Tag: Seneca

Rethinking Fear

Fear is a state no one wants to embrace, yet for many of us it’s the background music to our lives. But by making friends with fear and understanding why it exists, we can become less vulnerable to harm—and less afraid. Read on to learn a better approach to fear.


In The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, author Gavin de Becker argues that we all have an intuitive sense of when we are in danger. Drawing upon his experience as a high-stakes security specialist, he explains how we can protect ourselves by paying better attention to our gut feelings and not letting denial lead us to harm. Our intuition, honed by evolution and by a lifetime of experience, deserves more respect.

By telling us to value our intuition, de Becker isn’t telling anyone to live in fear permanently, always alert for possible risks. Quite the opposite. De Becker writes that we misunderstand the value of fear when we think that being constantly hypervigilant will keep us safe. Being afraid all the time doesn’t protect us from danger. Instead, he explains, by trusting that our gut feelings are accurate and learning key signals that portend risk, we can actually feel calmer and safer:

Far too many people are walking around in a constant state of vigilance, their intuition misinformed about what really poses danger. It needn’t be so. When you honor accurate intuitive signals and evaluate them without denial (believing that either the favorable or unfavorable outcome is possible), you need not be wary, for you will come to trust that you’ll be notified if there is something worthy of your attention. Fear will gain credibility because it won’t be applied wastefully.

When we walk around terrified all the time, we can’t pick out the signal from the noise. If you’re constantly scared, you can’t correctly notice when there is something genuine to fear. True fear is a momentary signal, not an ongoing state. De Becker writes that “if one feels fear of all people all the time, there is no signal reserved for the times when it’s really needed.”

What we fear the most is rarely what ends up happening. Fixating on particular dangers blinds us to others. We focus on checking the road for snakes and end up getting knocked over by a car. De Becker writes that it matters that we’re receptive to fear, not that we’re watching out for what scares us the most (though of course, different things pose different risks to different people, and we should evaluate accordingly.) After all, “we are far more open to signals when we don’t focus on the expectation of specific signals.”

Fear vs. anxiety

Fear is not the same as anxiety. Although people experiencing anxiety are often afraid of both the anxiety and what they presume to be its cause, these two states have different triggers. De Becker explains one of the key factors that differentiates the two:

Anxiety, unlike real fear, is always caused by uncertainty. It is caused, ultimately, by predictions in which you have little confidence. When you predict that you will be fired from your job and you are certain the prediction is correct, you don’t have anxiety about being fired. You might have anxiety about the things you can’t predict with certainty, such as the ramifications of losing the job. Predictions in which you have high confidence free you to respond, adjust, feel sadness, accept, prepare, or to do whatever is needed. Accordingly, anxiety is reduced by improving your prediction, thus increasing your certainty.

Understand that when we’re anxious, it’s because we’re uncertain. The solution to this, then, isn’t worrying more—it’s doing all we can to either find clarity or working to accept that uncertainty is part of life.

Using fear

What can we learn from de Becker’s call to rethink fear? We learn that we’ll be in a better position if we can face possible threats with a calm mind, alert to our internal signals but not anticipating every possible bad thing that could happen. While being told to stop panicking never helped anyone, we benefit by understanding that being overwhelmed by fear will hurt us more. Our imaginary fears harm us more than reality ever does.

If this approach sounds familiar, it’s because it echoes ideas from Stoic philosophy. Much like de Becker, the Stoics urged us to be realistic about the fact that bad things can and will happen to us throughout our lives. No one can escape that. Once we’ve faced that reality, some of the shock goes away and we can think about how to prepare. After all, catastrophe and tragedy are part of the journey, not an unexpected detour. Being aware and accepting of the inevitable terrible things that will happen is actually a critical tool in mitigating both their severity and impact.

We don’t need to live in fear to stay safe. A better approach is to be aware of the risks we face, accept that some are unknown or unpredictable, and do all we can to be prepared for any serious or imminent dangers. Then we can focus our energy on maintaining a calm mind and trusting that our intuition will protect us.

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

— Seneca


The Stoics also taught us that we should view terrible events as survivable. It would do us well to give ourselves more credit—we’ve all survived occurrences that once seemed like the worst-case scenario, and we can survive many more.

The Shortness of Time

If we see someone throwing money away, we call that person crazy. Money has value. Wasting it seems nuts. And yet we see others—and ourselves—throw away something far more valuable every day: Time.

Unlike the predictable reaction we have to someone throwing away money (they’re crazy), we often fail to think of the person who wastes time as crazy. Yet time is a finite resource. While the amount of time we get is uncertain, we know it’s limited. We can’t make any more of it when it runs out.

“A man who dares to waste an hour of time has not discovered the value of his life.”

— Charles Darwin

The Roman philosopher Seneca said it well in a letter to Paulinus:

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing.So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.


I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time. Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust. Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about and no rest from their lusts abides.


When you think about the reason most of us want to get wealthy, you will see it’s not for the money it’s for the time. We want a clean schedule. We want other people to do the things we don’t want to do. We want to spend money to buy time.

You will never be wealthy as long as you are spending time to create money. Wealth is best expressed by spending money to create time.

Time is one of the most under-appreciated models that we all encounter, and yet it’s the most ubiquitous. When employed correctly, time becomes an amplifier. When spent without consideration, it becomes a persistent source of regret.

Four Ways We Misunderstand Time

1. Productivity: We actually don’t want to be more productive. What we really want is more time. And yet because we don’t properly value time, we never end up with more; even when we find ways to work more efficiently, we don’t actually use it wisely. We simply layer in more work.

2. Investing in Learning: The upfront costs are real and visible and, like any investment, the future payoff is uncertain. So we tend to skim the surface, thinking this will “save us time” versus doing the real work. Yet this surface-based approach leads to no improvement in our ability to make decisions. In fact, it may harm us if we think we’ve learned something for real. Thus, surface learning is a true waste of time. It’s just that the link to our bad learning is unclear, so we rarely identify the root cause.

3. Relationships: We’re often too “busy” to spend time with the ones we care about. The very parent at the park playing on his iPhone while his children run around playing and laughing is the same one, who, when you fast-forward the axis of time, wants those precious moments back. Likewise, the “busy” 30-something who can’t make time to see their parents wishes to have them back after they’re gone. They wish for more time with them.

4. Meetings: Meetings are part of how many of us earn a living. Often, however, they’re poorly organized and poorly run. Lacking an agenda or decision, they become nothing more than half-meeting half-gossip session. A giant waste of time.

Time is invisible, so it’s easy to spend. It’s only near the end of our life that most of us will realize the value of time. Make sure you’re not too busy to pay attention to life.

Wealth is created not by spending your time making money but rather by saving your time to make money.

Seneca on Letting the Eminent Dead Guide You

“One who can so revere another, will soon himself be worthy of reverence.”

— Seneca

There’s a core part of Charlie Munger’s operating system for life that we adhere to: Learn deeply from the eminent dead. Bathe in the wisdom of great people who lived before you. He calls it a form of love:

A second idea that I got very early was that there is no love that’s so right as admiration-based love, and that love should include the instructive dead. Somehow, I got that idea and I lived with it all my life; and it’s been very, very useful to me.

Munger has commented that he’ll frequently be in a room with live people while mentally conversing with the dead. While you might not want to pick up on that particular habit unless you’re a 90-year-old billionaire (and perhaps not even then), the point still stands.

This advice is, of course, not new. Munger echoes the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who echoes Epicurus in recommending his pupil Lucilius learn from the best as well. Only Seneca takes it a step further. In his classic Letters, Seneca instructs Lucilius not only to study the greats, but to keep them in front of him at all times, as a way to strengthen his nature. To let the eminent dead watch over his actions.

Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.” Such, my dear Lucilius, is the counsel of Epicurus; he has quite properly given us a guardian and an attendant. We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone whom it can respect, – one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed. Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts! And happy also is he who can so revere a man as to calm and regulate himself by calling him to mind! One who can so revere another, will soon be himself worthy of reverence.

Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Munger himself seems to have done this very thing with Ben Franklin, using him as a model of honesty, thriftiness, self-improvement, business savvy, and wit. Heck, the book of his speeches was titled Poor Charlie’s Almanack, in homage to Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack.

One might ask what use there is living in the shadow of others: Why not forge your own path? We can use a bit of simple algebra to solve this one. If (A) is [Direct life experience] and (B) is [Learning through the experience of others], and both have a positive value, then is A+B not greater than A alone? How could it be otherwise?

Seneca address this well in the same letter to Lucilius:

“Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property.

His final words echo our mantra: Don’t be ashamed to pay heed to the best of what other people have already figured out. We don’t need to think up all the wisdom of the world ourselves. Master the best of what the world has figured out.

Still Interested? Check out the mental models approach, or check out some of our posts on Seneca.

Too Busy to Pay Attention

Alan Lightman, the physicist who brought us The Accidental Universe, has also written several works of fiction, including Einstein’s Dreams, presented as dreams Einstein might have had while working as a patent clerk in Switzerland in 1905. More philosophy than physics, the book is a collection of thought experiments about the concept of time. While each of the hypothetical scenarios is only a few pages long, they all provide food for thought.

What if we knew when our time would end? What if there were no cause and effect to our actions? What if there was no past? No future? If we could freeze a moment in time, what moment would we choose? And, most critically, are we spending our finite allotment of time on this earth wisely?

“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.”

— Seneca

In one of Einstein’s dreams, people live forever. In this world, the population is divided into the Nows and the Laters.

The Nows note that with infinite lives, they can do all they can imagine … Each person will be a lawyer, a bricklayer, a writer, an accountant, a painter, a physician, a farmer. The Nows are constantly reading new books, studying new trades, new languages. In order to taste the infinities of life, they begin early and never go slowly…They are the owners of the cafés, the college professors, the doctors and nurses, the politicians, the people who rock their legs constantly whenever they sit down.

The Laters reason that there is no hurry to begin their classes at university, to learn a second language, to read Voltaire or Newton, to seek promotion in their jobs, to fall in love, to raise a family. For all these things, there is an infinite span of time. In endless time, all things can be accomplished. Thus all things can wait. Indeed, hasty actions breed mistakes … The Laters sit in cafés sipping coffee and discussing the possibilities of life.

If you recognized yourself or the people in your life in these descriptions, it’s not surprising. People in this world of infinite time are strikingly familiar to us because we live our lives as if we are going to live forever. We bury our awareness of our mortality beneath our busyness or convince ourselves that there will be time to live the lives we want ‘later’.

This is nothing new.

Over two thousand years ago, Seneca wrote:

What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.

Racing from One Commitment to Another

The Now personalities, the perpetually-busy, rushers-through of life, can be spotted in several of Einstein’s Dreams. A dream where “one may choose his motion along the axis of time”, illustrates the consequences of moving too quickly.

The woman catches her breath. She is fifty years old. She lies on her bed, tries to remember her life, stares at a photograph of herself as a child, squatting on the beach with her mother and father.

In another world, time passes more slowly for people in motion, but the faster people travel, the less happy they seem to be.

Because when two people pass on the street, each person perceives the other in motion, just as a man in a train perceives the trees to fly by his window. Consequently, when two people pass on the street, each sees the other’s time flow more slowly. Each sees the other gaining time. This reciprocity is maddening. More maddening still, the faster one travels past a neighbor, the faster the neighbor appears to be traveling.

These words strike a chord in today’s hectic, always-connected, world where we race from one commitment to the next, using our electronic devices along the way to maximize our productivity. But, as Seneca observes in On the Shortness of Life, multitasking only takes us further from our ultimate goal.

…no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is preoccupied with many things…since the mind, when distracted, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.

We don’t slow down long enough to think. We’re so focused on what’s next that we rarely take the time to ask ourselves whether we’re living the life we want or if we’re even really present in the one we have.

Time Happens

Not everyone in Lightman’s tales is speeding through life. In one world, people get stuck in time.

In another house, a man sits alone at his table, laid out for two. Ten years ago, he sat here across from his father, was unable to say that he loved him…The man begins to eat, cannot eat, weeps uncontrollably. He never said that he loved him.


The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.

In another of Einstein’s dreams, that will be painfully familiar to some, two couples are having dinner together, their conversation banal and meaningless.

For in this world, time does pass, but little happens. Just as little happens from year to year, little happens from month to month, day to day. If time and the passage of events are the same, then time moves barely at all … If a person holds no ambitions in this world, he suffers unknowingly. If a person holds ambitions, he suffers knowingly, but very slowly.

We can get stuck in the past, unable to let go of regret, or we can get stuck in a rut of routine, too uncertain of what the future might hold to risk chasing our dreams. Like the people in Dr. Seuss’s waiting place, we can end up ‘just waiting’…waiting for life to happen, passing our time in idle pursuits and telling ourselves that we’ll live the life we want when the mortgage is paid off or when the kids are grown or when we retire.

In On the Shortness of Life, Seneca writes:

How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live. What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!

Time Moves Faster

Despite the title of his essay, Seneca argues that life is only as short as we choose to make it.

It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much…the life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.

In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer suggests one way we can stretch out time.

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthy and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

This also helps explain why time seems to move faster as we age. The older we become, the fewer novel experiences we tend to have.

In Lightman’s fictional worlds, the people who find contentment are those who learn to live in the moment. Staying in the present is surprisingly difficult to achieve, but practicing meditation and mindfulness can help us get there more often, and the reward when we do so is well worth the effort.

In the final dream of the book, time is a nightingale, as fleeting and elusive as the present moment.

On those occasions when a nightingale is caught, the catchers delight in the moment now frozen. They savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness over a prize or a birth or romance, the captured smell of cinnamon or white double violets. The catchers delight in the moment so frozen but soon discover that the nightingale expires, its clear, flutelike song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment grows withered and without life.

Einstein’s Dreams and Seneca’s essay On the Shortness of Life are both very quick reads. Reflecting on what they have to say is time well spent.

The Two Sides of Seneca and A Lesson on Human Fallibility

The death of Seneca, as depicted by Rubens in the early seventeenth century.
The death of Seneca, as depicted by Rubens in the early seventeenth century.


If you can withhold moral judgment, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero is a great historical account of making decisions in complex situations.

Here is one way to describe the career of the stoic thinker, writer, poet, and moralist Seneca:

By a strange twist of fate, a man who cherished sobriety, reason, and moral virtue found himself at the centre of Roman politics. He did his best to temper the whims of a deluded despot, while continuing to publish the ethical treatises that were his true calling. When he could no longer exert influence in the palace, he withdrew and in solitude produced his most stirring meditations on virtue, nature, and death. Enraged by his departure, the emperor he had once advised seized on a pretext to force him to kill himself. His adoring wife tried to join him in his sober, court genus suicide, but imperial troops intervened to save her.

And here is another way to describe the very same life:

A clever manipulator of undistinguished origin connived his way into the centre of Roman power. He used verbal brilliance to represent himself as a sage. He exploited his vast influence to enrich himself and touched off a rebellion in Britain by lending usuriously to its inhabitants. After conspiring in, or even instigating, the palace’s darkest crimes, he tried to rescue his reputation with carefully crafted literary self-fashioning. When it was clear that the emperor’s enmity posed a threat, he sought refuge at the altar of philosophy even while leading an assassination plot. His final bid for esteem was his histrionic suicide, which he browbeat his unwilling wife into sharing.

These are the opposing frames by which Romans of the late first century A.D. regarded Seneca. Tacitus, perhaps the greatest Roman historian and by far the best source we have today for Nero’s era, stood between these extremes.

Tacitus, a shrewd student of human nature, was fascinated by the sage who extolled a simple, studious life even while amassing wealth and power. But ultimately Seneca posed a riddle he could not solve.

Tacitus made Seneca the principal character in the last three surviving books of his Annals, creating a portrait of great richness and complexity. But the tone of that portrait is hard to discern. Tacitus wavered, withheld judgment, or became ironic and elusive. Strangely, though aware of Seneca’s philosophic writings, Tacitus made no mention of them, as though they had no bearing on the meaning of his life. And he passed no explicit judgment on Seneca’s character, as he often did elsewhere. Our most detailed account of Seneca, in the end, is ambivalent and sometimes ambiguous.

But isn’t this the case with all of us?

Well-intended actions can be viewed through a lens of deception and manipulation just as outright manipulation can be viewed as aid. The truth is more complicated than binary answers. Debates about outright altruism still carry on today.

The truth is we all live complicated lives. Most of our actions fall somewhere between evil and good, failing to land on either extreme. Of course, we have problems seeing ourselves as others do. In our minds, we are the hero.

Laying complexity on top of this is the nature of the situations. Seneca was in exile and flattering Nero was his only hope to return. Perhaps it was hope that he could impact the world and perhaps he just wanted to come home from exile. We will never know as motivations are inherently complicated.

Seneca, it’s interesting to note, leaves his political successes and failures out of his writing beyond a few passages in Letters, suggesting “the failures weighed on him heavily.”

The Pursuit of Power

What prompted the committed Stoic, “a man who thought happiness came from Nature and Reason, to also pursue death and rule?”

Seneca never answered these questions directly but he pondered them in a mythical parallel: Thyestes.

The tragedy was likely composed during his time at Nero’s court or shortly thereafter.

Seneca used the conflict between two royal brothers—Atreus, a bloody autocrat possessed by spirits of Hell, and Thyestes, a gentle sage trying to stay out of politics—to wrestle with questions that his own strange journey had raised.

In the beginning, Atreus is the ruler of Argos, solely in command. The complication becomes that he was supposed to rule in turns with his brother Thyestes.

Thyestes has gone into an exile that Seneca depicts as a philosophic retreat, a communion with Nature such as he himself had claimed to enjoy on Corsica. But Atreus, infected by the demonic spirit of his grandfather Tantalus, is bent on destroying his brother, whom he regards as a threat. He sets out to lure Thyestes back to Argos, then enact a diabolic plan: to feed his brother a banquet of his murdered children’s flesh.

The conflict is neither a coded version of Seneca’s relationship with Nero, nor an allegory contrasting political ambition with philosophic detachment, but it contains elements of both.

A henchman challenges Atreus to say how he will ensnare Thyestes from such a great distance. Atreus replies:

He could not be caught—unless he wants to be caught. He yet covets my kingdom.

With the omniscient insight of the criminally insane, Atreus seems to look straight into the heart of his brother—and Seneca’s heart too. The will to power, Atreus implies, lurks in even the most detached, self-contented sage.

Thyestes now enters the scene, walking toward the trap we know is waiting. Seneca portrays him as a virtuous Stoic, disgusted by the world he long ago renounced:

How good it is
to be in no ones way, to eat safe meals
stretched out on open ground. Hovels don’t house crimes; a narrow table holds a wholesome feast;
it’s the gold cup that’s poisoned—I’ve seen, I know.

Thyestes faced the same choice that Seneca faced on Corsica. This is perhaps the best insight into the nature of Seneca’s conflict.

Why does Thyestes return to Argos, while claiming to hate what he will find there? He makes his choice passively, almost fatalistically. As his children urge him onward, he appears to surrender: “I follow you, I do not lead,” he tells them. He has resisted long enough to satisfy his own conscience. He will resist further when Atreus offers him the sceptre, but he accepts this as well; it was, as Atreus had divined and as Seneca finally makes clear, what he had wanted all along.

Rather than staying in virtuous exile, Thyestes opts to return. A choice that would have been familiar to Seneca. Thyestes’ nature was human.

“All of us have done wrong,” Seneca wrote in De Clement; “some have stood by our good designs not firmly enough and have lost our guiltlessness, unwillingly, while trying to keep our grasp on it.”

While Seneca depicts Thyestes as trying, his effort falls short.

Seneca’s prose works offer forgiveness, but in the bleak world of the tragedies, the sin of weakness comes back on the sinner’s head a thousandfold. In a gruesome messenger speech, we hear how Atreus butchered, filleted, and stewed Thyestes’ children. Then we watch as Thyestes unknowingly consumes the horrid casserole.

In the play’s final act, a gleeful, drunken Thyestes revels over his meal and, significantly, curses his former poverty; he has gone over to the world of pleasure and power that he once renounced. Atreus now enters to deliver the crowning blow. He reveals the severed heads of the sons on whom Thyestes has feasted. No deities have intervened to prevent this atrocity, and none care that it happened, as Seneca suggests in his nightmarish closing lines:

THYESTES: Gods will come to avenge me;
To them I entrust your punishment.
ATREUS: And I entrust your punishment—to your children.

After the cannibal banquet, the plays chorus members, the citizens of Argos, envision

Are we, out of all generations,
deserving of the sky’s collapse,
its axis knocked from beneath its dome?
Is it on us the last age comes?
A harsh destiny has brought us to this:
Wretches, either we lost our sun, Or else we drove it away.

In these words we hear Seneca’s voice. The sky had become black and the only way out was death and yet he lived on. The last words of the play’s apocalyptic chorus mention a theme that would occupy Seneca in his last years: Suicide.

Greedy for life is he who declines to die, along with the dying world.


Part biography, part narrative history, and part exploration of Seneca’s writings, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero is an effort to bring the two conflicting views of Seneca into a single personality.

The Wisdom of Seneca: A Lawyer’s Advice For Life In The Fast Lane

Marble Head of a Philosopher
Marble Head of a Philosopher by Shane Parrish

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (around 4 B.C.—A.D. 65) was an insightful lawyer, senator, philosopher, and playwright best known for his pithy wisdom that still helps understand how to deal with anger, failure, poverty, success, education and so many other things.

“Philosophy,” writes Tom Morris in The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results, “in the hands of a thinker like Seneca, is an eminently practical enterprise.”

It has theoretical underpinnings, to be sure, but its ultimate goal is to inspire us to proper achievement and good living. The philosopher is a physician of the soul, whose advice aims at spiritual health and happiness. Like physics, philosophy seeks to understand the most ultimate realities with which we have to do. Yet, unlike physics, the philosophy most true to human nature gives us not technical terminology and news of marvels outside the ken of our normal experience, but rather reminders of what lies right in front of our eyes, or, if we are perceptive, inside our own hearts.

Philosophy has been called “common sense in dress clothes.” It can show us something we had already suspected or known. Many people, however, question the point of telling us things that we already know.

Seneca, in The Epistles provides a great answer:

People say: “What good does it do to point out the obvious?” A great deal of good, since we sometimes know facts without paying attention to them. Advice is not the same thing as teaching. It just gets our attention and wakes us up, and concentrates our memory and keeps it from losing its grip. We otherwise miss a lot that’s right in front of our eyes. Advice is, in fact, a sort of exhortation.

Phil Jackson, the championship basketball coach, draws on insights from philosophy and the importance of what commands our attention in his two books Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior and Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success.

Tom Morris sums up Seneca’s view that philosophy, at its best, “focuses our attention on things that might have eluded us because of their very familiarity, reminds us of important truths that we need to act on, and then goads us into action as well.”

InThe Epistles Seneca writes:

Whatever is good for us should be discussed often and frequently brought to mind, so that it may be not Just familiar to us, but also ready for use. Remember also that in this way what is clear often, becomes clearer.

In The Stoic Art of Living, Morris writes:

Seneca developed wisdom about prosperity and successful living that resonates with some of the best contemporary thought concerning happiness and the good life. His nuggets of advice often help us to understand more thoroughly any insights we might already have managed to grasp about true success in life. What is clear becomes clearer, and deep realizations that might have remained unarticulated are suddenly sparked into consciousness as we read his words. He provides us with elements of a life guidance toolkit that display a logical unity, a form of inner coherence, and a tremendous usefulness for anyone living in tumultuous times.

Seneca, himself, reflects on the role of good advice in The Epistles:

The soul carries within itself the seed of everything that is honorable, and this seed is stirred to growth by advice, as a spark fanned by a gentle breeze develops its natural fire. Virtue is aroused by a touch, or a shock. In addition, there are certain things that, although they are already in our minds, are not all ready for use, but begin to function easily as soon as they’re put into words. Some tilings lie scattered around in various places, and it is impossible for the tin practiced mind to arrange them in a proper order. We need to bring them, into unity and Join them, so that they can be more powerful and more of an uplift to the soul.

The human mind is often like a cluttered attic. There is a lot of good stuff in there but it’s organized poorly so we can’t find or use much of anything. And because we pack so much in there our understanding gets confused. Organizing this mess is too much. Part of Seneca’s wisdom is he pulls away the clutter and throws it out, revealing the knowledge that we already have.

Morris writes:

The power of Seneca’s advice lies not just in its universality of application, but in its ability to spark us and fan us into flaming action, guiding that action from within our own hearts, and moving us out into the world. It can help bring into powerful unity the various insights and habits for successful living that we already have picked up along the way, and it can give us fresh perspectives on what it takes for satisfying, sustainable achievement in our world. Seneca himself would certainly remind us that it is not just the nuggets of wisdom themselves, but how we apply them, that is the ultimate aim of philosophy.

An insight, however, needs to be applied in the context of life.

Seneca maintains: “It is not enough, when a man is arranging his existence as a whole, just to give him advice on the details.” And he later reminds us of the symbiotic relationship between learning and living.

Virtue depends partly on training and partly on practice. You must learn first, and then strengthen what you’ve learned by practice.

This is important because sometimes things get difficult. In Moral Essays, Seneca insists

I need to remind you, over and over, that I am not speaking about an ideal wise man to whom every duty is a pleasure, and who rules over his own spirit, imposing on himself any law he pleases, while always obeying what he has imposed, but I am talking about anyone who, with all his imperfections, desires to follow the perfect path, and yet has passions that often are reluctant to obey.

In The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results, Morris sums this up best:

If we truly desire to live good and happy lives, we qualify as fit pupils for this philosopher. And with all the troubles we inevitably face in the world, we need this lawyer of life to help defend us against the many forces that would imprison us. If we listen well, and put into practice the best of his counsel, we can liberate our selves to be our best and feel our best in all that we do.

Still curious? Check out Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero.