Seneca’s 12 Rules for a Better Life (Letters from a Stoic Summary)

In his letters to Lucilius, Seneca gives him the following advice: “Measure your life: it just does not have room for so much.”

There lies the irony of life. Even though wise people teach you that in life you should rely on a few basic rules, you can only remember so much. It is so easy to forget the simple truths. And you usually end up learning the hard way that they are in fact true.

So we have decided to collect some of Seneca’s bits of advice on how to live a better life. As always, you will find some of his “rules” to be common sense and intuitive. You have probably heard some of them from your grandmother.

Peter Paul Rubens: The Death of Seneca, 1612–1613

Here are 12 simple truths as Seneca wrote them down.

How to know if you are rich?

It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more… You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough… Luxury has turned her back on nature, daily urging herself on and growing through all the centuries, pressing men’s intelligence into the development of the vices.

How not to become poor?

Here is another saying of Epicurus: ‘If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.’… Natural desires are limited; those which spring from false opinions have nowhere to stop, for falsity has no point of termination. When a person is following a track, there is an eventual end to it Somewhere, but with wandering at large there is no limit. So give up pointless, empty journeys, and whenever you want to know whether the desire aroused in you by something you are pursuing is natural or quite unseeing, ask yourself whether it is capable of coming to rest at any point; if after going a long way there is always something remaining farther away, be sure it is not something natural.

Be better than a mob

.. refrain from following the example of those whose craving is for attention, not their own improvement, by doing certain things which are calculated to give rise to comment on your appearance or way of living generally…Let our aim be a way of life not diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the mob.

Beware of the downsides of hopes

‘ Cease to hope,’ he says, ‘and you will cease to fear.’…Widely different though they are, the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to. Fear keeps pace with hope. Nor does their so moving together surprise me ; both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present. Thus it is that foresight, the greatest blessing humanity has been given, is transformed into a curse. Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.

Happiness is true only when shared

There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.

What use is it to me to be able to divide a piece of land into equal areas if I’m unable to divide it with a brother?

Associate with people who are likely to improve you

When a mind is impressionable and has none too firm a hold on what is right, it must be rescued from the crowd: it is so easy for it to go over to the majority… Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.

Nothing merits admiration except the spirit

Your food should appease your hunger, your drink quench your thirst, your clothing keep out the cold, your house be a protection against inclement weather. It makes no difference whether it is built of turf or of variegated marble imported from another country: what you have to understand is that thatch makes a person just as good a roof as gold does. Spurn everything that is added on by way of decoration and display by unnecessary labour. Reflect that nothing merits admiration except the spirit, the impressiveness of which prevents it from being impressed by anything.

Judge people only by their character

I propose to value them according to their character, not their jobs. Each man has a character of his own choosing ; it is chance or fate that decides his choice of job… Treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors.

Never forget to live

There’s nothing so very great about living – all your slaves and all the animals do it… What else is there which you would be sorry to be deprived of [in the case of death]? Friends? Do you know how to be a friend? Your country? Do you really value her so highly that you would put off your dinner for her? The sunlight? If you could you would put out that light ­ for what have you ever done that deserved a place in it? Confess it – it is no attachment to the world of politics or business, or even the world of nature, that makes you put off dying – the delicatessens, in which there is nothing you have left untried, are what you are reluctant to leave. You are scared of death – but how magnificently heedless of it you are while you are dealing with a dish of choice mushrooms ! You want to live – but do you know how to live? You are scared of dying – and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different from being dead? … As it is with a play, so it is with life – what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will – only make sure that you round it off with a good ending.

Look for the best and be prepared for the opposite

I’ve taken sufficient precautions, more than sufficient precautions, to ensure that I’m not taken in by deceptive phenomena. At this you’ll protest: ‘Can you really say ” the day that follows never proves me wrong”? Surely anything that happens which one didn’t know in advance was going to happen proves one wrong?’ Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen; but I do know what’s capable of happening – and none of this will give rise to any protest on my part. I’m ready for everything. If I’m let off in any way, I’m pleased. The day in question proves me wrong in a sense if it treats me leniently, but even so not really wrong, for just as I know that anything is capable of happening so also do I know that it’s not bound to happen. So I look for the best and am prepared for the opposite.

Don’t let anything take you by surprise

…Unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise…. This is why we need to envisage every possibility and to strengthen the spirit to deal with the things which may conceivably come about. Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. Misfortune may snatch you away from your country, or your country away from you, may banish you into some wilderness – these very surroundings in which the masses suffocate may become a wilderness. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes; we should be anticipating not merely all that commonly happens but all that is conceivably capable of happening, if we do not want to be overwhelmed and struck numb by rare events as if they were unprecedented ones; fortune needs envisaging in a thoroughly comprehensive way.

Expose yourself to things that attack you

.. there are two classes of things attracting or repelling us. We are attracted by wealth, pleasures, good looks, political advancement and various other welcoming and enticing prospects: we are repelled by exertion, death, pain, disgrace and limited means. It follows that we need to train ourselves not to crave for the former and not to be afraid of the latter. Let us fight the battle the other way round – retreat from the things that attract us and rouse ourselves to meet the things that actually attack us. You know the difference, Lucilius, between the postures people adopt in climbing up and descending a mountain; those coming down a slope lean back, those moving steeply upwards lean forward, for to tilt one’s weight ahead of one when descending, and backwards when ascending, is to be in league with what one has to contend with. The path that leads to pleasures is the downward one: the upward climb is the one that takes us to rugged and difficult ground. Here let us throw our bodies forward, in the other direction rein them back.

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