This is part of our 3-part series on the three most important Stoic philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus. Here you will find a short introduction to Seneca, suggested readings, three exercises/lessons from him as well as a selection of quotes.
Author Nassim Taleb likes to tell the story of Thales of Miletus, an ancient Greek philosopher, who, as Nassim jokes, was “tired of his buddies joking that ‘those who can, do, others philosophize.’” And apparently Thales took that to heart—after some smart moves he made a vast sum of money which allowed him to confirm that his pursuit of philosophy was genuine. To show that it wasn’t a case of him denouncing wealth as ‘sour grapes’ out of inability to succeed.
And Seneca was another philosopher for whom the issue of wealth and riches took central stage—how can a so-called Stoic philosopher at one point be one of the richest people in the Roman Empire? This paradox alone makes Seneca one of the most fascinating figures from antiquity and worthy of our study. But as we’ll explore below, this is only one of the many thought-provoking aspects of his life.
He was born in southern Spain over 2,000 years ago and educated in Rome. He was the son of Seneca the Elder, a well-known Roman writer as well as later in his life uncle to the poet Lucan. Seneca pursued a career in politics and became a high-ranking financial clerk. During this period he also wrote tragedies as well as his Consolation to Marcia, which is part of his works on consolation.
His life took a sharp turn in 41 A.D. once Claudius became the emperor as he exiled Seneca to the island of Corsica on the premises of supposed adultery with Julia Livilla, the emperor’s niece and Caligula’s sister. During his exile, he wrote a letter to his mother consoling her during his exile. Eight years later, in another twist, Agrippina, mother of future emperor Nero and wife of Claudius secured permission for Seneca to return and for him to become her son’s tutor and adviser. Nero later became one of the most notorious and tyrannical emperors in the history of the Roman Empire raising even more questions about Seneca’s character. Not surprisingly, Seneca’s wealth came largely while in service to Nero. It is fitting to mention at this point that Seneca’s death, in 65 A.D., came by the orders of Nero himself (who thought Seneca was part of a plot against him which purpose was to assassinate Nero and replace him with Gaius Piso).
Throughout all those turbulent periods Stoicism remained a constant in his life. Seneca’s exposure to the philosophy came from Attalus, a Stoic philosopher who was Seneca’s early teacher. Seneca was also an admirer of Cato, whose name appears regularly in his writing. Nonetheless, Seneca didn’t confine himself only to Stoicism—he borrowed liberally from other schools, as we see him citing Epicurus in several instances. After his death Seneca was an influence on notable figures such as Erasmus, Francis Bacon, Pascal, Montaigne down to modern days as we are seeing a revived interest in him. Two notable examples amidst many include bestselling author and former trader Nassim Taleb who has dedicated an entire chapter to Seneca in his last book as well as writer and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss who published an audiobook of Seneca and has often referred to Seneca on his popular blog.
And the strong interest in him is of course not surprising. Seneca not only wrote on philosophy but used it in the way it’s meant to be used: to handle and navigate through the upsides and downsides of fortune. And those he knew extremely well—varying from massive wealth to exile to handling with dignity the suicide order from his own pupil Nero.
There are lessons in there for all of us, no matter what we are currently facing.
Before we do so, the question remains. How does one make sense of such a life? The philosopher who was beyond wealthy, a tutor to one of the most terrible emperors in the history of the Roman Empire yet his moral writings would urge us to be better people. In an article in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert writes that while some, like the critic Robert Hughes, have labeled Seneca as “a hypocrite almost without equal in the ancient world,” more recent scholars offer a more nuanced view. “It is possible,” she writes, “in their view, to see Seneca as a hypocrite and as a force of moral restraint.” It is important to note here that Seneca was self-aware to understand this. As he wrote, “I am not a wise man and I never will be.”
He understood well enough that he was imperfect and was forced to walk incredibly difficult paths. His life was one of riches, power, ambition, politics—but also one—to the best of his extent—of philosophy, introspection and self-awareness.
Notable Works & Suggested Readings
One thing that stands out from Seneca is that he is one of the most enjoyable and readable of all ancient philosophers. Part of it was due to the fact that his most notable works came in the form of letters. We have two main recommendations for you to grab:
On the Shortness of Life This collection of three short letters might be the best introduction to Seneca. The main one, On the Shortness of Life, is a stringent reminder about the non-renewability of our most important resource: our time. One of his most famous quotes comes from this writing and is worth reflecting upon: “We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not Ill-supplied but wasteful of it.”
Letters from a Stoic From the looks of it, Seneca was a trusted friend who gave great advice to his friends. Now we can read those letters and they can guide us through problems with grief, wealth, anger, poverty, success, failure, education and so many other things. If you prefer audio books, you should instead listen to the collection “The Tao of Seneca” recently produced by Tim Ferriss.
If you’re still curious, we’d recommend taking a look at Seneca’s plays, Dying Every Day, a great biography on Seneca as well as grabbing Antifragile mentioned above, which has a fascinating chapter dedicated to him. Those with scholarly inclinations might find the academic paper “Seneca on Trial” worthy if they wish to go more in depth.
3 Exercises & Lessons From Seneca
1. Find an Anchor
Seneca, in his letters to Lucilius, urges him to choose a role model to provide a standard to live by. This is of course idea that is not unique to Stoicism by any means but Seneca succinctly puts why it is a necessary step in our pursuit of the good life. The person of our choosing can provide us with principles that can help us navigate even the most difficult and treacherous circumstances as well as standards against which we can judge our behavior on a day-to-day basis. As Seneca wrote,
“So choose yourself a Cato–or, if Cato seems too severe for you, a Laelius, a man whose character is not quite so strict. Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight.”
2. Never Be a Slave of Your Wealth
Let’s return to the paradox about philosophy and riches. A way to think about Seneca’s wealth as discussed by Nassim Taleb is the following: Seneca only wanted the upside of wealth but was always ready to use it and never dependent on it. He was a master of it, not its slave. All the upside, none of the downside. We need to constantly reexamine if we are so trapped by the gifts of good fortune that we are scared to lose and therefore turning it into our master. As Seneca wrote in On The Happy Life discussing his riches:
“For the wise man does not consider himself unworthy of any gifts from Fortune’s hands: he does not love wealth but he would rather have it; he does not admit into his heart but into his home; and what wealth is his he does not reject but keeps, wishing it to supply greater scope for him to practice his virtue.”
As he summed up his attitude of being a master and not a slave of good fortune: “For the wise man regards wealth as a slave, the fool as a master.”
3. Fight Your Ego
Seneca understood well how our ego can impede us from learning and progress. In today’s culture of inflating everyone’s self-esteem we get used to only hearing praise. Little by little we start buying it more and more. To paraphrase what a journalist wrote about tyrannical leaders, when you keep hearing that you are a superman, you start to believe it. Seneca warned Lucilius against such indulgence:
“The chief obstacle is that we are quick to be satisfied with ourselves. If we find someone to call us good men, cautious and principled, we acknowledge him. We are not content with a moderate eulogy, but accept as our due whatever flattery has shamelessly heaped upon us. We agree with those who call us best and wisest, although we know they often utter many falsehoods: we indulge ourselves so greatly that we want to be praised for a virtue which is the opposite of our behavior. A man hears himself called ‘most merciful’ while he is inflicting torture.. So it follows that we don’t want to change because we believe we are already excellent.”
“Think your way through difficulties: harsh conditions can be softened, restricted ones can be widened, and heavy ones can weigh less on those who know how to bear them.”
“Let all your activity be directed to some object, let it have some end in view.”
“Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.”
“We say that nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation.”
“Believe me it is better to understand the balance-sheet of one’s own life than of the corn trade.”
“We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not Ill-supplied but wasteful of it.”