Back in the day, Seneca was probably the most powerful person in the world. He advised the Roman emperor Nero. He was an investor. And he was rich, with a fortune estimated at 300 million sesterces.
You know in Game of Thrones, they have The Hand of The King? When the King is a child, the Hand is the most powerful person in the land. Well that’s how it was for Seneca who played power politics as well as Machiavelli, but exercised power for good.
If only we had access to Seneca’s thoughts, his operating system, the principles by which he got rich, kept cool and made good decisions whilst under the stresses of war, politics and treacherous plots.
Hold on…what’s this?…we do!
Seneca wrote a series of letters giving advice to his friend Lucillius. These were translated from Latin into (slightly formal) English many years ago.
I’ve reproduced one of his letters below which is all about our fears and how they can run away with us when things look like they’re going wrong. Under each paragraph, I’ve included my own interpretation in plain English.
I know that you have plenty of spirit; for even before you began to equip yourself with maxims which were wholesome and potent to overcome obstacles, you were taking pride in your contest with Fortune; and this is all the more true, now that you have grappled with Fortune and tested your powers.
I know you’re not a complainypants because, even before you got into this whole financial independence / self improvement thing, you took pride and worked hard even when luck didn’t go your way. The setbacks tested you, but you didn’t blub like a little girl who’s just spilt Ribena down her frilly white party dress. Respect.
S: For our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that, and have occasionally even come to close quarters with us. It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested, – the spirit that will never consent to come under the jurisdiction of things external to ourselves.
TEA: The thing is, you only know you are starting to get the hang of life and this whole financial independence thing when you’ve seen some shit go wrong and held it together.
S: This is the touchstone of such a spirit; no prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever.
TEA: When Mohammed Ali got into the ring, ready to rumble, he was prepared for the worst. That dude knew what it was like to take a punch. He’d seen his own blood on the floor of the ring and he’d rolled with the punches. He’d been knocked down but he got back up again, badder than ever.
S: So then, to keep up my figure, Fortune has often in the past got the upper hand of you, and yet you have not surrendered, but have leaped up and stood your ground still more eagerly. For manliness gains much strength by being challenged; nevertheless, if you approve, allow me to offer some additional safeguards by which you may fortify yourself.
TEA: So, to carry on the metaphor, I know you’ve taken some knocks in the past but you didn’t give up and you raised your game. After all, how can anyone be a real man (or woman) if they haven’t dealt with some shit? You know: got dumped or lost some money or raised a child…stuff like that? But, while we’re here in the pub putting the world to rights, let me give you a few tips that worked for me.
S: There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. I am not speaking with you in the Stoic strain but in my milder style. For it is our Stoic fashion to speak of all those things, which provoke cries and groans, as unimportant and beneath notice; but you and I must drop such great-sounding words, although, heaven knows, they are true enough.
TEA: We worry too much. There are more things that scare us than actually fuck shit up. We humans have a tendency to catastrophise. So chill out. Take this EU referendum kerfuffle for example. The way some people are talking, you’d think Nigel Farage had already been elected as Der Fuhrer and started to throw anyone foreign, hardworking or good at football off the white cliffs of Dover. I’m not saying the referendum was unimportant, just to keep things in perspective.
S: What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.
TEA: Why be unhappy before crises come? Prediction is a mug’s game. Remember the stock market has predicted 8 of the last 3 recessions. Right now, things are OK. Some things that people are getting worked up about may not happen. And some of those things might actually happen but we’d then realise it wasn’t so bad after all! We habitually exaggerate, imagine and anticipate problems.
S: The first of these three faults may be postponed for the present, because the subject is under discussion and the case is still in court, so to speak. That which I should call trifling, you will maintain to be most serious; for of course I know that some men laugh while being flogged, and that others wince at a box on the ear. We shall consider later whether these evils derive their power from their own strength, or from our own weakness.
TEA: It’s a bit like those court cases where the judge tells the jurors not to read the newspapers or watch the news because it might mislead them. Why not do the same and make sure you are not being panicked by exaggerated news stories? Those guys are pros at hooking your attention. This whole financial independence thing is a matter of perspective. That’s why something that Mr Money Mustache says is easy, others say is difficult. Some people can’t imagine living on less than $250,000 a year. Other families live well on $25,000 a year.
S: Do me the favour, when men surround you and try to talk you into believing that you are unhappy, to consider not what you hear but what you yourself feel, and to take counsel with your feelings and question yourself independently, because you know your own affairs better than anyone else does.
TEA: Do me a favour, when people put stuff on Facebook or on the news saying “everyone” is gutted or “everyone” is struggling financially; ignore that shit. Think about your own reality and what you feel. Ask yourself why you feel like that? You know your own situation better than anyone else does.
- Is there any reason why these persons should condole with me?
- Why should they be worried or even fear some infection from me, as if troubles could be transmitted?
- Is there any evil involved, or is it a matter merely of ill report, rather than an evil?
Put the question voluntarily to yourself:
- Am I tormented without sufficient reason, am I morose, and do I convert what is not an evil into what is an evil?
You may retort with the question:
- How am I to know whether my sufferings are real or imaginary?
- Why do all these people think they know what is going to happen?
- Why are they so worried?
- Has anything disastrous actually happened yet?
Then ask yourself:
- Am I stressed without good reason, am I down and just imagining things as being worse than they really are?
In response you may say
- That’s easy for you to say…but how am I to know whether or not I am exaggerating shit?
S: Here is the rule for such matters: we are tormented either by things present, or by things to come, or by both. As to things present, the decision is easy. Suppose that your person enjoys freedom and health, and that you do not suffer from any external injury. As to what may happen to it in the future, we shall see later on. To-day there is nothing wrong with it. “But,” you say, “something will happen to it.”
TEA: Here’s the way to think about this: we worry about things in the present, things in the future or both. For things now, its easy. If you are healthy and have enough to eat, then be grateful…others are not so lucky. As to what may happen in the future, we’ll see. Right now, everything is fucking marvellous. “But” you say, “it can’t last, something bad will happen”.
S: First of all, consider whether your proofs of future trouble are sure. For it is more often the case that we are troubled by our apprehensions, and that we are mocked by that mocker, rumour, which is wont to settle wars, but much more often settles individuals. Yes, my dear Lucilius; we agree too quickly with what people say. We do not put to the test those things which cause our fear; we do not examine into them; we blench and retreat just like soldiers who are forced to abandon their camp because of a dust-cloud raised by stampeding cattle, or are thrown into a panic by the spreading of some unauthenticated rumour. And somehow or other it is the idle report that disturbs us most.
TEA: First, how can you be sure that everything is going to turn to shit? We pay too much attention to rumours. We agree too quickly with what other people say. We don’t test those fears, don’t examine them properly. And somehow its the vaguest rumours, those with least evidence to back them up, that often disturb us most.
S: For truth has its own definite boundaries, but that which arises from uncertainty is delivered over to guesswork and the irresponsible license of a frightened mind. That is why no fear is so ruinous and so uncontrollable as panic fear. For other fears are groundless, but this fear is witless.
TEA: Truth is based on fact. But fear that arises from uncertainty is based on random fantasies. That’s why no fear is so dangerous as panic fear.
S: Let us, then, look carefully into the matter. It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time.
TEA: So let’s be realistic. It’s likely that shit will go wrong in the future. But we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them. How are you helping yourself by bringing forward your suffering? For now, be optimistic. This will give you time to think and act rationally.
S: There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.
TEA: There will be lots of things which will delay, stop or pass on to others, the stuff that is currently threatening to go wrong. Fires break out and people get away. People on death row sometimes get out and outlive the dude with the needle. Even bad luck is fickle. So keep looking forward.
S: The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry. But life is not worth living, and there is no limit to our sorrows, if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent; in this matter, let prudence help you, and contemn with a resolute spirit even when it is in plain sight.
TEA: The human mind imagines worst case scenarios. And we take them too personally. Its how we survived back in the days when life was really hard. By imagining and preparing for the worst, our ancestors lived to pass on their genes to us. But if all we do is dwell on those fears, it will make us miserable. So yes, be cautious but remember you can be too careful.
S: If you cannot do this, counter one weakness with another, and temper your fear with hope. There is nothing so certain among these objects of fear that it is not more certain still that things we dread sink into nothing and that things we hope for mock us.
TEA: If you can’t do this, then why not replace one bias with another and just be optimistic? Nothing is certain about our fears, just as nothing is certain about our hopes.
S: Accordingly, weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears, and whenever all the elements are in doubt, decide in your own favour; believe what you prefer. And if fear wins a majority of the votes, incline in the other direction anyhow, and cease to harass your soul, reflecting continually that most mortals, even when no troubles are actually at hand or are certainly to be expected in the future, become excited and disquieted.
TEA: So be rational and look at your hopes as well your fears. When the situation is unclear (as it normally is) choose the interpretation that is most likely to help you do the rational thing. Remember, we can choose our own thoughts. So over time, learn to choose hope and stop beating yourself up. Then reflect that, whatever you do, most other people are going to carry on over-spending, over-reacting and generally fucking things up.
S: No one calls a halt on himself, when he begins to be urged ahead; nor does he regulate his alarm according to the truth. No one says; “The author of the story is a fool, and he who has believed it is a fool, as well as he who fabricated it.” We let ourselves drift with every breeze; we are frightened at uncertainties, just as if they were certain. We observe no moderation. The slightest thing turns the scales and throws us forthwith into a panic.
But I am ashamed either to admonish you sternly or to try to beguile you with such mild remedies. Let another say. “Perhaps the worst will not happen.” You yourself must say. “Well, what if it does happen? Let us see who wins! Perhaps it happens for my best interests; it may be that such a death will shed credit upon my life.” Socrates was ennobled by the hemlock draught. Wrench from Cato’s hand his sword, the vindicator of liberty, and you deprive him of the greatest share of his glory. I am exhorting you far too long, since you need reminding rather than exhortation. The path on which I am leading you is not different from that on which your nature leads you; you were born to such conduct as I describe.
TEA: People panic far too easily, no doubt. But its trivially easy for me to tell you not to panic. I’ll leave other people to say: “perhaps the worst will never happen”. Sometimes the best thing is to play out the worst case scenario in your mind. Examine it and you may find that it isn’t as bad as all that. I think you get the idea. It’s all basic common sense really.
Hence there is all the more reason why you should increase and beautify the good that is in you. But now, to close my letter, I have only to stamp the usual seal upon it, in other words, to commit thereto some noble message to be delivered to you: “The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.” Reflect, my esteemed Lucilius, what this saying means, and you will see how revolting is the fickleness of men who lay down every day new foundations of life, and begin to build up fresh hopes even at the brink of the grave.
Look within your own mind for individual instances; you will think of old men who are preparing themselves at that very hour for a political career, or for travel, or for business. And what is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? I should not name the author of this motto, except that it is somewhat unknown to fame and is not one of those popular sayings of Epicurus which I have allowed myself to praise and to appropriate.
TEA: A wise person once said that they used to think that when all their problems were solved, then their life would really begin. Eventually they realised that those problems (and their solutions) were their life. Life is just a stream of problems to be solved.
Enjoy the journey, not just the destination. And remember, the obstacle is the way.
Seneca : Letters from a Stoic