On the Tranquility of Mind: Seneca on Resilience, the Trap of Power and Prestige, and How to Calibrate Our Ambitions for Maximum Contentment

“That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.”


On the Tranquility of Mind: Seneca on Resilience, the Trap of Power and Prestige, and How to Calibrate Our Ambitions for Maximum Contentment

“Wherever life can grow, it will. It will sprout out, and do the best it can,” the poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in her abiding ode to perseverance. But in our quest to do the best we can, we are apt to defeat ourselves by pushing against life with the brute force of uncalibrated ambition, razing our peace of mind on the sharp-edged sense that there is always more to achieve. If the object of life is not mere resilience but flourishing, attaining it may be less a matter of wild pursuit of favorable outcomes that leave us perpetually dissatisfied and reaching for more than of wise acceptance that allows us to do the best we can with the cards we’ve been dealt.

That is what the great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examines in a dialogue titled “On the Tranquility of Mind,” included in the indispensable 1968 volume Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters (public library).

seneca

Seneca, translated here by classics scholar Moses Hadas, admonishes against the trap of power and prestige:

We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves; unless perchance you think that a chain on the left side is lighter. Honors bind one man, wealth another; nobility oppresses some, humility others; some are held in subjection by an external power, while others obey the tyrant within; banishments keep some in one place, the priesthood others. All life is slavery. Therefore each one must accustom himself to his own condition and complain about it as little as possible, and lay hold of whatever good is to be found near him.

Illustration from Six Dots, the illustrated story of how blind child inventor Louis Braille changed the world

Two millennia before Holocaust survivor and humanitarian Viktor Frankl proffered his hard-earned conviction that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Seneca writes:

Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find comfort in it. Small tablets, because of the writer’s skill, have often served for many purposes, and a clever arrangement has often made a very narrow piece of land habitable. Apply reason to difficulties; harsh circumstances can be softened, narrow limits can be widened, and burdensome things can be made to press less severely on those who bear them cleverly.

In a complement to his famous advice on our mightiest self-defense against misfortune, Seneca highlights the other side to this notion of not letting ill fortune dispirit us — the importance of also not letting our desire for good fortune imprison us into a state of endless striving:

With the omission of those things which either cannot be done, or can only be done with difficulty, let us follow the things which are placed near at hand and which offer encouragement to our hopes; but let us remember that all things are equally unimportant, presenting a different appearance on the outside, but equally empty within.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art from Louis I, King of the Sheep, an illustrated parable of how power corrupts.

He cautions against envying those who rank higher than we do and who hold positions of power, for power is its own trap and ambition, as David Foster Wallace observed two thousand years later, a double-edged sword:

Whatever seems lofty is dangerous… Those whom an unfavorable fortune has placed in a critical position will be safer if they eliminate pride from their proud circumstances and bring down their fortune as much as possible to a lowly state. Indeed there are many who must of necessity cling to their high position, from which they cannot descend except by falling: but they testify that … they are not raised to their high position, but chained to it: let them prepare, by means of justice and human clemency, with a kind and liberal hand, many means of assistance for a safe descent, on the hope of which they can rest more securely. Yet nothing will free us from these disturbances of the mind so well as always fixing some limit to our advancement.

Art from Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon

Untamed ambition, Seneca admonishes, stands in the way of meeting life on its own terms with calm consent — acceptance that is the supreme prerequisite for tranquility of mind. The most we can do, he argues, is accept every card life deals us, be it winning or losing, as temporarily borrowed from the deck to which it must ultimately return. The measure of wisdom and the key to peace of mind is the nonresistance and graciousness with which we return what we have borrowed when the time of our loan is up:

The wise man … does not need to walk about timidly or cautiously: for he possesses such self-confidence that he does not hesitate to go to meet fortune nor will he ever yield his position to her: nor has he any reason to fear her, because he considers not only slaves, property, and positions of honor, but also his body, his eyes, his hands, — everything which can make life dearer, even his very self, as among uncertain things, and lives as if he had borrowed them for his own use and was prepared to return them without sadness whenever claimed. Nor does he appear worthless in his own eyes because he knows that he is not his own, but he will do everything as diligently and carefully as a conscientious and pious man is accustomed to guard that which is entrusted in his care. Yet whenever he is ordered to return them, he will not complain to fortune, but will say: “I thank you for this which I have had in my possession. I have indeed cared for your property, — even to my great disadvantage, — but, since you command it, I give it back to you and restore it thankfully and willingly…” If nature should demand of us that which she has previously entrusted to us, we will also say to her: “Take back a better mind than you gave: I seek no way of escape nor flee: I have voluntarily improved for you what you gave me without my knowledge; take it away.” What hardship is there in returning to the place whence one has come? That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.

Complement the altogether magnificent Stoic Philosophy of Seneca with Seneca on the antidote to anxiety, his insightful advice on distinguishing between true and false friendship, and Marcus Aurelius — another Stoic sage of timeless wisdom — on the key to living fully.


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