The Stoic Art of Living Well (5 Lessons from Seneca)
Philosophers have philosophized, poets have created poetry, writers have written, and all have discussed about the big question of life: How to live life well? That is, how to make the most of the brief time that we have here on earth?
Few actually have come up with very useful answers. The Stoics are one of them who approached this subject in their own unique way. What is different about the Stoics is that not only did they philosophize on the manner of living a life well, but they also lived the way they preached.
They strived to make their actions as good as their words. Of course, they fell short — they were humans after all — but for the most part, when we analyze their lives, it becomes clear that at least they achieved something which most never did/do.
One of these was Seneca the Younger. He was a statesman, a playwright, but primarily a philosopher. Seneca suffered from a chronic disease almost his whole life, was exiled for years, and was, in the end, accused of conspiracy and forced to suicide.
Despite all that he looked at life from the perspective of someone who had the greatest of blessings in life. Not only that but he also inspired and encouraged people around him to do the same.
He wrote letters and essays. On subjects like embracing whatever comes our way, overcoming the fear of death, calmly and cheerfully enduring every adversity, living life the best way possible, and so on.
We can learn much from such a personality. Let us look at a few of the principles that the wise man advocated which will teach us how to live well:
1. Don’t rely on age for a long life
So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. (On the Shortness of Life)
“For suppose,” Seneca explains, “you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.”
We think because someone is old they are also wise and know how to live a good life. Not so. Often, old people are just as ignorant as infants. They are infants in older bodies.
If you really want to know if a person is living a good life, just observe them:
How they react to challenges, to misfortune, to adversity. How they react to good fortune, to wealth, to joy. The way they treat people, virtuous ones as well as vicious ones.
It is not what a person gathers in his lifetime, but who they become at their core that indicates their greatness.
And you have to learn this art. You will not just wake up one day and know everything about living well.
Do not rely on age for that, or you will only have a long tossing about instead of a long voyage, you will only have just existed longer rather than lived longer.
2. Overcome the fear of death
You want to live — but do you know how to live? You are scared of dying — and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different from being dead? (Letter 77)
Suppose we were immortals and could only die by external causes, accidents, and such. Would you be in such a hurry to make the most of your time here? Would you be so scared of growing old and dying?
Death is what makes life meaningful. It reminds you that your time is limited. That you have only so many years to do what you really desire, to love, to laugh, to live.
We forget that we are mortals. We need to learn to keep death constantly before our eyes. We need to learn not to fear it so we may live fully. For the fear of dying keeps most from ever really living, from ever doing anything worthwhile.
Embrace your mortality, overcome the fear of death — your own death as well as death in general — and use it as a motivating factor.
3. Procrastination is a waste of life
But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. (On the Shortness of Life)
Some people are always preparing to live, but they never actually do. They keep putting it off. And before they know it, the game ends.
We are more inclined towards laziness and procrastination than their opposites. We do want to do things, to work on our dreams, of course, we all want to succeed — in something.
It is perhaps because we let the body take control of our being instead of our reasoning part, our mind. The body does not want to work. It wants to rest, it wants to stay safe in the comfort zone, it wants to stay as far away as possible from dangers. It wants, in short, to survive without doing a thing.
That is why you have to force yourself. As Seneca elsewhere says about anger but it also works against all sorts of unwanted behavior. “Do battle with yourself: if you have the will to conquer anger,” or sloth, “it cannot conquer you.”
Look far into the future. See the consequences of doing what you’re doing today, of repeating it for years. Is this the path that leads to the destination you want to reach?
4. Be careful about spending your time
You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life ! (On the Shortness of Life)
Time does not cost us anything, it is limitless and equally available to all things in existence. Yet, we can only make use of it a moment at a time. We only get so many hours in a day … and so many years in life.
Since you have a limited supply of time, you need to be careful about spending it. The value of something is decided, not by how much money you pay for it, but as they say, by how much life you exchange for it.
Are you then going to exchange hours, days, weeks, months, years on what doesn’t matter, or are you, instead, going to use it on what really matters?
You might have to disappoint those time-wasters around you by saying no to them.
Saying yes might seem like a very small thing but you are paying a greater price than you realize. As Ryan Holiday said somewhere on a podcast, something along these lines:
By saying yes to this thing, which is inessential, you are saying no to something else, something better, something that matters and is valuable.
5. Pursuit of wisdom is what makes life better
no one can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom, and that the perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life, although even the beginnings of wisdom make life bearable. (Letter 16)
Wisdom simply put is the ability to do things right. It tells you what to do, when to do it, how to do it, why to do it, and so on. Widom shows you how to make the best use of the resources around you.
It is something you can never fully attain, but if you even try, your life will become better, bearable. Whoever wants to and attempts to attain wisdom is elevated far above the rest of our kind.
Wisdom is what will enable you to make better choices and live life well.
Now, when are you going to begin to really live?