The Stoic Philosopher
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, most often referred to by his last name, was a prominent philosophical figure in the Roman Imperial Period (27 BC to AD 476). He is one of the most influential figures of stoicism, a philosophical movement about the power of transformation through knowledge. 1
However, Seneca was not your typical philosopher. Philosophy was not just something he studied – it was a way of life. He did not spend his days with his head in the books, but rather practiced philosophy in everyday actions. Aside from being a philosopher, Seneca was a statesman, an orator, and a playwright. Seneca was also known for his poetic tragedies that handled familiar Greek tragic themes.2
Overall, Seneca’s goal was to live meaningfully and authentically, as per stoic philosophy. He believed this could be achieved through an understanding of the world, nature, and himself.1 He was adamant that we should only concern ourselves with what we can control – the present – and not base our decisions on what is uncertain – the future. He strove to live life to the fullest, and his philosophies help guide his followers down the same path.
The ancient philosophy movement first emerged during the Hellenistic period (323 BC to 31 BC).1 These days, however, it is through Seneca, born after this period, that people usually learn about stoicism. The success of his philosophical works surpassed his lifetime and played a major role in the revival of stoic ideas during the Renaissance.4
Stoicism moves philosophy beyond the academic realm and into the practice of meaningful self-transformation.1 Followers of stoicism believe that philosophy should not merely consist of complex lectures or heavy books. Philosophy, they believe, is a way of life that helps people reach moral worth through mindfulness and tranquility.5
Seneca wrote that “of 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.” 6 For stoics, philosophical knowledge about the nature of the world enables people to live to the fullest.
As Seneca believed that philosophy was a way of life, he did not create a philosophical theory from the ground up. He believed that philosophical insights were inspired by the world around us and should help us live in agreement with that existing system.4 Knowledge is not an end in itself, but a means through which to live meaningfully.5 Stoics like Seneca were therefore interested in practical applications of philosophy and ethics, such as law, world citizenship, nature, and religion, as these endeavors grant people a sense of purpose and belonging.5
Stoicism also suggests that we must focus on what is important and not value anything above life, including wealth.6 Although Seneca himself was a successful and wealthy man, he preached that monetary wealth should not define a person. As controversial writer and thinker Nassim Taleb has said, Seneca enjoyed the upside of wealth, but never depended on it. He was a master of wealth, not a slave.7
According to stoicism, money is a commodity that people can always make more of (unlike time) and therefore accumulating and maintaining wealth should not be a priority. Real ‘wealth’, for Seneca, had nothing to do with money. In fact, he claimed that living long and existing for a long time are two different things; doing is not better than being. Truly living requires making the most of one’s time, not being a passive cog in a capitalist system. Wealth, then, should be about living life to its fullest based on one’s own wants and purposes.6
On The Shortness of Life
Seneca’s philosophical writings were centred around the question: How can we be happy? Firstly, he believed that people should be constant students and use life as their teacher. Secondly, he suggested that we work with the world around us – a message that is strikingly relevant in the age of climate change. He suggested people needed to work in agreement with their environment rather than in a way that extracts from it.
Thirdly, in his essay “On the Shortness of Life,” Seneca wrote that to be happy, we must be attuned to the non-renewability of our time.6 Since our time is limited, and the most important resource, it should be spent wisely. He urged people to realize the value of time and live for the present moment, as it is only the present we can control.
He wrote, “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.” 8
We can draw from Seneca’s essay some useful tools to help us with time-management:
- Treat time as a commodity. This will help people protect their time since they will treat it as a valuable resource.
- You should not invest time preparing for your life. This lesson follows stoic beliefs that studying philosophy shouldn’t be done separately from the rest of life, but in accordance with it. Seneca was a proponent of living in the moment, because the future is uncertain.
- Spend your time on things you enjoy and will make your life meaningful. Live for yourself, not doing activities for others.
- Avoid procrastination, because the activities we engage in while procrastinating are not meaningful. Seneca’s trick to avoid procrastinating is ‘premeditation malorium’ (the premeditation of evils). Asking yourself to imagine possible negative outcomes or worst case scenarios before beginning something can help people be prepared for the distractions that might arise.
- Attach immediate rewards to work that will not have meaningful payoff until later. Our desire for immediate gratification is usually what causes us to procrastinate, as meaningful work often only provides reward after many hours or weeks. For example, you may tell yourself you are only allowed to watch Netflix if you finish the first section of your report, thereby attaching an immediate reward to your work.
- Since we work around eight hours a day just to afford ourselves free time, we should use that free time to engage in meaningful activities.
- Reflect on your past. Although Seneca advises us to generally live in the moment, he disagrees with time-management strategies that advise a focus on the present and glance toward the future. In his view, the future is uncertain, whereas the past is unchangeable. Reflecting on the past can therefore provide greater self-awareness and help you comprehend how you got to where you are today.
- According to Seneca, “Memory is more enduring than grief,” so we should spend our time creating happy memories. Memories from life experiences are thought to be more resistant than tangible luxuries to the hedonic treadmill, which suggests that we adapt to life events and therefore our happiness stabilizes. Since life experiences are resistant to adaptation, they can increase our happiness levels, even in times of sorrow. 6
Seneca’s essay entitled “On Anger” suggested that the ideal human does not have irrational emotional responses but still harbors rational affective feelings. For example, while the ideal human should not feel desire, pleasure, or fear, they should feel good feelings like ‘wishing’, joy, and caution that will help them avoid danger. 4 Seneca thought that these latter emotions were rational affective states that replaced the irrational ones.
Seneca suggested that the emotions with which we react to upsetting events are usually irrational and get in the way of rational action. Traditional economists are likely to agree, as they suggest humans should make decisions as homo economicus, rational decision-makers who are only influenced by maximizing rewards. If someone steals from you, acting out of anger and seeking revenge is not likely to maximize rewards.
Seneca knew that emotions like anger were incredibly powerful, which is why he believed people should replace them with rational responses. Destructive emotions like anger, jealousy, and fear can take over someone’s life and become all-consuming. Moreover, acting out of these emotions can quickly become a habit, making us more likely to react in the same way in the future.
He writes in “On Anger,” “the best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition.”9 Seneca believed that the answer to breaking this cycle was to be more tolerant toward one another and acknowledge that no one is perfect, including ourselves.10 People should be given grace to make mistakes.
Instead of believing that emotions are involuntary responses, Seneca believed in our ability to control how we react to things. As a result, he preached that we should choose to react with empathy, patience, and calm. In his view, the circumstances will not change regardless of how you react, so you might as well not make the situation worse.9
Avoiding emotions like fear is especially important when it comes to fear of death, an emotion that many people harbor. Seneca suggests that fearing death is paradoxical; the fear is supposed to help one preserve life, but it ends up spoiling it, because people become consumed by their fear and fail to enjoy the present moment. This idea relates to Seneca’s philosophy on the importance of living in the present moment.4
Lucius Seneca was born into a wealthy family around 4 BC in Spain. His father, known as Seneca the Elder, was a teacher of rhetoric and his mother received an honorable education.2
At a young age, Seneca’s aunt took him to Rome to train him as an orator and educate him in philosophy. 2 After completing his education, he pursued politics and became a financial clerk. During this time, he also began his philosophical pursuit of stoicism, influenced by Stoic philosophers like Marcus Cato, and by non-Stoics such as Epicurus. Both Cato and Epicurus are often cited in Seneca’s writings.7
Seneca’s life took a sharp turn in 41 AD, when Claudius became the Emperor of Rome. Claudius was led to believe that Seneca had engaged in adultery with his niece, which led him to exile Seneca to the island of Corsica. Fortunately, his exile only lasted eight years: Claudius’ wife, Agrippina, arranged for Seneca to return to Rome and become her son’s tutor and adviser.
In 50 AD, shortly after Seneca returned to Rome, he became a praetor – a judicial officer responsible for issues of equity – and married the wealthy Pompeia Paulina. Paulina had a powerful group of friends which raised Seneca’s societal position.2
Seneca became the tutor and adviser to Claudius and Agrippina’s son Nero, who is now known as one of the most notorious and tyrannical emperors in the history of the Roman Empire. In fact, Seneca’s relationship to Nero has caused many people to question Seneca’shis character.7
It was in fact Seneca’s student, Nero, whom he had spent many years advising, that was the cause of Seneca’s death. Believing that Seneca was part of a plot to kill Nero, Nero ordered Seneca to take his own life in 65 AD.7
Seneca continued to inspire people long after his death, like Dutch philosopher Erasmus, English philosopher Francis Bacon, and French mathematician Blaise Pascal.7 In fact, Erasmus translated Seneca’s moral treatises into English in 1614.2 Modern day courageous thinkers like Nassim Taleb also credit Seneca as an important influence for their work.7
Although Seneca is more well known for his philosophical essays and letters, he also wrote a handful of tragedies. William Shakespeare – perhaps the greatest playwright of all time – was himself influenced by Seneca, whom he took inspiration from for his play Oedipus Rex.3
On living in the moment:
“As is a tale, so is life: not how long, but how good it is, is what matters.”
“Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.”
On reflecting on the past:
“Time heals what reason cannot.”
“Every night before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves: what weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I acquire?”
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.”
“Wealth is the slave of the wise. The master of the fool.”
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
“Man is affected not by events but by the views he takes of them.”
Where Can We Learn More?
For a book that compiles most of Seneca’s most influential essays and letters, you should check out Dialogues and Essays, translated by John Davie. If you are particularly interested in Seneca’s stoic beliefs, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca is made up of selections of his body of work that introduce his thoughts on the philosophical movement.
You can also look at Volume I of Seneca’s Essays, an online source which includes Seneca’s thoughts on providence, firmness, anger, and mercy.
If you are particularly interested in Seneca’s time-management strategies, you can pick up his essay “On The Shortness of Life” as an eBook. Or, you can check out this podcast, which has six episodes based on “On The Shortness of Life.” If you really enjoy podcasts, you can also listen to this episode of The Partially Examined Life, a philosophical podcast hosted by Mark Linsenmayer. The episode examines how we can learn to live stoically through Seneca’s philosophical teachings.
Author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris is a big fan of Seneca’s and turned Seneca’s letters into an audiobook. These letters cover a range of topics, all closely related to the practical application of stoicism and philosophy more generally.
- Baltzly, D. (2018, April 10). Stoicism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/#Phil
- Dudley, D. R. (1998, July 20). Seneca. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lucius-Annaeus-Seneca-Roman-philosopher-and-statesman
- Medrut, F. (2019, March 15). 30 Seneca Quotes to Help You Live a Fulfilling and Worthwhile Life. Goalcast. https://www.goalcast.com/2019/03/15/seneca-quotes/
- Vogt, K. (2007, October 17). Seneca. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/seneca/#SenSto
- Saunders, J. L. (1998, July 20). Stoicism. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Stoicism
- Philosophies For Life. (2019, August 25). Seneca – How To Manage Your Time (Stoicism) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41HYjV8IxiI
- Holiday, R., & Hanselman, S. (2021, February 16). Who Is Seneca? Inside The Mind of The World’s Most Interesting Stoic. Daily Stoic. https://dailystoic.com/seneca/
- Seneca Quotes. (n.d.). Goodreads. Retrieved April 22, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/407721-putting-things-off-is-the-biggest-waste-of-life-it
- A Stoic Response to Anger. (2021, February 16). Daily Stoic. https://dailystoic.com/stoic-response-anger/
- Sellars, J. (2020, October 12). Lessons from Seneca. Medium. https://medium.com/stoicism-philosophy-as-a-way-of-life/lessons-from-seneca-d9e2bb02fdb4