Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash
It’s not over there — it’s right here
Before dying at the age of 68, Seneca the Younger made vast contributions to the school of philosophy, most notably in Stoicism.
The influence of Seneca’s work, however, would reach far greater than the school of ancient philosophy, and many of his principles and letters have moulded the landscape of the modern self-help world.
During his retirement and not long before his death, Seneca spent his days writing letters to his friend Lucilius, which have since been collated into a series of 124 letters known as ‘Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium’— Moral Letters to Lucilius. (These are summarised in the modern-day translation, ‘Letters From a Stoic’.)
Seneca’s letters detail his innermost thoughts, offloading his lifelong wisdom before passing. These writings contain a wealth of thought-provoking and insightful material, approaching perennial problems from a unique, balanced and philosophical perspective. He advocates reflection, cultivating inner peace and living simply, in harmony with nature.
Many of Seneca’s writings, within and outside of Stoic doctrine, contain invaluable lessons about how to live happier that remain as insightful today as they were when first written 2,000 years ago.
One of his most noteworthy thoughts summarises his ideas about living well:
‘True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have.’
According to Seneca, happiness comes from within — it can only come from within.
Only you can determine how satisfied you are with the world around you.
The Scourge of Desire
Without getting too deep into politics and the societal ideologies of Karl Marx, a capitalist society has two fundamental principles:
- The economy’s purpose is to generate profit
- Competition and economic growth must not be restrained
Essentially, what this means is that every person has the right to earn as much money as they please, consume to their heart’s content and that not all people are equal in terms of wealth; the poor may become poorer, the rich, richer, and the capitalist satisfied with the state of his country.
But what impact does this have on our emotions, and how is this relevant to Seneca’s philosophies?
Capitalist doctrine has dominated the Western world — television commercials begging us to spend our hard-earned money on needless material possessions, money-hungry business people climbing their way to riches by stepping upon other people, holiday companies enticing us to leave our homes and travel abroad in search of satisfaction.
These all teach us one thing: not to be happy with the world around us; the present moment isn’t good enough, you need to buy this commodity to make it better.
Thousands of years ago, in the absence of the temptations of modern society, Seneca warned us of the dangers of consumerism, encouraging us to find happiness within and resist the desire to seek it without. Yet here we are, desperate to escape our current realities as quickly as possible in pursuit of the things that we don’t yet have.
It’s a seductive logic. Why be content with what we have when there’s plenty more to be had? Why shouldn’t we strive for more?
Well, chasing after that which we desire creates some serious problems where our wellbeing is concerned. How can we expect to be truly happy if our satisfaction is dependent upon fleeting, momentary occurrences outside of our control? What happens when our money runs out, or our vacation draws to a close, or our excessive eating habits land us in hospital?
It’s easy to remain blind to the problems these habits can cause us. After all, such behaviour forms the very fabric of our society and economy. But is this really an effective way to find lasting happiness?
In today’s world, many of us never open our eyes to our self-sabotaging behaviours. Only when we stop to observe these tendencies does it become apparent that the pursuit of desire only delays the arrival of satisfaction.
What it Means to be Wise
According to Seneca, a wise person is self-reliant and independent. The absence of status or wealth is no real setback to him as it does not contribute to his happiness and contentment.
When we find ourselves motivated by greed rather than necessity, we will forever remain impoverished.
The moment we begin to crave unnecessary possessions and states of being, we keep ourselves stuck in a state of destitution. That’s because the most important things in life, namely self-love, connectedness with the present moment and peace of mind, cannot be removed or degraded by other people.
Wealth, power and status can, and indeed will, be taken from us someday. Chasing desires that satisfy these faculties will only lead to inner dissatisfaction and an inevitable need to find contentment within ourselves further along the line.
There is no sense in striving for a life that appears on the outside to be blissful and well-lived when inside is a fractured, discontent and tormented soul.
Fortunately, there is a solution.
The only way to truly avoid being shattered by these tendencies is to remind yourself that, no matter in which direction desire pulls you, true, long-lasting happiness cannot be found in anything external.
It can only be found within.
Seneca’s writings teach us many valuable lessons about finding inner-peace.
We are not unhappy because we are lacking, but because we lack the capacity to live without.
‘It is not the man who has too little that is poor, but the one who hankers after more.’
Without realising the value of learning to be content within ourselves, we run the risk of spending our whole lives chasing after our desires, which is a sure way to perpetuate our misery and delay our satisfaction.
Supporting those in need, being true to your values, cultivating those things that are sure to last and will never be taken from us is the key to a life well-lived.
‘Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in the mere passing.’
Suspending our desires may not be the solution to all of our worries. But it is certainly a good place to start.