At More Than 2000 Years Old, Ancient Advice On “How Best to Live” Can Still Save Your Soul in the Folly of Our Modern Age

August 6, 2013

Seneca saves lives. He’s been doing so for over 2000 years. Not the mightiness of a church nor the absence of a deity for support. Only books. Only plays. Only dedicated scholars to resurrect him.

It says many things about the nature of the world right now, that the mindset of someone born so long ago still reverberates so soundly. Pick up Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, collected essays composed during the era of Roman rule under Nero, and you’ll find that the world hasn’t changed at all. At least in the way humans continue to think, act and relate to one another anyway.

But Seneca’s works go further than drawing simple parallels between the then and the now. They also help to calm an anxious or busy mind. And, in a world of overwhelming choice, help us make sense of where to turn next.

Collected here are some of the most impactful of Seneca’s teachings that I’ve found. Hopefully, if you’re feeling a little stuck or out of balance, reading them might just help cast some light and clarity on your own twenty-first century sense of being.

Living a worthy and meaningful life? Just as important as it ever was.

On Desire

Seneca wrote and commented many times on the notion of materialism, subjective desire and need. Much of what he said over 2000 years ago still bears striking relevance to our globalised state of being today. Especially in consideration of the way we portray ourselves and how we now covet experiences rather than goods.

“It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.”

Comment: Probably the most famous of Seneca’s quotes, here we are reminded that there is no useful means nor end to our constant hunger and greed. We are at our happiest when we consider, with pleasure, what we already have.

“If desires could ever satisfy us they would have done so by now.”

Comment: Here Seneca directly addresses the notion of desire in all forms (sexual, financial, material etc), highlighting that none if it can ever satiate us fully.

“I have no respect for any study whatsoever if its end is the making of money. Such studies are to me unworthy ones.”

Comment: Take into consideration, as my friend Ash Clark points out, that at the time of formulating his philosophies Seneca was the richest man in the world, and this comment seems more than a little hypocritical. Where I think its most useful however is in the question of greed. When we learn about making money, the process is never the direct goal. The goal is the spending of money on particular things. Do we need them?

On the Self

Like all major philosophers, Seneca also constantly sought to understand more about the internal workings of the human mind, repeatedly seeking to question: how best should one live? Here are some of his best points.

“Away with the world’s opinion of you – it’s always unsettled and divided.”

Comment: You’ll never please everyone all of the time so stop striving for it. Understand and be at peace with others opinions of you and concentrate on your own internal goals and trials. Stop wasting your time deliberating why someone doesn’t like you or disagrees with you.

“Demonstrate your own guilt, conduct inquiries of your own into all the evidence against yourself.”

Comment: Self investigation should be a prolonged and critical subject of your life. The more you understand about yourself and the less you look outward and emulate others, the more right answers you will find.

“The worse a person is, the less he feels it.”

Comment: The importance of self awareness. If you’re already asking questions of yourself and striving to be better than you’re already taking a step toward becoming a better person.

“We are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come.”

Comment: Concentrate your thoughts on the here and now. Strive to be more mindful of the present moment, reduce your anxiety and stress from looking backward and forward and ignore how you see others acting.

On Community and Friendship

At the same time as being mindful of the self Seneca was also aware of the importance of shared experience, community and giving. The same tribulations we experience through or own egocentricities and subjective sense of importance were as relevant then just as they are now.

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life travelling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships.”

Comment: Seeks to question the immediate and superficial thrill of travel. Yes it opens our eyes but perhaps we can take greater leaps forward by stopping, slowing down and really cementing ourselves inside of a community to grow real, sustained friendships.

“Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship.”

Comment: Particularly pertinent in the modern age of social media and the question over what constitutes a “friend” in todays day and age. Do all those hundreds of acquaintances count? Do we get any real sense of happiness from accepting a new “friend request” or seeing a new “Follow”? Exercising restraint and limiting our networks could be a better way forward.

“A person adopted as a friend for the sake of his usefulness will be cultivated only for so long as he is useful.”

Comment: Real friends stand the test of time. They are ready and willing to lay down their lives for you. Stop looking to other people for gain. Look to them with compassion and truth. That’s where real, meaningful connection is born.

“There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves.”

Comment: Highlights the need for mentorship and the role that leadership can play in our lives. We can all benefit by seeking to improve parts of ourselves by examining the process by which others have achieved it.

On Learning

Education and learning is central to growth. Seneca had a lot to say on the subject and shows us how we can be more fulfilled and effective in our studies in lieu of the immediacy of our busy modern life.

“We should cherish old age and enjoy it. It is full of pleasures if you know how to use it.”

Comment: There is joy in growing old. We grow wiser and more experienced. Calmer. Embrace it and look to engage those with greater years than ourselves.

“Part of my joy in learning is that it puts me in a position to teach.”

Comment: The best part of learning is giving back. Look for every opportunity to teach and help people find and discover things the same as you have.

“Isn’t it the height of folly to learn unessential things when time’s so desperately short.”

Comment: Constantly ask yourself about your input. Is what you’re reading and learning helping you get further toward your own goals. Work on discovering what those are first before you even set about learning something new.

These are just a few of my favourite quotations from Seneca. Having helped in bringing myself more peace and reassurance, hopefully you too can benefit in keeping them in mind. Drop me a line and let me know which ones you feel matter most.

All above quotes collected from Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (Penguin Classics).