On the tranquility of the mind (Lucius Annaeus Seneca)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – AD 65), usually known as Seneca, was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and playwright of the post-Augustan age of Latin literature.

De Tranquillitate Animi (The tranquility of the soul) is a Latin work of the philosopher in the form of a dialogue. A conversation and comparison therefore between the state of mind of Seneca’s friend, Annaeus Serenus, on how to cure anxiety, worry and aversion to life (depression).

Summary

Seneca, like others stoici, was concerned with providing insights for the development of an “exercise of life,” that is, trying to train one’s mind to live well, inevitably moving from transforming one’s person into a virtuous and balanced being. De Tranquillitate Animi is part of a trio of dialogues to his friend Sereno, which includes De Constantia Sapientis and De Otio .

Compared to the other two works, the intention of De Tranquillitate Animi is more therapeutic. The work opens with Sereno asking Seneca for advice, explaining that he feels agitated, and in an unstable state, “as if I were in a boat that is not advancing and is being tossed about.” Seneca uses the dialogue to address an issue that has come up many times in his life: the desire for a life of contemplation and the need for active social engagement. Seneca argues that the goal of a quiet mind can be achieved by being flexible and finding a middle ground between the two extremes.

If tranquility is to be achieved, Seneca recommends an austere life, forgetting about excessive and unnecessary luxury. He advises us to choose our companions carefully, for if we choose those who are corrupted by vices, their vices will extend to us (chapter 7). Austerity is the chief treatment for peace of mind: we must learn to restrain ourselves, curb our desires, temper our gluttony, mitigate our anger, look upon poverty with good eyes, and revere self-control (chapter 8). Seneca compares those who have much and do not know how to enjoy it to those who own a large library of books for mere display (chapter 9).

In chapter 11, Seneca introduces the figure of the Stoic sage, whose tranquility (atarassia) flows directly from a greater understanding of the World. The complete security and self-sufficiency of the sage excludes unhealthy passions (apatheia), that is, disturbances that cannot disturb the person who is, by definition, rational. Only reasoning, prudence and foresight can create in someone the ideal atmosphere of peace. The philosopher, while preserving his tranquility, does not hate humanity for its uncaring, injustice, ignorance and corruption. The times in which we live are no worse than previous times, it is not reasonable to waste time raging over these evils, it is more reasonable to laugh at them (chapter 15).

Thus, the right cure is to follow nature, to find the right balance between sociality and solitude, travail and leisure, sobriety and intoxication, and to “watch over our wavering mind with intense and unceasing care” (chapter 17).

Beginning

Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find solace in it.

“Nec aegroto nec ualeo” – “Neither sick nor healthy”.

At the beginning of this dialogue Seneca lets his young pupil, Serenus, take the floor directly and make a long speech that occupies the entire first chapter of the book. This unicum among all the twelve books of dialogues is indeed evidence of fine psychological introspection of the master of life Seneca, who reporting what can be called the examination of conscience of Serenus, instead of summarizing it in the general speech, with an inevitable outcome of more or less veiled reproach to the student, let it appear as a direct exposure of doubts and travails of the soul of him. Seneca can thus intervene, not as a superior, but as a confidant who, having been informed of intimate matters, can give the advice of one who knows from experience the doubts and anxieties of the person confided. The beginning of the second chapter is dedicated to this direct response of Seneca to Sereno. Only afterwards will the general discourse begin, having first fully discharged the function of a fine and sensitive director of conscience:

“Quomodo ad hanc perueniri possit in uniuersum quaeramus; sumes tu ex publico remedio quantum uoles” – “How to this [tranquility] can be reached we will seek in general; you will take from the common remedy as much as you wish”.

Sereno is torn between two states of mind, almost in a place of transit of the Spirit. He is on his way towards self-sufficient wisdom, he has already overcome the passions that overwhelm his soul, but he is still impressed by the glitz in his eyes, even though he loves and lives thriftily; the desire for public action still stings, even though he lives a life of his own; he still lets himself be transported to the sublime in his writing when the subject inflames him, even though he wants a writing that is entirely faithful to things. But the meanness underlying these specious appearances always throws him back, once the enthusiasm has died down, leaving him more convinced of the autarkic choice but more discontented and restless and destined from time to time to fall back into the same temptations; the outcome of this “pitching” of the soul is finally nausea:

“Non esse periculosos hos motus animi nec quicquam tumultuosi afferentes scio; ut uera tibi similitudine id de quo queror exprimam, non tempestate uexor, sed nausea” – “That these motions of the soul are not dangerous and such as to generate turmoil I know; to express what I regret with a real simile, I am not vexed by the storm but by nausea”.

On closer inspection, Sereno’s swaying oscillates between the desire to exercise a pan-European virtue, which finds its fulfillment in action, mainly public, and the desire, having experienced that social conditions do not make it useful, to take refuge – albeit reluctantly (recedo tristior; I go back saddened) – in the self-sufficient virtue of Epicureans and Cynics. Having degraded the splendor of glory to the empty show of luxury; the forum to a tangle of sordid relationships rather than a place devoted to judicial and political action; oratory, the word set rhetorically, ceased to be an instrument of forensic action, reduced to vain scholastic declamation; the charm of the past, however, still attracts him despite the very different present of Rome. This is the last and most difficult to eradicate sway of which Sereno begs Seneca to free him:

“Rogo itaque, si quod habes remedium quo hanc fluctuationem meam sistas, dignum me putes qui tibi tranquillitatem debeam” – “I beseech you therefore, if you have any remedy by which to stop this fluctuation of mine, that you deem me worthy of owing you my tranquillity.”

Incipit

Those whom fortune has never favored are more joyful than those it has abandoned.

“I was absorbed into introspection, Seneca, and behold some vices appeared to me, brought out into the open, so much so that I could grasp them with my hand: some more hidden and hidden, others not constant, but recurring from time to time, which I would even call the most insidious, like enemies scattered and ready to attack at the opportune moment, with which neither tactic is admitted, to be ready as in war nor calm as in peace. But I have to criticize above all that attitude in me (why not confess it just like a doctor?), that is to say that I have not freed myself in all sincerity of those faults that I feared and hated and that I am not yet enslaved to them; I find myself in a condition if it is true that it is not bad, nevertheless more than ever lamentable and dreary: I am neither bad nor good.”
[Lucius Anneus Seneca, The tranquillity of the soul]

Quotes

E’ importante sapersi ritirare in se stessi: un eccessivo contatto con gli altri, spesso così dissimili da noi, disturba il nostro ordine interiore, riaccende passioni assopite, inasprisce tutto ciò che nell’animo vi è di debole o di non ancora perfettamente guarito. Vanno opportunamente alternate le due dimensioni della solitudine e della socialità: la prima ci fa farà provare nostalgia dei nostri simili, l’altra di noi stessi; in questo modo, l’una sarà proficuo rimedio dell’altra. La solitudine guarirà l’avversione alla folla, la folla cancellerà il tedio della solitudine.
(Caput XVII)

This speech of mine is addressed to those who are imperfect, halfway, healthy parts, not to those who are knowledgeable

 

So we shall seek the way by which the soul has an ever equal and favorable course and is propitious to itself and looks joyfully on its goods and does not interrupt this joy, but remains in a placid state without ever rising or depressing. This will be tranquility.

 

Nor would I deny that it is sometimes necessary to yield, but slowly, at a backward pace, carrying in safety the insignia and military honor: they are more assured and protected from their enemies those who surrender in arms

 

The Greeks call this stable foundation of the soul euthymía, on which there is an eminent book of Democritus; I call it tranquillitas: for it is not necessary to imitate and translate the Greek words according to their form; the thing properly in question is to be indicated by some name which must have the force [expressive] of the Greek voice, not the appearance

 

There is no great genius without a dash of madness.

 

Those who want to live quietly do not deal with many private affairs nor many public affairs

For this reason we [Stoics] magnanimously did not enclose ourselves within the walls of a city, but put ourselves outside in relation to the whole earth and professed to be citizens of the world, so that it might be possible to give virtue more ample space [to practice].

 

Can you find a more unhappy city than the Athenian one when the thirty tyrants tore it to pieces? […] Yet Socrates was in the square and consoled the weeping senators and exhorted those who despaired of the republic and reproached those fearful of their wealth of the late repentance of their risky greed and to those who wanted to imitate him brought around a great example in going free in the midst of thirty masters

 

In any situation in life, you will find moments of satisfaction, of rest, of pleasure, if you prefer to judge your ills mild instead of making them hateful.
(10, 1; 2000, p. 212)

 

We are all tied to fate, some with a slow golden chain, others with a tight and demeaning chain, but what does it matter? He has put everyone equally under surveillance, those who bind us are also bound […]. Life is all about slavery.
One must, therefore, adapt oneself to one’s own condition, complain about it as little as possible, and take advantage of all the benefits it has to offer: there is no situation so bitter that one’s inner balance cannot find some reason for comfort in it. Many times, narrow areas have become widely usable thanks to the engineer who knew how to divide them up and a good renovation has made narrow rooms habitable. Apply reason to difficulties: it becomes possible for the hard to soften, the narrow to widen, and the load, carried wisely, to be less heavy.
( 10, 3-4; 2000, p. 213)

 

It is therefore better to accept calmly the common behavior and vices of men, without letting oneself go either to laughter or to tears: to feel torment for the evils of others is eternal misery, to delight in the evils of others is inhuman voluptuousness.
(15, 5; 2000, p. 219)

 

We must limit the running to and fro which most men practise, rambling about houses, theatres, and marketplaces. They mind other men’s business, and always seem as though they themselves had something to do. If you ask one of them as he comes out of his own door, “Whither are you going?” he will answer, “By Hercules, I do not know: but I shall see some people and do something.” They wander purposelessly seeking for something to do, and do, not what they have made up their minds to do, but what has casually fallen in their way. They move uselessly and without any plan, just like ants crawling over bushes, which creep up to the top and then down to the bottom again without gaining anything. Many men spend their lives in exactly the same fashion, which one may call a state of restless indolence.

 

the best amount of property to have is that which is enough to keep us from poverty, and which yet is not far removed from it.

 

No expenditure is nobler than that made in the purchase of books, but no expenditure is less judicious than that made in the purchase of too many books. What is the use of an enormous quantity of volumes, of which, in the brevity of life, one has barely time to read their titles. It is better to read and re-read a few excellent authors than to read thousands.

 

What you desire, to be undisturbed, is a great thing, nay, the greatest thing of all, and one which raises a man almost to the level of a god. The Greeks call this calm steadiness of mind euthymia, and Democritus’s treatise upon it is excellently written: I call it peace of mind

 

 


References

 

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