophy and can guide all of us lead a better life; so let us explore the Letters in search of such wisdom.
As with most works, it is a product of its time, and it is defined by the underlying philosophy. There will be messages that you gain more from than others, which is to be expected. You may agree and you may disagree, but nevertheless, these messages are food for thought. I will try to expand upon these quotes in my own way, attempting to provide additional value and perhaps put them in a more modern context so that it is easier to take action upon them. Thereafter I will give you some practical advice on how you can use these Stoic principles in action.
1. A Well-Ordered Mind
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.
The normal state of the mind is chaos. Without any object in the external world that demands attention, people cannot focus for more than a few minutes at a time.
So, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests in Flow, daydreaming can help avoid chaos in our consciousness. Generally, the best way to avoid chaos in consciousness is through habits that give us control over our mental processes — rather than external sources of stimulation, such as the endless browsing of social media that many of us resort to.
“Great thinkers have always been motivated by the enjoyment of thinking rather than by the material rewards that could be gained by it” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
2. Be Grateful For What You Have
It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.
It is not our lack of possessions that make us poor; it is our attitude which does. If you always compare your own possessions to those of another, you will always feel as if you lack something. This is, however, not true.
Do not be jealous of someone who is famous, has a specific profession, or in another way has something you do not. They paid the price — they spent time, or wealth, on something which you did not. Why then are you jealous? You simply didn’t make the same exchange they did.
*“Do not dream of possession of what you do not have: rather reflect on the greatest blessings in what you do have, and on their account remind yourself how much they would have been missed if they were not there*. But at the same time you must be careful not to let your pleasure in them habituate you to dependency, to avoid distress if they are sometimes absent.” — Marcus Aurelius
‘Any man,’ he says, ‘who does not think that what he has is more than ample, is an unhappy man, even if he is the master of the whole world.
What difference does it make, after all, what your position in life is if you dislike it yourself?
3. Choosing Books
You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.
Read books by ‘unquestionably genius’ people slowly and digest what they say — that way you’ll get more out of your reading. When you read books quickly, only to move on to the next, you only get the big-picture idea of what the book details. Instead, you should study those books that have had a profound impact on you, or find the greatest books written.
I started 2020 by setting a goal of reading 100 books. I realized, however, that this wasn’t in alignment with my goals. I would barely be able to retain any of the knowledge, which was what I was seeking, not the achievement of reading 100 books in one year. What does it matter that one reads many books if they barely remember the name of the book they read?
This is why I will re-read The Best Books I’ve Read in 2019. And as Epictetus says…
“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”
4. Choosing Your Mentors and Friends
‘We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.’ [ — Epicurus] (…) 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 the crooked straight.
To choose a mentor for yourself, even if you never meet them, will help you become better. I do this myself. I have mentors in many aspects of my life, all of them which I wish to improve upon.
You do not need to choose someone who you have the chance of meeting, nor someone who you pay to mentor you. While paying for the service increases your own accountability, you can just as well pick someone who you will never meet. If you choose to do so, you still have access to their writings, and can learn from that all the same. Then, when you need their advice, you simply ask yourself “What would (my mentor) do?”.
We live in an age where information is freely accessible, so it is wise to take advantage of this. You can choose who you want to influence you; be they dead or alive, you choose who you spend your time with. Read their books, watch their videos, or listen to interviews with them.
Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.
5. Learn From the Past and Prepare for the Future
Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.
And as Seneca also said, “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality” and “What’s the good of dragging up sufferings which are over, of being unhappy now just because you were then?”.
We should learn from the past, not suffer from it. Likewise, we should prepare for the future, not dread what it might bring.
What really ruins our characters is the fact that none of us looks back over his life. We think about what we are going to do, and only rarely of that, and fail to think about what we have done, yet any plans for the future are dependent on the past.
A powerful way to review our life and reflect upon the past in a productive way is to journal. I personally keep a daily journal where I write about what I have done that day, as well as reflect upon my week every Sunday. This not only keeps me accountable and responsible for my own growth, but it also helps me learn from my mistakes and identify my faults and what is holding me back.
6. Obtaining Knowledge
To remember is to safeguard something entrusted to your memory, whereas to know, by contrast, is actually to make each item your own, and not to be dependent on some original and be constantly looking to see what the master said.
There is the saying that “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. There is a very large gap in knowledge between being able to recite knowledge simply because you know how it is formulated from where you read it, and being able to explain it because you know and understand it yourself.
To be truly knowledgeable is to know and understand what it is that you are saying, and being able to explain it to others so that they can understand it as well.
7. The Golden Rule
Treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors.
8. Living in Fear
You want to live — but do you know how to live? You are scared of dying — and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different from being dead?
As Marcus Aurelius said, “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live”. Living in fear of going past your comfort zone is not living life to the fullest. You have to push your limits in order to grow. This may be scary, but it is necessary. The thing is, we get to choose our pain. We either get to experience the pain of discipline or experience the pain of regret. Your choice.
“Imagine you are now dead, or had not lived before this moment. Now view the rest of your life as a bonus, and live it as nature directs.” — Marcus Aurelius.
My own advice to you — and not only in the present illness but in your whole life as well — is this: refuse to let the thought of death bother you: nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear.
9. Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Your Goals
Why, Lucilius, I ask you why should any real man be afraid of hardship, or any human being be afraid of death? I constantly meet people who think that what they themselves can’t do can’t be done, who say that to bear up under the things we Stoics speak of is beyond the capacity of human nature. How much more highly I rate these people’s abilities than they do themselves! I say that they are just as capable as others of doing these things, but won’t. In any event what person actually trying them has found them prove beyond him? Who hasn’t noticed how much easier they are in the actual doing?It’s not because they’re hard that we lose confidence; they’re hard because we lack the confidence.
As Marcus Aurelius said; “Do not imagine that, if something is hard for you to achieve, it is therefore impossible for any man: but rather consider anything that is humanly possible and appropriate to lie within your own reach too”.
When people look at a large goal or task, they usually see the mountain that they have to climb. But that’s not a very good way of looking at it. Instead, one should think of simply taking the first step. You do everything the same way that you do anything; you start, you take one step at a time, and you just keep going until you’ve finished.
Will Smith told a story in which he, along with his brother, was told to build a wall. He was only 12 years old at the time, so it seemed impossible. At one point, he even said to himself “There will be nothing but a giant hole here forever!”. But then, one and a half years later, they finished the wall — they laid the final brick. Their father stood back and said “don’t y’all ever tell me that you can’t do something” and walked into the shop.
The lesson that Will learned was that you don’t set out to build the biggest, baddest wall ever built. You set out to lay a brick as perfectly as a brick has ever been laid before. You do that every single day, and soon you’ll have a wall. It’s difficult to take that first step when you see how huge the task is, but remember… It’s always just one brick.
10. Being Self-Made
So continually remind yourself, Lucilius, of the many things you have achieved. When you look at all the people out in front of you, think of all the ones behind you.
Arnold Schwarzenegger gets asked quite often what, as a self-made man, his blueprint for success is. The answer always shocks the person asking, because he says “I am not a self-made man. I got a lot of help”.
Arnold, as he says, stood on the shoulders of giants. Joe Weider brought him to America and took him under his wing. Lucille Ball took a chance and let him guest star in a special, which he says is his first big break in Hollywood.
So he says; “So how can I ever claim to be self-made? To accept that mantle discounts every person and every piece of advice that got me here. And it gives the wrong impression — that you can do it alone. I couldn’t. And odds are, you can’t either.”
So when you are grateful for how far you have gotten, remember to be grateful also to every piece of advice you have ever received. Every man or woman who has ever helped you. For every inspired moment you have had because of another. Because without those, you wouldn’t be where you are today.
11. Overcoming Anger
What’s the use of overcoming opponent after opponent in the wrestling or boxing rings if you can be overcome by your temper?
Marcus Aurelius said, “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it”. We must realize that anger doesn’t solve the problem at hand. If you break something, does yelling at it fix it?
Mastery of one’s own emotions leads to a better life. Anger only makes a problem worse than it is.
“One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” — Leonardo da Vinci.
Putting The Letters into Practice
To achieve A Well-Ordered Mind, try to meditate for a few minutes every day. You do not have to do it for more than a few minutes. All you have to do is to find a nice spot to sit and be aware of your breath.
Being Grateful For What You Have is very important. Therefore you can practice gratitude every day — “reflect upon the greatest blessings in what you do have”. Write down what you are grateful for today. If you find that you dislike your position in life, you should do your best to change it.
When you are Choosing Books, instead of picking a new book each time, go back to the books that you think have had a profound impact on your life. If you haven’t found such a book yet, you could start by reading the Best Books I’ve Read in 2019 — These are the books that have changed my life greatly. You shouldn’t rush through a book when you are reading it. Do your best to learn from it, and show that you have learned something by putting it into action.
Choosing Your Mentors can be done by picking someone you idolize in an area of your life that you’d like to improve upon. When you have chosen one, try to learn from them by reading their books, articles, or by watching their interviews. When Choosing Your Friends, try to seek out people who will improve you. This is a two-way street, so help those who you can help as well.
Learning From The Past and Preparing For The Future can be done by keeping a daily journal in which you reflect upon your day. Herein you shouldn’t try to victimize yourself, but instead, ask what you could have done better that day.
When you want to learn something new, to Obtain Knowledge, you should try the Feynman Technique. It is a powerful technique that helps one understand subjects.
The Golden Rule is very practical in nature; Treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors.
To avoid Living in Fear, you should try to do something every day that is a bit outside your comfort zone. Try to improve yourself every day; to be a little better than you were yesterday. You don’t have to do much, because something — no matter how small — is better than nothing. Read one page in a book, do one pushup, go for a small walk. Try to put some distance between you and living a hedonistic life. You’ll be much happier for it.
To Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Your Goals you should divide your goals into smaller tasks. Instead of thinking about the large goal that might take a long time to achieve, think of what you can do on a weekly or even daily basis. What can you do today that will help you achieve this goal? You don’t have to achieve it by tomorrow — these things take time. But if you have a goal, you should at least put in the effort to achieve it. So divide your goals into small daily tasks.
When you think that you are a Self-Made person, remind yourself — in your journal, for example — that you are not a self-made person. You have had help. So try to write that you are grateful for the people in your life. Be specific; what advice or help have you received this week?
To Overcome Anger, the next time something unfortunate happens and you feel the need to become angry, try to instead think of how you can solve the problem — remember that anger won’t fix the issue.
- Practice gratitude.
- Reread life-changing books.
- Pick a mentor and learn from them.
- Keep a daily journal.
- Use the Feynman Technique to learn.
- Practice the Golden Rule.
- Divide and conquer your goals.
- Remember that you are not self-made.
- Anger will not fix the issue — so instead think of a solution.