Seneca was criticized in his own day (and in the 2,000 years since) for his hypocrisy. Maintaining his wealth and elite political status meant not always practicing what he preached.
Does this means his words are empty? Well, who am I to judge Seneca? Am I better than him? Am I less of a hypocrite than him? No. And neither are you.
Whatever his faults were, Seneca was an insightful man. Penguin Classics publishes an edited collection of letters he wrote to a friend in the days before Emperor Nero told Seneca to go kill himself. Let’s take a look at a few highlights.
I previously wrote about Seneca’s book On Anger. Seneca said that anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Anger is about the desire to punish someone for real or imagined harm.
But what about righteous anger over oppression and exploitation? The logical conclusion is that the more inclined to anger someone is the more decent that person must be. But was Socrates an angry man? What about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr? When we think of a wise person, we think of someone who is calm is the face of evil. Reason seeks fairness, but anger seeks only the appearance of fairness as a justification for lashing out.
Seneca’s letters add to this line of thought. He writes that Stoicism doesn’t mean being emotionless. Instead, the goal of Stoicism is to feel your troubles without being overwhelmed. A sage doesn’t want to lose anything but also doesn’t pine for what’s been lost. A sage wants to have friends but can survive alone (#9).
Taking criticism while keeping your ego at bay is also important. Besides, someone’s criticism might be an uncomfortable truth, and listening could make you a better person.
But the flipside to this is handing out compliments sparingly. Flattery is manipulation. It’s better to praise people (without being patronizing) for what can neither be given nor taken away from them – which is their character. (#41).
Stoicism helps keep egotism in check. Seneca observers that “We’re born unequal, we die equal” – much like Shakespeare’s observation in Hamlet that “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” because “a man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”
Seneca’s ego deflating views may be a hard pill to swallow in the 21st century when so many seem eager to tell their tale of struggle and woe as if their suffering is unlike anyone else’s.
But Seneca says, look, everyone has to deal with life’s troubles. So why do we think our struggles are unique? We’re not as special as we think.
That’s only depressing if you think it is. Reminding yourself that life is a struggle for everyone, regardless of the face they put forward, puts it in perspective. And that leads to equanimity (#91).
You are what you think
It really is all about the way you frame it. Thinking that moving, travelling, finding a new romantic partner, being richer, etc. will make you happier avoids the real issue, which is that you need an attitude adjustment.
Someone once complained to Socrates that travelling abroad never did him any good. Socrates replied, “What else can you expect, seeing that you always take yourself along with you when you go abroad?” (#104).