Seneca’s On Tranquillity of Mind

A series of short audio meditations on Seneca’s On Tranquillity of Mind, inspired by a book on the same topic written by Democritus around 400 BCE, and in turn inspiring Plutarch shortly thereafter.

I: Seneca explains that he prefers simple cloths and easily prepared food, not the kind that “goes out of the body by the same path by which it came in.”

I: I will obey the maxims of our school and plunge into public life, not because the purple robe attracts me, but in order that I may be able to be of use to my friends, my relatives, to all my countrymen, and indeed to all mankind.

II: What you desire, to be undisturbed, is a great thing, nay, the greatest thing of all, and one which raises a man almost to the level of a god.

II: Hence men undertake aimless wanderings and travel along distant shores, trying to soothe that fickleness of disposition which always is dissatisfied with the present. As Lucretius says: “Thus every mortal from himself does flee.”

II: How long are we to go on doing the same thing?

III: Seneca explains that there are many ways to help improve the human cosmopolis: one can be a candidate for public office, a defense lawyer, or a teacher. Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus encouraged involvement in politics, but where themselves teachers.

III: Often a man who is very old in years has nothing beyond his age by which he can prove that he has lived a long time.

IV: The services of a good citizen are never thrown away: he does good by being heard and seen, by his expression, his gestures, his silent determination, and his very walk.

V: We ought therefore, to expand or contract ourselves according as the state of things presents itself to us, or as Fortune offers us opportunities.

VI: We ought first to examine our own selves, next the business which we propose to transact, next those for whose sake or in whose company we transact it.

VII: No good is done by forcing one’s mind to engage in uncongenial work: it is vain to struggle against Nature.

VII: We should choose for our friends those who are, as far as possible, free from strong desires: for vices are contagious, and pass from someone to their neighbor, and injure those who touch them.

VIII: If you compare all the other ills from which we suffer—deaths, sicknesses, fears, regrets, endurance of pains and labors—with those miseries which our money inflicts upon us, the latter will far outweigh all the others.

VIII: The best amount of property to have is that which is enough to keep us from poverty, and which yet is not far removed from it.

IX: Let us accustom ourselves to set aside mere outward show, and to measure things by their uses, not by their ornamental trappings.

IX: What is the use of possessing numberless books and libraries, whose titles their owner can hardly read through in a lifetime? A student is over-whelmed by such a mass, not instructed, and it is much better to devote yourself to a few writers than to skim through many.

X: In every station of life you will find amusements, relaxations, and enjoyments; that is, provided you be willing to make light of evils rather than to hate them.

XI: For by looking forward to everything which can happen as though it would happen to us, we take the sting out of all evils, which can make no difference to those who expect it and are prepared to meet it. … Disease, captivity, disaster, conflagration, are none of them unexpected: I always knew with what disorderly company Nature had associated me. … Ought I to be surprised if the dangers which have always been circling around me at last assail me?

XII: The next point to these will be to take care that we do not labour for what is vain, or labour in vain: that is to say, neither to desire what we are not able to obtain, nor yet, having obtained our desire too late, and after much toil, to discover the folly of our wishes: in other words, that our labour may not be without result, and that the result may not be unworthy of our labour.

XII: We must limit the running to and fro which most people practice, rambling about houses, theaters, and marketplaces. They mind other peoples’ business, and always seem as though they themselves had something to do. If you ask them as they come out of their own door, “Whither are you going?” they will answer, “By Hercules, I do not know: but I shall see some people and do some things.”

XIII: He who does many things often puts himself in Fortune’s power, and it is safest not to tempt her often, but always to remember her existence, and never to promise oneself anything on her security. I will set sail unless anything happens to prevent me; I shall be praetor, if nothing hinders me; my financial operations will succeed, unless anything goes wrong with them.

XIII: Zeno, the chief of our school, when he heard the news of a shipwreck, in which all his property had been lost, remarked, “Fortune bids me follow philosophy in lighter marching order.”

XIV: We ought therefore to bring ourselves into such a state of mind that all the vices of the vulgar may not appear hateful to us, but merely ridiculous, and we should imitate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. The latter of these, whenever he appeared in public, used to weep, the former to laugh.

XVII: It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze. Sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine.