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 others’ 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.” Indeed 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 should do our best to retain our equanimity.

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5 thoughts on “Summary of Seneca “On Tranquility”

  1. I think there is an important distinction to be made between not taking life seriously and not letting life get you down. The stoics certainly were serious about advocating doing ones duties. What they warned against was becoming distracted or burdened by emotions. That is to say, if life is getting you down, it will likely interfere with your duties, so lighten up. Which brings me to one of my favorites quotes from I don’t know where:
    Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly, but the devil fell because of his gravity.

  2. Agreed on mourning vs laughing. Agreed also on equanimity… though I probably have to work from scratch on that one.

  3. Thanks for the comments Steve. My friend who emailed me actually worried most about depressing other people with his profound concerns.

  4. I can heartily second Seneca’s suggestion of an outside walk, although I enjoy an opportunity not readily available. I live on 40 acres of mixed forest with a creek running across the middle. When I go outside, I am not confronted by the galling presence of even more members of this appalling species; I am surrounded by pure nature. I have rooted here; by walking over every square inch of this land, I have come to know it intimately. I recognize every tree; I know where different kinds of rock lie on the surface or just beneath it. I recognize subtle shifts in the foliage with the passing seasons. The blatant changes are easily seen, but I now notice more subtle changes. Some places retain their green longer into the summer because the buildup of humus from the fallen leaves and needles holds more water.

    The experience grows on you. I now identify so closely with this forest that I derive great “strength of life” from it. A walk renews my confidence in the overall goodness of the world. Let the humans stew in their own sewage; the natural world continues regardless of human idiocy.

    Go get yourself a forest.

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