I’ve been listening to an audiobook of the letters of Seneca. I started listening to it when Kelly and I visited Italy over a year ago. It was pretty remarkable to be standing in the Pantheon at the exact moment when Seneca (or the guy reading the text anyway) made mention of the Pantheon as if he had been there a thousand times.
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Seneca himself brushing past me in a toga (or whatever real Romans actually wore, as opposed to movie Romans) amid the hustle and bustle of senators, citizens, and other masses, lit by nothing other than sunlight from the Occulus (a huge circular skylight in the domed ceiling) that still lights it today.
Between the Chinese tourists and senior citizens in khaki shorts, polos, and Hawaiian shirts, it was tough to imagine. Luckily enough, it rained on the day we went, so we got to see the majestic sight of rain pouring down through the Occulus.
I put down the audiobook after the trip as other matters took priority in my headspace. But I’ve picked it back up, and since the sale of the business, it has whole new layers of meaning.
Seneca was a leading thinker of the “Stoic” philosophy, named after the “Stoa” or “steps,” referring to the steps of the senate where the early stoics meant. Stoicism has of course passed into everyday English use to describe someone who suffers in silence and perseveres through hardship.
I learned a little about Stoicism in high school and in college. Classes usually framed the philosophy in contrast to “Epicurianism,” named after its chief proponent Epicurus. Epicureanism was the opposite of Stoicism – the idea that life was to be lived for pleasure.
Naturally, high school and college Ben identified more with Epicureanism than Stoicism. It sounded a lot more fun.
One of the things that cracks me up about Seneca’s letters, is that he frequently references Epicurus. It’s amazing to hear him talk about a man whose name still has adjectival meaning enshrined in today’s language, as if he was a guy he just knew from the scene. Even more amazing, half the time he flat out disses Epicurus, calling him out as effeminate and silly. To be expected, I guess, considering that their philosophies were diametrically opposed. The other half of the time, though, he quotes Epicurus favorably to underline one of his own points. When he does this, he usually tells the recipient (a guy named Lucillius) something along the lines of “I’m sure you are surprised that I am quoting Epicurus to prove my point, but wisdom is wisdom, wherever it comes from.” Though he usually can’t resist a final little dig – “Anyway, words of wisdom belong to all men, not just the one who speaks it.” Take that, you poncy playboy …
So yeah … Epicureanism seems great, until you contemplate losing everything. Epicurus doesn’t have a response to that. Will Kelly and I blow through the proceeds of the business sale like butter? Will we buy a huge house and a Lambourghini and fly first-class around the world, chasing a high we can never attain? Will we be destitute and scrabbling a year from now, having tasted the good life and lost it, like one of those guys who wins the lottery and is back at his old cubicle job five years later, having blown the fortune?
We’ve been very careful, counting our blessings and trying not to change to much. But with nothing changed, you start to realize – it’s great not to have panic about money in our lives, but we haven’t been panicked about money for awhile now – the business was doing great, and the sale was more to free up time.
If we turned into completely different people – insatiable spendthrifts, essentially – we could kill the money cushion … but for now, with a surplus of money and time, the question becomes …
… are we really happier, living for pleasure or sensation?
That’s where Seneca’s exhortation to devote yourself to learning, wisdom, and study start to resonate. To practice poverty and fasting so that the real thing doesn’t carry the terror it once did.
Of course, Seneca’s vision is inherently morbid, focused on how we will all die and the glory of meeting death with grace. He himself pissed off the wrong person, Emperor Caligula, and was ordered by the Emperor to commit suicide. Drinking a glass of hemlock was apparently out of fashion, so he obeyed in the fashion of his time – cutting his wrists. But apparently he was so old that his heart couldn’t do the job of expelling the blood fast enough. It was reportedly a long and painful process.
Cicero was executed too. It almost makes you wonder whether it was worth being one of the great thinkers of ancient Rome.
I’m down to adopt more stoicism in my life, but not to the point of accepting execution. It’s important to have limits.