Seneca to Lucilius: On groundless fears

Fear and worryThe 13th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, concerns the sort of things of which people are afraid without cause.

Seneca begins by arguing that we have to experience certain things in order to build our character and develop resistance against them: “no prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever” (XIII.2)

It’s an old idea (though much less so at the time, I guess!), and one that obviously calls to mind resilience as a Stoic character, not to mention the virtue of courage.

He then continues: “There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality” (XIII.4). And again: “some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow” (XIII.5).

Both passages remind Lucilius of what later became a principal refrain of Epictetus: we ought to distance ourselves from our first impressions, consider them rationally, and decide whether to give or withdraw assent from them. We do indeed suffer more often in imagination than in reality, because reality is frequently much more bearable than our fears let us believe. Some things torment us when they ought not to torment us at all because torment is the result of our own judgments about things, not of the things themselves.

Later on Seneca tells his friend that perhaps the most foolish fears we have are generated by mere rumors. You see, truths have, as he puts it, their “own definite boundaries,” meaning that at the least we know what we are facing, and we prepare accordingly. But rumors have a strange effect, leading us to react like an army that retreats in panic at the sight of a dust cloud over the horizon, which was, however, caused by nothing but a herd of cattle.

“That is why no fear is so ruinous and so uncontrollable as panic fear. For other fears are groundless, but this fear is witless” (XIII.9).
Again, of course, this is because we assent to things that we ought to reject, getting ourselves all worked up about shadows on the wall.

Seneca closes the letter as he often does, with a “gift” for his friend in the guise of a helpful piece of wisdom that he quotes from someone else, though in this case we are not told the source of the maxim (but, he says, it is not Epicurus):

“‘The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.’ Reflect, my esteemed Lucilius, what this saying means, and you will see how revolting is the fickleness of men who lay down every day new foundations of life, and begin to build up fresh hopes even at the brink of the grave” (XIII.16).

I have meditated quite a bit on this passage, and I think what Seneca meant to convey to his dear friend was that there is a season for everything, and that it is foolish to make mistakes about what season of our lives we find ourselves in. Rather, we should make plans that take into account the resources that we have available, and time — as Seneca tells us in his very first letter — is the most precious resource of them all.

2 thoughts on “Seneca to Lucilius: On groundless fears

  1. Dear Massimo, I have only recently dicovered Stoicism and your wonderful blog so forgive me if I am completely mistaken, but this last passage in the letter, about the fool, is Seneca not just saying ‘Live your life today instead of making plans for tomorrow,?’ The here and now offers all kinds of possibilities to train your virtue, for instance by facing real or perceived dangers. And this is more useful to you than thinking about tomorrow?

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  2. Harry,

    That’s certainly one possible interpretation of the passage, and it is consistent with Stoic philosophy, but it sounds more to me like Seneca is telling his friends that everything has the right season, and that therefore to embark on long running plans when one is old is foolish, since one will not have enough time to see the plans through.

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