There are books I read that sing in my heart.
Books I return to again and again; that I carry with me; that carry me. Books that end their lives: beaten up, torn down, weather-worn, frayed, ripped and destroyed; pages flaking out, corners turned up, covers worn away and binding undone; each leaf a mash of near-indecipherable notes, the entire text underlined, underscored, understood, and thoroughly digested.
Sometime around AD65 a Roman nearing the end of his days sat down to write the first of what was to become a continuing series of letters to a younger man. The writer’s name was Seneca – during his life: one of the richest men in Rome, an incredibly successful and critically acclaimed artist, and the power behind the throne during a window of time which has been described by some as ‘the finest period in Roman history’ – and his collected letters have consistently been described as: ‘The best book of advice ever written’.
Would you like to know why?…
Too much of what passes for philosophy today consists of nothing more than clever systems of thought mathematically assembled from sheets and girders of logic, like castles in the air – pretty to look at, but also pretty useless from the practical standpoint of: ‘how can this improve my life?’ Seneca’s letters are the polar opposite. They are: simple, pragmatic, useful, and true (which renders them actually profound.)
Playful, engaging, and light-hearted, these letters champion the most homespun and common-sensical of values. Things like: temperance, self-reliance, patience, and the true value of friendship. But ultimately these values are like the planets which orbit around and serve to illuminate the real grand theme of this collection. The white-hot life-giving sun at the gravitational centre of Seneca’s private universe of thought:
A deeply held belief in the redemptive power of philosophy itself.
This belief is the still-beating heart of this 2000 year old tome. It is both: the bolt that runs thru each letter like a tributary receiving stream, and the motive force behind their writing. Seneca writes of philosophy with a lovers passion, using terms that border on the mystical, in a way that has more in common with transcendent religious zealotry than it does with dry and dusty academia. The moral of this story is always: Good Ideas, taken in, absorbed and acted upon, have the power to positively transform an individual’s life for the better.
And the most fundamental of these ideas, for Seneca, is that the shortest way to both True Happiness and the Good Life is: to become truly independent of both internal and external circumstance.
In a teaching that has striking parallels to many other well-regarded schools of thought (Buddhism’s doctrine of non-attachment, or Maslow’s vision of the self actualised human being to name but a few) Seneca states that it is abject foolishness to harbor fears about, or attachments to, absolutely anything that can either: be taken away by circumstance, or be foisted upon you by chance. Possessions, riches, health, the body, a popular reputation, even life itself fall under this far-reaching umbrella of thought. He states emphatically, frequently, and in many different ways that: only when you are truly free of the myriad fears that corrupt: your character, your actions, and your peace of mind, can you truly enjoy real and lasting happiness.
He also returns time and again to the fundamental premise that, at absolute best people are born with the potential to be: good, virtuous, or wise; but that what is unerringly needed to transform this raw base material into the promised (but not guaranteed) alchemical gold is the actual Doing of The Work. To Seneca, this means the deep study of philosophy. Or, said differently: the searching out, study, and application of ideas that will make both you and your life better.
We all know that the way that someone lives out their life is a much louder and far more accurate statement of their actual philosophy than their words, writings, or publicly professed views. Personally, I harbor a healthy suspicion of anybody that preaches stentorian from the mount whilst acting in a directly contravening fashion. Many so-called philosophers fall into this category; as do many: idealists, economists, sportspeople, politicians, supermodels, new age gurus, and teen pop idols. I would not take health advice from an overweight doctor, financial advice from a conflicted company trader, or directions on happiness from an aggressively drug-addled therapist.
If I want to talk about how sex really is I’ll go to a hooker, not a priest.
Whilst it is true that Seneca has in the past come under fire for hypocrisy – for not practicing perfectly his own advice – it is my feeling that these criticisms stem largely from do-nothing perfection-mongers; people who have no knowledge of how things actually are in the deep trenches of the real simply because they are too afraid to visit.
(Side Note: On the off chance you find yourself in a dire-doubting quandary concerning Seneca’s commitment to his stated beliefs… A cursory overview of his life + the fact that he gave most of his vast fortune away, along with a short reading of ‘Tacitus’ account of Seneca’s death’ should be quite enough of Mama’s special medicine to ensure that that little thought-demon is kicked thoroughly into touch.)
Because, at the final reckoning I am far less interested in pointless circular debates concerning the false myth of the neo-perfect saint, than I am in what actually works. If a thought or idea can genuinely make life better for myself or for others then I will take it regardless of the source.
There are an awful lot of those thoughts and ideas in this book.
I’ll take them.
Big love to you all. Speak soon,
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If you enjoyed this you may also like: my love letter to the mountains of Scotland, my essay about one of the most useful things Theodore Roosevelt ever said, or my recent post on how to find beauty, even in the darkest of places.
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