Tag Archives: stoicism

How do you want to live (truly live) your life?

'Mort de Seneque'

Not actually Seneca, but usually called so. In the Louvre, my pic.

My friend and fellow ancient historian Katie posted a link to an article on brain pickings called ‘The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather than Living Long.’ Seneca was a very clever guy, and — as often happens when I read Stoics — his words are convicting. A lot of daily life is devoted to toiling at work rather than living in it, and then procrastinating, and then mindless relaxation.

But what is the point of life? And what are you going to do with yours? Are you going to escape your Facebook feed and Netflix to go and live your life, seeking deep and wide living instead of shallow and narrow living?

I fully intend to. So here are my top three goals in living:

  1. Attaining ‘purity of heart’ as discussed by fifth-century spiritual writer John Cassian in his Conferences. This is a goal that requires the study not only of spiritual guides and philosophers but also certain practices in daily life.
  2. Excelling as an academic. This is my ‘day job’.
  3. Becoming a writer.

Each of these requires its own disciplines and attentiveness, but they can all work together. Number 3, interestingly enough, can be worked through 1 & 2 to a degree, and number 1 manifests itself in the totality of one’s life, thus drawing 2 & 3 into its orbit. Because of the subject matter of my interest, 2 feeds into 1, and, when practised well, into 3 as well.

If I wish to write fiction, however, number 3 will require time other than what is spent on 1 & 2. Part becoming a fiction writer is reading fiction, so that part of my training as a writer is well under way. I just need to, well, write fiction!

But what about true leisure? Seneca would say that leisure time should be devoted exclusively to philosophy — that is, in my scheme, number 1. However, I think he is wrong on this point, and his own corpus of writings bears out his inability to live up to such a high, intense Stoic paradigm, given that he wrote tragedies as well as philosophy.

Instead, I follow Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines wherein he argues that we need real time to just relax if we are going to make it in the rest of our lives. Time to play a sport or make music or watch TV or read a novel or whatever — just because you want to. No ulterior motive.

If, in our leisure time, we were to make a balance between striving for high philosophical ideals and simply relaxing without slipping into entertaining ourselves to death or working ourselves to death, we would probably find a happy place in the middle between these two extremes.

So, now, go read the recommended article. Then go and truly live.

Sometimes the philosophers are talking straight to me

Having trouble gettings files of my wife on the blog; here’s Seneca instead. Not nearly as much of a looker.

My greatest of the temporal consolations (let’s leave the Divine out of the equation for now) is not a lovely garden or a good book or a warm cup of tea or a Slurpee or playing ‘guess the Emperor’. The greatest consolation I have in this life, that I can touch, hold, and see, is my lovely wife.

I left her in a train station in Stuttgart this morning. She is safely in Edinburgh now. We had a fantastic ten days together — reading together, walking around Tübingen together, visiting Heidelberg together, then seeing my cousin in Mosbach together, eating together, eating ice cream together, eating cake together, eating Schnitzel together, being together. After almost two months part, it was really wonderful to be together.

And I’m happier now than I was ten or so days ago, because the effect she has on me is more long-lasting than simply when she’s just around.

Yet I am, nevertheless, back in my undergrad accommodation in Tübingen. Things are eerily quiet right now; I should probably get to bed in a bit to exploit the fact! Anyway, you know the situation from earlier posts, and especially if we’re friends on Facebook. Not my favourite.

After leaving the lovely Jennifer at the train, I visited the Landesmuseum Württemberg in Stuttgart and read some Seneca. And here’s where the title gets relevant.

Letter 28 (Book III.7) of Seneca’s correspondence to Lucilius is about the fact that Lucilius will never shake off his sadness and depression and learn contentment by changing his location. The problem, says Seneca, is not where you are but, in essence, who you are.

The seeds and material for contentment are available to everyone everywhere. Certainly, quiet, rest, and leisure, retirement from the world, come highly recommended by this Stoic. But the truly wise man can be content anywhere, for that is a matter of inner circumstances.

He writes:

Whatever you do, you are acting against your interests and harming yourself with the movement, since you are jolting a sick man. But when you have eliminated this evil, every change of scene will be agreeable; you may be driven to the remotest lands and set down in some random corner of a barbarian region, but that place, whatever it is like, will be welcoming to you. … Can anything be as crowded as the forum? Yet you can live calmly there too if you need to. (28.5, 6, trans. Elaine Fantham for Oxford World’s Classics)

I can find contentment in less-than-suitable accommodation. I can find rest for my soul even here. Even with all-night parties. Even with people smoking in my kitchen. Even with my greatest consolation off in Edinburgh.

I will try.


In the most recent episode of the new SyFy programme Alphas, the ability of our antagonist was to overstimulate the penial gland of those whom he inadvertently turned into his victims. The result of such overstimulation was an intense, powerful feeling of happiness combined with visions of lights. The only problem is that eventually, many of those whom he thus affected ended up basically going catatonic (the word encephalitic was involved, but that’s just Greek for brain-related).

This type of happiness is chemically-induced. Your brain produces the happy chemical. You feel happy.

If this happy feeling were the goal of life, the result philosophers and prophets and poets have been seeking for millennia in the pursuit of happiness, then why not seek it whenever you please? I mean, why not find a drug that could make you feel happy all the time? Indeed, imagine if you could get your hands on such a drug that was even safe — no nasty side-effects, no catatonic state, no dead liver, no kidney failure. Just pure bliss. If this happy feeling were perfectly equated with happiness, there should be no problem with such a chemical ecstasy, right?

Most of us do not, of course, seek happiness through drugs, legal or otherwise. Most of us seek circumstantially-induced happy feelings. We are happy and content because we just watched an interesting, action-packed, thought-provoking episode of Alphas. We are happy because we are enjoying a warm cup of tea. We are happy because we enjoy our jobs, our homes, our spouses, our hobbies, our books, our sports, our cities, our arts, our countries, our clothes. Circumstances make us happy or unhappy, even if somehow in the mysterious world of cognitive science these circumstances can make the happy chemical be produced in our brain and thus we feel happy.

The philosophers, from what I have read, would counsel a different approach, neither the chemical nor circumstantial happiness being enough.

They would counsel us to find a form of happiness that reaches beyond our circumstances and is able to be found without the aid of drugs or alcohol. For example, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught that we can find happiness in any sphere of life. Regardless of the sorrows of this troublous and transitory life. we can find a deep, lasting contentment. Just because you are a slave does no mean you are not free. Freedom is found within, in your own mind, in your own attitude to the circumstances around you.

Did I mention that Epictetus, unlike the famous Stoic of the next generation, Marcus Aurelius, was a slave?

I’d take his word for it — though I don’t know that he spent time in the death-bearing copper mines.

Still, if you’re reading a blog, neither have you.

Perhaps, though, if we find ourselves grounded in something beyond the mere externals of life, our happiness can run deeper than music, literature, food, warm homes, good tea, even a great marriage alone can bring. I reckon that if we grounded our happiness in such a place, in such an approach to the world, in such a philosophical attitude, in such a quest for equilibrium, that not only might we find happiness more generally, but the pleasures and good things listed above would even deepen.

Where to find this equilibrium? Aristotle, translated into Latin, calls it the summum bonum — the highest good. Aquinas teaches us that the summum bonum is God himself, the Triune God revealed in Scripture. Perhaps there we shall find happiness.

I don’t know where your path to happiness is leading you. But I hope you try to seek it in something bigger and better that chemical ecstasies or the fleeting yet beautiful pleasures of this life.