Attaining virtue

The final lines of Seneca’s letter 90:

A soul cannot be virtuous unless that soul has been trained and taught, and by unremitting practice brought to perfection.  We were born without virtue but we live to reach it. Even in the best of people, before you refine them by instruction, there is but the stuff of virtue, not virtue itself.

Rebalance yourself

We need to develop a self-correcting facility that pulls us back to ourselves and our inner reason whenever we are thrown off course by external events (which are nothing to us).

When circumstances throw you off-balance, return to yourself quickly and do not stay out of kilter longer than necessary; for you will have more mastery over the harmony by continually recurring to it.

Mediatation 6.11


Seneca was very rich but that does not stop him from extolling the simple life! From letter 90:

The things that are indispensable require no elaborate pains for their acquisition; it is only the luxuries that call for labour

You can have it all now

The route to tranquility is straight and direct, not long and winding, if only we realise that the only thing that counts is behaving properly in the present moment. This is the start of Meditation 12.1:

All those things you want to reach by a circuitous road, you can have them now, if only you do not refuse them to yourself. By this I mean if you take no notice of all the past, and trust the future to providence, and direct the present only to piety and justice.

Don’t lose your mind

Epictetus (Handbook 28) points out that to feel distress when you are subjected  to criticism is tantamout to giving your mind away. Your mind (and reason) is the one thing you have power over, but if you give in to distress and confusion you are handing it over to your attacker.

If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?

Epictetus’ disapproval is clear here: you should be ashamed of giving away the one thing that is truly yours. The comparison with having your body taken away would have particularly resonated with Epictetus’ contemporary readers at a time when slavery was common (and of course Epictetus had been a slave). If you were angry at having your body (which you did not control) taken away, all the more reason to be ashamed of giving away your mind.

Busy dying

Again, on impermanence:

Look at everything that exists, and observe that it is already in dissolution and in change, and as it were putrefaction or dispersion; or that everything is so constituted by nature as to die.

Meditation 10.18. This reminded me, perhaps inappropriately, of the Bob Bylan line: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

Seeing transience – a “spiritual exercise”

Mediatation 10.11 contains a possible example of a “spiritual exercise”:

Acquire the contemplative way of seeing how all things change into one another, and constantly attend to it, and exercise yourself about this part of philosophy. For nothing is so much adapted to produce magnanimity. Such a man has put off the body, and as he sees that he must, no one knows how soon, go away from among men and leave everything here; he gives himself up entirely to just doing in all his actions, and in everything else that happens he resigns himself to the universal nature.

Several inches of snow fell overnight in Essex, the first  (and possibly only) heavy snowfall of the winter. The tree branches were laden with snow this morning, the river was covered with thin ice (broken only by the tracks of swimming ducks), and the usual sounds were deadened by the blanket of snow. Contemplating impermance today has been an easy thing to do…

True perspective

As a follow up to Marcus’ words on transience, here is the next Meditation, 5.24

Think of the universal substance, of which you have only a tiny portion; and of universal time, of which a short and indivisible interval has been assigned to you; and of that which is fixed by destiny, and how small a part of it you are.

Realising how small we are may seem terrifying, but it is actually strangely comforting, possibly because it shows us we are part of something much bigger (all senses of the word).