The difference between the almost right word & the right
word is really a large matter – it's the difference between
the lightning bug and the lightning.

Mark Twain

December 23, 2014

Mental-Health Advice from Seneca

Montesquieu extolled the value of reading most memorably when he said he had never known a pain or a distress he could not soothe by half an hour of a good book. Many avid readers would attest to the healing powers of reading and can point to an author or a book that guided them through a difficult period of their life.

For me, the Roman writer Seneca is the ideal counselor. At once wise and compassionate, idealistic and practical, now exhorting and now urging resignation, he makes it all seem so simple. Do you feel overwhelmed by your difficulties? Well, buck up and put up a good fight, Seneca says.

“He is a sorry steersman who lets the waves tear the helm from his hands, who has left the sails to the mercy of the winds, and abandoned the ship to the storm; but he deserves praise, even amid shipwreck, whom the sea overwhelms still gripping the rudder and unyielding.” Do you need inspiration to do more with your life? Well, show some resolve and quit being jerked around:

“There is no reason for you to think that any man has lived long because he has grey hairs or wrinkles; he has not lived long—he has existed long. For what if you should think that that man had had a long voyage who had been caught by a fierce storm as soon as he left harbor, and, swept hither and thither by a succession of winds that raged from different quarters, had been driven in a circle around the same course? Not much voyaging did he have, but much tossing about.”

Are you confused about your vocation? Uncertain what to do with your life? Don’t simply follow the crowd or get railroaded into a profession you are not cut out for. “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature,” he reminds us.

To those of us constrained by fears and worries and longing to be free and fearless, Seneca says there is no freedom without courage: “He who is brave is free.”

If you slip up or fall down or fail to live up to your expectations, don’t despair. Tomorrow brings another day, another opportunity, to redeem yourself. To a wise man every day is a new life, he says.

Seneca rose from humble origins to high eminence, leaving his mark on Latin literature, and even Christian morals, while serving as advisor to Nero, and gaining notoriety for amassing huge wealth because of his political connections. He enjoyed fame and riches and power, and yet had a soft heart: “None is so near the gods as he who shows kindness,” he said.

When ordered to commit suicide by Nero, Seneca accepted his fate stoically and slit several of his veins, as was the norm. By all accounts, he faced death bravely and talked philosophy to the very end.

Here too he has put in memorable words how we are to think of life and death: “The properties that adorn life’s stage have been lent, and must go back to their owners; some of them will be returned on the first day, others on the second, only a few will endure until the end.”

“We have, therefore, no reason to be puffed up as if we were surrounded with the things that belong to us; we have received them merely as a loan. The use and the enjoyment are ours, but the dispenser of the gift determines the length of our tenure.”