Consolation to Helvia: Seneca on the Perception of Misfortune and Grief

Consolation to Helvia is a letter that Roman philosopher Seneca wrote to his mother while he was exiled in Corsica by Emperor Claudius. He ended up exiled for eight years after being accused of adultery by the new empress Messalina. His writing explains how he can take grace from his life situation, and gives his mother advice on how to deal with his ongoing absence.

Even though this it was meant as a private letter, it is filled with wisdom that is still applicable to modern life.

Seneca starts by acknowledging his misfortune, but understanding that his situation does have at least one advantage. It reminds me of a quote by ex-Navy SEAL Jocko Willink on why he says the word ‘good’ even when things seem bad: “It means you’re still alive. It means you’re still breathing. And if you’re still breathing, that means you’ve still got some fight left in you.” Seneca writes:

“Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.”

Seneca explains that there are different ways to deal with pain, and that one way is more desirable than the other:

“But just as recruits, even when superficially wounded, cry aloud and dread being handled by doctors more than the sword, while veterans, even if severely wounded, patiently and without a groan allow their wounds to be cleaned as though their bodies did not belong to them; so you must now offer yourself bravely for treatment.”

Seneca posits that happiness comes from within, not from the accumulation of material possessions:

“It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy… 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.”

Seneca explains that often the destruction that misfortune can bring to one’s life is proportional to how unexpected it was. He not only recommends to expect the misfortune, but to also be unattached to the riches fortune brings when things are going well, so that when things turn for the worse, strength of spirit still stays intact. He writes:

“Fortune falls heavily on those to whom she is unexpected; the man who is always expecting her easily withstands her… 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… But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change.”

Seneca goes on to explain that his place of exile is not so undesirable – people move to Corsica of their own free will! He writes:

“You will find no place of exile where somebody does not linger because he wants to… Yet more foreigners than natives live here… Even this place has enticed some people from their homeland.”

Seneca champions the ability of humans to be able to adapt to changing circumstances, just as the rest of nature:

“How silly then to imagine that the human mind, which is formed of the same elements as divine beings, objects to movement and change of abode, while the divine nature finds delights and even self-preservation in continual and rapid change.”

Seneca poses that the two fundamental parts of existence are nature and the human mind, and that these two factors remain unperturbed no matter what happens in life. He also explains that there is no such thing as exile:

“The world you see, nature’s greatest and most glorious creation, and the human mind which gazes and wonders at it, is the most splendid part of it, these are our own everlasting possessions and will remain with us as long as we ourselves remain… There can be no exile within the world since nothing within the world is alien to men.”

Seneca then says that poverty can be a blessing in disguise for people who are seemingly addicted to their vices. This act of going ‘cold turkey’ isn’t out of choice, but at the end of the day it still stops the behavior. It’s to this point that I feel that the reason why the rich and famous get caught up in scandal so often isn’t because a lack of collective character, but simply that average people don’t have as many opportunities to engage in scandal as famous people do. Seneca writes:

“If he longs for [banquets], poverty even does him good: for against his will he is being cured, and even if under compulsion he does not take his medicine, for a time at least his inability to have those things looks like unwillingness.”

Seneca highlights that perception is paramount to contentedness. This is why some people that seemingly have it all commit suicide, leaving others perplexed as to how someone with so much can feel so bad that they end their own lives. Seneca goes on to explain that humans don’t need much to satisfy our nature, but by adding in greed we will never feel sated. He reassures his mother that he has more than enough in Corsica to support himself, even though he is exiled. He writes:

“How then can you think that it is the amount of money that matters and not the attitude of the mind? [Apicius] dreaded having ten million, and what others pray for he escaped by poison… Nothing satisfies greed, but even a little satisfies nature. So an exile’s poverty brings no hardship; for no place of exile is so barren it cannot abundantly support a man.”

Seneca writes of the phenomenon that people will always normalize their level happiness to their situation after time passes. Research has shown that the happiness of lottery-winners and quadriplegics both level off within three years of their respective life-changing event. Seneca writes:

“It is his fault, not nature’s, if he feels poor. Even if you give back all he has lost, you’ll be wasting your time; for once he is back from exile he will feel a greater lack compared with his desires than he felt as an exile compared with his former possessions.”

Seneca beautifully describes in a metaphor how the man longing for more and more possessions isn’t doing it out of need, but has in fact infected his soul with the disease of greed. He writes:

“Though he piles all these [possessions] up, they will never sate his insatiable soul; just as no amount of fluid will satisfy one whose craving arises not from lack of water but from a burning internal fever: for that is not thirst but a disease.”

Here’s another reminder from Seneca that our wealth is created by perception. One man’s rich is another man’s poor:

“So the man who restrains himself within the bounds set by nature will not notice poverty; the man who exceeds these bounds will be pursued by poverty however rich he is… It is the mind that creates our wealth.”

Seneca even suggests that the poor may in fact be happier than the rich, and that circumstances like travel and war acts as an equalizer for the gap between rich and poor:

“First consider that by far the greater proportion of men are poor, but you will not see them looking at all more gloomy and anxious than the rich. In fact, I rather suspect that they are happier in proportion as their minds have less to harry them. Let us pass on to the rich: how frequently are they just like the poor! When they travel abroad their luggage is restricted… When they are serving in the army, how little of their belongings do they keep with them, since camp discipline forbids any luxury!”

Once again Seneca mentions that misfortune is a teacher that can strengthen the soul for subsequent challenges in one’s life:

“If you have the strength to tackle any one aspect of misfortune you can tackle it all.”

So strong was a man like Socrates, Seneca explains how his grace transformed reality itself:

“Socrates went to prison… and his presence robbed even prison of disgrace, for where Socrates was could not seem a prison.”

Seneca also affirms the importance of self-love, and that hate is only validated if it is believed:

“No man is despised by another unless he is first despised by himself.”

Pretty much any worthwhile story is one of the protagonist conquering fear and displaying courage. Seneca knew this:

“For we are naturally disposed to admire more than anything else the man who shows fortitude in adversity.”

Seneca recognizes that embarrassment can be perceived worse than death itself. He highlights the importance of dying in a dignified way:

“I know some people say that nothing is worse than scorn and that even death seems preferable. To these I shall reply that exile too is often free from any kind of scorn. If a great man falls and remains great as he lies, people no more despise him than they stamp on a fallen temple, which the devout still worship as much as when it was standing.”

Seneca segues into his view on how to mourn and grieve. He describes the story of Rutilia and her son Cotta, which he hopes that his mother can emulate:

“They did not prohibit mourning but they limited it. For to be afflicted with endless sorrow at the loss of someone very dear is foolish self-indulgence, and to feel none is inhuman callousness. The best compromise between love and good sense is both to feel longing and to conquer it… Nor was [Rutilia] ever seen to weep after [Cotta’s] funeral. She showed courage when he was exiled and wisdom when he died; for nothing stopped her showing her love and nothing induced her to persist in useless and unavailing grief.”

Finally, Seneca reminds his mother that grief is better to be conquered than deceived through distraction:

“Sometimes we divert our mind with public shows or gladiatorial contests, but in the very midst of the distractions of the spectacles it is undermined by some little reminder of its loss. Therefore it is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it.”

Seneca’s writings always pack a punch in the thought-provoking subjects he brings up on how to live.

What was your biggest takeaway from Consolation to Helvia? Let me know in the comments below.