Note: The following are excerpts from Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living by David R. Fideler.
While Seneca scholars never mention it, this is the background story behind Seneca’s letters to Lucilius. Lucilius’s questions about how to adjust his path in life gave Seneca an excuse to create his wonderful Letters, written not just for Lucilius but for a wider circle of readers. At the same time, the Letters were a cleverly designed introductory course to Seneca’s own brand of Stoic philosophy. But behind this entire project was a belief in the deep and transforming power of friendship. Throughout his Letters, Seneca discusses many aspects of friendship, but this passage highlights why friendship is so essential: Friendship creates between us a partnership in all things. Nothing is good or bad for us alone: we live in common. Nor can anyone live happily who only cares for his own advantage. You must live for another if you would live for yourself. This fellowship, maintained with special care and respect, unites humanity as a whole, and holds that we all have certain rights in common. But it’s also beneficial for nurturing the more intimate kind of friendship, of which I’ve been speaking. For someone who has much in common with another human being will have everything in common with a friend.
While Seneca expressed his philosophy of living to Lucilius in letters and correspondence, he wrote his earlier philosophical works for other friends, relatives, and people he knew personally. His goal was to help them achieve mental tranquility, overcome grief, or address different challenges. As we can see, for Seneca philosophy, as the art of living, was not based on creating an abstract system for other intellectuals. Instead, it involved person-to-person relationships since, in Seneca’s view, philosophy should help living people in the real world. Seneca repeatedly criticized the academic philosophers of his time, who reduced philosophy to uncompelling logical arguments. Their approach seemed unconvincing, and it was irrelevant to addressing human needs. Seneca strongly distinguished between “real philosophy” and its alternative, which he saw as wordplay, a mere intellectual game. Many philosophers of his time, he said, focused on analyzing syllables and splitting hairs rather than exploring living ideas, which could enhance human life. He insisted that real learning is for life, not for the classroom. Seneca’s philosophical ideas were both systematic and consistent, but, as a writer, he understood the importance of presenting those ideas in an attractive and compelling way. By conveying philosophy with literary skill and dramatic impact, he brought philosophy to life and made it memorable.
In Seneca’s philosophy, there are several ways to overcome worry, and they’re all rather simple. But since Stoicism involves practice, and is a practical philosophy like Buddhism, these solutions must be applied for them to work. One of the first and most effective ways to reduce worry is simply to monitor your inner judgments and the emotions they give rise to as the process happens, and as you start to feel anxious about future events. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus called this practice prosochē, “mindfulness” or “attention.” Once we understand how emotions arise and learn to monitor this process in real time, at the exact moment that anxiety is first felt, we can make a conscious choice to follow Seneca’s advice: this involves calling our mind back from the future to live fully in the present, because the future doesn’t even exist. For a Stoic like Seneca, it’s reasonable to be concerned about future events but it’s a mistake to worry about something in advance that might not even happen. As he wrote to Lucilius, “My advice to you is this: Don’t be miserable ahead of time. Those things you fear, as if they were near at hand, might never arrive. Certainly, they haven’t arrived yet.” This is one piece of advice that Seneca stressed many times over, throughout his writings. Marcus Aurelius also supported this view when he wrote, “Don’t allow the future to trouble you,” because when it does arrive, you’ll face it with the same sense of reason you apply to the present moment.
Second, since anxiety, fear, and psychological suffering arise from bad judgments, faulty opinions, or a misuse of the imagination, Seneca asks us to undertake a key Stoic practice: to analyze wisely our patterns of thinking in order to understand the source of the suffering. For if anxiety arises from faulty beliefs, by rationally analyzing those beliefs and dismantling them, we can also cure the distress. As Seneca puts it, “We agree with opinion too quickly. We don’t test those thoughts that lead us to fear, or question them with care. . . . So let’s examine things carefully.” Modern cognitive psychologists call this kind of inquiry Socratic questioning, another tip of their hat to ancient philosophy. Albert Ellis, one of the modern founders of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), had studied the Stoics. When Ellis first started work with new clients, he always gave them a copy of this famous Stoic saying: “It’s not things that upset us, but our opinions about them.” That, in essence, is the central, foundational thought behind the entire field of cognitive therapy. Ellis used a simplified scheme, known as the “ABC Theory of Emotion,” which was directly based on Stoic philosophy. First, with A, there is an Activating event. Then with B, there is a Belief, opinion, or judgment. And finally there appears C, Consequences, which is usually an emotional result of the earlier belief.
If you get splashed by a car on a rainy day and simply believe “I just got splashed,” the main consequence is that you might feel a bit wet. But if you believe “My entire day has been ruined,” which is the same as saying “I’ve been harmed,” the consequence would most likely be extreme anger. From this, we can see that it’s our unexamined, often irrational beliefs that cause emotional reactions. Fortunately, we can better understand those faulty beliefs, and even eliminate them, by analyzing them through the practice of Socratic questioning, either on our own or with the help of a therapist or mentor. Nearly 20 percent of people in the United States suffer from anxiety disorders. But many individuals who study Stoicism and use Stoic mindfulness techniques have reported significant declines in the experience of negative emotions like anxiety and anger.
It’s fascinating to see how cognitive therapy was influenced by Stoicism, especially since some of Seneca’s letters to Lucilius read just like little psychotherapy sessions. Seneca knew Lucilius well enough to understand what many of his friend’s underlying beliefs were, and it’s educational to see Seneca questioning his friend’s assumptions. It’s also remarkable to watch Seneca explaining how other beliefs might lead to happier outcomes. This is exactly the same process a modern cognitive therapist would use today.
In this way, Stoicism was a precursor of modern-day cognitive behavioral therapy, and the founders of CBT, like Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck, directly drew upon Stoic teachings to create their modern therapeutic methods. In the first major textbook published on cognitive therapy, Beck flatly stated, “The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers.” As Stoicism and CBT both show, by coming to understand and challenge the distorted thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that cause suffering, psychological anxiety can be greatly reduced. Significantly, this cognitive “therapy of the passions,” which originated with the Stoics, has been scientifically proven to resolve many kinds of psychological disorders. For example, CBT is the most studied form of psychotherapy, and is the “gold standard” in treating mental anxiety. In some studies, CBT has helped 75 to 80 percent of patients to recover from different types of anxiety, including panic attacks.
Another approach from Seneca, which is also used in CBT, involves dialing down the level of our emotions, especially emotions connected with the future. In Letter 5, Seneca writes, “Limiting desire helps to cure fears.” He then quotes a line from the Stoic philosopher Hecato: “Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.” Seneca explains that hope and fear are conjoined because they are both emotions that become activated by our imagination about the future. He writes, “Both come from a mind that is in suspense, worried in anticipation of what is to come. The greatest cause of each is that we don’t apply ourselves to the present but project our thoughts far into the future.” While many concerns we have about the future might appear to be reasonable, Seneca taught that we should carefully analyze those concerns. In that way, we can respond to them in a thoughtful way, rather than in a way that generates emotional suffering. For example, Seneca noted that people have an irrational fear of death, even though death is a part of life. Since death is natural and something everyone should expect, to view it as being something terrible is a cognitive error.
The later Stoic, Epictetus, agreed with him: It is not things themselves that disturb people, but people’s opinions about things. Death, for example, is nothing frightening, or Socrates would have thought so too. The fear arises from the opinion that death is frightening. So whenever we feel frustrated, disturbed, or upset, we should never blame anyone else, only ourselves—that is to say, our own opinions. Ultimately, while the Stoics didn’t believe in the existence of real misfortunes, they understood full well how things feel like misfortunes through the judgments we make or the opinions we hold. Also, as Seneca pointed out, it’s just not possible to avoid emotional shock at some events. Those reactions are natural, instinctual, and not based on opinions. But even in such cases, it’s possible to reduce the psychological impact, and to keep those emotional shocks from developing into something more serious.
For some conditions, like the fear of poverty, Seneca advocated specific exercises to lessen or eliminate the grip of the fear, and to prepare ourselves for the feeling of misfortune or emotional suffering. We’ll take a look at some of these exercises in other parts of this book. In fact, Seneca frequently recommends that we consider in advance every possible adversity that could impact us. In this way, if such a mishap actually occurs, we’ll be mentally prepared for it, and the blow of the misfortune will be decreased. But for Seneca, anticipating or even rehearsing the possibility of adversity in the future is not a form of worry or fear. It’s a way to calmly and rationally consider things that could happen, draining future misfortunes of their emotional impact should they occur. (This also resembles a technique used by modern psychologists.) While it takes awareness and practice, when a feeling of worry about the future first arises, we can question it, analyze it, and consciously decide to return to living in the present moment. But living in the present moment isn’t just some kind of psychological solution for Seneca—it’s one of the key things needed to lead a complete human life.
If we look at the three-step process through which anger comes into being, it becomes clear that the only way to stop anger is during the first two stages. By the time the third stage is reached, it’s too late. What makes anger management difficult is that these three movements can take place so quickly—sometimes in a flash. If you carefully study Seneca’s explanation of the three steps and compare it with your own experiences of getting angry, I think you’ll see that he’s correct about the process. But in terms of real-life experience, the three steps happen so quickly it often feels like a blur. Thus, the most important thing we can do is slow down the process when there is the first, initial sense that anger may be coming on. The first movements of anger, Seneca explains, cannot be controlled by reason because they are instinctual feelings. However, “practice and constant watchfulness will weaken them. Once the second step is reached, judgment or deliberation is in effect, which is rationality at work; as Seneca notes, only the power of rationality, or a good judgment, can erase a bad judgment.
Time and again, Seneca states that the most powerful tool for defeating anger is delay, to slow down the entire three-step process. That gives us time to intervene and rationally analyze any bad judgments: The greatest cure for anger is delay. Ask this from anger at the start, not so it will forgive, but so it will evaluate. While its first assaults are heavy, it will retreat if forced to wait. But don’t try to destroy it all at once. If picked away at bit by bit, it will be defeated.
He also puts it like this: Anger arises from a belief that you have been wronged, which one should not accept lightly, at face value. You should postpone judgment even if it seems clear and evident, because some false things appear to be true. We must always allow for some time to pass: a period of time reveals the truth. From the earliest days of the school, the Stoics emphasized how important it is to analyze the “impressions” presented to our minds. Like Seneca did in the quotation above, they warned us not to make snap judgments because impressions can be deceiving. In fact, Epictetus said that “testing impressions is the philosopher’s single most important task, and no impression should be accepted unless it has been carefully tested.
How a Stoic can stop anger from developing into a full-blown negative emotion is beautifully summed up in the remark attributed to the psychologist Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. While Viktor Frankl never actually said that, and the quote appears to be based on a passage from psychologist Rollo May, the Stoics would have endorsed both statements, whoever said them. This is the original passage from Rollo May: Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between stimulus and response and, in that pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight. The capacity to create ourselves, based upon this freedom, is inseparable from consciousness or self-awareness. That is why Seneca says that the greatest cure for anger is delay. Put into Stoic terms, a “stimulus” is an “impression.” We need to pause, carefully test impressions, and decide or “choose” whether they should be accepted.