Ancient Wisdom / Philosophy

Seneca’s Guide To Life – Ancient Philosophy For Modern Day

Lucius Seneca, also referred to as Seneca the Younger, was born under the rule of Augustus around 4BC.

In his final days, Seneca demonstrated the Philosophy he had devoted his life to, and committed suicide under the demand of Emperor Nero in 65AD.

“Life, if courage to die be lacking, is slavery.”

Seneca, Letters From A Stoic

Though the life of Seneca may have been full of contradictions, he wrote of reason and virtue which he carried with him to his final days.

Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, Letters From A Stoic – written sometime around 62-64AD, addressed the concern for living and maintaining a virtuous life in a time of corruption.

But how can Seneca’s words, written so long ago, help us today? and how can we apply this ancient Philosophy to modern day? Well, I’ll show you.

I carry a copy of Letters From A Stoic with me daily. I consider it a, ‘how to guide’ for living and navigating life. I have found something on every page which resonates and is of value to my life today – and I know it will be of value to yours.

On Restlessness and distraction

"You do not run hither and thither and distract yourself by changing your abode; for such restlessness is the sign of a disordered spirit. The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man's ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company."

How often do you spend time, not by yourself, but with your self? Seneca reminds us that stillness, and getting our inner house in order, is key to knowing ourselves and curbing our less honourable traits.

"Can wisdom, the greatest of all the arts, be picked up on a journey? I assure you, travel as far as you like, you can never establish yourself beyond the reach of desire, beyond the reach of a bad temper, or beyond the reach of fear."

On Friendship

"You should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections. Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal.”

Seneca tells us it is equally faulty to trust everyone, and no one. That we should be weary of those who lack repose, as well as those who are always in repose. Seneca teaches us the value of friendship; once decided, we should welcome our new friends with all our heart and soul, and speak as boldly with them, as with ourselves.

"I can show you many who have lacked, not a friend, but a friendship; this, however, cannot possibly happen when souls are drawn together by identical inclinations into an alliance of honourable desires."

On wealth

"He is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware. It is a sign of an unstable mind not to be able to endure riches." 

Let that sink in.

Seneca is questioning our ability to endure something which many are in pursuit of achieving – money, fame, power. Ask yourself, would you let it change you?

"One needs no silver plate, encrusted and embossed in solid gold; but we should not believe the lack of silver and gold to be proof of the simple life."

On Fear, death, and mortality

"Let us be brave in the face of hazards. Let us not fear wrongs, or wounds, or bonds, or poverty. And what is death? It is either the end, or a process of change. I have no fear in ceasing to exist; it is the same as not having begun. Nor do I shrink from changing into another state, because I shall, under no conditions, be as cramped as I am now."

Let Seneca’s frankness remind us of our bodily mortality , and not to distract ourselves from the topic of death, but to face and embrace it.

Memento Mori – remember that you will die. The Stoics used this Latin phrase to remind them not to waste any day on trivial matters, and to treat each day as a gift.

"If it leaves me, not life, but the breath of life, I shall rush out of a house that is crumbling and tottering. I shall not avoid illness by seeking death, as long as the illness is curable and does not impede my soul. I shall not lay violent hands upon myself just because I am in pain."

On freedom

"On all sides lie many short and simple paths to freedom; and let us thank God that no man can be kept in life."

We are only confined to these bodies for a short period of time, but whilst we are here, understand what freedom means to you – define your freedom, and follow the path that leads you to it.

My annotated copy of Letters From A Stoic

On running away from our problems

"Your faults will follow you withersoever you travel... The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels."

Understand what triggered your escape plan. What is the reason for your running away?

"That which you seek - to live well, - is found everywhere."

On God

"Just as the rays of the sun do indeed touch the earth, but still abide at the source from which they are sent; even so the great and hallowed soul, which has come down in order that we may have a nearer knowledge of our divinity, does indeed associate with us, but still cleaves to its origin."

Do not forget where you came from, in any and all ways, remember your origin.

"God is near you, he is with you, he is within you."

On confidence

"To whom that ever tried have these tasks proved false? To what man did they not seem easier in the doing? Our lack of confidence is not the result of difficulty. The difficulty comes from our lack of confidence."

The only reason you don’t believe what you can achieve, is your level of confidence in your ability to attain it, and how deserving you feel in achieving it. Change that.

On Mental Health

"Throw aside all hindrances and give up your time to getting a sound mind; for no man can attain it if he is engrossed in other matters."

Are you committed to your mental well-being? or is it easier to ‘numb’ it out?

"Night brings our troubles to the light, rather than banishes them; it merely changes the form of our worries."
"You need not suppose that the soul is at peace when the body is still. Sometimes quiet means disquiet."

Battles with mental health are most often fought in silence, and while we may never know the extent of another’s internal struggles, we can, through understanding our own, be better able to help ease the mind of another.

On Happiness and accepting our fate

"What benefit is there in reviewing past sufferings, and in being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy? Besides, every one adds much to his own ills, and tells lies to himself. And that which was bitter to bear is pleasant to have been borne; it is natural to rejoice at the ending of one's ills."

Everything we consider now to have caused us pain, or a period of suffering, was most likely at one point, the cause of much happiness. Love lost, grief, heartache, at one point, the person or circumstance associated with these feelings, was once a source of joy to us – don’t let pain turn you against your loving heart.

"Whatever happens, assume that it was bound to happen, and do not be willing to rail at nature. That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure, and to attend uncomplainingly upon the God under whose guidance everything progresses."

Remember, eternity consists of opposites: after a calm, comes the storm, day succeeds night; all things have their equal – our souls must adjust themselves to the way Nature moderates.

To read more about the law of polarity, take a look at my post on The Seven Hermetic Principles and Teachings of Hermes Trismegistus.

“So the soul, imprisoned as it has been in this gloomy and darkened house, seeks the open sky whenever it can, and in the contemplation of the universe finds rest.”

Seneca, Letters From A SToic

I hope you found something valuable in the words of Seneca. Even if you’ve never picked up a Philosophy book in your life, or you’ve never heard of Stoicism, I hope something in this post spoke to you, and will help you in some area of your life.

Make sure to leave me a comment – I would love to know your thoughts on this post, whether this was your first time with Seneca, and the wisdom you are taking away with you today.

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Until next time,