I had a remarkably productive weekend of reading and finished Seneca and an article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel titled “Death”. To the casual observer, it may appear that these two works would have nothing common, however, they are both concerned with the brief span of our lives, and while Nagel is not overly concerned in this article to discuss how we should live, if we can accept that death is the end of our life, that entices us to ask, “How should we live?”.
This is a question that philosophy and religion has spent a great deal of time an energy trying to answer. I think philosophy has offered a better solution to date. Most religions offer the promise of an afterlife as an enticement to good living in the present while we are here on earth. It’s similar to the parental trick of using Santa Claus around Christmas time. “Act well and you will be rewarded!” the thinking goes. Philosophy, especially ancient Greek philosophy, and even more specifically, Stoicism, offers no afterlife (although it does not expressly forbid thinking about an afterlife) but focuses on the here and now, life before death, instead of life after death. So, we should act virtuously now because we will have a better life. If acting virtuously also leads to a better afterlife, then all the better!
Seneca is a remarkably cogent writer and I often felt that he was writing just yesterday, instead of 2000 years ago. For those who don’t know, Seneca was writing right around the time that a little Jewish rebellion led by a fellow named Jesus was happening. He details the way people lived in debauchery and I swear he knew exactly what people today would do! Drinking, entertainment, prostitutes, spending vast sums of money on the most ornate houses and chariots (or cars); how is this much different from today? I think what Seneca shows us, in part, is that humans have not changed much in 2000 years. We may like to think that we have evolved and we are much better than the ancient Romans, but really we have not changed that much.
Stoicism offers a life of simplicity, a life of joy, and a life of stress-free (or at least less stressful) living. I have recently begun to attempt to practice some pieces of Stoic philosophy, namely attempting to control negative emotions, not allowing jealousy or anger to take a foothold, focusing on living simply and not extravagantly, desiring the things I already have instead of trying to gain more things, and I have begun thinking about loss more.
Thinking about loss is an important Stoic process. Thinking about losing your cherished possessions, about losing your loved ones, about losing your own life is an important part of becoming a better person. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the person who keeps the thought that everything they love can be taken away at any time is more likely to enjoy what they have and focus on what’s really important. I think about all the times I, or people around me, get upset at the smallest things at work, and I realize that if I could keep in mind that which truly matters, then I wouldn’t allow these things to bother me! They simply don’t matter in the larger context of my life. It is better for me to spend time with my family or doing the things I truly enjoy, than fuming about what someone said in a meeting earlier that day. Stoicism helps us keep our eye on what’s important.
In general, I highly recommend Seneca’s works both as literature, and as reading that may well change your life.