11 lessons on becoming a better person from the letters of Seneca

I have been talking about Seneca a lot lately and there is a good reason: his teachings have changed my life. When I was asked in a podcast interview yesterday who I think of when I heard the word 'successful', I named him. To have written essays which remain relevant 2000 years later is beyond impressive. He is the author I recommend most often. Seneca can be read and reread ad infinitum. Trust me, I have been doing that for years.

Even if you hate books, find philosophy obnoxious, reject anything written by dead white men and work 162 hours a week, please read Seneca. His books are not long and are ideal for reading in small snippets of time.  I recommend the Robin Campbell translation of 'Letters from a Stoic' and the CDN Costa one of 'On the Shortness of Life.' As with any ancient text, it is crucial to select the right translation. Versions can vary a surprising amount. These two are simple and somewhat accessible. 

Here are 11 lessons from his letters which have had the most profound impact on me.

1. In one and the same meadow, the cow looks for grass, the dog for a hare and the stork for a lizard.

I recall actually exclaiming aloud when I first read this line. I keep it in mind each time I write something. When you create a piece of art, it is crucial to be conscious of the audience's variation. Some will look for something to criticise, some for something to copy, some for inspiration. No matter what you create, each viewer has their own agenda. Put a cow in a desert and it will still look for grass. Likewise, if someone wants to criticise everything then they will. No matter what they are exposed to, they merely look for the flaws. The same goes for situations. One person walks into a bar to get drunk, another to pick pockets, another to pick up someone. However much control we believe we have, people always retain their own intentions. 

2. “Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We, however, are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”

From the many pets I have had, I can say this is true. They flinch from loud noises, though not the ones in their heads. Fear is not residual for them. For humans, it is. We can learn a lot from the mindfulness of a mouse or bird.

3. “Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are. We've been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”

There is a tendency amongst people who follow Stoic principles to look at its founders as deities. Many hold them up as examples of moral perfection. In truth, this was not the case. Even the shallowest of dives into Seneca's biography dissolves that idea. He was a bundle of contradictions. Most notably, he wrote often about simple living yet was one of the richest people of his age. Even so, I find his writings on the topic to be valuable. Who is in a better position to advocate simplicity than someone who experiences the misery of complexity? It is most useful to divorce Seneca's work from his lifestyle. Take it in terms of its applicability, not its authenticity. Even if his own wealth was a blind spot, I find this quote to be true. Habit and conditioning turn any frivolity into a necessity.

4. A change of character, not a change of air is what you need. Whatever your destination, you will be followed by your failings.

Like many people, I am guilty of assuming travel will solve all my problems. But wherever you go, there you are. The self is inescapable. It is, however, malleable. Seneca's focus on self-improvement is what draws me to him. In acknowledging his flaws, we must always acknowledge his desire to remove them. Instead of focusing on where I am, this line taught me to focus on what I am doing. Simple, yet powerful. It links to the concept of alive time vs dead time. Alive time can happen anywhere, no glamorous location required.

5. Falsity has no point of termination.

Whenever the urge arises to fabricate or exaggerate something, I reflect on this line. One lie leads to endless more. It also motivated me to stop attempting to alter my appearance. If I try to look like someone else, where will it end?

6. Without a ruler to be it against, you won't make the crooked straight.

I see this line as advocating for two things:

1. Mentors/heroes. These serve as a point of comparison to hold ourselves against. Without a person to emulate, progress is restricted. This links to my personal maxim of 'when you establish someone gives good advice, follow all of it.'

2. Clear goals. It is the Stoic equivalent of 'without a goal, you cannot score.' A defined, concrete reference point is needed to make meaningful progress in any area. Seneca is brilliant at using metaphors to prove moral concepts.

7. After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day.

Since reading this line, I have begun to do exactly this. I select one concept to mull over and write about each day. These come from a list I keep in Evernote. The impact of this on my mental clarity and ability to digest concepts is enormous. With a single focus, I pull my mind back to it again and again. An almost meditative effect is produced. My thought for today is: what has Seneca taught me? Hence, this post. It may be a question, quote or a few words.

8. Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in mere passing.

I scarcely know where to begin with this line. It has countless applications. For the most part, it reminds me to always play the long game and to focus on the long-term benefits, not the short term. 

9. Nothing is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man's ability to stop just where he is and pass sometimes in his own company.

Even for introverts like myself, growing confident enough to spend a lot of time alone can be difficult. For most of my life, I wrestled with the pressure to socialise verus my preference for my own company. Whenever that conflict arises, I open my notebook and reread this until it sinks into my skull. Society tends to look down on introverts, seeing them as anti-social or reclusive. The opposite is true. Having the ability to self-regulate is rare and a valuable skill. No one can rely on any other human. Seneca may have spent much of his time surrounded by noblemen and slaves, but I suspect he preferred to sit alone and write. 

10. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.

I used to flit between different authors at random, selecting whichever book crossed my path at an opportune moment. Since coming across this segment, I have begun to focus on one at a time, reading their entire repertoire until it has been fully absorbed. Seneca has taught me to see books as reference points, not events. They are something to return to, not to leave behind. 

11. 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.

From a previous post: This is why I talk so much about quitting things. Every single person on the planet has at least one thing they wish they could do, or do more of. Maybe it's taking dance classes. Reading more. Using that box of watercolours under the stairs. Meditating. Writing letters. Big or small, complex or simple, expensive or free.

It doesn't matter what it is. I know you have one. It's something you have shelved due to lack of time or energy. You tell yourself you will do it when you retire, on holiday, tomorrow, next year. Chances are, you have been saying that for a long time.

At the same time, I bet there is one thing in your calendar you could cut out. It might be a one-off, a regular commitment or a small task. No productivity tool or system can beat the power of saying no. No, I do not want to go to that party. No, I will not go grocery shopping and will pay £3 for delivery to save 3 hours. No, I am not going to buy more clothes which will require effort to keep tidy. Each salvaged hour can add up to mastery or at least enjoyment.

There are a thousand articles out there about decluttering your house, hard drive, garage, whatever. When I made the shift into minimalism, emptying my calendar was the most important part. A clear, tidy home means very little without the necessary alive time to enjoy it.  If I could write one thing on a billboard, it would be this: you're not coming back - respect the time you have. 


// Rosie

P.S. If you enjoyed this post, consider supporting this site via Patraeon. For the cost of a cup of coffee each month, you can receive access to exclusive additional content and hundreds of pages of my private notebooks. Running this site takes hundreds of hours each month and your help in keeping it going without the need for adverts would be incredible.