Glancing through a book I have on the life of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (or, most simply, Seneca), I am reminded of all that this great Stoic has to teach us in the modern day. Born nearly 2,000 years ago, this was a man of many contradictions but of considerable wisdom, from which we have much to learn.
Seneca and another famous stoic, Marcus Aurelius, used philosophy to live. They wanted to know how to use wisdom to navigate the inevitable pitfalls of life. The lessons you can draw from these works are timeless — that’s why we still read them today.
Here, then, some quotes, all of which I use in my practice as a therapist and as an executive mentor. And with them, my application:
A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.
Think of that: as the pearl is born of friction, so too the man who wishes to reflect upon his living, his life, and his craft. What, you thought you’d get through this thing we call life alive and untouched? Not gonna happen. The friction of our lives are what grind us to a perfection of sorts.
Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.
We must take the world as it is and hope for the best. Often, when we are confronted with evil, it is our projections that make it worse. Think of the worst person you know and then think of the trials and tribulations of their life.
We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.
Of course, this reminds me of what Epictetus had to say about “events” in life, and how we render them good or bad depending upon our view of them. Take a moment to look at a misfortune and consider its silver lining. I assure you that it has one. You are in charge of finding it.
A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.
Intentionality is most nearly everything. Think here of the legal dictate, mens rea, and the requirement that the guilty actor have a criminal conscience. Websters defines mens rea as, “the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused.” I blow through red lights all the time, but most of the time it is not my intention to break the law. Not that simple.
All cruelty springs from weakness.
This one takes some time to truly “get,” insofar as we most often see cruelty as an act of strength. It is, in fact, an act of weakness, for when we think ourselves as weak, we act accordingly. The lesson? Do not ever give away your power.
As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.
Have you done good in life? Are you – today – doing good? This reminds me of the Eight Fold Noble Path of the Buddhists. Within that Path the idea that right thinking begets right action.
If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.
In other words, do not rely upon the Gods for your sense of “true north,” rely not upon the wind. Set your course and the tiller and hold fast.
He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary.
This goes to the notion of “anticipatory anxiety,” and the incessant worry about the future that we heap upon ourselves. I have thought myself a million times into problems, but never once out of them. Think about that.
Timendi causa est nescire – Ignorance is the cause of fear.
What do you fear? And what about that (whatever) do you not know? The less you know about something, the more you shall fear it. Pure and simple. If you cannot truly know, then do not fear it. ‘Tis a waste of time.
It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.
Seneca predates Jesus and the cross that he carried, and the class with which he bore it to Golgotha. How you carry your burdens in life says much about you.
The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.
Bing Crosby used to day, “I anticipate the worst, hope for the best, and most often wind up in between.” If we reflect upon the trajectory of our lives and then upon those things which might go wrong, we are (as Grandma used to say) prepared. Forget luck, for luck is merely the intersection of preparation and opportunity. The key word is preparation.
And finally …
The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.
Yes, the whole of the future lay way out there. But as I write this, my future is slithering past me. If I live for the now, I am living in the now as it was just a few seconds ago. “Waste not time, for such is the stuff of life,” said our Benjamin Franklin.