September 18, 2021 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Seek Solitude When Necessary
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.
- We may seek solitude sometime to find time to help others.
- We should be careful not to be carried away by unexpected gains. We can lose them as easily.
“Are you asking me to avoid the crowd, withdraw myself, and be happy with my own private thoughts? What happened to all those instructions of your school that asks us to die in action?”
Solitude and helping others
The reason why I urge you to do this from time to time and the reason why I hide myself behind closed doors is to help more people. I never spend a day being idle. I even study during the night. I don’t allow time for sleep, until it overcomes me. Until then, I continue to work. I have withdrawn not only from others but from other business as well – especially my own.
I’m working for future generations by writing down some ideas that may help them. I’m writing down some healthy advice that can be compared to a prescription of effective medicines. I found them effective on my own sores. At the very least, they have stopped the sores from spreading, even if they were not cured completely.
Don’t be carried away by sudden fortune
I point to others the right path which I found late in life when I was weary from wandering. I cry out,
Avoid the gifts of fortune that are pleasing to others. Be suspicious. Be timid. Avoid every good that comes by chance. It is hope that tempts dumb animals and fish which end up being caught. Do you think these are gifts of fortune? They are traps. Any of you who wants to live in safety should make every effort to avoid these twigs of fortune’s favours, by which we poor creatures are deceived. We think we hold them in our grasp, but they hold us in theirs.
Your career leads over a cliff. Such exalted life heads to a fall. Once prosperity begins to push us over, we cannot stand up against it. Neither can we go down either gradually or once and for all. Fortune does not overturn us. It sinks us and dashes us on the rocks.
Hold fast, then, to this sound and sensible rule of life: Indulge the body only so far as is necessary for keeping good health. Treat the body with rigour so it may obey the mind. Eat only to relieve your hunger. Drink only to quench your thirst. Dress only to ward off the elements. House yourself only as a protection against personal discomfort. It doesn’t matter whether the house is built of turf or of imported coloured marble. Understand you are as well protected by a thatched roof as by a gold one.
Despise everything that useless labour sets up for decoration and for show. Remember that nothing but the mind is worthy of wonder. To the great mind nothing else is great.
When I tell such things to myself and for the generations to come, don’t you think I am doing more good than when I was an advocate, affixing a seal on someone’s will or speaking in support of a political candidate? Trust me, those who seem to be doing nothing are doing great things. They are dealing with things both human and divine.
Three quotes to think about
But I must stop now. As it has become my habit, I must pay for this letter. But I won’t be out of my property. I am still conning Epicurus in whose work I found this today:
If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of Philosophy.
Those who submit and surrender to philosophy are not kept waiting. They are freed on the spot. The very service of philosophy is true freedom.
Perhaps you wonder why I quote so many of Epicurus’ fine sayings rather than of philosophers of our own school. But is there any reason why you think of sayings of Epicurus as belonging to Epicureans rather than as common property? How many poets say things that have been said – or will be said – by philosophers!
I don’t need to touch upon the tragedians and our writers of national drama. They too have a serious element, standing half-way between comedy and tragedy. We can find plenty of eloquent verses even in the mime. How many of Publilius's lines are worthy of being spoken by comedy actors, as well as by tragedy actors! Let me quote one of his verses concerning philosophy, particularly referring to what we were discussing a moment ago. He says we should not regard the things that come by chance as ours:
Whatever comes by wishing is not your possession.
I remember that you yourself expressed this idea in a better and a more precise way:
What Chance has made yours is not really yours.
And I won’t overlook a third, spoken by you even more happily:
The good that could be given, can be removed.
I am not charging these to your expense account, because they come from you.
Think about this
Once prosperity begins to push us over, we cannot stand up against it. Neither can we go down either gradually or once and for all. Fortune does not overturn us. It sinks us and dashes us on the rocks.