On Tranquility of Mind: Seneca on How to Achieve Peace of Mind, Happiness and Fulfillment

On Tranquility of Mind is a letter from Seneca to his friend Serenus, advising him on how to cure his worry, anxiety and dissatisfaction. Seneca brings to light the endless dichotomies in life, and that in the end, it’s all about balance.

Seneca starts by noting that fickleness can be detrimental, and that as we age, we naturally are less inclined for change than we are when young:

“There are those too who toss around like insomniacs, and keep changing their position until they find rest through sheer weariness. They keep altering the condition of their lives, and eventually stick to that one in which they are trapped not by weariness with further change but by old age which is too sluggish for novelty.”

He encourages us to take responsibility and ownership of our lives, instead of blaming external conditions:

“And so we must realize that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but ourselves.”

A warning that was a hot topic in his On the Shortness of Life essay, Seneca reminds us:

“Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.”

Seneca warns that our time is precious, and whether the time we spend with people is makes their lives any better. This is rather thought-provoking, as people are probably more inclined to ask themselves whether their friends are good for them, not the other way round. He writes:

“We must be especially careful in choosing people, and deciding whether they are worth devoting a part of our lives to them, whether the sacrifice of our time makes a difference to them.”

However, Seneca does acknowledge the importance of having friends and beautifully describes the characteristics of a valuable friendship:

“But nothing delights the mind so much as fond and loyal friendship. What a blessing it is to have hearts that are ready and willing to receive all your secrets in safety, with whom you are less afraid to share knowledge of something than keep it to yourself, whose conversation soothes your distress, whos advice helps you make up your mind, whose cheerfulness dissolves your sorrow, whose very appearance cheers you up!”

Using a topical metaphor, Seneca understands the danger of spending time with people of poor character:

“It follows that, just as at a time of an epidemic disease we must take care not to sit beside people whose bodies are infected with feverish disease because we shall risk ourselves and suffer from their breathing upon us, so in choosing our friends for their characters we shall take care to find those who are the least corrupted.

On the other hand, Seneca acknowledges that wise men are rare and that we should seek a compromise. He describes that having a friend who complains all the time is dangerous, even if they have other redeeming traits. He writes:

“I am not enjoining upon you to follow and associate with none but a wise man. For where will you find him whom we have been seeking for ages? In place of the ideal we must put up with the least bad… Still you must especially avoid those who are gloomy and always lamenting, and who grasp at every pretext for complaint. Though a man’s loyalty and kindness may not be in doubt, a companion who is agitated and groaning about everything is an enemy to peace of mind.”

Then, Seneca highlights the phenomenon whereby it is much more impactful experiencing the loss of money, as opposed to not having the money in the first place:

“So we must bear in mind how much lighter is the pain of not having money than of losing it… So you will notice that those people are more cheerful whom Fortune has never favoured than those whom she has deserted.”

He brings up an example of loss, and how someone dealt with it with incredible virtue:

“Yet when Diogenes was told that his only slave had run away, he did not think it worth the trouble to get him back. ‘It would be degrading,’ he said, ‘if Manes can live without Diogenes and not Diogenes without Manes.’

But, Seneca understands that most people aren’t as wise and virtuous as Diogenes. He asks us to limit our possessions and money so that we are sheltered from the damage that misfortune can deal out. He writes:

“But since we have not such strength of will, we must at least curtail our possessions, so we may be less exposed to the blows of Fortune… So the ideal amount of money is that which neither falls within the range of poverty nor far exceeds it.”

Seneca invites us to see possessions as their function, and to restrain ourselves from the seductive nature of our vices. He summarizes by reminding us that being rich is a mindset we can control ourselves:

“Let us get used to banishing ostentation, and to measuring things by their qualities of function rather than display. Let food banish hunger and drink banish thirst; let sex indulge its needs; let us learn to rely on our limbs, and to adjust our style of dress and our way not to the newfangled patterns but to the customs of our ancestors. 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… and to aim to acquire our riches from ourselves rather than from Fortune.”

Seneca also proposes that people that cannot practice frugality through intention alone, can place themselves in positions of poverty on purpose so they have no choice. It’s akin to an addict going cold turkey to starve their impulses from gratification. He writes:

“When the mind is less amenable to instruction and cannot be cured by milder means, why should it not be helped by having a dose of poverty and disgrace and general ruin – dealing with evil by evil?”

Seneca even highlights a more subtle indulgence:

“It is far better to devote yourself to a few authors than to get lost among many… That was not good taste or devotion but scholarly self-indulgence – in fact, not even scholarly, since they had collected the books not for scholarship but for display… So we should buy enough books for use, and none just for embellishment.”

Seneca then describes how there are no circumstances so bad that perception cannot change from distress to relaxation:

“You must reflect that fettered prisoners only at first feel the weight of the shackles on their legs: in time, when they have decided not to struggle against but to bear them, they learn from necessity to endure with fortitude, and from habit to endure with ease. In any situation in life you will find delights and relaxations and pleasures if you are prepared to make light of your troubles and not let them distress you.”

He reminds us that the strong emotions that bad news and adversity bring are impermanent:

“No one could endure lasting adversity if it continued to have the same force as when it first hit us.”

No matter what the situation, there are pros and cons. So often in life you can find that weakness lies in strength, and strength lies in weakness. Seneca writes:

“We are all held in the same captivity, and those who have bound others are themselves in bonds… One man is bound by high office, another by wealth; good birth weighs down some, and a humble origin others; some bow under the rule of other men and some under their own; some are restricted to one place by exile, others by priesthoods: all life is servitude. So you have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it.”

Seneca warns us to be careful of what we wish for. People who have a high standing in society have plenty of problems, and the responsibilities they take on mean they have a longer way to fall:

“And let us not envy those who stand higher than we do: what look like towering heights are precipices.”

Seneca describes the graceful way to deal if misfortune strikes, and suggests that we are merely borrowing our riches for them to be returned someday:

“And whenever he is ordered to repay his debt he will not complain to Fortune, but he will say: ‘I thank you for what I have possessed and held. I have looked after your property to my great benefit, but at your command I give and yield it with gratitude and good will.'”

Seneca then postulates on mortality, and that by viewing it without fear allows us to live a worthy life:

“To quote Cicero, we hate gladiators if they are keen to save their life by any means; we favour them if they openly show contempt for it. You must realize that the same thing applies to us: for often the cause of dying is the fear of it… But you will both live longer and more easily, since you receive the blade bravely, without withdrawing your neck and putting your hands in the way. He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man.”

It’s one of our profound fallacies that for some reason we think all the horrendous conditions that surround us on a daily basis cannot happen to us. Like building a sea wall to fortify the land in case of flooding, we should be fortifying our minds in case of almost inevitable disasters in our lives. Seneca writes:

“Should it surprise me if the perils which have always roamed around me should some day reach me? A great number of people plan a sea voyage with no thought of a storm… What can happen to one can happen to all. If you let this idea sink into your vitals, and regard all the ills of other people (of which every day shows an enormous supply) as having a clear path to you too, you will be armed long before you are attacked.”

Seneca describes that these disasters rarely give warning. They happen abruptly, and life-changing occurrences usually happen in an instant. He writes:

“And these things are not separated by wide intervals: there is only a brief hour between sitting on a throne and kneeling to another.”

Since time is a integral currency of life, it’s important to look at the purpose of activities. Seneca warns against wishing for things that we cannot achieve, but also of doing things as a means to an unfulfilling end. He writes:

“The next thing to ensure is that we do not waste our energies pointlessly or in pointless activities: that is, not to long either for what we cannot achieve, or for what, once gained, only makes us realize too late and after much exertion the futility of our desires.”

Seneca links disappointment with unrealistic expectations:

“But inevitably the mind can cope more easily with the distress arising from disappointed longings if you have not promised it certain success.”

He also touches upon the fact that life can have many purposes and they can change with time, and not to be afraid to taking a different path to the one that was planned. On the other hand, it’s equally unintelligent to be so fickle that you end up paralyzed by too many choices. Seneca writes:

“We should also make ourselves flexible, so that we do not pin our hopes too much on our set plans, and can move over to those things to which chance has brought us, without dreading a change in either purpose or our condition, provided that fickleness, that fault most inimical to tranquility, does not get hold of us.”

Seneca brings up an example that would end up being a mirror image of his own death. It highlights that even in a position as distressing as imminent death, it’s possible to possess a tranquility of mind:

“[Canus]’s friends were sorrowful at the prospect of losing such a man, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sad? You are wondering whether souls are immortal: I shall soon know.’… Just look at that serenity in the midst of a hurricane… and seeks to learn something not only up to the time of death but from the very experience of death itself.”

Seneca explains that most people take life far too seriously, and sometimes it’s best just to laugh:

“It is more civilized to make fun of life than to bewail it. Bear in mind too that he deserves better of the human race as well who laughs at it than he who grieves over it; since one allows a fair prospect of hope, while the other stupidly laments over things he cannot hope will be put right… It is the mark of a greater mind not to restrain laughter than not to restrain tears, since laughter expresses the gentlest of our feelings, and reckons that nothing is great or serious or even wretched in all the trappings of our existence.”

He articulates that we must not fall into the trap of custom, and that imitation denies people of their lives:

“In your own troubles too, the appropriate conduct is to indulge in as much grief as nature, not custom, demands: for many people weep in order to be seen weeping, though their eyes are dry as long as there is nobody looking, since they regard it as bad form not to weep when everyone is weeping. The evil of taking our cue from others has become so deeply ingrained that even that most basic feeling, grief, degenerates into imitation.”

Seneca goes on to announce that courage means happiness. By being brave, it displays that you have conquered your inner demons. Seneca finishes with a poetic description on happiness:

“The braver one is, the happier he is! You have escaped all mischances, envy and disease; you have come forth from prison – not that you seemed to the gods worthy of ill fortune, but unworthy that Fortune should any longer have power over you. But we have to lay hands on those who pull back and at the very point of death look back towards life. I shall weep for no one who is happy and for no one who is weeping: the one has himself wiped away my tears; the other by his own tears has proved himself unworthy of any.”

Seneca warns against pretending in order to impress other people. It is a fearful existence, and he argues that it is better to be disliked than to suffer from having always to put on an act. He concludes this passage by saying that there still needs to be a least a modicum of self-control:

“There is also another not inconsiderable source of anxieties, if you are too concerned to assume a pose and do not reveal yourself openly to anyone, like many people whose lives are false and aimed only at outward show. For it is agonizing always to be watching yourself in fear of being caught when your usual mask has slipped. Nor can we ever be carefree when we think that whenever we are observed we are appraised… And it is better to be despised for simplicity than to suffer agonies from everlasting pretence. Still, let us use moderation here: there is a big difference between living simply and living carelessly.”

Is it better to be alone or with friends? Seneca informs us that one is the cure of the other:

“However, the two things must be varied, solitude and joining a crowd: the one will make long for people and the other for ourselves, and each will be a remedy for the other; solitude will cure our distaste for a crowd, and a crown will cure our boredom with solitude.”

Stoicism is often wrongly associated with an aversion to pleasure and emotion. Here, Seneca describes that there is a time and a place for indulgence:

“Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest. Just as you must not force fertile farmland, as uninterrupted productivity will soon exhaust it, so constant effort will sap our mental vigour, while a short period of rest and relaxation will restore our powers. Unremitting effort leads to a kind of mental dullness and lethargy. Nor would men’s wishes move so much in this direction if sport and play did not involve a sort of natural pleasure; thought repeated indulgence in these will destroy all the gravity and force of our minds… There is a big difference between slackening your hold on something and severing a link.”

There is no time more relevant than now to make an effort to get out of the house, and have a change of scenery. Seneca writes:

“We must indulge the mind and from time to time allow it the leisure which is its food and strength. We must go for walks out of doors, so that the mind can be strengthened and invigorated by clear sky and plenty of fresh air. At times it will acquire fresh energy from a journey by carriage and a change of scene, or from socializing and drinking freely. Occasionally we should even come to the point of intoxication, sinking into drink but not being totally flooded by it… But we must not do this often, in case the mind acquires a bad habit; yet at times it must be stimulated to rejoice without restraint and austere soberness must be balanced for a while.”

Seneca finishes by reminding us that the tranquility of mind can only be preserved through constant attention and care:

“So here you have, my dear Serenus, the means of preserving your tranquility, the means of restoring it, and the means of resisting faults that creep up on you unawares. But be sure of this, that none of them is strong enough for those who want to preserve such a fragile thing, unless the wavering mind is surrounded by attentive and unceasing care.”