The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca

By: Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Seneca is generally regarded as one of the three great Stoics (along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus). Born right around the time our calendar flipped from B.C. to A.D., Seneca’s writings have timelessly echoed throughout the past two-thousand years. The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, a collection of his words on adversity, thrift, mortality, virtue, and other pillars of the human experience, points a straightforward, practical path towards an unflappable kind of contentment.

The work of a master, I see such universal applicability in Seneca’s writings and believe anyone will encounter, and hopefully adopt, many a worthwhile principle. His thoughts on excessive wealth, the gifts of hardship, and seeing for oneself have particularly influenced my worldview.

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You must know that good men should behave similarly; they must not shrink from hardship and difficulty or complain of fate; they should take what befalls in good part and turn it to advantage. The thing that matters is not what you bear but how you bear it.
Avoid luxury, avoid debilitating prosperity which makes men’s minds soggy and which, unless something intervenes to remind them of the human condition, renders them comatose as in unending inebriation. If a man has always been protected from the wind by glass windows, if his feet have been kept warm by the constant relays of poultices, if the temperature of his dining room has been maintained by hot air circulating under the floor and through the walls, he will be dangerously susceptible to a slight breeze.
To stick to safety is the part of the puny and the spiritless; virtue marches on high.
It is because you live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time you have already spent. You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing, when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone or something else may be your last. Like the mortal you are, you are apprehensive of everything; but your desires are unlimited as if you were immortal.
Certain people who brag of their foresight are the stupidest of all. They are always preoccupied with work so that they may be in position to live better; they spend life in making provisions for life. Their plans are designed for the future, but procrastination is they greatest waste of life. It robs us of each day as it comes, and extorts the present from us on the promise of the future. Expectancy is the greatest impediment to living: in anticipation of tomorrow it loses today. You operate with what is in Fortune’s hand but let go of what is in your own. What is your range? What is your objective? Everything future is uncertain; live now!
And with this measure we shall be content if we have learned to be content with thrift, without which no amount of wealth can satisfy and with which any amount suffices, especially since a remedy is available: even poverty can transform itself into wealth by applying thrift. We must habituate ourselves to reject ostentation and value things by their utility, not by their trappings.
A man who keeps himself within the bounds of nature, therefore, will not feel poverty; but one who exceeds those bounds will be pursued by poverty even in the greatest opulence.
What should you put down as a thing especially to be avoided? I say a crowd; it is not yet safe for you to trust yourself to one. At least, I confess my own infirmity: I never bring back the same character I took with me.
Money may come unsought, office may be bestowed, influence and prestige may be thrust upon you, but virtue is not an accident.
A dwarf is not big even if he stands on a mountain top, and a colossus retains his stature even if he stands in a well. This is the mistake which misleads us; we are imposed upon because we never estimate a man by what he is but add his trappings on. If you wish to arrive at a true estimate of a man and understand his quality, look at him naked. Make him lay aside his inheritance, his titles, Fortune’s other trimmings; make him lay even his body aside and look at his soul to ascertain its quality and size and whether its greatness is its own or detachable.

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