|Minerva (Athena) the Roman Goddess of Wisdom|
Today I wanted to discuss a particular quote I came across recently while reading. The quote comes from Seneca the Younger, and rather than try to link together several congruent quotations and discuss the common theme between them, I wanted to spend this post discussing that specific quote. If it works for Ryan Holliday in the Daily Stoic, which is exactly what I was reading when I came across this, then maybe it can work for me.
The quote is this: “but the wise person can lose nothing. Such a person has everything stored up for themselves, leaving nothing to fortune. Their own goods are held firm, bound in virtue, which requires nothing from chance, and therefore can’t be either increased or diminished.” ~ Seneca.
As you may recall from one of my prior posts on the stoics, Seneca was one of the most powerful and influential men in the ancient Roman Empire. He was fabulously wealthy, and enjoyed a high status in life. That is until he was ultimately exiled and eventually condemned to death by suicide. Seneca had the misfortune of living at the time of two of the most notoriously insane and cruel emperors of the entire empire, those being Caligula and Nero, and as such the lives of those around them, including Seneca’s, were never truly safe or secure.
I don’t want to delve too deep into the history of the Roman Empire and Seneca’s life, though as a Bachelor of Arts in History I could gladly do so, not during this blog anyway. What I want to do is focus back on the aforementioned quote and tall about its meaning.
Imagine Seneca, one of the wealthiest people in the empire, rubbing elbows with all of the famous and powerful Romans of the day. He likely enjoyed several homes, had his every need attended, wore the finest clothes, and enjoyed the most decadent of food and wine. Then, just like that, at the simple command of an angry and petulant emperor, it was all taken from him. He was sent to live on Corsica with nothing but the clothes on his back, everything else was taken. This could have destroyed many men and women, all of the things they enjoyed: the food, the homes, the status, those very things by which they likely identify themselves, gone. But not Seneca.
Seneca knew that nothing belongs to the wise person, except their own mind. He recognized that everything else he had was given to him by fate, most of his luxury and status was inherited via his family, and as it was given by fate, so too could it all be taken by fate. I am sure that he probably enjoyed all the niceties of his life, and who wouldn’t, it sounds great! But he was a wise man and recognized that his possessions were not truly his, and that they could be taken at any moment. Thus, when they were seized, he did not despair. Instead he reminded himself to be grateful for what he did have. No, he no longer had the mansions or the nice clothes, but he still had his mind, and based what we know of the resilience of that mind to deal with tragedy, I would call it a fine one.
|Bust of Seneca|
The more I read history, psychology, and philosophy, the more I recognize that overall, humans really are no different than they were several thousand years ago. One of my favorite works to read is Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ meditations, which were written by him as a journal and never intended to be read by the public, giving us some of his most pure and honest thoughts. The same things he describes in his meditations: worrying what others thing, an argument with friends, stress from his job, these are exactly the same things that we worry about today. The setting, the technology, and the language may have changed, but we haven’t.
Circling back to Seneca, that same lesson he says about being wise, and prepared to lose everything, leaving nothing to chance, are lessons we can use today. Think of the market crash of 2008 when so many people lost their life savings and found themselves tremendously in debt. So many people lost that by which they had come to identify themselves, namely in this case their wealth and their status as prominent investors. When that was taken from them (not entirely by fortune actually but rather as a consequence of unchecked greed and poor morals) they felt as if they had lost themselves. Many became depress and some even resorted to suicide, being so distraught by the loss. I lament that this happened but this is a warning to leaving ones identity and happiness to the fate of externalities. Had they been more versed in Seneca they may have been able to remain strong of mind, and weather the storm.
Think of a moment in your life where you may have lost control, and put your happiness in chance, fortune, or some sort of external concept. I can remember a few examples of my own life. One was when I was fired from a job I really loved. I was crushed when I was told to grab my things and head home. For years I had associated myself with that job, I woke up every day excited to do what I was going to do, believing that who I was in that role made me who I was. The next day I woke up and felt numb. I felt like I had no reason to get out of bed. I didn’t know who I was. I was just a guy with nothing to do all day, no reason for being. Eventually I snapped out of, thanks to my practice in reading Buddhist and Stoic philosophy and reminded myself that I was still me. Sure I would have to find a new way of paying bills, and a different way to spend my day, but I was still me. Furthermore, the choice was mine, I could either lament my situation and wallow in despair, or I could hold my head high and keep moving on. With the help of some good friends and mentors, I did just that, and I have the stoics to thank.
What are some other examples that come to mind. Some of my thoughts are: an athlete gets injured and is forced to retire from the sport they love; a loving spouse suddenly finds themselves divorced when they were so proud and happy about their relationship; a social butterfly who was always surrounded by friends is confronted with a global pandemic that forces them to remain indoors and isolated. These are just a few things I came up with, and each of them would be an understandably difficult and upsetting situation, I don’t intend to diminish that. But if we recall the words of Seneca, we can prepare ourselves for the possibility of this outcome, and should it come to pass, we can be reminded to take stock and remember that we still have our minds. In this way you will make yourself robust against bad luck and fortune, and remain happy in yourself and your reasoned choices.