September 8, 2021 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Seneca ||

Follow the Golden Mean

Chuck Chakrapani

Seneca wrote a series of letters to his young friend Lucilius on various topics. Taken together these letters can be considered as an exposition of Stoicism and how to apply it to our daily lives. This plain English version of the Letters closely follows the original. However, I have deleted some superfluous references, summarized Key Ideas and added subheadings to make it easy for the modern reader to follow.

Key ideas
  1. We should strike a balance between extremes. We should conform to others outwardly but should be inwardly independent.
  2. We should lead a plain life, not an ascetic one.
  3. When we stop hoping for things to happen in a certain way, we will stop being fearful.
  4. Both the past and the future bring problems to us. The present alone can bring us happiness.

You work hard. You put everything else aside and devote each day to becoming a better person. I applaud it and revel in it too. I don’t just urge you – but plead with you – to continue with it. However, I also have to warn you. There are people who wish to stand out rather than improve themselves. Don’t be like them. Uninviting clothes, shabby beard, open scorn of silverware, and bed laid out on the ground – avoid all these and any other perverse form of self-display.

Be different inwardly but conform outwardly

The word ‘philosophy’ makes people uncomfortable, even if it is lightly mentioned. What will happen if we separate ourselves from the conventions of our fellow-beings? Internally, let’s be completely different. But outwardly, let’s conform to society. Do wear fine clothes. They shouldn’t be dirty either. You don’t need silver plates, with a crest embossed in solid gold. But simply not owning silver or gold is no proof of a simple life. We should maintain a higher standard – not a contrary standard – compared to others. Otherwise we will scare away the very people we want to improve. We will make them believe that they should imitate us on everything. As a result, they may imitate us on nothing.

The very first thing that philosophy promises is fellow feeling – sympathy and sociability – with all people. If we become different, we will be cut off from this. Let’s make sure that we take steps that will win us admiration rather than make us objects of hatred and ridicule.

Plain living, not penance

Our aim is to live according to nature. But it is contrary to nature to torture the body, to hate casual grooming, to be dirty on purpose, and to eat food that is not just plain but cheap and disgusting as well. Just as going after delicacies is a sign of luxury, avoiding ordinary comforts that are easy to get is a sign of insanity.

Philosophy calls for plain living, not penance. We can be perfectly plain and neat at the same time. I approve the mean, the middle way. We should strike a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world. Everyone should recognize it and admire it.

"Well then, should we act like others? Should there be no distinction between ourselves and the world?" 

Yes, a very big difference. If they look closely at us, people will find that we are not like others. If they visit our homes, they should admire us, not our dinnerware. One who uses earthenware as if it is silverware is indeed a great person; but, one who uses silverware as if it is earthenware is equally great. Not being able to cope with wealth is a sign of an unstable mind.

Fear will stop when we stop hoping

Let me share with you something worthwhile I came across today. I found on the writing of Hecaton this: 

Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.

"These two feelings are very different," you say, "how can they occur at the same time?" 

In this way, my dear Lucilius: Even though they do seem opposed, they are really united. The same chain binds the prisoner and the soldier who guards him. Similarly, hope and fear, although very different, keep step together. Fear follows hope. I am not surprised that it is so. Both belong to a mind that is in suspense, a mind that is worried by looking forward to the future.  

Be in the present moment

But the main reason for both is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present. We project our thoughts a long way ahead. Thus foresight, the noblest blessing of humans, becomes perverted. Animals avoid the dangers they see, and when they have escaped, they stop worrying.  But we humans torment ourselves over what is to come as well as what already has happened. Many of our blessings become a nuisance to us. Memory recalls the tortures of fear, while foresight anticipates them. The present alone can make no one miserable.


Think about this

Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.