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Seneca on How to Live

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In Lives of the Stoics, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman cited a part of Seneca’s later work On Leisure:

The duty of a man is to be useful to his fellow men; if possible, to be useful to many of them; failing this, to be useful to a few; failing this, to be useful to his neighbors, and, failing them, to himself: for when he helps others, he advances the general interest of mankind.

After his retirement from Roman political turmoil, that caused a lot of bloodshed where he was partially responsible for, Seneca realized that pen and paper are also effective ways to serve those who are dear to us:

I am working for the later generations, writing down some ideas that might be of some assistance to them. […] I point men to the right path, which I have found late in life.

Reading Seneca evokes all kinds of feelings. Guilt, humbleness, awe—but most of all, I can’t help but to think about how accurate his works still are, two thousand years later. Two thousand years! I highly doubt that any of my technical academic publications are only the slightest bit relevant after ten to twenty years. The same is probably true for most of these blog posts. No wonder so many medieval (and later) scholars and devotees were completely mesmerized by Seneca’s writings.

Michel de Montaigne, another of my favorite down-to-earth philosophers, based many of his observations on Seneca’s work. Well-known angel investor and daredevil Tim Ferris claims Seneca’s writings saved his life. He did indeed work for the later generations. Seneca would have been proud. Or would he? I think we can do much better, especially nowadays in this time of mental unhappiness.

Although Seneca is one of the most popular ancient philosophers, during my education, I’ve never once come across his work. Why not, I wonder? Why are we still printing diluted and polluted self-help books when pragmatic works of two thousand year old philosophers are still relevant? Why isn’t this–or something similar—an obligated part of every education?

If I causally drop the “P” word (philosophy, not porn, you dirty mind) in a conversation with friends or family, the conversation immediately grinds to a halt and someone tries to change the subject. Why? I’m not trying to portray myself as an annoying smartass—in fact, I know just as little. I’m just trying to figure out: how to live? If someone figured it out two thousand years ago, and those findings are still very relevant, then why aren’t we collectively reading up on it?

The last few weeks, as the traditional end-of-year atmosphere dictates, I’ve been pondering my duty as a man. How much of it is actually useful to my fellow men? Which of it contains more ego than info? Every chapter in Lives of the Stoics summarizes the life and work of another Stoic, including Cicero, although he wasn’t technically part of that school. Like Seneca, Cicero clearly struggled with the Stoic way of life. They both amassed a huge pile of wealth, on the backs of others. Cicero’s political play always contained a big “what’s in it for me”-part. Seneca reluctantly accepted the many donations of Nero, thinking he could change his depraved character along the way. He was wrong.

How do you make yourself useful to your fellow men? What’s your strategy in life?

tags icon philosophy Seneca

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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