Seneca was around during a really hard time. He was a senator for the Republic during a period of scheming and decay in the Roman empire. He was there for four different rulers: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. He was even a tutor and adviser for Nero, who is definitely one of the most unpleasant people on that list.
Seneca was also one of the most important representatives of the philosophical school called stoicism. People in this school had a special interest in thinking about morals and customs. It didn’t make much sense for them to do that, though, because they were in a time period full of ethical degradation that ended up leading to the fall of the Empire.
Seneca and the stoics
Stoicism started in Greece, and its founder was Zenon of Citium. The philosophy become extremely popular, and a lot of its principles influenced Christianity in its early stages. The main thing stoics advocated for was a life of moderation. “Nothing is ever enough when you are always wanting more,” they said.
They went into a million different subjects, but they got the most attention for their thoughts on ethics. They talked about the idea that you can achieve internal peace only when you push away a desire for material things. They said that a reasonable, virtuous life was a happy one.
Stoics rejected the idea that people could do nothing but follow their whims. They saw them as source of degradation and suffering. They advocated for self-control because they thought that human beings could live based on reason. They also said that nothing is good or bad in itself. Something only turns negative when it becomes excessive.
What Seneca said about anxiety
As a good stoic, Seneca looked for a way to live a virtuous life. He was an extremely intelligent man, and people from his time all saw that he had a great mind. His greatest work was Letters from a Stoic. He wrote it after he managed to get away from Nero and Nero started to send people after him.
This major philosopher saw how so many people lived in a constant state of worry. It’s what we now call “anxiety.” Here’s what he said about it, “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.“
So Seneca actually noticed something that psychology has showed us centuries later. Anxiety is the feeling where you expect the worst, even though it hasn’t happened. In other words, it’s a subjective perception that makes you expect bad things to happen. You end up living your life based on these things that haven’t even happened.
What we can learn from Seneca
To add to the first quote, Seneca also said: “We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.” In other words, we start to suffer before we even have a reason to. Just the fact of anticipating pain ends up trapping you with it. It doesn’t matter that it hasn’t even showed up yet, and might never.
That’s how anxiety is. It’s a state where you suffer while you wait for the suffering to go away. Some people call it “getting sick from the future.” You look ahead and always see the worst possible outcome. Anxious people are afraid of being robbed, even though no one is trying to rob them. They think an earthquake might make their house crumble at any second. Or they think their loved one will leave them sooner or later.
We all know that there are lots of times when what’s in our mind becomes reality (a self-fulfilling prophecy). It didn’t have to turn out that way. But because of your behavior and all your blocks you end up sending things that direction. When that happens you see it as a confirmation of what you thought would happen from the beginning. You never see it as a result of your world view.
For example, picture that you’ve heard very negative things about someone. If a friend introduced you to them, you probably wouldn’t be too warm or friendly. When they see you treating them that way, there’s a good chance they’ll end up treating you the same way. So you end up confirming your suspicions because you’re the one who made them come true.
Maybe it’s just like Seneca says. Maybe we should just live, instead of constantly preparing ourselves to live. We should just let things be, and let things happen the way they happen. We should focus on the present and not live our lives worrying about what will come after.