Lessons in Stoicism: The Illusion of Control, and How to Deal with Adversity

Lessons in Stoicism is a book written by John Sellars that introduces the Stoic school of philosophy made famous by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus in the first and second century AD.

One of the main themes in Stoicism is the idea of control within one’s life. The Stoics asked themselves what they really control. The answer – the only thing we can control is our judgements. Although judgements are only a small part of the mind, the Stoics believed that because we can control our judgements, we are able to control what truly matters for our wellbeing.

So, if our happiness is based on our romantic relationships, career, possessions, appearance, or health, we are leaving our happiness in the control of external forces. Even though we can take actions to aid us to be successful in the categories above, we ultimately cannot control whether a partner loves us, whether a company hires us, whether possessions remain in our possession, and whether the body remains healthy. So make your goal simply to do the best you can.

Another tenet of the Stoic philosophy is how to deal with adversity in one’s life. Stoics believed that adversity is the stimulus that is needed to develop as a person, and that life wasn’t complete without facing any difficulties – that would be the real misfortune! Even so, the Stoics remind us not to seek out adversity and drama for the sake of it, it will happily come naturally in the timeline of our lives.

The Stoic philosophers practiced a technique called the premeditation of future evils. They thought about all the possible bad things that could happen in their lives – the death of a family member, loss of reputation and riches, loss of health etc. This may seem like a negative thing to do, but the Stoics found that when people avoided thinking of these setbacks, they were ill-equipped to deal with the reality of it when the time came. Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk frequently thinks about what he would do if he found out his mother had died in a car accident – not only does it prepare for the probable event that his mother will die before him, it realigns him to what is truly important in his life.

Read more about Stoicism in some of Seneca’s most revered essays: On Tranquility of Mind, Consolation to Helvia, and On the Shortness of Life.

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.”

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.

On the Shortness of Life: Seneca on How to Live and Die

On the Shortness of Life is one of the great texts of Stoic philosophy. It was originally a letter from Seneca the Younger to his father-in-law Paulinus. Almost 2000 years on, it’s amazing how relevant the content of his letter is to the problems we encounter in daily life in the 21st century.

It reads much like an essay, and is only about 30 pages long. I highly recommend it.

Seneca starts with a bombshell of a truism:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it… We are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… So our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.”

He then invites us to contemplate how much time we spend really living, and how much time just simply passes by:

“Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly… It is a small part of life we really live. Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.”

Seneca writes that while time is our most precious commodity, no-one acts that way. He pleads us to take an objective look at how we have been living, and points at the maladies that can come from too much stress or boredom:

“Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives… You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide his life! 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… Come now, hold an audit of your life… Consider also the disease which we have brought on ourselves, and the time too which has been unused.”

Seneca reminds us that there is no way of knowing how long we will live, and that when people get told that they are dying is when they are shocked into living for the first time (reminding me of Heisenberg in the TV show Breaking Bad). He also points the finger at people who defer their happiness and fulfilment for an arbitrary year of their life that they have no guarantee of reaching:

“You are living as if destined to live for ever; 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 to devoting to somebody or something may be your last… And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it?… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!”

However, Seneca does concede that it would take an extraordinary person to live their life without wasting any of their time. The difficulty of learning how to live (and die) takes a lifetime:

“But learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die… Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself.”

Seneca separates the act of living with just existing:

“So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.”

Seneca provides us once again with food for thought. By meditating on our own mortality and by seeing the big picture of our lives, it would hopefully alarm us into living life with care:

“But if each of us could have the tally of his future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully they would use them!”

Procrastination was something that people in Romans times suffered from too, and Seneca describes poetically how harmful it is. He highlights how important it is to be focused on what is in our own control, finishing off with a short command:

“But 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… Live immediately.”

Seneca personifies time to give us a mental picture of how we can deal with it best. He also champions self-awareness and laments preoccupation with a very identifiable metaphor:

“So you must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it… Old age overtakes them while they are still mentally childish, and they face it unprepared and unarmed… Just as travelers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it… the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.

Seneca warns that a life filled with vice will make a man fear his own memory. He goes on to inform us that the preoccupied are much too busy and foolish to take a step back to look at the past in order to create a better future:

“The man who must fear his own memory is the one who has been ambitious in his greed, arrogant in his contempt, uncontrolled in his victories, treacherous in his deceptions, rapacious in his plundering, and wasteful in his squandering… But all days of the past will come to your call: you can detain them and inspect them at your will – something which the preoccupied have no time to do.”

The dignity that a man meets his death is a sign of strength and virtue. It’s often seen in the hardened criminals that are awaiting Death Row. Seneca writes:

“So, however short, it is fully sufficient, and therefore whenever his last day comes, the wise man will not hesitate to meet death with a firm step.”

Seneca reminds us once again that we can control which direction our life goes even if we weren’t born in fortunate circumstances. Maternal death was much more common 2000 years ago, and Seneca’s grandmother died while giving birth to his mother. He writes:

“We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be.”

Seneca highlights the ever-present dangers of waiting, killing-time, and living in anticipation of a future event:

“Nor is this a proof that they are living for a long time that the day often seems long to them, or that they complain that the hours pass slowly until the time fixed for dinner arrives. For as soon as their preoccupations fail them, they are restless with nothing to do, not knowing how to dispose of their leisure or make the time pass. And so they are anxious for something else to do, and all the intervening time is wearisome: really, it is just as when a gladiatorial show has been announced, or they are looking forward to the appointed time of some other exhibition or amusement – they want to leap over the days in between. And deferment of the longed-for event is tedious to them… Their days are not long but odious: on the other hand, how short do the nights seem which they spend drinking or sleeping with harlots!… They lose the day in waiting for the night, and the night in fearing dawn.”

Seneca also describes that even when that future event comes, we then spend our energy worrying about when it will end. This reminds me of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, and the equanimity that can alleviate this suffering. He writes:

“Even their pleasures are uneasy and made anxious by various fears, and at the very height of their rejoicing the worrying thought steals over them: ‘How long will this last?’ This feeling has caused kings to bewail their power, and they were not so much delighted by the greatness of their fortune as terrified by the thought of its inevitable end.”

Seneca describes the misery that comes from ambition and achievement through willpower and labor alone, and the realization that it takes even more willpower and labor to keep the riches or status that they so craved:

“Whatever comes by way of chance is unsteady, and the higher it rises the more liable it is to fall… So it is inevitable that life will not just be very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They want to achieve laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.”

Seneca reminds us that there will always be problems no matter how rich or powerful you are:

“There will always be causes for anxiety, whether due to prosperity or to wretchedness. Life will be driven on through a succession of preoccupations: we shall always long for leisure, but never enjoy it.”

Seneca also articulates that plenty of people spend their lives doing other people’s tasks, oblivious to their own life:

“If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”

Finally, Seneca describes the example of a old man businessman who doesn’t know how to retire, dying while still preoccupied with work:

“Disgraceful too is it when a man dies in the midst of going through his accounts, and his heir, long kept waiting, smiles in relief… Men find it more difficult to gain leisure from themselves than from the law.”

I found this moral essay beautiful to read, thought-provoking and incredibly wise. What was the biggest takeaway for you?