Letter XV. On Brawn and Brains

Letter 15 recommends that we find a balance between physical and mental training. We must maintain our efforts in mental growth. For there is still a great emphasis on a better body, a more muscular and beautiful body, but we forget the importance of a beautiful and strong mind. Many are stressed by their bodies, sweat in the gym day by day, but forget to exercise their minds.

“you can never be a match, either in strength or in weight, for a first-class bull.” (XV, 2)

However, do not sweat in doubt. According to Seneca, you should still go to the gym, but not spend four hours a day there. In Seneca’s letter he even recommends physical exercises that are in fashion today!

“Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping… Select for practice any one of these, and you will find it plain and easy.” (XV, 4)

Another main idea in the letter is to be grateful for the things we already possess and don’t overestimate the things we want, because everything seems better when you don’t have it:

“if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago; nor do we reflect how pleasant it is to demand nothing, how noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon Fortune.” (XV, 9)

“why should I demand of Fortune that she give, rather than demand of myself that I should not crave?” (XV, 11)


  1. Do physical exercise;
  2. Give preference to the development of your mind;
  3. Keep control of your desires. Be content with what you have.

image: Marble Relief – Greek Men Wrestling 500 BC.

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XV. On Brawn and Brains

1. The old Romans had a custom which survived even into my lifetime. They would add to the opening words of a letter: “If you are well, it is well; I also am well.” Persons like ourselves would do well to say: “If you are studying philosophy, it is well.” For this is just what “being well” means. Without philosophy the mind is sickly, and the body, too, though it may be very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or a lunatic is strong.

2. This, then, is the sort of health you should primarily cultivate; the other kind of health comes second, and will involve little effort, if you wish to be well physically. It is indeed foolish, my dear Lucilius, and very unsuitable for a cultivated man, to work hard over developing the muscles and broadening the shoulders and strengthening the lungs. For although your heavy feeding produce good results and your sinews grow solid, you can never be a match, either in strength or in weight, for a first-class bull. Besides, by overloading the body with food you strangle the soul and render it less active. Accordingly, limit the flesh as much as possible, and allow free play to the spirit.

3. Many inconveniences beset those who devote themselves to such pursuits. In the first place, they have their exercises, at which they must work and waste their life-force and render it less fit to bear a strain or the severer studies. Second, their keen edge is dulled by heavy eating. Besides, they must take orders from slaves of the vilest stamp, – men who alternate between the oil-flask[1] and the flagon, whose day passes satisfactorily if they have got up a good perspiration and quaffed, to make good what they have lost in sweat, huge draughts of liquor which will sink deeper because of their fasting. Drinking and sweating, – it’s the life of a dyspeptic![2]

4. Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping, – high-jumping or broad-jumping, or the kind which I may call, “the Priest’s dance,”[3] or, in slighting terms, “the clothes-cleaner’s jump.”[4] Select for practice any one of these, and you will find it plain and easy.

5. But whatever you do, come back soon from body to mind. The mind must be exercised both day and night, for it is nourished by moderate labour; and this form of exercise need not be hampered by cold or hot weather, or even by old age. Cultivate that good which improves with the years.

6. Of course I do not command you to be always bending over your books and your writing materials; the mind must have a change, – but a change of such a kind that it is not unnerved, but merely unbent. Riding in a litter shakes up the body, and does not interfere with study; one may read, dictate, converse, or listen to another; nor does walking prevent any of these things.

7. You need not scorn voice-culture; but I forbid you to practise raising and lowering your voice by scales and specific intonations. What if you should next propose to take lessons in walking! If you consult the sort of person whom starvation has taught new tricks, you will have someone to regulate your steps, watch every mouthful as you eat, and go to such lengths as you yourself, by enduring him and believing in him, have encouraged his effrontery to go. “What, then?” you will ask; “is my voice to begin at the outset with shouting and straining the lungs to the utmost?” No; the natural thing is that it be aroused to such a pitch by easy stages, just as persons who are wrangling begin with ordinary conversational tones and then pass to shouting at the top of their lungs. No speaker cries “Help me, citizens!” at the outset of his speech.

8. Therefore, whenever your spirit’s impulse prompts you, raise a hubbub, now in louder now in milder tones, according as your voice, as well as your spirit, shall suggest to you, when you are moved to such a performance. Then let your voice, when you rein it in and call it back to earth, come down gently, not collapse; it should trail off in tones half way between high and low, and should not abruptly drop from its raving in the uncouth manner of countrymen. For our purpose is, not to give the voice exercise, but to make it give us exercise.

9. You see, I have relieved you of no slight bother; and I shall throw in a little complementary present, – it is Greek, too. Here is the proverb; it is an excellent one: “The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears; its course lies wholly toward the future.” “Who uttered these words?” you say. The same writer whom I mentioned before.[5] And what sort of life do you think is meant by the fool’s life? That of Baba and Isio?[6]No; he means our own, for we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago; nor do we reflect how pleasant it is to demand nothing, how noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon Fortune.

10. Therefore continually remind yourself, Lucilius, how many ambitions you have attained. When you see many ahead of you, think how many are behind! If you would thank the gods, and be grateful for your past life, you should contemplate how many men you have outstripped. But what have you to do with the others? You have outstripped yourself.

11. Fix a limit which you will not even desire to pass, should you have the power. At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better to those who hope for them than to those who have attained them. If there were anything substantial in them, they would sooner or later satisfy you; as it is, they merely rouse the drinkers’ thirst. Away with fripperies which only serve for show! As to what the future’s uncertain lot has in store, why should I demand of Fortune that she give, rather than demand of myself that I should not crave? And why should l crave? Shall I heap up my winnings, and forget that man’s lot is unsubstantial? For what end should I toil? Lo, to-day is the last; if not, it is near the last.



  1.  i.e., the prize-ring; the contestants were rubbed with oil before the fight began.
  2.  Cardiacus meant, according to Pliny, N. H. xxiii. 1. 24, a sort of dyspepsia accompanied by fever and perspiration. Compare the man in Juvenal v. 32, who will not send a spoonful of wine to a friend ill of this complaint.
  3.  Named from the Salii, or leaping priests of Mars.
  4.  The fuller, or washerman, cleansed the clothes by leaping and stamping upon them in the tub.
  5.  Epicurus, Frag. 491 Usener.
  6.  Court fools of the period.

Stoic Meditation: Be thoughtful, but don’t panic.


As we mentioned before, during the rule of Marcus Aurelius the Antonine Plague took place and devastated the Roman Empire, causing the death of five million people.

Dealing with the fear of death is a recurring theme of Meditations. The plague is also cited, as in this passage, where the emperor condemns irrational attitudes:

“The corruption of the soul is a far graver disease than any comparable disturbance in the air that surrounds us. For this corruption is a pestilence of animals so far as they are animals; but the other is a pestilence of men so far as they are men.”

Meditations IX,2

The whole third paragraph deals with the expected attitude in the face of death: Do not be careless, but do not fear:

“Do not despise death, but be well content with it, since this too is one of those things which nature wills. For such as it is to be young and to grow old, and to increase and to reach maturity, and to have teeth and beard and gray hairs, and to beget and to be pregnant and to bring forth, and all the other natural operations which the seasons of thy life bring, such also is dissolution. This, then, is consistent with the character of a reflecting man—to be neither careless nor impatient nor contemptuous with respect to death, but to wait for it as one of the operations of nature. As thou now waitest for the time when the child shall come out of thy wife’s womb, so be ready for the time when thy soul shall fall out of this envelope.”

Meditations IX,3

Letter XIV. On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World

Death of Cato by Giambettino Cignaroli

The 14th letter is the first in which Seneca explicitly places his political guidance and tells Lucilius that we must often consider a tyrannical ruler in the same way as a storm: a prudent captain diverts his course and does not try to change what he knows to be much stronger.

Stoicism, as opposed to epicurism, advocates participation in politics and civil society. In this letter Seneca warns of the limits of such a strategy using the example of Cato who during the civil war in the end of the republic fought both Julius Caesar and Pompey. 

“… do you regard the philosophy of Marcus Cato as moderate? Cato’s voice strove to check a civil war. Cato parted the swords of maddened chieftains. When some fell foul of Pompey and others fell foul of Caesar, Cato defied both parties at once!”(XIV, 12)

Seneca quotes Epicurus one more time, and finishes the letter with a warning about the risks of wealth seeking: 

He who yearns for riches feels fear for them. No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he is intricate in increasing his wealth, he forgets to use it. He collects his accounts, wears down the floor of the forum, he turns his ledger, in short, he ceases to be a master and becomes a butler”. (XIV, 17)


  1. Give preference to the development of your mind;
  2. Be part of society, but don’t fight formidable opponents;
  3. Don’t worry much about wealth.

Image: Death of Cato by Giambettino Cignaroli

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XIV. On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World

1. I confess that we all have an inborn affection for our body; I confess that we are entrusted with its guardianship. I do not maintain that the body is not to be indulged at all; but I maintain that we must not be slaves to it. He will have many masters who makes his body his master, who is over-fearful in its behalf, who judges everything according to the body.

2. We should conduct ourselves not as if we ought to live for the body, but as if we could not live without it. Our too great love for it makes us restless with fears, burdens us with cares, and exposes us to insults. Virtue is held too cheap by the man who counts his body too dear. We should cherish the body with the greatest care; but we should also be prepared, when reason, self-respect, and duty demand the sacrifice, to deliver it even to the flames.

3. Let us, however, in so far as we can, avoid discomforts as well as dangers, and withdraw to safe ground, by thinking continually how we may repel all objects of fear. If I am not mistaken, there are three main classes of these: we fear want, we fear sickness, and we fear the troubles which result from the violence of the stronger.

4. And of all these, that which shakes us most is the dread which hangs over us from our neighbour’s ascendancy; for it is accompanied by great outcry and uproar. But the natural evils which I have mentioned, – want and sickness, – steal upon us silently with no shock of terror to the eye or to the ear. The other kind of evil comes, so to speak, in the form of a huge parade. Surrounding it is a retinue of swords and fire and chains and a mob of beasts to be let loose upon the disembowelled entrails of men.

5. Picture to yourself under this head the prison, the cross, the rack, the hook, and the stake which they drive straight through a man until it protrudes from his throat. Think of human limbs torn apart by chariots driven in opposite directions, of the terrible shirt smeared and interwoven with inflammable materials, and of all the other contrivances devised by cruelty, in addition to those which I have mentioned![1]

6. It is not surprising, then, if our greatest terror is of such a fate; for it comes in many shapes and its paraphernalia are terrifying. For just as the torturer accomplishes more in proportion to the number of instruments which he displays, – indeed, the spectacle overcomes those who would have patiently withstood the suffering, – similarly, of all the agencies which coerce and master our minds, the most effective are those which can make a display. Those other troubles are of course not less serious; I mean hunger, thirst, ulcers of the stomach, and fever that parches our very bowels. They are, however, secret; they have no bluster and no heralding; but these, like huge arrays of war, prevail by virtue of their display and their equipment.

7. Let us, therefore, see to it that we abstain from giving offence. It is sometimes the people that we ought to fear; or sometimes a body of influential oligarchs in the Senate, if the method of governing the State is such that most of the business is done by that body; and sometimes individuals equipped with power by the people and against the people. It is burdensome to keep the friendship of all such persons; it is enough not to make enemies of them. So the wise man will never provoke the anger of those in power; nay, he will even turn his course, precisely as he would turn from a storm if he were steering a ship.

8. When you travelled to Sicily, you crossed the Straits. The reckless pilot scorned the blustering South Wind, – the wind which roughens the Sicilian Sea and forces it into choppy currents; he sought not the shore on the left,[2] but the strand hard by the place where Charybdis throws the seas into confusion. Your more careful pilot, however, questions those who know the locality as to the tides and the meaning of the clouds; he holds his course far from that region notorious for its swirling waters. Our wise man does the same; he shuns a strong man who may be injurious to him, making a point of not seeming to avoid him, because an important part of one’s safety lies in not seeking safety openly; for what one avoids, one condemns.

9. We should therefore look about us, and see how we may protect ourselves from the mob. And first of all, we should have no cravings like theirs; for rivalry results in strife. Again, let us possess nothing that can be snatched from us to the great profit of a plotting foe. Let there be as little booty as possible on your person. No one sets out to shed the blood of his fellow-men for the sake of bloodshed, – at any rate very few. More murderers speculate on their profits than give vent to hatred. If you are empty-handed, the highwayman passes you by; even along an infested road, the poor may travel in peace.[3]

10. Next, we must follow the old adage and avoid three things with special care: hatred, jealousy, and scorn. And wisdom alone can show you how this may be done. It is hard to observe a mean; we must be chary of letting the fear of jealousy lead us into becoming objects of scorn, lest, when we choose not to stamp others down, we let them think that they can stamp us down. The power to inspire fear has caused many men to be in fear.[4] Let us withdraw ourselves in every way; for it is as harmful to be scorned as to be admired.

11. One must therefore take refuge in philosophy; this pursuit, not only in the eyes of good men, but also in the eyes of those who are even moderately bad, is a sort of protecting emblem.[5] For speechmaking at the bar, or any other pursuit that claims the people’s attention, wins enemies for a man; but philosophy is peaceful and minds her own business. Men cannot scorn her; she is honoured by every profession, even the vilest among them. Evil can never grow so strong, and nobility of character can never be so plotted against, that the name of philosophy shall cease to be worshipful and sacred. Philosophy itself, however, should be practised with calmness and moderation.

12. “Very well, then,” you retort, “do you regard the philosophy of Marcus Cato as moderate? Cato’s voice strove to check a civil war. Cato parted the swords of maddened chieftains. When some fell foul of Pompey and others fell foul of Caesar, Cato defied both parties at once!”

13. Nevertheless, one may well question whether, in those days, a wise man ought to have taken any part in public affairs, and ask: “What do you mean, Marcus Cato? It is not now a question of freedom; long since has freedom gone to rack and ruin. The question is, whether it is Caesar or Pompey who controls the State. Why, Cato, should you take sides in that dispute? It is no business of yours; a tyrant is being selected. What does it concern you who conquers? The better man may win; but the winner is bound to be the worse man.”[6] I have referred to Cato’s final rôle. But even in previous years the wise man was not permitted to intervene in such plundering of the state; for what could Cato do but raise his voice and utter unavailing words? At one time he was “hustled” by the mob and spat upon and forcibly removed from the forum and marked for exile; at another, he was taken straight to prison from the senate-chamber.

14. However, we shall consider later[7] whether the wise man ought to give his attention to politics; meanwhile, I beg you to consider those Stoics who, shut out from public life, have withdrawn into privacy for the purpose of improving men’s existence and framing laws for the human race without incurring the displeasure of those in power. The wise man will not upset the customs of the people, nor will he invite the attention of the populace by any novel ways of living.

15. “What then? Can one who follows out this plan be safe in any case?” I cannot guarantee you this any more than I can guarantee good health in the case of a man who observes moderation; although, as a matter of fact, good health results from such moderation. Sometimes a vessel perishes in harbour; but what do you think happens on the open sea? And how much more beset with danger that man would be, who even in his leisure is not secure, if he were busily working at many things! Innocent persons sometimes perish; who would deny that? But the guilty perish more frequently. A soldier’s skill is not at fault if he receives the death-blow through his armour.

16. And finally, the wise man regards the reason for all his actions, but not the results. The beginning is in our own power; fortune decides the issue, but I do not allow her to pass sentence upon myself. You may say: “But she can inflict a measure of suffering and of trouble.” The highwayman does not pass sentence when he slays.

17. Now you are stretching forth your hand for the daily gift. Golden indeed will be the gift with which I shall load you; and, inasmuch as we have mentioned gold, let me tell you how its use and enjoyment may bring you greater pleasure. “He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most.”[8] “Author’s name, please!” you say. Now, to show you how generous I am, it is my intent to praise the dicta of other schools. The phrase belongs to Epicurus, or Metrodorus, or some one of that particular thinking-shop.

18. But what difference does it make who spoke the words? They were uttered for the world. He who craves riches feels fear on their account. No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. He collects his accounts, he wears out the pavement in the forum, he turns over his ledger,[9] – in short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward.



  1.  Cf. Tacitus, Annals, xv. 44, describing the tortures practised upon the Christians.
  2.  Scylla was a rock on the Italian side of the Straits. Charybdis was a whirlpool on the Sicillian side. Servius on Vergil, Aeneid, iii, 420 defines the dextrum as the shore “to the right of those coming from the Ionian sea.”
  3.  Cf. Juvenal, x. 22 cantabit vacuus coram latrone viator.
  4.  Cf. the proverb necesse est multos timeat quem multi timent, which is found in Seneca, de Ira, ii. 11. 4 and often elsewhere.
  5.  Literally, “is as good as a (priest’s) fillet.”
  6.  Cf. Tac. Hist. i. 50 inter duos quorum bello solum id scires, deteriorem fore vicisset.
  7.  See, for example, Letter xxii.
  8.  Epicurus, Ep. iii. p. 63. 19 Usener.
  9.  Named kalendarium because interest was reckoned according to the Kalends of each month.

Stoicism and the Plague: Marcus Aurelius and the Antonine Plague


Marcus Aurelius died 1840 years ago, on March 17th, 180AD, during an expedition against the Marcomans in Vindobona (now Vienna). He was a victim of the Antonine Plague that devastated the population of the Roman Empire, causing the death of five million people, almost 5% of the Empire’s population.

By the middle of the second century A.D. the commercial and financial prosperity of the Roman Empire was formidable and when Antoninus Pio died in 161, the financial surplus left to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, was 2.7 billion sesterces. The crisis that incapacitated the Roman Empire in the 2nd century A.D. and fatally injured its supremacy was not caused by a human enemy but by a microscopic and lethal virus. The invisible threat originated in Central Asia, where it was released into the expanding population of the Ancient World. When the pandemic reached the Far East in 161 A.D., it began to inflict appalling deaths on the population of the Han Empire. At the military borders, Chinese forces lost between 30% and 40% of their personnel, with soldiers either killed or weakened by the first deadly outbreaks of infection. The virus led the same devastation to the fortified Roman borders and imposed greater fatalities among the legions than any barbaric horde could wish to attain. The pandemic also spread the infection through the Mediterranean core of the empire, transmitted in the Roman bazaars crowded with people conducting their business. For the first time since the time of Augustus, there has been a serious decline in state finances” (The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes, Raoul MacLaughlin)

Marcus Aurelius knew death closely, both in battle and at home, having lost 6 of his 13 children. He consoled himself in the following way:

Another prays: How shall I not lose my son? You do: How shall I not be afraid to lose him? (IX, 40)

The Meditations contain numerous passages reminding us that illness and death are natural and should not be feared. For example, Aurelius says:

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” (IV,17)
“Everything is ephemeral, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.” (IV,35)
“You’re a little soul carrying a corpse”(IV,41)
“Alexander the Macedonian and his groom by death were brought to the same state; for either they were received among the same seminal principles of the universe, or they were alike dispersed among the atoms. (VI, 24)
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Donald Robertson, author of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius“, wrote a dramatic account of the events surrounding the Antonine Plague and the discussion of these events in relation to the stoic philosophy. Excellent reading.

Letter XIII. On Groundless Fears


I understand that the containment measures are valid and that the problem is real. The image was chosen to alert against panic and irrational fear. You probably have enough toilet paper at home.

This is one of my favorite letters. In it Seneca addresses the main factor that hinders our development, the fear.

What prevents you from seeking your dream work, from making art, from traveling the world, from exposing yourself? It’s Fear. It’s that simple. We can give the excuse of being busy or at a bad time or not having talent or resources or a million other things, but in reality many times it is the fear that holds us back.

The 13th letter begins by arguing that we have to experience certain things to build our character and develop resistance against them:

“no fighter can go with high expectation into the fight if he has never been beaten; the only competitor who can enter the fight with confidence is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle under his opponent’s fist… the one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater stubbornness than ever before” (XII, 2)

He continues:

“There are more things, Lucilius, that can frighten us than there are to defeat us; we suffer more in the imagination than in reality… Thus, some things torment us more than they should; some torment us before they should; and some torment us when they should not. “(XIII, 4)

Both passages later became the main theme of Epictetus: we must distance ourselves from our first impressions, consider them rationally and decide whether to give or withhold approval from them. In fact, we suffer more often in our imagination than in reality, as reality is often more bearable than our fears let us believe.


  1. To know your fear is to defeat it;
  2. Things are often worse in your mind;
  3. Explore what could really go wrong;
  4. Don’t panic, it is witless (§9).

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XIII. On Groundless Fears

1. 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. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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. 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.

5. 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. The first of these three faults[1] 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.

6. 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. Ask: “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?”

7. You may retort with the question: “How am I to know whether my sufferings are real or imaginary?” 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.

8. “But,” you say, “something will happen to it.” 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.

9. And somehow or other it is the idle report that disturbs us most. 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.

10. 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.

11. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. 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.

12. 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. 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.

13. 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. 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.

14. But I am ashamed either to admonish you sternly or to try to beguile you with such mild remedies.[2] 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.

15. 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. Hence there is all the more reason why you should increase and beautify the good that is in you.

16. 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.”[3] 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.

17. 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.



  1.  Seneca dismisses the topic of “exaggerated ills,” because judgements will differ concerning present troubles; the Stoics, for example, would not admit that torture was an evil at all. He then passes on to the topic of “imaginary ills,” §§ 6-7, and afterwards to “anticipated ills,” §§ 8-11. From § 12 on, he deals with both imaginary and anticipated ills.
  2.  Cf. Solon’s καί με κωτίλλοντα λείως τραχὺν ἐκφανεῖ νόον.
  3.  Epicurus, Frag. 494 Usener.

Letter XII. On Old Age

Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse

In the 12th letter Seneca deals with an issue that a growing number of people today have to deal with: old age.

He begins by recalling a recent visit to one of his cottages, during which he complained to one of his employees that he was spending a lot of money on maintenance. But his caretaker protested that the house was getting older, and the repairs were therefore fully justified. Seneca writes, “this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?“(XII, 1)

What should be the wise person’s attitude towards old age? Seneca puts very vividly:

Let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say: I have lived; And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. When a man has said: “I have lived!“, every morning he arises he receives a bonus. (XII, 9)

As he often does in his letters, Seneca ends with a “gift,” a meaningful quotation from another author, which in this case is: “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint” (XII, 10). This is another reference to suicide, something to be chosen under certain circumstances according to the stoics.

The above saying is from none other than the master of the main rival of the stoic school. Seneca, then, presumes Lucilius’ protest:

“Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property (XII, 11)

Once again, an appealing expression, an example of true wisdom: no matter where the truth comes from, once learned, it is our collective property.


  1. Death comes, likewise, to the young and the old.
  2. Live your life, seize the day.
  3. Good ideas are common property.

Also available on Medium and LinkedIn.

Image: Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse

XII. On Old Age

1. Wherever I turn, I see evidences of my advancing years. I visited lately my country-place, and protested against the money which was spent on the tumble-down building. My bailiff maintained that the flaws were not due to his own carelessness; “he was doing everything possible, but the house was old.” And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?

2. I was angry, and I embraced the first opportunity to vent my spleen in the bailiff’s presence. “It is clear,” I cried, “that these plane-trees are neglected; they have no leaves. Their branches are so gnarled and shrivelled; the boles are so rough and unkempt! This would not happen, if someone loosened the earth at their feet, and watered them.” The bailiff swore by my protecting deity that “he was doing everything possible, and never relaxed his efforts, but those trees were old.” Between you and me, I had planted those trees myself, I had seen them in their first leaf.

3. Then I turned to the door and asked: “Who is that broken-down dotard? You have done well to place him at the entrance; for he is outward bound.[1] Where did you get him? What pleasure did it give you to take up for burial some other man’s dead?”[2] But the slave said: “Don’t you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images.[3] My father was Philositus the steward, and I am your pet slave.” “The man is clean crazy,” I remarked. “Has my pet slave become a little boy again? But it is quite possible; his teeth are just dropping out.”[4]

4. I owe it to my country-place that my old age became apparent whithersoever I turned. Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it. Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, – the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness.

5. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline. And I myself believe that the period which stands, so to speak, on the edge of the roof, possesses pleasures of its own. Or else the very fact of our not wanting pleasures has taken the place of the pleasures themselves. How comforting it is to have tired out one’s appetites, and to have done with them!

6. “But,” you say, “it is a nuisance to be looking death in the face!” Death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike. We are not summoned according to our rating on the censor’s list.[5] Moreover, no one is so old that it would be improper for him to hope for another day of existence. And one day, mind you, is a stage on life’s journey. Our span of life is divided into parts; it consists of large circles enclosing smaller. One circle embraces and bounds the rest; it reaches from birth to the last day of existence. The next circle limits the period of our young manhood. The third confines all of childhood in its circumference. Again, there is, in a class by itself, the year; it contains within itself all the divisions of time by the multiplication of which we get the total of life. The month is bounded by a narrower ring. The smallest circle of all is the day; but even a day has its beginning and its ending, its sunrise and its sunset.

7. Hence Heraclitus, whose obscure style gave him his surname,[6] remarked: “One day is equal to every day.” Different persons have interpreted the saying in different ways. Some hold that days are equal in number of hours, and this is true; for if by “day” we mean twenty-four hours’ time, all days must be equal, inasmuch as the night acquires what the day loses. But others maintain that one day is equal to all days through resemblance, because the very longest space of time possesses no element which cannot be found in a single day, – namely, light and darkness, – and even to eternity day makes these alternations[7] more numerous, not different when it is shorter and different again when it is longer.

8. Hence, every day ought to be regulated as if it closed the series, as if it rounded out and completed our existence. Pacuvius, who by long occupancy made Syria his own,[8] used to hold a regular burial sacrifice in his own honour, with wine and the usual funeral feasting, and then would have himself carried from the dining-room to his chamber, while eunuchs applauded and sang in Greek to a musical accompaniment: “He has lived his life, he has lived his life!”

9. Thus Pacuvius had himself carried out to burial every day. Let us, however, do from a good motive what he used to do from a debased motive; let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say:

I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me
Is finished.[9]

And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: “I have lived!”, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.

10. But now I ought to close my letter. “What?” you say; “shall it come to me without any little offering?” Be not afraid; it brings something, – nay, more than something, a great deal. For what is more noble than the following saying[10] of which I make this letter the bearer: “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint.” Of course not. On all sides lie many short and simple paths to freedom; and let us thank God that no man can be kept in life. We may spurn the very constraints that hold us.

11. “Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. And I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property.



  1.  A jesting allusion to the Roman funeral; the corpse’s feet pointing towards the door.
  2.  His former owner should have kept him and buried him.
  3.  Small figures, generally of terra-cotta, were frequently given to children as presents at the Saturnalia. Cf. Macrobius, i. 11. 49 sigila . . . pro se atque suis piaculum.
  4.  i.e., the old slave resembles a child in that he is losing his teeth (but for the second time).
  5.  i.e., seniores, as contrasted with iuniores.
  6.  ὁ σκοτεινός, “the Obscure,” Frag. 106 Diels².
  7.  i.e., of light and darkness.
  8.  Usus was the mere enjoyment of a piece of property; dominium was the exclusive right to its control. Possession for one, or two, years conferred ownership. See Leage, Roman Private Law, pp. 133, 152, and 164. Although Pacuvius was governor so long that the province seemed to belong to him, yet he knew he might die any day.
  9.  Vergil, Aeneid, iv. 653.
  10.  Epicurus, Sprüche, 9 Wokte.

Stoic Meditation: It is not events that disturbs you but only your judgment of it.


DEAR EPICTETUS: I’m worried about the new coronavirus. They say that it’s a pandemic, and that up to 70% of the world’s population may eventually get it. There are already cases here in California. I don’t want to get sick, or have my family get sick. How can I stay safe?
Concerned in California

DEAR SLAVE: We are all going to die. Maybe from coronavirus, maybe from cancer, maybe from a heart attack. What, did you think you were immortal? What does it matter if you die next week, feverish and lungs filled with fluid, or 40 years from now, wrinkled and weak and no longer able to remember your own name? Leave your time of death to Fate. Meanwhile, wash your hands for 30 seconds, don’t touch your face, tell your family that you love them, and try to be a good person. It is not the coronavirus that disturbs you but only your judgment of it.

from Duff McDuffee at Cynic & Stoic Memes


Letter XI. On the Blush of Modesty

Cato's death Pierre Bouillon

In Letter 11 Seneca explains that our body gives us hints that we are not in control using the blushing as an analogy. This is a remarkable insight into the limits of philosophy: wisdom itself, cannot overcome our innate reactions and natural predispositions. When embarrassed we blush, if we feel fear or anger, we cannot avoid the stress. As would Epictetus later teach “not up to us”:

That which is implanted and inborn can be toned down by training, but not overcome.

So, no matter what you do, inborn imperfections, especially the way that your body acts to different situations cannot be controlled. But it doesn’t mean that you are a weak person, it is just the universe telling you “relax, you’re not in control!”

This established, Seneca continues with a bit of good advice, which is to cultivate wisdom despite its limitations. But how do we cultivate wisdom?  Seneca’s answer is archetypal Stoicism:

“Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them” (XI.8)

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit … For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler” (XI.10).

The choice of your personal role model depends on you, but choose well, keep practicing by imagining that he is always looking over your shoulder, and your crooked staff will gradually be straightened out with the help of a straight ruler.


  1. No matter what we do, inborn imperfections, cannot be controlled.
  2. Nevertheless, cultivate wisdom despite its limitations.
  3. Choose a role model, and act as if the is watching over you.

Also available on Medium.

Image: Cato’s death by Pierre Bouillon. Cato was the best example of stoic conduct according to Seneca.

XI. On the Blush of Modesty

1. Your friend and I have had a conversation. He is a man of ability; his very first words showed what spirit and understanding he possesses, and what progress he has already made. He gave me a foretaste, and he will not fail to answer thereto. For he spoke not from forethought, but was suddenly caught off his guard. When he tried to collect himself, he could scarcely banish that hue of modesty, which is a good sign in a young man; the blush that spread over his face seemed so to rise from the depths. And I feel sure that his habit of blushing will stay with him after he has strengthened his character, stripped off all his faults, and become wise. For by no wisdom can natural weaknesses of the body be removed. That which is implanted and inborn can be toned down by training, but not overcome.

2. The steadiest speaker, when before the public, often breaks into perspiration, as if he had wearied or over-heated himself; some tremble in the knees when they rise to speak; I know of some whose teeth chatter, whose tongues falter, whose lips quiver. Training and experience can never shake off this habit; nature exerts her own power and through such a weakness makes her presence known even to the strongest.

3. I know that the blush, too, is a habit of this sort, spreading suddenly over the faces of the most dignified men. It is, indeed more prevalent in youth, because of the warmer blood and the sensitive countenance; nevertheless, both seasoned men and aged men are affected by it. Some are most dangerous when they redden, as if they were letting all their sense of shame escape.

4. Sulla, when the blood mantled his cheeks, was in his fiercest mood. Pompey had the most sensitive cast of countenance; he always blushed in the presence of a gathering, and especially at a public assembly. Fabianus also, I remember, reddened when he appeared as a witness before the senate; and his embarrassment became him to a remarkable degree.

5. Such a habit is not due to mental weakness, but to the novelty of a situation; an inexperienced person is not necessarily confused, but is usually affected, because he slips into this habit by natural tendency of the body. Just as certain men are full-blooded, so others are of a quick and mobile blood, that rushes to the face at once.

6. As I remarked, Wisdom can never remove this habit; for if she could rub out all our faults, she would be mistress of the universe. Whatever is assigned to us by the terms of our birth and the blend in our constitutions, will stick with us, no matter how hard or how long the soul may have tried to master itself. And we cannot forbid these feelings any more than we can summon them.

7. Actors in the theatre, who imitate the emotions, who portray fear and nervousness, who depict sorrow, imitate bashfulness by hanging their heads, lowering their voices, and keeping their eyes fixed and rooted upon the ground. They cannot, however, muster a blush; for the blush cannot be prevented or acquired. Wisdom will not assure us of a remedy, or give us help against it; it comes or goes unbidden, and is a law unto itself.

8. But my letter calls for its closing sentence. Hear and take to heart this useful and wholesome motto:[1]Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.

9. Such, my dear Lucilius, is the counsel of Epicurus;[2] he has quite properly given us a guardian and an attendant. We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone whom it can respect, – one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed.[3] Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts! And happy also is he who can so revere a man as to calm and regulate himself by calling him to mind! One who can so revere another, will soon be himself worthy of reverence.

10. Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.



  1.  Epicurus, Frag. 210 Usener.
  2.  Frag. 210 Usener.
  3.  The figure is taken from the ἄδυτον, the Holy of Holies in a temple. Cf. Vergil, Aeneid, vi. 10 secreta Sibyllas.

Letter X. On Living to Oneself

Preparation for a sacrifice. Marble, a fragment of an architectural relief, Louvre

In his tenth letter, Seneca continues to teach us to avoid crowds and to value introspection, however, he warns that many times we should not even trust ourselves since we are usually foolish and ignorant.

Initially, one might think that Seneca contradicts his earlier letters when he says that “talking to oneself” can be bad. As a matter of fact, Seneca says that if you are already wicked and ignorant, talking to yourself won’t do any good. A foolish person will only make his own-self worse. The crowd might otherwise check and temper his irrationality. Or, in other words: if you have no idea of what you are doing, don’t trust your judgment.

Seneca thinks that we should not pray for wealth or success (“that which belongs to another.“), but for intellectual and physical health. He concludes the letter with the council:

“Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening.” (X,5)


  1. Avoid the crowds; avoid even the individual.
  2. Do not pray for wealth or success.
  3. “Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening.” (§5)

Image: Preparation for a sacrifice. Marble, a fragment of an architectural relief, Louvre.

Also available on Medium.

X. On Living to Oneself

1. Yes, I do not change my opinion: avoid the many, avoid the few, avoid even the individual. I know of no one with whom I should be willing to have you shared. And see what an opinion of you I have; for I dare to trust you with your own self. Crates, they say, the disciple of the very Stilbo whom I mentioned in a former letter, noticed a young man walking by himself, and asked him what he was doing all alone. “I am communing with myself,” replied the youth. “Pray be careful, then,” said Crates, “and take good heed; you are communing with a bad man!”

2. When persons are in mourning, or fearful about something, we are accustomed to watch them that we may prevent them from making a wrong use of their loneliness. No thoughtless person ought to be left alone; in such cases he only plans folly, and heaps up future dangers for himself or for others; he brings into play his base desires; the mind displays what fear or shame used to repress; it whets his boldness, stirs his passions, and goads his anger. And finally, the only benefit that solitude confers, – the habit of trusting no man, and of fearing no witnesses, – is lost to the fool; for he betrays himself. Mark therefore what my hopes are for you, – nay, rather, what I am promising myself, inasmuch as hope is merely the title of an uncertain blessing: I do not know any person with whom I should prefer you to associate rather than yourself.

3. I remember in what a great-souled way you hurled forth certain phrases, and how full of strength they were! I immediately congratulated myself and said: “These words did not come from the edge of the lips; these utterances have a solid foundation. This man is not one of the many; he has regard for his real welfare.”

4. Speak, and live, in this way; see to it that nothing keeps you down. As for your former prayers, you may dispense the gods from answering them; offer new prayers; pray for a sound mind and for good health, first of soul and then of body. And of course you should offer those prayers frequently. Call boldly upon God; you will not be asking him for that which belongs to another.

5. But I must, as is my custom, send a little gift along with this letter. It is a true saying which I have found in Athenodorus:[1]“Know that thou art freed from all desires when thou hast reached such a point that thou prayest to God for nothing except what thou canst pray for openly.” But how foolish men are now! They whisper the basest of prayers to heaven; but if anyone listens, they are silent at once. That which they are unwilling for men to know, they communicate to God. Do you not think, then, that some such wholesome advice as this could be given you: “Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening“?



  1.  Frag. de superstitione 36 H., according to Rossbach.