Last time we began our discussion of Seneca’s On Tranquility of Mind by reviewing the petition of his friend, Serenus, and Seneca’s preliminary framing of the problem with the ultimate goal of euthymia, or ‘well-being of the soul.’ He next offers his diagnosis: dissatisfaction with self, originating from a mix of imbalance in the mind and fainthearted or unrealized desires. Unfulfilled desires lead to frustration, vice (in their pursuit), loathing of leisure, and jealousy of others. It is at this juncture one must overcome the temptation to seek elsewhere and everywhere for contentment. He quotes Lucretius, “Each man always flees himself…but what good if he cannot get away from himself?”6
His first prescription is to be employed in some active and honorable career or societal or political function, or if not that, active study and contemplation. Like all good Stoics, Seneca sees a meaningful life as purposeful and cosmopolitan. Retreat is fine, but should be gradual and preferably voluntary. In addition, we should associate with virtuous people and can find great contentment in friendships. Contentment also comes from limits on material goods; if we have much to lose we suffer worry even if we never lose anything at all. While we may wish to avoid abject poverty, “we ought at least curtail our property and reduce our exposure to the assaults of Fortune.”7 He even cautions against excess buying of books one will never read.
Seneca then goes on to examine the discontent of public responsibilities. The solution here is patience since with time “necessity teaches fortitude and habit indifference.”8 Nature we are told “invented habit as an anodyne to calamity.”9 He reminds us: “No situation is so harsh that a dispassionate mind cannot find some consolation in it.” And of course, desire, pride, hope, and envy are controverted by remembering how trivial are their objects.
Seneca then tells us of the sage – a person who does not grope and has no attachment to material goods which instill a fear of Fortune. The sage lives “on loan to himself”10 and is ready to return all to Nature. He does not fear death and is prepared for any possibility since, quoting Publilius, “What can happen to somebody can happen to anybody.”11 Seneca also urges us to avoid excessive, unnecessary, or unproductive exertion in profession and in society, quoting Democritus, “A man who wishes to live in tranquility must not engage in many activities, private or public.”12
(final continuation next blog)
6Hadas, Moses (translator), The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1968. ISBN 0-393-00459-7, page 82.
7Ibid., page 91.
8Ibid., page 93.
10Ibid., page 94.
11Ibid., page 96.
12Ibid., page 99.