I am a great fan of Seneca. Well, yes, occasionally. Especially
in summer, when I try to practice (rather than study) him. Just
in case you don't know him: Lucius Annaeus Seneca was
a Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman, born in Cordoba in
Spain but educated and living in Rome around 1-65 AD (the exact
dates are unknown). He made himself a name as a writer of tragedies
and popular writings on the good and right life, but also as
an (involuntary) temporary educator of the later Roman Emperor
Nero, whose reputation, of course, is not the best, to put it
mildly. It is to Seneca's credit that Nero ultimately ordered
him to commit suicide on charges of conspiracy against the emperor;
which he did, in the Stoic manner he had been teaching others.
much (or little) you probably should know about Seneca's life,
some 2000 years ago. But I don't want to take you back in time
to days long past. I want you to enjoy your summer holiday.
Summer is here, it is certainly a good idea to try and gain
some distance from our usual preoccupations with work and life.
Step back, breathe deeply, let go. It is to this end that I
like, occasionally, to turn to Seneca. More precisely, to two
delightful – and delightfully thin – books that most of the
time are dormant on my shelf and which contain a selection of
Seneca's essays, among them De brevitate vitae (On the
shortness of life) and De tranquillitate animi (On tranquility
of mind). Reading Seneca is easy and relaxing. He does not try
to construct any kind of theory but writes from within a Stoic
framework of thought that he takes for granted (no need to argue),
so he can apply it directly to questions of how to practice
a Stoic way of life. He formulates his thoughts and recommendations
in the style of letters to family members or friends, or of
dialogues with people he knows. Moreover, you don't need to
do much reading to get a sense of what Seneca is writing about
– the titles of his essays are often the best summaries.
be sure, it might be tempting to explore Seneca's view of philosophy
as a practice rather than theory. However, at this time of the
year I have no intention to exchange one kind of academic writing
for another. I want us to take Seneca more seriously than that:
I want you and me to try and practice him. The idea is
to take something like a temporary philosophical (or academic,
professional, ...) holiday, by stepping back and gaining some
sound distance from the usual philosophical, academic or professional
efforts. It is not easy, of course, to "switch off"
and forget one's philosophical and professional interests and
attitudes for a while, nor should we – no more than one can
and should suddenly forget one's moral principles, or one's
responsibilities as a citizen or one's professional expertise.
Thus seen, we obviously cannot take a "philosophical holiday"
any more than a "citizen's holiday" or a holiday from
our professional knowledge and responsibilities (e.g.,
a doctor remains a doctor and will offer medical help even while
on holiday if the situation demands it). But again, the point
is not to exchange one idea for the other. The point is to seek
a healthier balance between the vita activa and the vita
contemplativa than we may manage to maintain most of the
year; to correct their usual lack of balance so that they can
better support one another. This is what I mean when I suggest
to take a "philosophical holiday," that is, to exchange
philosophical argument for contemplation; academic writing for
reading; professional pressures for distance.
how should I translate such contemplation into my summer Bimonthly,
which after all is still a written Bimonthly? And
how might I engage you, my esteemed reader, in this kind of
philosophical practice, the practice of recovering some distance?
Just as I don't feel like constructing a theoretical argument
or in any case writing a lot, I assume you don't feel like being
talked at so much during your summer holiday. My solution is
to offer two short quotes from Seneca's essays, without
however commenting on them in any detail except some most rudimentary
hints. That is, I offer them as short aphorisms and for the
rest will leave it to you whether and in what ways you
take them as impetus for practicing contemplation, and about
what exactly they may have you reflect.
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
De tranquillitate animi
– on peace of mind Among
far over 100 letters and dialogues that Seneca wrote about ethical
questions, this one, written around 60 AD, is addressed to Annäus
Serenus, a friend who at the time was a prefect of the Emperor's
guard. It may be Seneca's best known and most widely read essay
nowadays. Although written in a rather long-winded and repetitious
style that does not immediately appeal to us today, its topic
certainly does: How can we acquire and maintain some
peace of mind in this troubled world of ours? Seneca's
answer, basically, will not surprise you: one must practice
what is "it"? Perhaps the title of the German translation
of the essay is helpful: it reads "Von der Seelenruhe,"
which means tranquility of the soul. I find this translation
more beautiful, more engaging. It also comes closer to the root
meaning of the Latin word animus (spirit, soul). Here
is Seneca's definition of tranquillitas animi (in Section
II.4 of the essay, my free translation from the Latin and German
maintain serenity without getting exuberant in joy or cast
down in sadness, this will be tranquility of mind.
what Seneca has in mind is a state of mental tranquility that
goes together with confidence and serenity. Serenity
may be the key: it implies a certain detachment from
the details and pressures of our usual preoccupations with work
and life, a detachment that affords us both clarity of mind
(due to gaining some distance) and a sense of cheerfulness
or contentment (due to worrying less).
I understand Seneca, a thus-understood tranquility of mind is at
the same time an ideal to strive for and
a means to achieve it at least partly. The way
is the aim – the quest for the kind of virtuous happiness that
the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia or
"well-being of the soul."
vitae – on the shortness of life This
essay, written in 49 AD and addressed to a friend, Paulinus,
is famous for an aphorism that actually goes back to Hippocrates:
"Vita brevis, ars longa," or "life is short and
the art is long." (De brevitate vitae, section 1.2).
Another well-known quote from this essay is this:
"It is not that we lack time, but we waste much of it."
(1.3) However, the quote that I have chosen for my reflection
during this summer is a different one. It reads:
people really at leisure are those who take time for philosophy.
Seneca's words: "Soli omnium otiosi sunt qui sapientiae
vacant" (De brevitate vitae, section 14.1), or literally
translated: "Only those who are free to dedicate
themselves to philosophy (the study of wisdom) are really at
leisure." My philosophical holiday, then, is leading me
right back to philosophy rather than away from it, it appears,
just as I hoped it would. The same holds undoubtedly true for
any effort to take some distance from one's usual academic or
professional activities: it makes us see those activities
more – not less – clearly. Thank you, Seneca, for this piece
of good holiday news.
me try to sum up, lest I waste your holiday time any more. Taking
the two quotes together, it would seem that "taking time
for philosophy" as Seneca understands it, and at the same
time taking a "philosophical holiday" as I have described
it, is not a contradiction in itself. Both aim at gaining distance;
both also imply that we take the time needed for practicing
tranquility of mind. The quest for distance (or serenity, to
use Seneca's term) is certainly essential for gaining peace
of mind (and of the soul), just as it can also be a way
to increasing one's professional competence and personal happiness.
There is no guarantee, to be sure, but isn't it worth trying?
Whether it works for you, only you can give the answer. No need
to continue talking at you, then. Instead, I sign off with this
combined motto of Seneca:
tranquility – take time for philosophy.
your summer. May it be a summer of serenity; of leisure; of