Seneca: on tranquillity of mind

Roman drinking wine
Roman drinking wine

After having tackled Seneca’s views on what makes for a wise person, let’s take a look to what he had to say on the topic of peace of mind, which was a major goal especially of Roman Stoicism (as opposed to an exclusive emphasis on the cultivation of virtues in Greek Stoicism).

The essay begins with a letter to Seneca by his friend Serenus, asking for advice. Serenus feels that he has a good handle on some of his “vices,” but not other, deeper ones, and he says that as a result of this his mind is not at peace. He is “neither ill nor well,” and he realizes that his judgment about his own affairs is skewed by personal bias. “I am well aware that these oscillations of mind are not perilous and that they threaten me with no serious disorder: to express what I complain of by an exact simile, I am not suffering from a storm, but from sea-sickness. Take from me, then, this evil, whatever it may be, and help one who is in distress within sight of land.”

Seneca begins his answer by assuring Serenus that what he is after is indeed the greatest thing, a state that he calls peace of mind (or tranquillity). He then explains that there are all sorts of men who do not achieve tranquillity of mind, for different reasons. Some suffer from fickleness, continually changing their goals and yet always regretting what they have just given up. Other people are not fickle, not because of their consistency, but rather because of their dullness. They “go on living not in the way they wish, but in the way they have begun to live,” that is, by inertia. Still others believe that the way to beat their fickleness is to travel far and wide, but of course simply carry their own problems with them: “As Lucretius says: ‘Thus every mortal from himself doth flee.'” Seneca concludes his preamble by suggesting that our problems do not reside in the place where we live, but in ourselves, and rhetorically asks “How long are we to go on doing the same thing?,” isn’t it time to examine what we do and why?

In section III of the essay Seneca gets down to providing a number of specific pieces of advice to Serenus on how to achieve tranquillity of mind. The first one he gets from Athenodorus: “the best thing is to occupy oneself with business, with the management of affairs of state and the duties of a citizen.” That’s because to be of service to others and to one’s country is both to exercise oneself in an activity and to do good at the same time. But one can do the same good, and keep himself productively busy, by engaging in philosophy, which of course Seneca — like all Stoics — understood not as a narrow academic pursuit, but as the studying (and teaching to others) of the way toward the eudaimonic life. These sorts of occupation will provide satisfaction and hence tranquillity of mind, and will make our lives different from those of people who will have nothing to show for by the end of theirs: “Often a man who is very old in years has nothing beyond his age by which he can prove that he has lived a long time.”

Seneca then admits that sometimes one has to retire, but, as he puts it “one ought to retire slowly, at a foot’s pace,” so to be able to keep doing useful things and exercise virtue as widely as possible. Regardless of where one finds himself, “one is never so cut off from all pursuits as to find no room left for honourable action.”

In V he then provides a specific example of the latter thought, asking his friend to contemplate for a moment just what a miserable place Athens was under the rule of the thirty tyrants. And yet, “Socrates was in the midst of the city, and consoled its mourning Fathers, encouraged those who despaired of the republic … he walked a free man in the midst of thirty masters.” Adding: “even in an oppressed state a wise man can find an opportunity for bringing himself to the front … We ought therefore, to expand or contract ourselves according as the state presents itself to us, or as Fortune offers us opportunities,” but we don’t give up doing good things for society, because “the worst evil of all is to leave the ranks of the living before one dies.” I just can’t help finding these thoughts both beautiful and beautifully expressed.

Section VI is full of eminently practical advice. Seneca starts by cautioning his friend that it is frequent for people to think they can achieve more than they actually can. The wise person, instead, is aware of his limitations. Next, we need to remember that some pursuits are simply not worth the effort, and we should stay away from them because our time in life is short and precious. And finally, says Seneca, “apply yourself to something which you can finish, or at any rate can hope to finish.”

We should also be careful in the choice of our associates, devoting portions of our lives to people who are worth the effort. Moreover, our pursuits should be of a kind that we actually enjoy, if possible: “no good is done by forcing one’s mind to engage in uncongenial work: it is vain to struggle against Nature.”

Section VIII deals with property, “that most fertile source of human sorrows.” Seneca warns Serenus that, in his experience, the rich do not bear their losses any better than the poor as “it hurts bald men as much as hairy men to have their hairs pulled out.” That is why Diogenes owned nothing, to make it impossible that anyone should be able to take anything from him: “Fortune, mind your own business: Diogenes has nothing left that belongs to you.” Of course, Seneca himself was no Diogenes, and indeed was a very rich man. He often gets chastised for hypocrisy on account of this, but his point is that one should not get attached to material possessions, not that he should not have any — Stoics, once again, are not Cynics, despite their admiration for Diogenes. Still, in the same section Seneca advises to reduce the amounts of our possessions, so to diminish the likelihood that we get inordinately attached to them. He did so in the latter part of his life, though that was actually aimed at convincing Nero to let him retire (it didn’t work).

Seneca keeps hammering on that particular point, however, which I personally regard as excellent advice, regardless of the extent, if any, to which Seneca himself put it into practice (we certainly know of other Stoics who did, like Cato): “We never can so thoroughly defeat the vast diversity and malignity of misfortune with which we are threatened as not to feel the weight of many gusts if we offer a large spread of canvas to the wind: we must draw our affairs into a small compass, to make the darts of Fortune of no avail.”

At X comes some good, classically Stoic suggestion on how to adjust to new situations. If you have lost something, even something precious, because of the changing winds of fortune, just remember that “in every station of life you will find amusements, relaxations, and enjoyments; that is, provided you be willing to make light of evils rather than to hate them.”

XI presents two classical quotes that I will simply transcribe without comment, as they are gems of wisdom that require no further addition of my own:

“When [the wise man] is bidden to give [property] up, he will not complain of Fortune, but will say, ‘I thank you for what I have had possession of: I have managed your property so as largely to increase it, but since you order me, I give it back to you and return it willingly and thankfully.'”

“What hardship can there be in returning to the place from whence one came? A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well. … Disease, captivity, disaster, conflagration, are none of them unexpected: I always knew with what disorderly company Nature had associated me.”

At XII Seneca warns his friend about just busying himself for the sake of doing something, as opposed to making good choices on how to employ his time. He imagines a short dialogue with someone who doesn’t know what he is doing and why: “Whither are you going?” he will answer, “By Hercules, I do not know: but I shall see some people and do something.” I think I know a number of people just like that, apparently things haven’t changed that much in two millennia.

Whatever one does, of course, ought to be approached with the constant reminder of the Stoic reserve clause: “it is safest not to tempt Fortune often, but always to remember her existence, and never to promise oneself anything on her security. I will set sail unless anything happens to prevent me, I shall be praetor, if nothing hinders me, my financial operations will succeed, unless anything goes wrong with them.”

It follows that one accepts Fate for what it is, and indeed tries to do his best with the new circumstances. Seneca recalls the example of Zeno — the founder of the School — who lost everything in a shipwreck and began studying philosophy, saying “Fortune bids me follow philosophy in lighter marching order.”

XV is very interesting, as Seneca compares two different attitudes toward life: the tragic and the comic one, advising that we should follow Democritus rather than Heraclitus: “The latter of these, whenever he appeared in public, used to weep, the former to laugh: the one thought all human doings to be follies, the other thought them to be miseries. We must take a higher view of all things, and bear with them more easily: it better becomes a man to scoff at life than to lament over it.”

But of course Seneca realizes that some times life is a tragedy, as when worthy people (he mentions Socrates, Rutilius, Pompeius, Cicero and Cato) are killed or sent to exile. Even then, however, the Stoic can learn valuable lessons: “See how each of them endured his fate, and if they endured it bravely, long in your heart for courage as great as theirs … All these men discovered how at the cost of a small portion of time they might obtain immortality, and by their deaths gained eternal life.”

The last section, somewhat unexpectedly, bears on the common yet unjustified charge that Stoics are killjoys incapable of having fun: “Socrates did not blush to play with little boys, Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music … It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.” I’m going to drink to that!

14 thoughts on “Seneca: on tranquillity of mind

  1. Seneca seems to me to be like strategy. Knowing what to do isn’t the same as executing the plan. We must follow through completely. That’s why I’m drawn to Stoicism’s emphasis on application and not theory, much like Sun Tzu. Both are concerned about the outcome and that takes a lot of planning AND execution, all hard work and hard stuff well beyond fine rhetoric.


  2. suntzu,

    setting aside our disagreement concerning the assessment of Seneca’s actions, wouldn’t you say that there is a worthy place for strategy, without which one wouldn’t know what to execute?


  3. Yes absolutely. I might not respect the man, but I still believe our Seneca’s letters and moral essays have great intellectual value. We just need to know, like strategy, their limited scope. The work has only begun.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Ordinary Philosophy and commented:
    Another excellent piece by one of my favorite philosophers in the public square. I, for one, would do well to heed Seneca’s advice: I often find myself stressed and overwhelmed by running around too much and just doing, doing, doing, without enough reflection on whether or not it’s most conducive to my well-being and to the overall success of my endeavors. Thanks, Massimo, for bringing the wisdom of Stoicism to the hectic modern world!


  5. Great pieces of advice, as always. But I don’t agree with the wine thing; alcohol usually irritates me. Perhaps dancing or playing with kids.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you Massimo so much for all these posts on Seneca’s philosophy. I just got to read Seneca for a few months, and your posts are all excellent reminders of main practical philosophy we can acquire and apply from him. It is a bit silly, but I’m proud to admit that even reading Seneca has made me feel greater. However, I’m just wondering if you can explain a bit more about how should we apply the two advice (Amy already restated above), that I would like to transcribe it here:

    “Next, we need to remember that some pursuits are simply not worth the effort, and we should stay away from them because our time in life is short and precious”
    “At XII Seneca warns his friend about just busying himself for the sake of doing something, as opposed to making good choices on how to employ his time”

    To me, it is still vague, in a sense that there are many things we wish to do in life, especially for human society. And, it is true that “it is frequent for people to think they can achieve more than they actually can”. Therefore, by any chance that you can share with us your personal experience and advice for this point?


  7. @dsf: I totally agree with you Sir. My only explanation here is that, we should pay more attention on these words: “for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases”. IMO, it makes sense to think that even the wisest men in the world sometimes has to lose his calm by adversities or disasters fortune could bring to life. And, in that situation, would it be better to use wine as a remedy to clean the shadow of sorrow that still in a deep part of his mind, hence he can rearrange himself to adapt it. Even though, what I can say is that these situations are extremely rare, especially for a Stoic who make himself familiar with thoughts of death and severe adversity. Again, it is one of the many options one can choose, which reminds the Stoic attitude towards “indifferents”.


  8. Abig,

    The problem with virtue ethics (not just Stoicism) and vagueness is something often brought up by critics of the approach. But I find it a refreshing source of necessary flexibility. Life is too damn complicated for simple recipes and silver bullets.

    But to address your request for specific advice on Seneca and his statements about tranquillity, I can say a couple of things. What helps me is to keep the big picture in mind, in the background of everything I do in life, so that whenever I am faced with the question of “should I prioritize this?” Or “should I spend time doing that?” I consult my big picture and see how whatever I’m considering right now fits into it. Some things, for instance, may be urgent, but not important. Others may be important in the long run, but not urgent, and as a consequence they risk falling off the radar screen of my attention, so to speak.

    I find it useful to work on a concept map (references here: of the various long-term priorities in my life. I consult it occasionally, to see whether I’m on the right track, and once or twice a year I revise it, because my goals and priorities may have changed.

    I hope this helps!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Massimo,
    Thank you very much for your quick response and these valuable suggestions.
    There is no doubt that life is too complicated to have a simple approach, but I believe it’s more important for us to focus on the way and observe it in different views. However, the main problem is that even with a unique long-term purpose, there are thousand ways and also thousand things in each way as well, that we have to decide to do or not to do. This is why I’m eager to hear from experienced ppl like you Sir, in order to sharpen my practical approach. To your advices, I’ve already applied the former for a year (by reminding myself every morning my long-term goals), and found it really helpful to lead me through difficulties. Will try the concept map as well, and I’m sure I can get sth from it.

    Once again, thank you very much for your sharing, and I’m looking forward to seeing more posts from you, especially about Seneca and his wisdom.


    Liked by 1 person

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