“My Stocism saved me”

I’ve only been posting intermittently owing to a minor illness.  But every cloud has a silver lining: I’ve returned to Seneca’s letter 86 on dealing with illness. It is one of his longer letters, but well worth the read. Some choice quotes:

My studies were my salvation.*  I place it to the credit of philosophy that I recovered and regained my strength.

The suffering, however, is rendered endurable by interruptions; for the strain of extreme pain must come to an end. No man can suffer both severely and for a long time; Nature, who loves us most tenderly, has so constituted us as to make pain either endurable or short.

The reason, however, why the inexperienced are impatient when their bodies suffer is, that they have not accustomed themselves to be contented in spirit.  They have been closely associated with the body.  Therefore a high-minded and sensible man divorces soul from body, and dwells much with the better or divine part, and only as far as he must with this complaining and frail portion.

This, too, will help – to turn the mind aside to thoughts of other things and thus to depart from pain.  Call to mind what honourable or brave deeds you have done; consider the good side of your own life.

* I have paraphrased this sentence for the title. Robin Campbell’s translation in the Penguin edition is: “It was my Stoic studies that really saved me.”

I sometimes think that a postive side effect of illness is to relieve us of our daily responsibilities, and wonder if it is not nature’s safety valve against too much stress. Seneca stresses how being ill can help cut our usually excessive desires down to size, but I think it also makes us realise how insignificant our responsibilities are. Illness helps concentrate the mind.

Play your allotted role

Epictetus’ Handbook, chapter 17:

Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.

Retake your life

This is from the Long translation, but it was so archaic that I have reworded various phrases:

How can our principles become dead, unless the impressions which correspond to them are extinguished? But it is in your power continuously to fan these thoughts into a flame. I can have the right opinion about anything. If I can, why am I disturbed? And the things which are external to my mind have no relation at all to my mind. Think like this, and you will stand tall. You have the power to retake your life. Look at things again as you used to, and your life will be renewed.

Meditations, 7.2

Slipping off the harness*

Seneca incorporated naps into his daily routine:

Then comes a very short nap.  You know my habit; I avail myself of a scanty bit of sleep, unharnessing, as it were.  For I am satisfied if I can just stop staying awake.  Sometimes I know that I have slept; at other times, I have a mere suspicion.

From letter 83.

* Translation from the Penguin edition.

On suffering

We only suffer because we allow ourselves to suffer. Thus it might seem that the suffering is our fault, and indeed this is how the novice Stoic would see it. But Epictetus points out that a “perfectly instructed ” person (a Sage?) will not blame themself, or indeed anyone else. Presumably, such a person has learnt not to suffer, and so there is no-one to blame.

Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

Handbook, chapter 5

Work ethics

Here is excellent advice for this work-intense world:

Love the art, poor as it may be, which you have learned, and be content with it; and pass through the rest of life like one who has entrusted to the gods with his whole soul all that he has, making yourself neither the tyrant nor the slave of any man.

This is one of my favourite Meditations (4.31). I sometimes remember it as “always work hard but never let yourself become a slave.”

Do a few (necessary) things and do them well

The ancient advice quoted by Marcus below could be rephrased in modern parlance as “Don’t take on too much, it’ll stress you out!” But Marcus goes further, telling us that the way to avoid being overwhelmed is to do what is strictly necessary and nothing else. Not only will this limit the number of tasks (because few things are truly necessary) but we will get the satisfaction of doing them well (because they are necessary and in accordance with nature). From Meditations 4.24:

“Occupy thyself with few things,” says the philosopher, “if thou wouldst be tranquil.” But consider if it would not be better to say, “Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of the animal which is naturally social requires, and as it requires.” For this brings not only the tranquility which comes from doing well, but also that which comes from doing few things. For the greatest part of what we say and do being unnecessary, if a man takes this away, he will have more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly on every occasion a man should ask himself, “Is this one of the unnecessary things?”