Post-Election Detox with Lucius Annaeus Seneca
With the stench of this most shitty of election seasons still hovering in the air, one had better open a window—a metaphorical window, of course, to flush out all the bluster and negativity and personal and party animosity. Seneca’s Epistles, written nearly two thousand years ago, is just the thing you need right now: a sane, robust, humane voice calling us back to old-fashioned virtue and forcing us to confront the basic problems of life.
If you read the Epistles, you will come to the melancholy conclusion that nothing is more at odds with contemporary life than the traditional virtues.
Born about the same time as Christ, the philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca still has a lot to say to us today. In fact, he has even more to say to us than our contemporaries do—especially in light of last Tuesday’s events.
If you were disappointed by the election’s outcome, his calls to Stoical fortitude amidst calamity and his scorn for the folly of the masses will be great balms. If, on the other hand, you were elated by what happened, Seneca’s basic conservatism and his frequent cautionings about the slipperiness of fortune will also be salubrious. With Seneca, everybody’s a winner.
His Epistles (also known as Moral Letters to Lucilius and Letters from a Stoic), originally written to his fellow Stoic Lucilius, are a series of meditations slash admonitions on sundry aspects of life that strike one as very blog-like. We’ve got letters, among others, on saving time, aging, drunkenness, suicide, travel, slavery, bodily ailments, friendship, grief, learning, riches, and death.
The Epistles remind us that the same old dilemmas continue to bedevil us: how to regard the passage of time with equanimity, how to live life to its fullest, how to reconcile oneself to nonexistence. And they’re probably the pleasantest and most enjoyable philosophical text you’re ever liable to read—and a few random quotations from the Epistles will serve as ample evidence:
“Would you win over the gods? Then be a good man. Whoever imitates them is worshipping them sufficiently.”
“Nothing brings happiness unless it also brings calm.”
“Do not hope without despair, or despair without hope.”
‘Therefore, my dear Lucilius, begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.”
Philosophy has, perhaps justly, gotten a bad rap. At its best, philosophy speaks directly to who we are as human beings and how we should live; at its worst, it hyper-focuses on semantics and twists itself in knots of pseudo-logic.
Seneca’s Epistles belong to the former. They’re philosophy for people who hate philosophy. Here are the principal take-aways from the Epistles—and if any of the following in any way appeals to you, you’d better just go and read them all.
Death Need Not Be Feared
Doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican, male or female, blue-collar or white-collar—death awaits us all. It is the great uniter. And how we prepare ourselves for it is a task that we must not shirk.
With his Epistles, Seneca attempts to inoculate Lucilius (a.k.a. us) against the fear of death. Every new crop of humanity has to grapple with the Grim Reaper, and it seems that we denizens of the early twenty-first century have comfortably cordoned death off in a distant corner. We rely on modern medicine and constant distraction to help us forget the unpleasant fact that one of these days will be our last one.
So Seneca’s words about death are still pertinent. What he does is first remove the innate fear we have of death by repeatedly characterizing it as a painless, even pleasant, state of nonexistence akin to sleep. The dead are free and without complaints—and how can death be a bad thing if it is the utter absence of all things?
And then what he does is emphasize that it’s the quality, not the quantity, which counts:
“What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.”
Life is a slippery eel. If you still manage to have it in your grasp, you are still alive and the time is now to either fry that eel or let it swim off into the lagoon. End of eel metaphor.
Live in the Now
The most modern aspect of the Epistles is Seneca’s addressing the problem of anxiety. We tend to think that the Age of Anxiety began sometime around the turn of the twentieth century; that somehow the human race suddenly became neurotic wrecks because of the fallout from the Industrial Revolution or the eventual sinking-in of the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution or from the twin horrors of World Wars One and Two.
But if you read Seneca’s Epistles, you will discover that worry about the future is a consistent part of the human condition:
“It is indeed foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.”
“He suffers more than is necessary who suffers before it is necessary.”
We can gather that Lucilius—the person the above words were addressed to—was a man very much like us: a man dogged, as Seneca puts it, by “the restlessness of a hunted mind.”
In the dizzying whirlwind of outward events and in the inner storm of ever-shifting desires, we need someone to incessantly remind us that our only real possession is the present and that the cultivation of virtue cannot be put off to a later date.
In short, we need to be nagged. Seneca—even though he’s speaking to us over the expanse of two millennia—is still our one best nagger-in-chief.
One Must Set Oneself Apart from the Masses
Democracy has been justly called the least evil of all political systems—which of course implies that it can still be evil in some ways. Socrates, after all, was executed not by a monarchy or oligarchy, but by a democracy. The Many are inconsistent, led alternately by emotion and good sense, kind in some cases and cruel in others. Seneca stresses the importance of setting oneself apart from the herd:
“The greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.”
“The favour of ignoble men can be won only by ignoble means.”
“Fortune often brings into being commonplace powers, which are born to please the mob; but she holds up for our approval that which is extraordinary by the very fact that she makes it rare.”
Demagoguery, scapegoating, and massive knee-jerk reactions are the problems inherent in a democracy—their Achilles’ heels, if you will. Which doesn’t mean we should do away with the whole democratic enterprise—it just means we need to be aware of the diseases latent in it.
Seneca’s own life story, by the way, goes to prove that monarchy is no walk in the park either. Finding himself out of favor with the Emperor Nero, whose tutor he once was, he was forced to commit suicide.
No matter what the political system, true philosophy will always be in peril.
The Traditional Virtues Will Always Be Radical
If you read the Epistles, you will come to the melancholy conclusion that nothing is more at odds with contemporary life than the traditional virtues. Simple living, temperance, and scorn of pretense and pomp have been completely thrown out the window. Consumption on an epic scale is what drives our economy and it seems that shamelessness will get you further in today’s world than modesty and tact ever will.
In Seneca’s time, many well-to-do people at least made a token nod to the value of the simple life. In fact, many rich Romans had a special area of their mansions stripped of all luxury called “paupers’ huts” where they occasionally retreated to when the high life got dull.
We, however, set no limits on our appetites and aim for the big in everything: big houses, big fridges, big garages, big TVs, big bathrooms, big, big, big, big, big! Not only do we have Big Gulps, but we have Super Big Gulps.
But Seneca reminds us:
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.”
The next biggest battle each of us must fight after the one with death is the one with desire. If genuine happiness is what we crave, we must, as Seneca says, “Establish business relations with poverty”—not only to avoid the inevitable disgust that gluttony and covetousness inevitably produce, but also to defang outrageous Fortune.
Trust Not in Fortune
Something that sets Seneca apart from our modern or rather postmodern way of thinking and also paradoxically puts him on common ground with us is his near-constant reference to Fortune. Fortune is really nothing but another word for luck or chance or randomness—but Fortune as Seneca depicts it is an amoral, cyclical force that usually starts out benign but ends up being malevolent.
This way of thinking about the meaningless, topsy-turvyness of existence at first look appears to fall right in line with the contemporary mindset. But for all our talk of the randomness and chaos of the universe, most of us still believe that through meticulous planning and clear thinking and the jumping through all the right hoops, our lives will be peachy keen in the end. But Seneca warns us:
“It makes no difference when your suffering comes, because at some time you are bound to suffer.”
“Yield not to adversity; trust not to prosperity.”
“Let us think of everything that can happen as something that will happen.”
Don’t be that guy who screams out “Why me?” when tragedy suddenly strikes; don’t be that guy who thinks the gods will always smile upon him because he’s got a winning smile. Instead, as Seneca says, be the “perfect man”:
That perfect man, who has attained virtue, never cursed his luck, and never received the results of chance with dejection; he believed that he was citizen and soldier of the universe, accepting his tasks as if they were his orders.
Do yourself and the universe a favor and ensconce yourself in some Seneca today.