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From Vol. 4, Issue 8, August 2022

Seneca on the human condition

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“You think that you will get there amid riches and accolades. This is to say that you seek joy in the midst of anxiety! You go after those things on grounds that they will bring you happiness and pleasure, when in fact they are causes of pain... ”

We are our own problem

Your greatest problem is with yourself. You are your own problem. You do not know what you want. You are better at admiring the right action than undertaking it. You see where true happiness lies, but you don’t have the courage to go after it. [21]

Our lives are made of time

Look closely. You will see that most of our life slips away from us when we are not doing well and much of it when we do nothing. But when we don’t pay attention, we lose it all… While we postpone, life speeds us by. Nothing belongs to us, Lucilius, except time. Nature has given us this one thing. It is so fleeting and slippery that anyone can take it away from us. What fools we humans are! When we borrow the smallest, cheapest things that can be replaced, we acknowledge our debt. But no one considers herself indebted for taking up our time. And yet, time is the one loan that even grateful people cannot repay. [1]

Most of our fears are imaginary

More things are likely to frighten us, Lucilius, than to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality... Some things torment us more than they should; some earlier than they should; and some when they should not torment us at all...

You may say, “How am I to know whether my sufferings are real or imaginary?” Here is the rule: We are troubled by things that have happened already, things that may happen in the future or both. As to what is happening now, the decision is easy. If your body is free and healthy and you are not in pain from any injury, today there is nothing wrong with it. We can wait to see what may happen in the future...

Let us look at this carefully. We will likely face some troubles in the future. But it is not true as of now. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never happened! Even if it is certain to happen, what good is it to run out to meet it? You will suffer soon enough when it comes. Meanwhile, look forward to better things. What do you gain by doing this? Time. [13]

We needlessly fear hardship and death

Most are tossed about between fear of death and the hardships of life. They don’t want to live, but don’t know how to die. So, get rid of all worries about life and make it enjoyable for yourself. Nothing can bring you joy unless you are mentally prepared to lose it. Of all losses, this is the easiest to accept – once life is gone, you can’t miss it. [4]

Focus on your actions, not results

The wise consider the reason for their actions, but not the results. The beginning is in our power while the results are decided by fortune. [13]

Focus on joy

Let me tell tell you how you’ll know that you are not wise. The wise person is filled with joy, cheerful and calm, unalarmed; she lives on equal terms with gods. Look at yourself. If you are never downcast; if your mind is not bothered by any hopes concerning the future; if your mental state is even and consistent day and night, upright and happy with itself, then you have indeed arrived at the fullness of the human good.

But if you look for pleasure in every direction and of every kind, then know that you are as far removed from wisdom as you are from joy. Joy is your goal, but you are off course. You think that you will get there amid riches and accolades. This is to say that you seek joy in the midst of anxiety! You go after those things on grounds that they will bring you happiness and pleasure, when in fact they are causes of pain.[59]

Cast away superfluous things

I do not counsel you to deny anything to nature – for nature is insistent and cannot be overcome; she demands her due – but you should know that anything in excess of nature's wants is a mere "extra" and is not necessary... If I am hungry, I must eat. Nature does not care whether the bread is the coarse kind or the finest wheat... Look to the end, in all matters, and then you will cast away superfluous things... Everything conducive to our well-being is prepared and ready to our hands; but what luxury requires can never be got together except with wretchedness and anxiety. [119]

These are extracts from Seneca’s Moral Letters, expressed in plain English. Seneca wrote extensively on the human condition. The above extracts are randomly taken from his writings and should not be considered a good summary of Seneca’s thoughts on the human condition.