Seneca on the happiness of meditation, and on freedom
Seneca (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.), adviser under Caligula, tutor to Nero, is one of the greatest representatives of the Stoicist movement. In one of his letters to Lucilius, from which the following extract is taken, Seneca presents these stoic positions: he first evokes the happiness of taking time to meditate, without being interrupted. He then gives the object of his reflection: for him, freedom can neither be sold nor bought, and liberation can only come from oneself. It is necessary first to get rid of the fear of dying, then of the fear of falling into poverty. Indeed, he notes that the poor smile more easily, and more frankly: they have fewer worries, and these pass more quickly. On the contrary of the rich, who appear to smile in public, in a hypocritical way, because the sadness is more present at the bottom of them.
Original text by Seneca
The joy of meditating – Seneca
Seneca greets his dear Lucilius,
Today I have my time not so much thanks to myself as to a show that has driven all the troublemakers away from here by leading them to a ball game.
No one will barge into my house; no one will hinder my thoughts, which, thanks to this assurance, are moving more boldly.
The front door will not creak at every moment, the curtain will not be lifted. […]
Could it be that I do not follow the old ones? I do, but I allow myself to find something new, to modify and abandon a few points, I am not a slave to them, but I bend to their advice. But I have said too much, I who promised myself silence and a retreat without irruption: here is that an immense clamor arrives from the stadium and yet it does not expel me from myself but leads me to a meditation on this spectacle itself. I meditate in myself how many people exercise their bodies, how many by their minds what a great crowd there is at a show without lasting and playful value and how important is the solitude that crushes all men from which even our slaves of the lowest condition and born in this misery try to free themselves by all means. The money they have amassed at the expense of their bellies they give as payment to buy back their heads: and you, who think you were born free, will not wish to attain freedom at any price? Why do you look at your safe? It cannot be bought. Therefore, this name of freedom is written in vain on the registers, those who bought it does not possess it, nor those who sold it, only you can give it to yourself, it is you who must ask it.
Free yourself, first of all, from the fear of death, which imposes its yoke on us; then from the fear of poverty. If you want to know to what extent it does not imply any evil, compare the faces of the poor and the rich: the poor smile more often and more frankly; there is no worry in him; even if he falls into some worry, it passes like a light cloud, in those who are called happy people, the cheerfulness is feigned, but the sadness is present and suppresses in them, all the heavier certainly that they do not have sometimes the right to show themselves unhappy publicly, but that in the middle of the troubles which devour their heart it is necessary that he plays the role of a happy man.
Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, book IX, letter 80
To update the thought of Seneca
It is well known that the world is moving faster and faster, that people are in an ever-greater hurry. This is true of transportation – in the 19th century alone, railroads, steamships and the telegraph increased speed. It could also be the case with life: everyone lives with a watch on their wrist, it is a matter of not losing a minute, always busy.
However, one of the greatest goods is meditation, as Seneca teaches us. To take time out from the world, out of the hustle and bustle, to reflect.
Also Blaise Pascal noted in his pensées, 139: “All the misfortune of men comes from one thing only, which is not knowing how to remain at rest, in a room.”
This attitude, far from being a waste of time, would it not even be the only way to go faster? Indeed, it teaches us the true value of time, to devote ourselves to priorities, to what is most important. In terms of efficiency, in a human existence, Seneca and Pascal had probably found the most efficient activity.