September 25, 2021 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
How to Live with Yourself
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.
- Depressed or fearful people, when left alone, may use their time in some harmful way. So we should keep an eye on them.
- When you pray to God, ask for both mental and physical wellbeing, but mental wellbeing first.
- Never pray for anything if you will be embarrassed if others knew about it.
True, I don’t change my opinion. Avoid the crowd, avoid the company of a few. Avoid even the company of a single person. There is no one with whom I would be willing to share you. See what opinion I have of you. I dare to trust you with yourself.
They say Crates (the disciple of Stilpo whom I mentioned in my last letter) saw a young man walking by himself and asked him what he was doing all alone.
“I’m talking to myself,” said the young man.
“Be careful then. Watch closely. You are talking to a bad man,” replied Crates.
The depressed should not be left alone
When people are depressed or afraid of something, we keep an eye on them, so they don’t use their time in some harmful way. We should not leave those without the capacity to think for themselves alone. It is then they put their foolish plans into action, endangering themselves and others. They bring into play their base desires. The mind then displays things that have been hidden through fear or shame. It makes them bolder, stirs their passions, and goads their anger. The only advantages of solitude are not trusting anyone and fearing no witness. These are lost on the foolish as they betray themselves.
Look out for your wellbeing
Look then what my hopes are for you. Or rather, what I promise myself because ‘hope’ is a term for uncertain blessing. I prefer that you be by yourself than associate with anyone else. I remember your boldness in saying certain things and the strength with which you said it. Then I immediately congratulated myself: “These words did not come out of the top of his head. They have a solid foundation. This man is not one of the many. He looks out for his wellbeing.” Speak this way. Live this way. Take care nothing keeps you down.
Wellbeing of mind first, then of physical
As you thank gods for answering your former prayers, offer new ones. Ask for a sound mind and good health. First mental wellbeing, and only then for bodily health. You should, of course, pray for them often. Be bold in your requests to God: You are not asking him for anything that doesn’t belong to you.
Don’t pray for disgraceful things
As I usually do, I am sending you a little gift along with this letter. This saying of Athenodorus I found to be true:
Know this: You are free of all your desires when you get to the point that you ask God for nothing that you cannot ask openly.
But how crazy are people now! They pray for disgraceful things in a whisper. If anyone listens, they stop praying. They are willing to say to God what they are not willing for humans to hear! Consider, then, whether the following may not be a wholesome advice:
Live among humans as if God is watching.
Speak with God as if humans are listening.
Think about this
Live among humans as if God is watching. Speak with God as if humans are listening.