Daily Archives: January 9, 2018

Summary of Seneca “On Tranquility”

Should we trouble those we love with our worries about the state of the world, environmental degradation, the possibility of nuclear war, etc.? Or does this disturb both ours and their tranquility?

Such questions were posed long ago by Seneca in his letter On The Tranquility Of The Mind where he said we should avoid “… gloomy people who deplore everything and find reason to complain you must take pains to avoid. With all his loyalty and good will, a grumbling and touchy companion militates against tranquility.” But he also says: “The efforts of a good citizen are never useless; by being seen and heard, by his expression, gesture, silent determination, by his very gait he is of service.”

So it seems we should share our thoughts with those who will listen, remembering that our influence on others is limited. Thus we should “avoidance of labor for empty ends.” Thus we are led to a basic idea in Stoicism. As he writes:

to get rid of the causes of personal sorrow gains us nothing, for sometimes hatred of the human race possesses us. When you reflect how rare simplicity is, how unknown innocence … when you recall the long calendar of successful crime  … then the mind is plunged into black night and darkness envelops us, as if the virtues were overthrown and we could no longer possess them or aspire to them. The trend of thought we ought to pursue therefore, is to make the common failings of the crowd not odious but ridiculous …. we ought to take the lighter view of these things and cultivate tolerance; it is more civilized to laugh at life than to lament over it. Further the man who laughs at the human race deserves more gratitude than the man who mourns over it, for he allows it hope of amelioration, whereas the foolish weeper despairs of the possibility of improvement.

There is a lot to digest here, and I agree with most of it although sharing our troubles and listening to other’s burdens provides comfort to all. But I’m not sure that I agree with Seneca’s connecting laughing with hope and mourning with despair. (I’ve written a lot about hope on this blog.) Those who laugh may be apathetic while the mourners might act.  So I don’t see a necessary connection between laughing and hoping, or lamenting and despairing.

Still further Seneca writes that “We ought to take outdoor walks, to refresh and raise our spirits by deep breathing in the open air. Sometimes energy will be refreshed by a carriage ride, a journey, a change of scene, good company, and a more generous wine.” Surely this is good advice. I suppose that if we cultivate tranquil minds that will probably be better for everyone. Despite the tribulations of the world we do best to retain our equanimity.