In this summary, I’ll share with you the most fascinating quotes and insights from Seneca. Seneca’s life lessons can be divided into 3 parts: on the shortness of life, stoic teachings and the peace of mind. I will go through these chapters chronologically. Read on.
PART 1: ON THE SHORTNESS OF LIFE
Some great quotes with the underlying life lessons:
- “Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. “
Lesson: life is NOT short, only if you know how to use it well!
- “You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
Lesson: people waste time – the most valuable resources there is – as if they had a non-stop, overflowing supply of it. Just look around and realize to how many they divide/share out their life time and compare it with other resources (money, property, etc.). You will notice that is not balanced at all. “Value your time” seems to be the core message here.
- “But among the worst offenders I count those who spend all their time in drinking and lust, for these are the worst preoccupations of all. It is those who are on a headlong course of gluttony and lust who are stained with dishonour.”
Lesson: Seneca condemns something we still see very often in modern society: over-consumption of food, alcohol, drugs and sex. He argues that people dedicating their whole lives to these activities can’t be at ease. Why? Because they’re always on the look-out for the next shot of dopamine. Their lives are guided by the craving for the next ‘high’. Those people – Seneca argues – will never be at peace.
- “It is generally agreed that no activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied, since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. He has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself. None of it lay fallow and neglected, none of it under another’s control.”
Lesson: All preoccupied people suffer – to some degree – from attachment. This can include attachment to things or other people. They ‘need’ someone/something outside of themselves, and they let these people/things soak up their time to fill a void and feel happy.
Seneca argues that people should dedicate way more time to themselves instead of to other people or things, which they often can’t control anyway. Stephen Covey – author of the “7 habits of highly effective people” – acknowledged this too by saying that effective people focus solely on things within their circle of influence. If you want to know more about this book, check out the summary here.
- “Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
Lesson: This is one of my favorite quotes of the book. A lot of people suffer from this mental procrastination. You will hear them say: “When I’m mature enough, I will do this” or “Once I’m settled, I’ll will start that project” or “When I’m older, I’ll accomplish that” and on it goes. The key lesson here is that the only right moment to start is NOW. Start today. Or as Seneca would say it: live immediately. The future is too uncertain to reckon on.
- “Off all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders prepared for us a way of life.”
Lesson: The key lesson here – I think – is that leisure time or ‘time off’ should be better spent on philosophy and liberal studies rather than on heedless luxury, drinking and other indolent occupations. Many of these philosophers (Socrates, Plato, etc.) have left works that ‘stood the test of time’. Seneca insists us to learn from these valuable works and share them with our friends, family, co-workers, etc. This Seneca calls ‘real leisure’.
- “But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing. For as soon as their preoccupations fail them, they are restless with nothing to do, not knowing how to dispose of their leisure or make time pass. And so they are anxious for something else to do, and all the intervening time is wearisome: really, it is just as when a gladiatorial show has been announced, or they are looking forward to the appointed time of some other exhibition or amusement – they want to leap over the days in between. Yet the time of the actual enjoyment is short and swift, and made much shorter through their own fault. For they dash from one pleasure to another and cannot stay steady in one desire.”
Lesson: Enjoy every moment of your life, no matter where you’re at. Don’t forget the past, learn from it. Don’t neglect the present, live in it. And don’t fear the future, shape it.
PART 2: STOIC TEACHINGS
- “We are born under circumstances that would be favourable if we did not abandon them. It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself.”
Lesson: Long-lasting, solid happiness always comes from within. External things may give you a short-term ‘happiness shot’ but at the end – when that good moment has come to an end – you will depend on yourself again. How can you derive happiness from within? By letting go and accepting the circumstances you live in right now. Of course, shape your future by accomplishing things, but always try to live now and accept your current situation.
- “For how little have we lost, when the two finest things of all will accompany us wherever we go: universal nature and our individual virtue. Believe me, whatever is best for a human being lies outside human control: it can be neither given nor taken away. The world you see, nature’s greatest and most glorious creation, and the human mind which gazes and wonders at it, and is the most splendid part of it, these are our own ever-lasting possessions and will remain with us as long as we ourselves remain.”
Lesson: This is a typical stoic idea Seneca tries to explain. Simply put, he argues that we really don’t need that much in life to feel happy. Just look outside: nature is one of the most precious gifts of the universe. This together with our consciousness, the human mind, which is able to wonder at this gift at any time. Seneca says that these 2 elements are the two finest ones on earth, and we can carry these with us everywhere we go, no matter our circumstances.
- “But there is no evil in poverty, as anyone knows who has not yet arrived at the lunatic state of greed and luxury, which ruins everything. For how little is needed to support a man! And who can lack this if he has any virtue at all? As far as I am concerned, I know that I have lost not wealth but distractions. The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment; if we long for anything more, we are exerting to serve our vices, not our needs.”
Lesson: Another very stoic part of Seneca. Just like our ancestors, food and shelter will always be able to satisfy our basic physical needs. Wanting more than that – Seneca argues – will lead to bad feelings. But is that enough? What about our psychological needs? What would Maslow say of this?
- “It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it. And so I am leading you to that resource which must be the refuge of all who are flying from Fortune: liberal studies.”
Lesson: Face pain with reason. If you’re feeling sad, anxious or bad, you should always try to face that feeling 100%: where does it come from? Why? Observe it with attention and understand it. Only by staying very conscious will you get the right answer. People avoiding their pain, anxieties or bad feelings often stay unconscious by seeking stimulation in constant new activities.
That’s why you probably never will solve your problems by drinking alcohol, because it makes you unconscious: you may forget about your problems for a short period of time. However, the next day is another day. The bad feeling will still be there. Seneca’s main advice here is: study, study, study. Study human behaviour, including your own. Study philosophy. Study science. Make it a habit to approach each problem with the requisite consciousness. Engage your mind, your reason for the full 100%.
PART 3: ON THE TRANQUILLITY OF MIND
How do you get a ‘peaceful’ mind? A mind remaining in a state of peace without ups and downs?
Seneca tried to give an answer to that question, first describing the kind of people who lack this tranquillity of mind.
- “There are those who are afflicted with fickleness, boredom and a ceaseless change of purpose, and who always yearn for what they have left behind, and those who just yawn from apathy. There are those too who toss around like insomniacs, and keep changing their position until they find rest through sheer weariness. They keep altering the condition of their lives, and eventually stick to that one in which they are trapped not by weariness with further change but by old age which is too sluggish for novelty. There are those too who suffer not from moral steadfastness but from inertia, and so lack the fickleness to live as they wish, and just live as they begun. In fact, there are innumerable characteristics of this malady, but one effect – dissatisfaction with oneself. This arises from mental instability and from fearful and unfulfilled desires, when men do not dare or do not achieve all they long for, and all they grasp is hope.”
In this part, Seneca reveals some of the personalities that will have a hard time experiencing a peaceful mind. The first type of person is the one that is bored with life: this person will fill his day with (often) meaningless activities in order to get rid of this boredom. This person is fickle, changing his mind very often and longs for constant new stimuli. But – as Seneca explains – once this person’s pleasures have been removed, his mind cannot endure the house, the solitude, the walls, and hates to observe its own isolation.
Closely related, there are those people that suffer from pure apathy, a state of indifference. These people lack passion, emotion and feeling towards a bigger purpose. There is no perspective, no goal, no plan. They live in constant reaction to new things, rather than being proactive.
At last, there are those people who actually lack the fickleness described above and suffer from inertia. These people are resistant to any change in their lives, often making them unable to create something new. For this reason, they cannot fully live and act as they would want. All these people – Seneca argues – cannot have a peaceful mind.
So how can we find a ‘peace of mind’?
Here are Seneca’s 10 rules to become a ‘peaceful’ person:
- Apply yourself to study:
“If you apply yourself to study you will avoid boredom with life, you will not long for night because you are sick of daylight, you will neither be a burden to yourself nor useless to others, you will attract many to become your friends and the finest people will flock about you.”
- Appraise oneself:
“Above all it is essential to appraise oneself, because we usually overestimate our capabilities. We must appraise the actual things we are attempting and match our strengths to what we are going to undertake. For the performer must always be stronger than his task: loads that are too heavy for the bearer are bound to overwhelm him.”
- Choose people carefully:
“We must be especially careful in choosing people, and deciding whether they are worth devoting a part of our lives to them, whether the sacrifice of our time makes a difference to them. To be sure, we shall choose those who are as far as possible free from strong desires; for vices spread insidiously, and those nearest to hand are assailed and damaged by contact with them. It follows that, just as at a time of an epidemic disease we must take care not to sit beside people whose bodies are infected with feverish disease because we shall risk ourselves and suffer from their breathing upon us, so in choosing our friends for their characters we shall take care to find those who are the least corrupted. Though a man’s loyalty and kindness may not be in doubt, a companion who is agitated and groaning about everything is an enemy to peace of mind.”
- Know yourself:
“You must consider whether your nature is more suited to practical activity or to quiet study and reflection, and incline in the direction your natural faculty and disposition takes you.”
- Live economically:
“Let us get used to banishing ostentation, and to measuring things by their qualities of function rather than display. Let food banish hunger and drink banish thirst; let sex indulge its needs; let us learn to rely on our limbs, and to adjust our style of dress and our way of living not to the new-fangled patterns but to the customs of our ancestors. Let us learn to increase our self-restraint, to curb luxury, to moderate ambition, to soften anger, to regard poverty without prejudice, to practice frugality, even if many are ashamed of it.”
- Accept your circumstances and conditions:
“All life is a servitude. So you have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it. Think your way through difficulties; harsh conditions can be softened, restricted ones be widened, and heavy ones can weigh less on those who know how to bear them. Know that every condition can change, and whatever happens to anyone can happen to you too.”
- Have a vision:
“The next thing to ensure is that we do not waste our energies pointlessly or in pointless activities: that is, not to long either for what we cannot achieve, or for what, once gained, only makes us realize too late and after much exertion the futility of our desires. Let all your activity be directed to some object, let it have some end in view.”
- Stay flexible:
“We should also make ourselves flexible, so that we do not pin our hopes too much on our set plans, and can move over to those things to which chance has brought us, without dreading a change in either our purpose or our condition, provided that fickleness, that fault most inimical to tranquillity, does not get hold of us. For obstinacy, from which Fortune often extorts something, is bound to bring wretchedness and anxiety.”
“We should make light of all things and endure them with tolerance: it is more civilized to make fun of life than to bewail it. Bear in mind too that he deserves better of the human race as well who laughs at it than he who grieves over it; since the one allows it a fair prospect of hope, while the other stupidly laments over things he cannot hope will be put right. And, all things considered, it is the mark of a greater mind not to restrain laughter than not to restrain tears, since laughter expresses the gentlest of our feelings, and reckons that nothing is great or serious or even wretched in all the trappings of our existence.”
- Take time for moderate relaxation:
“Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest. Just as you must not force fertile farmland, an uninterrupted productivity will soon exhaust it, so constant effort will sap our mental vigour, while a short period of rest and relaxation will restore our powers. We must indulge the mind and from time to time allow it the leisure which is its food and strength. We must go for walks out of doors, so that the mind can be strengthened and invigorated by a clear sky and plenty of fresh air. At times it will acquire fresh energy from a journey by carriage and a change of scene, or from socializing and drinking freely. Occasionally we should even come to a point of intoxication, sinking into drink but not being totally flooded by it; for it does wash away cares, and stirs the mind to its depths, and heals sorrow just as it heals certain diseases.”