A Stoic Approach to Fear

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Seneca: A Stoic Life

One of the things I admire about the Stoic philosophers is that they embodied the wisdom that they preached. Seneca, one of the three notable Stoics (along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus), used the philosophy of Stoicism to navigate the turmoil and uncertainties during his life.

Although he maintained a high status in ancient Rome as a politician and financial clerk, Seneca was forced into exile by Claudius, and ordered to commit suicide by his former student – the tyrannical emperor Nero. 

In a typical Stoic fashion, on his death bed, Seneca urges his friends, family and followers not to fear death. Dying with dignity and courage, he argues that it is only through death and the ephemeral nature of our existence which gives life meaning. It is not the duration of one’s life that is of significance Seneca claims, but rather the endeavours and meaningful pursuits that one engages which makes life worthwhile.   

 In his consolation to his friend Marcia over the death of her son, Seneca writes that we should always be prepared from the unknown, directly confront our fears and cherish our existence. Nothing should be taken for granted.

That person has lost their children: you too, can lose yours; that person received sentence of death: your innocence too, stands under the hammer. This is the fallacy that takes us in and makes us weak while we suffer misfortunes that we never foresaw that we could suffer. The person who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.

Seneca, On Consolation to Marcia

Letters from a Stoic

One of the more notable works left behind by Seneca is the Letters from a Stoic. Near the end of his life, Seneca wrote 124 letters to his friend Lucilius offering philosophical insight and consolation, highlighting many of the key themes in Stoic philosophy.

My favourite in this collection is Letter 13 – On Groundless Fears.  In this letter, Seneca encourages Lucilius to practice resilience providing  questions to consider when assessing the validity of his fears.

Many of our fears Seneca notes are unfounded. We can not control the external world, but we can control our interpretation of it. Much of what we fear are fabrications produced by our mind which, if properly evaluated and critiqued, have no basis in reality.

 Even if unfavourable events do come to fruition, we do not know what the future holds. It may perhaps be a blessing in disguise.

To expand and identify these key ideas these I created a graphic which summarizes the questions and maxims Seneca urges us to consider when we are faced with anxiety or fear. In the thought bubbles are direct quotes from Seneca’s letter which speak to these concepts.

If you want to listen to an audio version of these letters I highly recommend Tim Ferris’ Tao of Seneca.  

Title Image Source

Philosophy as an Antidote to the Ills of Modern Society

We live in an age of unprecedented change and exponential growth. It would have been unimaginable to someone a few decades ago to believe that we would have access to all of the world’s knowledge in the palm of our hands. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book Homo Deus, many of the issues we now face in the West come from excesses rather than deficiencies. For instance, in many countries, more  people die from obesity than malnutrition. Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now, does a great job of charting the tremendous progress in humanity in eradicating disease, reducing violent conflicts and expanding human life expectancy. While we still undoubtably face challenges, for the most part, our basic needs of ‘food, shelter and clothing’ have been met. This must be seen as a great feat and accomplishment of human civilization.  

Despite all this progress, it seems increasingly apparent that there is a cloud of worry and existential angst hanging over our society.  Author Jonan Hari attributes this to a culture that has sold us ‘junk values’. That is, we have been conditioned to believe that we must pursue self-gratification, status and constantly feed our egos to be happy. This may provide us with a short-term pleasure, a quick dopamine rush, but it is a far cry from Aristotle’s notion of happiness as human flourishing known as eudaimonia.  UofT Professor and cognitive scientist John Vervaeke accurately reflects on our current situation in his brilliant series YouTube series ‘Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.’

The consequences that stem from this are significant. We are in a mental health crisis. According to data from CAMH, a mental health illness will affect 1 in 2 Canadians by the time they reach 40. Furthermore, our social and political institutions are degrading. Although social media was intended to foster cooperation, it has made our politics, attitudes and opinions more divisive. We are now more polarized, unwilling to make compromises or see eye to eye with those who disagree with us.  We are addicted to online platforms which drive our egos. They pull us towards narcissism as we continually try to glamorize our lives and outdo one another.    

These issues presented cannot be solved strictly though business, science or technology. Likewise, we can’t simply buy our way out of this through material more wealth or new products. The writer Aldous Huxley presents us with this vision in A Brave New World in which he constructs a world where individuals receive instant gratification for their desires and are able to escape all suffering and malaise by taking a drug called Soma. I don’t think this is the way forward. A shallow and empty society where we are merely passive consumers is not one that we should aspire to.

On the contrary, I think we can learn a great deal from philosophy, particularly practical philosophers such as the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were deeply concerned with how humans can live a good life, one of purpose and meaning. They were far more interested in developing noble character and virtue than pursuing external pleasures such as fortune, fame or wealth.

I am starting this blog because I want to reflect on the knowledge and wisdom presented to us from philosophy. This wisdom can help us put life into perspective and address our questions of meaning and purpose. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but philosophy can be the start of a journey of introspection and contemplation. Each person may be drawn towards a different beliefs, ideologies and thinkers. That is ok. However, I think self-reflection is critical, and as Socrates once said “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll come along and enjoy the journey with me!

AA