On the Road with Seneca –
Personal Reflections on the Value of Stoicism
In the past year Seneca has become my beloved uncle living far away, writing letters to me in a very personal manner. Every day I find time to sit down in the midst of a busy work schedule to have my daily dose of reading Seneca’s letters. I could easily step into the shoes of a student, because Seneca’s writing is not just filled with a universal appeal, his advice is timeless. The main themes that Seneca addresses in his letters are as apt today as they were 2000 years ago. Seneca writes about life and highlights the extraordinary potential of a life lived fully up until the very last breath.
I am leading a happy life, moderately successful and with a list of achievements in my career. To me Stoicism is not a coping mechanism or a way to avert depression and melancholy nor an intellectual means to numb my feelings against the onslaught of Fortune. Through Seneca I discovered a Stoicism that aims to uplift man to embrace a higher order of Supreme Good. Virtue is the eternal wings that carry wise men above the sorrows and woes of normal life. This type of Stoicism requires a healthy dose of self-criticism to diagnose the vice that we have accepted as habit in our lives. Ascending on the path of Stoicism requires dedication that puts virtue above anything else and also a relentless commitment to cut away vice from our lives. Seneca provides balance urging us to accept with humility where we are but also to strive towards greatness.
Being confronted with a compounded and multi-layered corpus of writing can be daunting even for my engineer’s brain, which is used to processing volumes of information. In order to get a better grip of Seneca’s writing I started a document which I called my “Index to Seneca’s writing”. In this index I re-ordered the themes that Seneca addresses in alphabetical order with the aim of finding the core of his teachings while creating an easy reference for further reflection or application.
So far, this method seems to be most useful and I doubt if I would have made the same progress if I had just read the letters. It is an easy pitfall to attach the first meaning that comes to mind to what is written, rather than searching a bit deeper for the real intent behind the writing. Initially, taking what was written at face value became my constraint, preventing me from progress; where progress is defined as a marked change in my perception of the world I inhabit with my senses. The wheels of progress started to turn only when the quest for wisdom became primary.
Although Stoicism stands in its own right as an independent philosophy, in a modern day context I found complementary associations with other disciplines I have adopted into my life. Tai Chi, as a martial art, for example also places the focus on the practitioner rather than the environment. You must find your own balance and centre yourself irrespective of who your adversary is. The same applies to Stocism; the focus is inward irrespective of life circumstances, difficulties or concerns. The inner self is the stillness of the axle around which the wheel turns. I found affinity between the Rosicrucian teaching of the duality of existence and the importance of virtue. I was intrigued to find traces of a belief in reincarnation in the writings of Seneca writing: “Death, which we fear and shrink from, merely interrupts life, but does not steal it away; the time will return when we shall be restored to the light of day; and many men would object to this, were they not brought back in forgetfulness of the past. But I mean to show you later, with more care, that everything which seems to perish merely changes. Since you are destined to return, you ought to depart with a tranquil mind.” Stocism can indeed augment many existing beliefs, philosophies and understandings if those in turn are built upon universal values.
I am by far not at the zenith of practical Stoicism but I have gained several benefits that seem to provide sustainable value. A focus on virtue has brought a clarity to mind that is far different from the cluttered or defuse cogitation that previously characterised my thinking. Emotional upheavals seem to have become fruitless energy wasters and once dissipated sobriety steps in which gives me a quiet confidence in any conference room debate or crises.
I no longer get stuck in fears and angst associated with expectations, instead my focus on what is within my control becomes like a sword that can be wielded with precision to cut to the bare bones of a situation. Potential conflict situations with staff who report to me gave way to constructive discussions by remaining mindful of what is within our collective sphere of influence making sure my words and deeds are in accord. I look at the wellbeing of each team member aligning each person’s specific purpose with the greater purpose we hope to achieve. I can continue to list the many advantages that Stoicism has brought to my leadership style and personal life, however, these are but shadows of the real gains that I received. Business can easily become the aim in itself and an enemy to philosophy.
The Stoicism of Seneca goes beyond career and healthy living. Stoicism provides me with a means to address the universal concerns that so easily torture one’s mind. Gaining perspective on old age and death brings more presence and alacrity to the present moment. Stoicism helps me to find harmony between body and soul. In my personal life I have become immune to the prompting of modern marketing campaigns that appeal to the desires of the flesh to act on impulse rather than from reason. I learned the value of true friendship, when to withdraw from society and when to engage with society. Finding that inner harmony requires mindfulness of a deeper awareness of Supreme Good and subtle realignment of the eternal soul with the eternal nature of virtue.
This is the true value of Stoicism, to understand the nature of the soul: “When a soul rises superior to other souls, when it is under control, when it passes through every experience as if it were of small account, when it smiles at our fears and at our prayers, it is stirred by a force from heaven. A thing like this cannot stand upright unless it be propped by the divine. Therefore, a greater part of it abides in that place from whence it came down to earth.”
The true value of Stoicism is to attempt to clothe all acts with virtue by establishing the soul’s role in its rightful place and experiencing joy that springs forth from the elation of spirit. This does not exempt anybody from pain or hurt but it gives the desire for progress. As Seneca puts it, progress is not constant by default and we are not raised overnight to lofty heights. We must expect times when we slip backwards but ultimate progress is made if “we do not slacken in the zeal and faithful application” of Stoic principles. I have seen glimpses of the promises of Stoicism; this insight urges me to hasten with great zeal towards infinite beauty and connection with the divine. Under Seneca’s tutelage I am advancing my true human nature steadily towards becoming more and more industrious, creative, honourable and free.
About the author: Jurgens Pieterse has a Masters degree in Industrial Engineering and is an Information manager at the Parliament of South Africa. He lives in Cape Town and is married with three children. He is a distinguished Toastmaster since 2009 and has delivered several public presentations. He devoted himself to studying the 4th Way teachings of GI Gurdjieff and Rosicrucian philosophy. To maintain a healthy life style Jurgens practice Tai Chi as sport. Finding a strong correspondence between his existing philosophical views and Stocism, Jurgens studies and applies Stoicism in his personal life