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A series of short audio meditations on Seneca’s Letters to his friend Lucilius.
I.1: This could be the last day of your life. Are you going to waste it by binging on a mediocre television show?
I.2 & I.3: Seneca tells us that time is a precious commodity, and one that, once loaned, can never be paid back.
II.2: Seneca reminds us that reading is serious business, and that time is limited. Choose well the authors in whose company you wish to spend time.
II.5: Seneca wanders into Epicurean territory, as a scout, not a traitor.
II.6: Seneca tells Lucilius that wealth should be limited, something that exposed him to charges of hypocrisy. Regardless, what is the relationship between wealth and virtue?
III.2: Seneca advises us on how to behave with true friends, and reminds us of how important they are in our life.
IV.3: Seneca uses Epicurus’ argument for why we should not be afraid of death, focusing instead on how to best live our life.
IV.4 & IV.5: Seneca says that the important thing is not how long a life you live, but what you do with it.
IV.7: Seneca uses a beautiful analogy to explain why the Stoic practitioner should not rely on luck, and indeed should be positively weary of it.
V.1: Seneca has a problem with people who measure their worth by fashion or wealth.
V.4: Seneca makes a surprising statement about the primary aim of philosophy. Surprising, that is, if you confuse Stoicism and stoicism…
VI.4: Seneca makes the surprising (to some) statement that Stoicism is all about community and sharing.
VII.7: Seneca warns us that the path to virtue is easily disrupted by exposing ourselves to temptation and unsavory company.
VIII.5: Seneca says that it makes no difference whether your house has a roof of gold, what matters is the character of the person who lives there.
IX.3: Seneca puts forth a paradox: the wise person is self-sufficient, and yet she desires friends and neighbors. How is this possible?
IX.13: The wise person, according to Seneca, needs others to live her life, but not to live a life worth living. For that, all she needs is to keep her faculty of judgment in good order.
XI.10: Seneca advises Lucilius to choose a good role model to improve his character, for we cannot straighten what is crooked unless we use a ruler.
XII.4 & 9: Seneca tells Lucilius to pay attention to the joys of old age, and to be grateful for every day we live.
XII.11: Seneca explains to his friend Lucilius why on earth he approvingly quotes one of the Stoics’ main rivals, Epicurus.
XIII.4 & 5: Seneca says that we often spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the wrong sorts of things.
XIV.2: Seneca says that it is incumbent on us to take care of our body, but that we should even be willing to destroy it, if virtue demands it.
XVI.3: Seneca tells Lucilius that philosophy is not just a way to amuse the mind, but an exercise to guide our actions and mould our souls.
XVI.5: Seneca says that whether the universe is controlled by universal laws, by a god, or by chance, we still have to do the right thing. And philosophy is our guide for that.
XVIII.4: Seneca tells Lucilius about two levels of engagement with drunken crodws during the holidays. Good to remember for your next Thanksgiving, Christmans, or whatever you celebrate.
XVIII.5 and 6: Seneca explains the Stoic practice of eating poor and scant food, and going outside dressed with old clothes, in order to remind ourselves that we can cope with difficult situations, and to appreciate anew what we have.
XVIII.15: Seneca tells us that anger is a form of temporary madness, not to be indulged by the person who cultivates reason.
XIX.10: Seneca tells Lucilius that one can learn a thing or two even from Epicurus, particularly that it is the company we keep that is the most important part of our meals.
XX.1: Seneca says that talk is easy, but the real measure of whether we are making progress lies in our practice. Have our desires for the wrong things decreased? Are we focusing on what is truly important?
XX.13: Seneca tells Lucilius that it is crucial, from time to time, to engage in exercises of self deprivation, so to prepare ourselves for whenever luck will turn, and also to be grateful and appreciative of what we normally have and may take for granted.
XXI.9: Seneca explains that one doesn’t have to be an Epicurean in order to find value in the words of Epicurus. It’s like in the Senate: you vote for the parts of a motion you approve of, and reject the rest.
XXIII.3: Rather unusual advise from Seneca to his friend Lucilius: learn how to feel joy. Which doesn’t sound Stoic only if one buys into the incorrect stereotype of Stoicism as a practice to suppress emotions. Let’s learn how to feel joy, then.
XXIII.6: Seneca says the problem with pleasure is that if one is too much into it, it rushes us into the abyss of sorrow. So it’s time to discuss what pleasure means for a practitioner of Stoicism.
XXIII.7: Seneca says that the right path in life consists in a good conscience, honourable purposes, right actions, contempt of luck, and an attitude of equanimity toward whatever the universe throws our way.
XXIII.11: Seneca observes that some people begin to really live their life only near the end. And some never begin at all. So what’s sort of life you want to live, and have you started already?
XXIV.2: Seneca introduces a classic Stoic exercise, the premeditatio malorum, thinking about bad things happening, playing them in your head, so you get comfortable with accepting whatever may come.
XXIV.12: Seneca reminds Lucilius that we ought to hope for justice, but brace ourselves for injustice. This is just the way the world works, which doesn’t absolve us from our responsibility to do something about it.
XXIV.17: Seneca lists the worst things that could happen to him, and that we all fear, and reminds himself that the only truly terrible thing is being a bad person who holds to bad values and makes bad decisions.
XXVII.8: Seneca, with rather uncharacteristic sense of humor, says that one can’t buy a sound mind, and even if that were possible, there would be no market for them.
XXVIII.2: Seneca tells Lucilius that moving to the other end of the world will not be helpful if his troubles are generated by his own attitudes, because he will carry the same person around the globe, if he doesn’t address the real issue.
XXVIII.4: Seneca reminds us that even though we belong to different social groups, religions, ethnicities and so forth, we are, most fundamentally, members of the human cosmopolis.
XXX.2: In this episode we discuss a quote from Seneca which, together with several other passages in other authors, clearly points to the conclusion that the Stoics were in favor of suicide in the case of disease and frailty in old age. Which does not mean they took suicide lightly at all.
XXXI.5: Seneca reminds us that, regardless of external circumstances, the only life worth living is one of virtue, and the only life to avoid is one dominated by vice.
XXXIII.11: Seneca reminds us that Stoicism is a live philosophy, which must evolve over time in order to incorporate new truths and, if needed, reject old ideas that turned out to be wrong.
XXXVI.6: Seneca says that Fortune may take just as much, and as suddenly, as she can give. But we can work on improving our character so that we can accept with equanimity both the good and the bad stuff in life.
XXXVII.5: Seneca says that Stoic mindfulness is about paying attention to what is happening to us. We need to keep charting and re-charting our way forward, as our mind needs to be prepared for the vagaries of Fortune.
XLIII.5: Seneca observes our tendency to boast of the good things we do and to keep quiet about the not-so-good ones. As if our own judgment, the judgment of our conscience, didn’t matter.
XLIV.2-3: Seneca reminds us that philosophy is open to all, no matter what our background and means. Engage the philosophical life and you will get to converse with noble minds across time and cultures.
XLV.7: Seneca warns us to be careful with people who pretend to be our friends, or simply feed our narcissism. Like, you know, most of the “friends” you likely have on social media…
XLVII.1 & 10: Seneca reminds his contemporaries that slaves are human beings like everyone else. In this episode, we talk about slavery in the ancient world, what the Stoics thought about it, and what follows from their philosophy.
XLVII.16: Seneca reminds us that all too often we judge people on the basis of what they wear, or of their social rank, mistakenly assuming that those are good indicators of their character.
XLVII.17: Seneca says that if we are going after the satisfaction of lust, greed, ambition, and so forth, we make ourselves slaves to fortune. Not so if we regard what we have as loans from the universe, which the universe can take back at any moment, by any means.
XLVIII.2: Seneca reminds us that we can’t live happily if we transform everything into a question of our own utility. We must live for your neighbour in order to live for ourselves.
XLVIII.4: Seneca says that he’d prefer to be told how to help people, rather than how many different meanings of the word “people” there may be.
XLIX.10: Seneca argues that it is the quality, not the duration, of one’s life that is important, and that we often live long when measured in years, and yet too little in terms of what we accomplish.
XLIX.11: Seneca argues that we are born with the ability to reason and to improve our reasoning. We are also naturally social, and prefer virtue over vice. Hard to believe, right? And yet, he’s got a point.
L.1: Seneca says that more often than we realize we blame our problems on the time and place we live in, without understanding that the fault may be with us, and that we should work on ourselves, instead of finding excuses.
L.9: Seneca disagrees with Epictetus: the first says that philosophy is a pleasant medicine, the second that it is a painful one. And yet they agree that it is a remedy that, taken regularly, makes for a wholesome life.
LI.4: Seneca gives rare advice on one’s abode. It should be a place that does not get in the way of practicing virtue, which means neither too uncomfortable (if we can avoid it) nor too luxurious or distracting.
LI.8: Seneca reminds us of the distinction between unhealthy and healthy emotions: being overwhelmed by the first ones tears us apart internally, while cultivating the second ones brings harmony to our psyche.
LI.9: Seneca argues that we can force Fortuna, the goddess of luck, to deal with us on equal terms, by not being slaves to external things we cannot control. Cultivate equanimity, and Fortuna will play fair with you.
LII.8: Seneca advices his friend Lucilius to pay attention to people who act right, not just talk right. When we pick a role model to improve our character, let’s pick someone whose actions we want to imitate, they are a better guidance to virtue.
LIII.9: Seneca tells us that philosophy, understood as a way of life, cannot be relegated to spare moments. Just like someone can’t be a Christian only on Sunday mornings, so a Stoic applies her principles at every opportunity, big or small.
LIV.4: Seneca agrees with Epicurus: death is a state of non-existence, therefore we do not feel anything, and there is nothing to be afraid of. Moreover, it is no different from the aeons before we were born, and we don’t regret those, do we?
LV.4: Seneca challenges the common assumption that someone is self-sufficient if he has enough money, a nice place to live, and so forth. True self-sufficiency requires serenity, which comes from inner strength, not from externals.
LVI.6: Seneca reminds us that real tranquillity comes from a relaxed mind with a clear conscience. Which is why Stoics engage in an evening meditation on the major events of the day, learning from their mistakes, and filing them away before going to sleep.
LVII.4: Seneca nicely explains what a proto-emotion is, and we discuss how proto-emotions can then develop into fully formed healthy or unhealthy emotions. It all comes down to what cognitive judgment we apply to our initial response.
LVIII.23: Seneca quotes the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus to the effect that everything changes all the time, panta rhei. It follows that it is futile to get attached to things, including our own bodies. Enjoy what you have, but consider it a temporary loan from the cosmos.
LVIII.25: Seneca tells Lucilius that we need rest and relaxation, but we can exercise virtue even in our choice of how we relax and entertain ourselves. Consider how you refresh your mind, the next time you pick a movie or organize a vacation!
LVIII.26: Seneca tells Lucilius that he welcomes knowledge from all fields, not just philosophy. That’s why he wrote books on natural questions, including on the nature of comets, earthquakes, thunderstorms, and the causes of the flooding of the Nile.
LVIII.29: Seneca reminds us that we have some power to make our body last longer, by exercising temperance in our pleasures. Enjoy your next meal, just don’t over do it. And remember, Stoics drink wine, but they don’t get drunk.
LVIII.35: Seneca tells Lucilius that old age is natural and to be welcomed. So long as it maintains our mind in working order. If that’s not the case, then the Stoics prefer to exit through the open door, as virtue itself becomes impossible to practice.
LIX.8: Seneca says that the wise person (and, by extension, the practitioner of Stoicism) will deal with poverty, sorrow, disgrace or pain, because she is alert and fortified, ready to treat adversity as a way to improve her character.
LIX.10: Seneca reminds Lucilius that we can’t relegate our quest for becoming better persons to intervals between indulgences. It’s like going to the gym: you have to do it regularly and often, or you won’t get the benefits.
LIX.11: Seneca claims that flattery is a subtle enemy of our work toward becoming better persons. Too readily we agree with those who tell us that we are good, sensible, holy even. What’s a good attitude toward praise, then?
LIX.15: Seneca argues that we want joy in life, and we want it to last. And yet, we insist in seeking it in all the wrong places, from ephemeral pleasures to the fickle praise of others.
LIX.18: Let’s talk about the ancient Roman goddess Fortuna, or what the Greeks called Tyche, to whom Seneca often refers in his letters to Lucilius. Why does she play such an important role in Stoic philosophy?
LX.2: Seneca is critical of the fact that many ships are required to convey the requisites for a single meal, bringing them from no single sea. Still today so many people indulge in pleasures that cost a lot and cause much environmental damage. Time to revise our priorities about where our food comes from?
LX.4: Seneca reminds Lucilius that a full human life is about being useful, and particularly about helping others. Sure, you can withdraw from the world and live in peace, but then you are arguably already dead.
LXI.1: Seneca clarifies one of the famous Stoic paradoxes: no, you shouldn’t live every day as if it were your last. But you should live every day to the fullest because you don’t know which one will be your last.
LXI.4: Seneca says that for many people the furnishings of their lives are more than enough, but they keep wanting more, thus dooming themselves to unhappiness and turmoil.
LXII.1: Seneca suggests that we should change our attitude toward being busy: don’t surrender yourself to your affairs, but loan yourself to them and you will live a happier life.
LXII.2: Seneca reminds us that one of the simplest and cheapest of pleasures is to engage in a continuous conversation with the best minds humanity has ever produced. By reading a (good) book.
LXIII.1 & 4: Stoicism is often accused of counseling to suppress emotions. This quote from Seneca clearly shows it doesn’t. Then again, we don’t want to wallow in grief and let it paralyze us, because we have duties toward the living.
LXIII.7-8: Seneca says that we should greedily enjoy our loved ones, right now. Because we have no idea how long we will enjoy the privilege of their company and affection. Pay attention to the here and now.
LXIII.10: Seneca says that making friends is one way to counter the doings of Fortuna, because having friends is one of the great consolations in life, no matter what happens to us.
LXIII.15: Seneca says that we have no idea when Fortuna will take friends and loved ones away from us, so the sensible way to live our lives is to take full advantage of every moment we spend with them.
LXIV.5: Seneca is asking for trouble. Well, not exactly. But he reminds us that Stoicism is about constant practice, so we shouldn’t just be prepared to meet a challenge, but positively welcome it.
LXIV.9: Seneca suggests that we should remember and honor the people that have made positive contributions to humanity, and I add that perhaps, conversely, we should get away from modern “celebrity” culture.
LXV.24: Seneca is at peace with the notion of death, and in this episode we talk about why the Stoic attitude toward this natural process of cosmic recycling makes a lot of sense.
LXVI.12: Seneca tells us of one of the well known Stoic paradoxes (i.e., uncommon opinions): it is equally good to be joyful or to endure torture. How can we make sense of this? Find out in this episode.
LXVI.13: Seneca states the classic Stoic view that all virtues are aspects of a single underlying one: wisdom. In this episode we explore what that means in practice, every day.
LXVI.15: Seneca tells us that virtue lies in how you handle things, both good and bad. If you are sick, be gentle with those who are taking care of you. If you get a promotion, don’t brag to your colleagues. It’s the virtuous thing to do.
LXVI.19: Seneca says that it is natural to seek joy and avoid pain. But the virtue involved in both cases is the same. In the quote we examine today, then, there are a lot of crucial Stoic concepts to be parsed out.
LXVI.22: Seneca says that being rich does not make you a good person, nor does being poor make you a bad one. We then use this quote to explore the relationship between externals and virtue.
LXVI.24: Seneca says that one shouldn’t love a person because they are rich, or strong, but because they are virtuous. Which gets us into a discussion of the meaning of the word “axia,” referring to things that have value but are not crucial.
LXVI.32: Seneca gives a straightforward, simple, yet rich definition of virtue to his friend Lucilius. It has huge consequences for every one of us, every day.
LXVI.34: Seneca states the fundamental Stoic principle that the measure of a person has nothing to do with externals like wealth, health or good looks. It depends on one thing and one thing only: goodness of character.
LXVI.47: Seneca recounts the last, painful day, of the life of the rival philosopher Epicurus, who claimed that even that day he was happy. Which leads us into a discussion of what the Stoics and Epicureans meant by happiness.
LXVI.50: Seneca argues that, strange as it may seem, prosperity is to be endured, just as bad times are. It’s yet another Stoic “paradox,” of which we make sense in this episode.
LXVII.4: Illness is not something to look forward to, as Stoics are not mad. But it is a fact of life, and so it becomes a question of how we deal with it: by kicking and screming, or as a test of our virtue of temperance?
LXVII.10: Seneca argues that the four cardinal virtues are a tightly coordinated council, which makes the best possible decisions for us. In this episode we explore the Stoic concept of the unity of virtue, and make sense of it by analogy with going to the gym to improve our health.
LXVII.14: Seneca argues that tranquillity of mind is the result of an active, but realistic, engagement with the problems posed by life. By contrast, refusing to rise up to challenges simply leads to a flat and meaningless calm.
LXVIII.9: Seneca says to his friend Lucilius that he is no wise man or doctor, but rather an unwise and sick person. Which brings us to a discussion of Stoic humility and how it is that we can all make progress toward wisdom.
LXIX.3: Seneca gives some very commonsensical advice, backed up by modern psychological research, on how to best avoid temptation. Which leads us to a discussion of what we should avoid, and what, by contrast, we should seek out in order to act virtuously.
LXX.4: Seneca makes a point that is still controversial two millennia later. The important thing about life is not its length, but its quality. And it is up to the individual to judge the quality of her own life.
LXX.11: Seneca continues his discussion of suicide with his friend Lucilius, arguing that maintaining agency and exercising our judgments are fundamental ingredients of a good life. It follows that we should be in charge of when and how to quit.
LXX.14 & 15: Seneca elaborates on how the Stoics see suicide: nature gave us one entrance into life, but many exits. And it is the existence of these exits that guarantees our freedom.
LXXI.2: Seneca makes an argument for why we should adopt a philosophy of life (be it Stoicism or something else). It provides us a framework to make decisions and prioritize things. The rest is details.
LXXI.6: Seneca invites his friend Lucilius to consider that philosophy is too serious a business to be left only to professional philosophers, especially those who engage in clever wordplay and logic chopping just to show how smart they are.
LXXI.11: Seneca tells Lucilius how Cato, after losing an election, went out to play; and how, before taking his own life, he retired to his room to read a book. Stoicism isn’t just about enduring things, it’s about achieving serenity in the face of ill fortune.
LXXI.13-15: A quote from Seneca leads us into a discussion of the difference between Stoicism and modern philosophies of despair. For the Stoic, knowledge of the vastness of time and space is no excuse for nihilism, but simply a way to put things in perspective and get back to the task of living well.
LXXI.21: Seneca gives us another Stoic “paradox”: it may be better to be tortured than to sit at the dinner table. Well, not normally, but surely if you are being tortured to protect innocent lives, or sit at dinner with a tyrant. It all depends on context.
LXXI.29: We hear a lot of nonsense about Stoicism being tough and therefore only for men. But Seneca clearly explains that virtue doesn’t make us invulnerable to pain and suffering, and that women are just as capable as men to become virtuous. Go figure.
LXXI.30: Seneca tells Lucilius that he himself is far from being a wise person, which is as rare as the mythical phoenix. Nevertheless, we can all be “proficientes,” those who make progress. Which is the whole point of Stoic training.
LXXI.32: Seneca provides us with a very short and to the point summary of Stoic philosophy: virtue is the only good, it depends on our ability to reason correctly, and it leads to good judgment.
LXXI.36: The goal of Stoic training is to become a better person, not a perfect one. But the first step, as always in life, is to want to make progress. If you wish to better yourself, the game is afoot, you need to start now.
LXXI.37: Seneca says that he hasn’t conquered any enemy but his own greed, ambition, and fear of death. If more people, especially the leaders of the world, were to take that attitude, perhaps there would be no need to conquer enemies.
LXXII.3: Seneca makes the startling claim that philosophy is a lifelong commitment that cannot be indulged only in our spare time. He doesn’t mean academic studies, but rather practice, just like a Christian or Buddhist would do it.
LXXII.6: Seneca says that lacking wisdom is like being sick. Although we can imagine what it would be like to be perfectly healthy, in reality we can be happy if we manage to be less sick than before. That’s progress, folks!
LXXII.8: Seneca says that people are like dogs who eagerly await the next tasty morsel from Fortuna, swallow it quickly, then eagerly await the next one. Don’t be like a dog, that way lies perennial dissatisfaction with life.
LXXII.11: Seneca advises us to be careful how we spend our time, and especially how we respond to other people’s demands for it. Life is short, surely you won’t regret, on your deathbed, not having attended one more useless office meeting…
LXXIII.3: Seneca warns us against ambition, understood not as the will to accomplish things, but as the pursuit of fame, money, and power. Modern politicians should be like Cato the Younger, not Alcibiades.
LXXIII.12: Seneca states very clearly that wealth is an indifferent, in Stoic terms. It can be pursued if it allows us to do good, but it should be avoided if it corrupts our moral fiber, making us greedy toward luxury and power.
LXXIV.1: Seneca explains that if our happiness depends on externals, like fame or money, we are in the hands of Fortuna, who could take those things away at any moment. But if we are happy because we are good, then Fortuna is powerless.
LXXIV.7: Seneca conjures a vivid image of the goddess Fortuna showering mortals with gifts, which are ruined by the eager crowd, or badly used, and that at any rate do not produce happiness. That’s because people lack wisdom, necessary to truly enjoy Fortuna’s gifts.
LXXIV.17-18: Seneca gives a splendidly clear and cogent description of the Stoic concept of preferred “indifferents,” external things that are not under our complete control, and which Fortuna can take away at any moment.
LXXIV.21: eneca warmly invites us to love reason, which will arm us against the greatest hardships. These days, though, reason doesn’t have a great reputation. Find out why we should go back to it.
LXXIV.27: Seneca reminds us that a life can be virtuous regardless of its length. And since we have no idea how long we are going to live, the question is: what are you going to do between now and then?
LXXIV.28: Seneca tells us that virtue can be present at all levels, from nations to individuals, and in all circumstances, from wealth to poverty. Let’s find out what, precisely, the Stoics meant by virtue and why it’s so important.
LXXIV.31: Seneca reminds us that those who study philosophy are human beings, subject to the physiological responses and emotions of the case. The difference is in how they reflect on and react to circumstances.
LXXIV.34: Seneca reminds us that the past is not under our control, and neither is the future. Our only locus of action is the present, and that’s where our attention should be.
LXXV.7: Stoicism is a practical philosophy, but how does that work, exactly? Not very differently from the practice of religions like Christianity and Buddhism. Find out in this episode!
LXXV.11: Seneca says that people arrive at wrong judgments about what is valuable or desirable, and a major goal of Stoic training is, accordingly, to make us less unwise about values and desires.
LXXVI.6: Seneca already understood two millennia ago that there is no such thing as a self-made man, because luck is needed for externals. But not in order to be virtuous.
LXXVI.12: In this episode we explore a quote from Seneca presenting the Stoic argument for why virtue is the only true good. And if it is, then shouldn’t you pursue it above all else?
LXXVI.14-15: Seneca explains that there are certain attributes of things and people that are important, and others that are irrelevant. Somehow, we keep focusing on the irrelevant ones.
LXXVI.21: Seneca tells us that virtue is useful not just in order to handle bad fortune, but also, counter intuitively, to deal with good fortune.
LXXVI.31: Seneca uses a beautiful analogy to argue that some people may look impressive while they aren’t, and other people truly are impressive and yet remain overlooked.
LXXVI.34: Today’s quote from Seneca is the root of the modern Stoic technique of premeditatio malorum, a meditation in which we try to get mentally prepared to tackle adversity.
LXXVII.4: Seneca argues that life is not like a journey. Whenever it is interrupted it is a whole life, if we have been living it virtuously.
LXXVII.8: Seneca recalls an ancient Roman custom according to which the host of a banquet would distribute gifts to his friends at the end. Consider doing the same after your life has ended.
LXXVII.11: Seneca points out that people regret not being alive a thousand years from now, and yet are not bothered by the thought of not having been alive for the past thousand years.
LXXVII.20: Seneca uses a metaphor that later became famous with Shakespeare: life is like a play, so what counts is not its length, but how well we act our parts.
LXXVIII.4: The Stoics, the Epicureans, and Aristotle all agreed on one thing: friends are important. In this episode we talk about why, and how the Stoics differ from the other two schools on this topic.
LXXVIII.13: Seneca tells us that our happiness, or lack thereof, is a matter of our own opinion. No, he’s not making a relativist or post-modernist argument on the nature of knowledge.
LXXVIII.14: Seneca reminds us that to indulge in regret is irrational, as the past is outside of our control. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it, though.
LXXVIII.16: Seneca reminds us that athletes willingly subject themselves to harsh regimes in order to succeed. But when it comes to becoming a better person most of us think it’s just too difficult.
LXXVIII.18: A contemporary theory of consciousness, proposed by philosopher Jesse Prinz, recalls Seneca’s treatment of the emotions, and teaches us how to avert painful thoughts by focusing on the good things that happen to us.
LXXVIII.21: Seneca reminds us that courage is not just for the battlefield, but for the everyday difficulties of life, like being sick.
LXXVIII.22: Seneca says that doing without things for a while renews our appreciation for them. In this episode we examine five exercises in mild self-deprivation guaranteed to reset your hedonic treadmill.
LXXVIII.29: Seneca reminds us that it may be just as difficult to deal with good fortune as with the bad variety. Regardless, everything life throws at us is an opportunity to exercise our virtue.
LXXX.3: Seneca reminds us that the tools for becoming a better person are simple and inexpensive. In this episode we discuss the three basic tools of the Stoic practitioner.
LXXX.5: Seneca agrees with Epicurus: fear of death and poverty is crippling, and we need to work toward overcoming it.
LXXX.10: Seneca gets to the bottom line of Stoic philosophy: If you wish to set a value on yourself, put away your money, your estates, your honors, and look into your own character.
LXXXI.19: If the Pope or the Dalai Lama say that being good is its own reward, usually people take it at face value. But if a Stoic says it, they demand logical proof. Let’s discuss this.
LXXXI.25: Seneca reminds us that we should interpret other people’s actions and words in a generous manner, instead of conjuring the worst possible scenario. It is, after all, the way we would like to be treated.
LXXXII.11: In our 300th episode we look at how Seneca very clearly separates Stoicism (the philosophy) from stoicism (the attitude of going through life with a stiff upper lip).
LXXXII.15: Seneca reminds us that there is a difference among the so-called indifferents. Life, health, and education, for instance, are a bit more highly ranked than your favorite gelato flavor.
LXXXII.24: Seneca reminds us that logic is crucial in order to figure out how to live a good life. But logic chopping is actually deleterious to it.
LXXXIII.2: Seneca reminds us that — although we live in the here and now — we profit from reflecting on our mistakes, so long as we do not indulge emotionally on them. Regret is not a Stoic value. Learning is.
LXXXIV.1: Seneca gives this most sensical of advices: read books by others, especially if they disagree with you. Turns out, it’s a good way to improve our judgments of things, a major goal of Stoic training.
LXXXIV.2: Seneca suggests that we should alternate between reading and writing in order to truly understand and internalize new concepts. Which, of course, is yet another way to achieve a major goal of Stoic training: arrive at better and better judgments.
LXXXIV.10: Seneca draws a beautiful analogy between the harmonious sounds of an orchestra and the harmonious thinking of a well structured mind.
LXXXV.9: Seneca directly takes on the Peripatetics, followers of Aristotle, and criticizes their notion that virtue always lies in the middle. Some things, like insanity, or anger, are not good even in small quantities.
LXXXV.29: Seneca dispels the stereotype of Stoics as going through life with a stiff upper lip. Stoic training doesn’t insulate us from sufferings. It gives us tools to deal with suffering.
LXXXV.33-34: Seneca uses a sailing metaphor to remind us that hardship in life, just like a storm at sea, is what truly tests our virtue, as the storm tests the pilot’s skills.
LXXXV.40: Seneca brings up a parallel between the life of virtue and the art of a sculptor like Phidias. Just like a good sculptor will make the best art that the materials at his disposal permit, so we can be good human beings regardless of the specific circumstances of our lives.
LXXXVII.1: Seneca says that his life’s journey taught him that much of what we possess is superfluous, and indeed positively gets in the way of living a good life. He ought to know, as we discuss in this episode.
LXXXVII.12: Seneca builds a simple argument to show that random events, like winning a lottery, are actually not good for you, despite appearances to the contrary.
LXXXVII.15: Seneca constructs another logical argument to make the point that wealth is not an intrinsic good. Rather, it is how it is used that can be good or bad. Know any virtuous billionaires, by chance?
LXXXVII.23: In a rather forceful passage Seneca makes a strong political statement, referring to Roman imperialism as “sacrilege on a grand scale.” Unfortunately, two millennia later, we still honor that sort of sacrilege, which flies in the face of the virtue of justice and the concept of cosmopolitanism.
LXXXVIII.38: Seneca says that it causes far too much discomfort to the ears of others to be recognized as a learned person. Better for us and everyone else to be recognized as a good person.
LXXXVIII.42: Seneca criticizes the tendency of some philosophers to spend a lot of time trying to develop more careful ways of speaking, at the expense of figuring out more careful ways of living.
LXXXIX.9: Seneca summarizes the reasons why to live a good life (the domain of Ethics) one has to learn how to reason well (Logic) and how to better understand the world (Physics).
XC.26: Seneca says it no uncertain terms: it is not wisdom that contrives arms, or walls, or instruments useful in war; nay, her voice is for peace, and she summons all mankind to concord.
XC.28: Seneca provides us with one of the best definitions of wisdom. Let’s see what it means, and how to apply it to our daily life.
XC.44,46: Seneca reminds us that although some people are naturally more virtuous than others, and that much depends on our family upbringing, we are capable of making rational decisions as adults. So make the decision to practice every day to become a better human being.
XCI.15: Seneca, building on the Stoic concept of universal causation, reminds us that we don’t get to say how the universe works. Our only choices are to accept it (and work within it), or take “the open door,” as Epictetus puts it.
XCI.18: Seneca says that Nature does not discriminate, it hands out suffering and death to everyone, eventually. But we can still make our life better by developing equanimity toward what we cannot change while trying to change what we can.
XCII.3: Seneca talks about a major “side effect,” so to speak, of the Stoic stance: achieving tranquillity of mind through the development of an attitude of equanimity.
XCII.11: Seneca provides a very clear explanation of the Stoic distinction between virtue and external things, leading to the surprising conclusion that even health is not an unquestionable good.
XCII.13: Seneca uses the analogy of a scabbard and a sword to remind us that external goods, like wealth or health, are indeed preferable, but only in a limited fashion. What’s truly important is the shape of our character.
XCII.18: Seneca says that when negative developments affect our lives, virtue is like the sun behind a cloud: it keeps shining, and eventually dissipates the clouds.
XCIII.2: Seneca uses the dichotomy of control to get us to move away from our obsession with living longer, and toward paying attention to living better.
XCIII.10: Seneca points out that it doesn’t matter if there is no continuation of life after death. Just like British comedian Ricky Gervais did recently in his series, aptly entitled “After Life.”
XCIV.3: Modern Stoic Larry Becker, building on Seneca, advises us to approach the problems we encounter not one at a time, but within the context of our life treated as a whole dynamic project.
XCIV.25: Seneca says that we should remind ourselves of things we know, because all too often we don’t pay attention to them.
XCIV.40: Seneca reminds us that it is important to associate with good people. Their goodness is both an inspiration and a guide to make ourselves better human beings.
XCIV.67: Seneca tells us something that may appear to be a no-brainer, and yet is difficult to apply: never believe that you can be happy through the unhappiness of another.
XCV.30: Seneca writes words about the foolishness of war that were surprisingly modern for his time, and unfortunately very much still pertinent to us today.
XCV.31: Continuing his criticism of the state’s war machine, Seneca exhorts us to prosecute our politicians and generals for the crimes they commit in our own name.
XCV.41: Seneca echoes the advice of Musonius Rufus when he says that we don’t need to pay for extravagant meals with ingredients brought from all over the world. Every time we sit at the table to eat we have a chance to exercise temperance.
XCV.52: Seneca says that it is natural for us to be virtuous. Modern scientists say that it is natural for us to be prosocial. Either way, it is reason that allows us to expand our instinctive circles of ethical concern.
XCVI.2: Seneca uses an interesting economic analogy to remind us that the privilege of being alive comes with the tax of suffering setbacks and losses. Understanding this helps us to cope with problems and even to look forward to them as further exercises in virtue.
XCVI.3: Seneca uses a colorful analogy between life and a journey. Sure, we’d like to live longer, but when the journey is longer a number of unpleasant things are bound to happen, like rain and mud. Just bring good gear with you for the trip.
XCVIII.2: Seneca, differing from Epictetus in a metaphysical sense, says that the universe is – as we would put it – morally neutral to us. What matters, then, is how we handle so-called “good” and “bad” things.
XCVIII.8: Seneca reminds us that the future is not under our control, and that the best way to prepare for it is to act here and now, where we actually have causal efficacy.
XCVIII.12: Seneca lists an impressive gallery of ancient Roman role models, who have done brave things to safeguard their ideals. Surely, then, we can find the courage to overcome our comparatively small problems in everyday life, no?
XCVIII.17: Seneca suggests we pick a role model to help us become better persons. This ancient practice actually gets some empirical confirmation from modern psychology. So, who’s your model, and why?
XCIX.10: Here is Seneca’s version of an exercise most often associated with Marcus Aurelius: when you feel overwhelmed by your problems, take a minute to consider a broader perspective. When your mind is calmer, come back to earth and tackle the problems.
XCIX.12: Seneca says that good and evil are not in the world per se, but in our judgments about the world, and the actions we take as a consequence of those judgments. Which is why training ourselves to arrive at better judgments is so crucial.
XCIX.15: Seneca talks to his friend Lucilius about how to console the bereaved, dispelling the stereotype of Stoics as individuals who go through life with a stiff upper lip.
XCIX.29-30: Seneca agrees with Epicurus: there is no sense in fearing what happens after death, since we won’t be there to experience it. Therefore, we should not allow religious and political authorities to manipulate us through that fear.
CI.7: Seneca reminds us that we do not actually know when “the remorseless law of Fate” has fixed the time of our death. Therefore, we should prioritize what’s important, postpone nothing, and balance our life’s account every day.
CII.30: In which I compare my adoptive grandfather to Cato the Younger. Not because he fought battles against tyrants, but because he was a decent and kind human being.
CIII.1: Seneca reminds us that our fellow human beings aren’t always trustworthy or well intentioned. Nevertheless, we have a duty to treat others, and ourselves, with forgiveness, to be helpful when we can, and to endure when we cannot.
CIII.3: Seneca reminds us how to behave with fellow human beings, but also that, from a Stoic perspective, what is and is not to be valued (one’s good and bad judgments) is not quite what most people value, focused as they often are on externals.
CIV.3: Seneca dispels the stereotype of Stoics going through life with a stiff upper lip by explicitly advocating suffering for those we love. What marks the Stoic is not that she doesn’t suffer, but how she handles suffering.
CIV.7: As Socrates said to someone who was complaining that traveling brought him no benefits: “It serves you right! You travelled in your own company!”
CIV.16-17: Seneca continues his analysis of the relationship between traveling and self-improvement. While there are good reasons to travel (leisure and learning), self-improvement isn’t one of them, because that requires critical reflection, wherever one happens to be.
CIV.21: Want to become a better person? Forget about traveling, since you will bring with you the same problems you are trying to flee. Read a good book instead, enter in conversation with the best minds humanity has produced across time.
CIV.33: Seneca discusses the grand example of Cato the Younger, his favorite role model. But even in ordinary life we can be courageous and just, if we pay attention to what we are doing and why.
CV.1: Seneca gives a disturbing list of reasons why we kill each other. Most of them are precisely the kind of negative emotions that Stoic training is attempting to move away from.
CV.7: Seneca explains why not doing wrong is your best bet toward achieving serenity of mind. Of course, it’s also the virtuous thing to do.
CVI.1: Seneca anticipates modern social psychological research in arguing that keeping oneself busy for the sake of being busy does not lead to happiness. On the contrary.
CVII.2: Seneca uses a metaphor of life as a journey, or as a trip to the thermal baths, to make the point that obstacles will be thrown our way, either on purpose or by accident. The question is: how do we deal with them?
CVII.3: Seneca talks about the premeditatio malorum, an exercise that allows us to be mentally prepared for possible negative outcomes of our action. The key to it is to engage your reasoning faculty, not your emotional reactions.
CVII.5: Seneca reminds us that, regardless of how terrible a problem or event appears to be right now, plenty of others have gone through something similar before. They can be an inspiration to us to overcome whatever is happening in the same way.
CVII.9: Is Stoicism about going through life with a stiff upper lip? No, but enduring what cannot be changed is part of the philosophy. Modern Stoic Larry Becker called it the “axiom of futility.”
CVIII.4: Seneca says that associating ourselves with a philosopher we cannot help but learning something that may change our lives. So today try to get a friend or relative into philosophy. You’ll be doing some good for the whole human cosmopolis.
CVIII.6-7: Seneca briefly tells us both how to approach philosophy, and how not to. Are you a passive consumer of the stuff, or are you looking to become a better human being?
CVIII.16: Seneca and Epictetus agree: the best way to resist temptation is to avoid it altogether, because it’s hard to practice temperance, at least initially. Modern cognitive science agrees.
CVIII.18: Seneca says that we have enough sustenance without resorting to blood, and that a habit of cruelty is formed whenever butchery is practiced for pleasure. Something to meditate on a bit.
CVIII.23: Seneca says that some people are interested in studying philosophy not to improve their souls, but to sharpen their wits. Time to reflect on what, exactly, we are doing and why.
CIX.1: Think of practicing philosophy as going to the gym: sure, you can do a lot on your own. But if you choose a good partner to keep you focused on the task, you’ll see more steady improvement. So, who’s your virtue buddy?
CIX.15: Seneca advises Lucilius to think, but not to worry, about the future. It is reasonable to plan for things to come and to act in the best way possible. So long as we don’t delude ourselves into thinking that we actually control outcomes.
CX.12: Seneca says that being able to do without luxuries is but a small and easy step toward virtue. And yet so many of us have much trouble taking that step. Have you?
CXI.4: Philosophers can be clever. Too clever for their own sake, suggests Seneca. Indeed, one measure of wisdom is precisely the ability to tell the difference between cleverness and usefulness.
CXIII.26: Human beings have an unparalleled ability to communicate with each other. And yet, Seneca suggests, much of the time we talk about things that are neither improving ourselves, nor making the world a better place.
CXIII.27: Seneca explains that courage has little to do with rushing into battle to face an enemy. It’s about how we handle the good and the bad that Fortuna throws our way. Also, wanna play ball with Socrates?
CXIII.29: Seneca reminds us that Alexander the Great conquered everything, except his own destructive emotions, which led to endless grief for him and his friends. Beware, therefore, of reacting in anger to your problems.
CXIII.32: Seneca reminds us that striving to be a better person is an end in itself, not to be pursued in order to boast to others of our accomplishments.
CXIV.9-11: Seneca, who knew a thing or two about wealth, warns us about pursuing it. A mind that revels in luxury, he says, is a mind that has lost its balance.
CXV.9: Seneca reminds us that in the time of Nero – just like today – famous, rich and powerful people are hiding much evil under a thin coating of titles.
CXV.10: We have become alternately merchants and merchandise, and we ask, not what a thing truly is, but what it costs.
CXVI.1: One of the major differences between Stoics and Aristotelians has always been the treatment of disruptive emotions, such as anger and fear. They are helpful, in small measure, for Aristotle, but definitely to avoid for the Stoics.
CXVI.8: We are in love with our vices; we uphold them and prefer to make excuses for them rather than shake them off. The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability.
CXVII.9: The Stoic concept of preferred and dispreferred indifferents always gets people confused or, the other common human response to lack of understanding, scoffing.
CXVII.32: Nature has not given us such a generous and free-handed space of time that we can have the leisure to waste any of it.
CXVIII.4: Fortune sometimes favors villains and turns against good people. That’s why our happiness should depend on our own decisions, not the vagaries of chance.
CXVIII.7: People think that externals are good, and then, after having won their wish, and suffered much, they find them evil, or empty, or less important than they had expected.
CXVIII.11: Here is a basic Stoic equation: external thing or activity + virtue = good, while its opposite is: external thing or activity + vice = bad. So, is your profession good or bad, according to this approach?
CXIX.4: We take a lot of things for granted, when life is going well for us. But — fools that we are — we really appreciate what we had only once we’ve lost it. That’s why the Stoics devised a series of exercises in mild self-deprivation.
CXIX.6: He who has much, desires more – a proof that he has not yet acquired enough; but he who has enough has attained that which never fell to the rich man’s lot – a stopping-point.
CXIX.15: Externals — such as money, possessions, and the like — are how we exercise our virtue, which cannot be expressed in a vacuum. And one of the four cardinal virtues is temperance.
CXX.3: The Stoics regard nothing as good which can be put to wrong use by any person. And we can all see for ourselves to what wrong uses many people put their riches, their high position, or their physical powers.
CXX.4-5: The Stoics understood what bodily health is, and from that they deduced the existence of a certain mental health also. They knew about bodily strength, and from that they inferred the existence of mental sturdiness.
CXX.8: There are, as you know, vices which are next-door to virtues. Carelessness looks like ease, and rashness like bravery.
CXX.11: Desires have to be reined in, fear to be suppressed, proper actions to be arranged, debts to be paid; we therefore include self-restraint, bravery, prudence, and justice among the virtues – assigning to each quality its special function.
CXXI.3: Philosophers have debated for millennia the nature of ethics. Is it arbitrary? Or are there universal moral laws that we can apprehend through reason? Neither, say the Stoics. Theirs is a thoroughly naturalistic philosophy.
CXXII.17: It’s relatively easy to stay on the right track by following simple methods, but there are countless ways to go wrong if we don’t pay attention. Here are three basic rules from Stoic philosophy to keep your life on the right track.
CXXIII.1: Nothing need provoke our anger if we do not add to our pile of troubles by getting angry.
CXXIII.2: “Bad bread!” you say. But just wait for it; it will become good. Hunger will make even such bread delicate and of the finest flavor. And the same goes for any other external thing, whether a necessity or a luxury.
CXXIII.3: To have whatsoever they wish is not in people’s power; it is in their power not to wish for what they have not, but cheerfully to employ what comes to them.
CXXIII.6: How many things are superfluous; we merely used them not because we needed them, but because we had them. How much do we acquire simply because our neighbors have acquired such things, or because most people possess them!
CXXIII.9: Just like a catchy tune won’t leave your mind easily, once it has gained access, so with thoughts of unvirtuous actions. So don’t grant them entrance in the first place.
CXXIV.2: Avoiding pain and seeking pleasure comes natural to human beings. But, so argue the Stoics, being prosocial is even more fundamental to our nature as social animals.
CXXIV.7: And what is this Good? I shall tell you: it is a free mind, an upright mind, subjecting other things to itself and itself to nothing.