4 Lessons from Seneca

Published: 2023-02-19

I decided to read the first volume of the letters of Seneca to Lucilius. I'll be honest and say it was a struggle and it took me a year of reading on-and-off. This was not just because the style of writing back then was not the same as today's easy-to-digest fluffy style, but also because every letter has something important to tell. In fact every sentence deserves consideration, every paragraph carries a message and every letter reveals a beautifully written truth.

But what does this mean to people living today? Surprisingly I think that most of the messages carried in the letters are still relevant. After reading Alain do Botton's Consolations Of Philosophy, I began to understand how these thinkers of the past were mulling over and providing solutions to the same problems that we face today. This is not because they had any amazing foresight, but simply because the fundamental questions that we face every day, of being happy, of facing loss, of being good, are questions as old as human thought.


So I thought I should try to read some source material. It is worth reading about Seneca as the circumstances of his life (presented in do Botton's book) lent great weight to his writings; these letters were written from an island where he had been banished by his ex-pupil the Emperor Nero. So he had his share of troubles which would have bested many men.

Seneca may use odd and unfamiliar examples like slaves and firmaments, and take many examples from animal behaviour, but if you can grasp his underlying meaning you can come away with some worthy life lessons. Below are four that I picked out.

(Note that there are plenty of references to 'Man' or 'a man' in Seneca's writing. Of course we should interpret this as referring to 'humankind' or people in general, but I have preserved the original words in the quotes below.)

1. Control your Desires

Seneca talks at length about achieving happiness, and makes several links between unhappiness and unfulfilled or unquenchable desires. His key point is that there are two ways of meeting your desires: one is getting what you are craving; the other is to lessen the desire itself.

It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.

Do you really want those trendy clothes, that latest phone, that flashy car? When you have it, will your desire be satisfied? Or will it still be unquenched? Is it in fact the desire that is the problem?

Seneca recognises that the ability to meet your desires is often out of your control, and he makes frequent reference to 'Fortune', a mystical fickle force which plays with us seemingly out of perversity. Essentially 'Fortune' represents things that happen to us that are out of our control, and a central tenet of Stoicism is to recognise these for what they are and not let them have control over you. On the other hand, our feelings and urges, such as your desire for things, are within our control:

Why should I demand of Fortune that she give rather than demand of myself that I should not crave?

Seneca also alludes to another driving force behind our desires: that of the opinions of others. We are well aware of the phenomena of "keeping up with the Jones's", which is a euphemism for playing a losing game. One of the hardest lessons to learn, but maybe the most important, is to be true to yourself, to recognise your own needs, and not be swayed by the opinion of others, especially if they are not your trusted friends. (Here Seneca quotes Epicurus:)

If you live according to nature, you will never be poor. If you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.

2. Make Good Friends

Seneca, and Epictetus before him (who I also want to read) are big on friends and the important of friendships. This lesson in particular hit home for me in recent years. Our decision to leave Australia to pursue an international live, however long for, is one that I stand by and support but it has often come with its challenges. Sometimes I question whether I am the right person to be navigating through what can often be long periods of loneliness. A key to solving this is making new friends and valuing old ones with which to share your experiences.

No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.

Friends at Sunset

Reading these words from Seneca made me recognise the fact that while I made good friends in the familiar and comforting surrounds of Australia, it is not always a skill that transfers globally, and it requires real effort. The Expat community comes with the extra difficulty that people usually leave after 2-3 years, leaving you without a friend that you have invested in, or at least requiring more effort to keep the friendship going. But as Seneca points out when writing about fair-weather friends, it is exactly this effort which pays long-term rewards, as opposed to seeking friends purely on popularity:

Prosperous men are blockaded by troops of friends; but those tho have failed stand amid vast loneliness, their friends fleeing from the very crisis which is to test their worth

True friends lead to happiness, even in their absence. A true friend shares your values, supports you through troubles and lives in the very soul of you. And you do the same for them. When this comes along, recognise it and celebrate it, no-matter the distance.

Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours.

3. Practice Self-Improvement

Everybody has faults, and many have a vice or two. They could be anything, from short tempers to smoking. Everyone also has the ability to improve at something, and the easiest way to improve yourself is to recognise and correct your faults and remove your vices. Seneca does not support being totally free of seeking pleasures, and makes a distinction between a pleasure and a vice. But he does warn against mixing pleasures with indulgence:

[When] men sink themselves in pleasures, and they cannot do without them, [...] they have reached such a pass that what was once superfluous to them has become indispensible.

The main reason for avoiding vice is that a vice can eat up time and therefore remove opportunities to be doing something worthwhile. It is another central theme of the Stoics to recognise that we all have a limited number of hours to live, and those hours should be spent on the afore-mentioned idea of choosing things that you can control:

Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man's power to live long.

While advancing yourself to the point of world-recognition or a highly-influential member of society is a noble goal, achieving this puts too many outcomes at Fortune's folly. This is not so say it should not be pursued, as Seneca places high praise on the great minds who have advanced society and those who will do so in the future. Instead he advises that this should not be the source of your happiness or sense of worth. Instead, take every opportunity to improve yourself in every way that is in your control.

Of this one things make sure against your dying day - let yor faults die before you die.

4. Treasure Values and Deeds

One thing I like about Senecas writings is how highly he values the qualities which are instilled internally in people as opposed those that are bestowed upon them. This also relates to the theme of choosing self-control over subjecting yourself to Fortune, because:

That which Fortune has not given, she cannot take away

Craps table

That is, if you work hard to improve yourself and strengthen your character, it can not be taken from you. It will be in you forever, and this goes especially for the values that you hold and the deeds that you do to embody them:

Praise the quality in a man which cannot be given or snatched away, that which is the peculiar property of the man

The modern age of consumerism and celebrity challenges us with how to know someone's values and character in the face of sensational media, popularity and self-promotion. In Seneca's time, any person would have only been subjected to the people in their own city, and Seneca talks of having to see through the robes, retinues and ritz of some so-called Noblemen:

A hall full of smoke-begrimed busts does not make the nobleman

Today this is even more difficult, as society is global, social media is almost inescapable and 'famous for being famous' is a real thing. When the rest of us subscribe to this behaviour, assuming that popularity equals character, it makes it difficult to find both worthy friends and good role-models for us and our children. But if we can be true to our own values, we can surely find them in others. As Seneca says in a final quote, perhaps sometimes it might be up to us to bring those innate values out of others:

Good material often stands idle for want of an artist

The Letters

The letters of Seneca are available for free from Tim Ferriss's Blog, which is pretty amazing. The quotes given above are taken from the following letters:

  1. On Discursiveness In Reading
  2. On Brawn And Brains
  3. On Philosophy, The Guide To Life
  4. On Sharing Knowledge
  5. On Philosophy And Friendship
  6. On Grief For Lost Friends
  7. On Noble Aspirations
  8. On The Futility Of Half-Way Measures
  9. On The Good Which Abides
  10. On Pleasure And Joy
  11. On The God Within Us
  12. On Philosophy And Pedigrees
  13. On Master And Slave

Note that the lessons I have picked are not attributable to a single letter, rather they are themes which recur throughout the letters. I have used chosen quotes to help to illustrate them. I hope you enjoyed.