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Eli Merritt is a psychiatrist and political historian at Vanderbilt University. This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Today many Americans are experiencing despair about climate change, the new surge in COVID-19 and the uncertain future of our democracy. The best way to cope with these “afflictions of the spirit,” according to the Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, is not by pursuing false cheer this holiday season but by seeking equanimity with all life’s misfortunes, including death itself.
Seneca, a contemporary of Jesus, believed that the worst form of human suffering is despair. After long personal experience and deep reading in philosophy, he concluded that the only antidote to this crippling state of existence is daily visualization — and radical acceptance — of the calamities we fear most.
A principal theme of his writings is the salutary effect of mental rehearsal of sickness, disability, loss of loved ones and one’s own death. This is the way a person attains “true freedom” and “inward detachment.”
As Seneca wrote in a series of letters to one aspiring Stoic, Lucilius Junior, “We need to envisage every possibility and to strengthen the spirit to deal with the things which may conceivably come about. Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck.” To this list of objects intended for deep meditation, he added floods, volcanoes, plagues and fires.
Born in Cordoba, Spain, Seneca spent most of his life in Rome during a period of brutal and violent politics under five emperors. He served as a senator during the reign of Caligula and as a tutor to Nero.
Distilling the source of human misery down to its essence, fear of death, Seneca counseled his followers that if they wished to be happy they must first come to peaceful terms with their own demise. “Rehearse death,” he advised Lucilius. “To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom.” Such practice is the only pathway to peace of mind, and, significant to Seneca, who spent much of his life at the tempestuous court of Rome, preparedness for death also places a person above “political powers.”
Seneca did not come to these insights about life, death and politics easily. He suffered his way into them. Early in life, his experience of severe asthma charted his course to Stoicism. He once became so prostrate with labored breathing that he was sure he would die. Identifying that “the fear of dying” was the chief source of his despair, he adopted the belief, “Nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear.”
Later, the death of a close friend plunged Seneca into prolonged grief. His friend was “younger than I was, a good deal younger too,” leaving the philosopher angered at the disorder of the universe. To tolerate this fact of life, too, Seneca self-prescribed radical acceptance and mental preparation to ease future anguish.
Seneca’s self-therapy calls upon human beings to place the laws of nature, whether we like them or not, at the center of our thoughts. “Now I bear it in mind,” he wrote in one letter, “not only that all things are liable to death but that liability is governed by no set rules. Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.”
Seneca is famous for this contemplative model of self-healing. But in his writings he underscores a second facet of life that is vital to achieving a calm spirit. It is friends. During hard times, philosophy was always his first consolation and, after this, the “intimate bond” of friendship.
Not surprisingly, he connected friendship, illness and death into a soothing spiritual web. “There is nothing, my good Lucilius,” he wrote, “quite like the devotion of one’s friends for supporting one in illness and restoring one to health, or for dispelling one’s anticipation and dread of death.”
So unpredictable was death that when Seneca was 61 and in the prime of his philosophical work, his former pupil, Nero, ordered his execution.
Were Seneca alive today, he would not advocate passivity in the face of climate change and a global pandemic. He would advise us to fight and sacrifice for our values, at all costs, as he did during his lifetime.
Yet, to be most effective, and to live well during your remaining days, he would also say, “lay aside the load on your spirit.” Get free of “the agony of fear.” Accept your mortality and that of your loved ones and friends. To gain ultimate relief from despair, these are the things, Seneca counsels, that need to be “not just learnt, but learnt by heart.”