Manvotional: Seneca on Dealing with Groundless Fears

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 5, 2011 · 34 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote his friend Lucilius letters in which he espoused the tenets of a life aligned with Stoic ideals. These letters were compiled in Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (Moral Letters to Lucilius). In this letter, Seneca explores the way in which a man should deal with groundless fears.


I know that you have plenty of spirit; for even before you began to equip yourself with maxims which were wholesome and potent to overcome obstacles, you were taking pride in your contest with Fortune; and this is all the more true, now that you have grappled with Fortune and tested your powers. For our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that, and have occasionally even come to close quarters with us. It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested, – the spirit that will never consent to come under the jurisdiction of things external to ourselves. This is the touchstone of such a spirit; no prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever. So then, to keep up my figure, Fortune has often in the past got the upper hand of you, and yet you have not surrendered, but have leaped up and stood your ground still more eagerly. For manliness gains much strength by being challenged; nevertheless, if you approve, allow me to offer some additional safeguards by which you may fortify yourself.

There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. I am not speaking with you in the Stoic strain but in my milder style. For it is our Stoic fashion to speak of all those things, which provoke cries and groans, as unimportant and beneath notice; but you and I must drop such great-sounding words, although, heaven knows, they are true enough. What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

The first of these three faults may be postponed for the present, because the subject is under discussion and the case is still in court, so to speak. That which I should call trifling, you will maintain to be most serious; for of course I know that some men laugh while being flogged, and that others wince at a box on the ear. We shall consider later whether these evils derive their power from their own strength, or from our own weakness.

Do me the favour, when men surround you and try to talk you into believing that you are unhappy, to consider not what you hear but what you yourself feel, and to take counsel with your feelings and question yourself independently, because you know your own affairs better than anyone else does. Ask: “Is there any reason why these persons should condole with me? Why should they be worried or even fear some infection from me, as if troubles could be transmitted? Is there any evil involved, or is it a matter merely of ill report, rather than an evil?” Put the question voluntarily to yourself: “Am I tormented without sufficient reason, am I morose, and do I convert what is not an evil into what is an evil?” You may retort with the question: “How am I to know whether my sufferings are real or imaginary?” Here is the rule for such matters: we are tormented either by things present, or by things to come, or by both. As to things present, the decision is easy. Suppose that your person enjoys freedom and health, and that you do not suffer from any external injury. As to what may happen to it in the future, we shall see later on. To-day there is nothing wrong with it. “But,” you say, “something will happen to it.” First of all, consider whether your proofs of future trouble are sure. For it is more often the case that we are troubled by our apprehensions, and that we are mocked by that mocker, rumour, which is wont to settle wars, but much more often settles individuals. Yes, my dear Lucilius; we agree too quickly with what people say. We do not put to the test those things which cause our fear; we do not examine into them; we blench and retreat just like soldiers who are forced to abandon their camp because of a dust-cloud raised by stampeding cattle, or are thrown into a panic by the spreading of some unauthenticated rumour. And somehow or other it is the idle report that disturbs us most. For truth has its own definite boundaries, but that which arises from uncertainty is delivered over to guesswork and the irresponsible license of a frightened mind. That is why no fear is so ruinous and so uncontrollable as panic fear. For other fears are groundless, but this fear is witless.

Let us, then, look carefully into the matter. It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.

The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry. But life is not worth living, and there is no limit to our sorrows, if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent; in this matter, let prudence help you, and contemn with a resolute spirit even when it is in plain sight. If you cannot do this, counter one weakness with another, and temper your fear with hope. There is nothing so certain among these objects of fear that it is not more certain still that things we dread sink into nothing and that things we hope for mock us…

But I am ashamed either to admonish you sternly or to try to beguile you with such mild remedies. Let another say. “Perhaps the worst will not happen.” You yourself must say. “Well, what if it does happen? Let us see who wins! Perhaps it happens for my best interests; it may be that such a death will shed credit upon my life.” Socrates was ennobled by the hemlock draught. Wrench from Cato’s hand his sword, the vindicator of liberty, and you deprive him of the greatest share of his glory. I am exhorting you far too long, since you need reminding rather than exhortation. The path on which I am leading you is not different from that on which your nature leads you; you were born to such conduct as I describe. Hence there is all the more reason why you should increase and beautify the good that is in you.

But now, to close my letter, I have only to stamp the usual seal upon it, in other words, to commit thereto some noble message to be delivered to you: “The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.” Reflect, my esteemed Lucilius, what this saying means, and you will see how revolting is the fickleness of men who lay down every day new foundations of life, and begin to build up fresh hopes even at the brink of the grave. Look within your own mind for individual instances; you will think of old men who are preparing themselves at that very hour for a political career, or for travel, or for business. And what is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? I should not name the author of this motto, except that it is somewhat unknown to fame and is not one of those popular sayings of Epicurus which I have allowed myself to praise and to appropriate. Farewell.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 JG February 5, 2011 at 11:24 pm

We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

Very true. Thank you for sharing.

2 Shawn February 5, 2011 at 11:29 pm

In hindsight, I really could have used this last Monday. New job, new stress and the stomach churning realization that I’ve stepped into something I can’t handle. Along comes Seneca to remind me that maybe, just maybe, its really not as bad as it seems. And, if it is, so what. All that matters is that I get back up and brace myself with the gift of manhood. Discovering this website was one of the most fortunate accidents I’ve ever been blessed with. Thank you for all you do.

3 Robert February 6, 2011 at 1:13 am

This is great advice from Seneca. I read Seneca’s book a few weeks ago and loved it. It’s full of great advice that you can apply to your life. Seneca was sent to an island to live alone for seven years when he wrote these letters to his friend. He conquered his fear of death, imagining the worst possible fate, and became afraid of nothing. I suggest you guys give this book a read.

4 E.G. February 6, 2011 at 1:36 am

Nice stuff.

Another teacher said it more succinctly:

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+6:25-27&version=NIV

5 Maru February 6, 2011 at 6:24 am

“The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.”

This is so true that it is frightening. It is true of many men, and it has all too often, I am sorry to say, been true of me. So many people, from their youngest days, go through life expecting that someday their life is going to start, and great and extraordinary things will happen to them. And they pass through life, merely existing, because they are expecting it to start at some undefined point in the future. They are not living life, because they see what they have done in the past and are doing now as some kind of prologue, or perhaps even less than a prologue — an introduction, or a foreword perhaps. And these poor damned souls, when they get to the end of their four-score years and ten, they think to themselves “Wait, wait, I can’t die now. I haven’t had a chance to really live. My life hasn’t started yet.”

And there is Death himself, shaking his head at their stupidity; even he, with uncounted centuries of experience dealing with the dying, cannot laugh at this. “Your life hasn’t started yet, you idiot?” he says to them. “What do you call the last ninety years you’ve had on this planet? It’s not my fault if you didn’t have the guts to grab the brass ring, or the wits to make something of the cards that life dealt you. No, your life started long ago. It’s not my fault if you were asleep at the wheel.”

I haven’t mastered this, yet, or figured it out. I’m not sure I ever will completely. But I know this much: I do not want to spend another moment in that haze, that dream-state of those who go through life merely existing and never really living, never really feeling. I want to live out the rest of my four-score years and ten, and more if I am lucky enough to live so long; and when I go to my reward, I want to be able to say “I was awake, and I really sucked that lemon.” I want to go to my grave full of memories, and with the sense that I made something of my life. It doesn’t have to be anything grand, or anything that would make me famous, but it does have to satisfy at least one person: me.

6 Josh Smith February 6, 2011 at 8:31 am

Wow. Maru, you made this epic article even more worth reading in my opinion!

7 Bill February 6, 2011 at 8:41 am

Classic advice that’s now coming back in style:

“The aim of Positive Psychology is to catalyze a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life.” – Martin Seligman

Check out Dr. Seligman and his associates at:
http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/

8 Mato Tope February 6, 2011 at 9:04 am

Sage advice.
Many groundless fears arise out of thinking we know what is good and what is bad for us.
I’d like to share the following traditional tale which illustrates the importance of staying open to our experiences and not rushing to judge them either good or bad.

An old man and his son lived in an abandoned fortress on the side of a hill. Their only possession of value was a horse.
One day the horse ran away. The neighbours came by to offer sympathy. “That’s really bad!” They said. “How do you know?” asked the old man.

The next day the horse returned, bringing with it several wild horses. The old man shut them all inside the gate. The neighbours hurried over. “That’s really good!” they said. “How do you know?” asked the old man.

The following day, the son tried riding one of the wild horses, fell off, and broke his leg. The neighbours came around as soon as they heard the news. “That’s really bad!” they said. “How do you know?” asked the old man.

The day after that, the army came through, forcing the local young men to fight a faraway battle against the northern barbarians. Many of them would never return. But the son couldn’t go, because he’d broken his leg.

9 Shawn February 6, 2011 at 9:16 am

“This is the touchstone of such a spirit; no prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever.”

This passage truly resonates as a strong reminder of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech in Paris, 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

It’s my hope that every man can test himself against the fires of life and come out scathed, yet stronger for it.

Best,
-S

10 Mike February 6, 2011 at 10:28 am

“No prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue”

Such a great quote. Something to remember whenever you feel pain or worry.

11 Brad February 6, 2011 at 11:09 am

“that which arises from uncertainty is delivered over to guesswork and the irresponsible license of a frightened mind” – frightening how many people live their day to day life at the mercy of an “irresponsible license of a frightened mind”!

i also follow http://gregghake.com/2011/02/uncorrupted-reason/

thanks for the continued inspirational posts

12 Christopher February 6, 2011 at 11:49 am

Stoicism seems to be making a “comeback” that corresponds very closely to other “awakenings” in society. The Tea Party movement, Paleo/Primal fitness, Crossfit (among other fitness movements) and the resurgence of the classical in Art (Classical Realism) I believe we are returning to the very principles that make this country great, and they start right in our own minds and hearts. Thanks again AOM, for leading the way!

13 Harry February 6, 2011 at 12:17 pm

I have recently began studying the practice of Mindfulness, based on old Buddhist philosophy, and this sounds very similar, but more concrete. Good find Brett.

14 Francisco February 6, 2011 at 1:27 pm

I am 14 years old, and this is not my first time reading an article here, but what difference in this one is that so far in tr day today. I have only been in my bed all day imagening how my life could be better. Reading this article, realize the wrong I been doing, which is staying in my bed just imagining. Thank you for posting this article. It made get up from the bed and start living life how it should be.

15 creesto February 6, 2011 at 3:10 pm

This year we went through bankruptcy and we lost our 13 year old son to an accident while we were on vacation. Our relationship has endured and deepened, but as a man I have struggled with remaining stoic, especially after losing my best bud, my namesake, my first child, my son Ian. My tears of grief are natural, normal and part of my healing process but it is the trigger that I find myself turning over in my mind like a shiny marble. It has become challenging to recognize whether my pain is for my son or for myself. Is it the intense sadness of tragic loss or self-pity because of the horror I have endured? I bring myself back by remembering to honor my son and life. I talk of him often (usually without becoming teary) and I am mindful of his teachings every day. Great post, I shall explore deeper.

16 rollercoaster February 6, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Thanks for the post. Definitely going to try to apply this to my life and those around me.

17 rollercoaster February 6, 2011 at 3:13 pm

*Correction: I WILL apply this advice to my life.

18 Paul February 6, 2011 at 3:29 pm

To Shawn (the first commenter)

Back in 2004 I took a job (the one I have now) after being out of work for two years. (I basically lost everything I owned – lost my house, had a boat and a truck and money in the bank. I foolishly paid my bills before ultimately going bankrupt).

When I got the job I thought it was a blessing from above. On the third day into it, I was humiliated by my manager and constantly for months (this woman could teach bitch school), and I knew I had made the wrong decision – but I was desperate.

I mentioned to a priest friend, that I had finally gotten work, but it turned out to be the “job from hell”.

He looked at me square in the eyes and said to me “you got that job because you were the best person qualified to do it, no other reason”.

I never thought about it that way. I ended up getting a new boss six months later, a great guy who appreciated everything I did. I’ve been at the job 7 years now.

Hang in there pal – you’ve got what it takes!

19 Brucifer February 6, 2011 at 3:59 pm

I concur that Maru has contributed a most excellent piece to this post. Thank you!

20 Christopher February 6, 2011 at 4:52 pm

@ creesto: Even Jesus wept for Lazarus. Perhaps you do weep for yourself but that’s OK. It simply demonstrates the depth of your love for your Son.

21 Elias February 6, 2011 at 4:56 pm

@Creesto Wow, that is a lot to go through, makes me feel a bit ashamed thinking of my own problems, im sorry for your loss, hope you get through it all!

@Maru Your post hits way too close to heart, im guilty of doing this, hard mindset to get out of.

22 JeffC February 6, 2011 at 7:05 pm

@ Paul: you posted “I foolishly paid my bills before ultimately going bankrupt.”

I understand the practical sentiment, but you’re a man for having paid your bills. Period. I admire you for that, and you should see that as the action of a responsible man. You owed, and you paid. You lived by your standards. Hold your head high, and and don’t listen to friends who suggest you would have been better off had you done differently. You might have had a few more dollars, but how would you enjoy that money if you had to live with yourself, knowing you failed to live up to your own standard of honesty?

Don’t think of this as some absurd twist of karma, as if doing the right thing should have guaranteed benefit for you. That will lead to bitterness, and the adult inside you says that attitude is foolish. This situation was a test of character, and you got an “A”.

Walk away with that. And the next time you step into the ring, you will be able to smile, because you’ve been beaten black and blue, and you know it doesn’t kill you. Let life pound away.

With admiration,
Jeff

23 Alan February 6, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Hi Brett and Kate,
Great website!I’ve been reading it for quite some time now.However I think it would be a good idea if there was an area on the website for readers to list some suggestions and ideas for new topics ye could cover?It might give ye some inspiration and also give readers an opinion on what they might like to see posted in the future?Some random ideas that I can think of are:DIY projects,car maintenance,oil change,spark plugs,plumbing,electrics,carpentry,tiling etc,hunting,simple navigational skills,astronemy,World Wars,music,dreams,self esteem,time managment,anxiety,card games,card tricks,pub tricks,krav maga??????
yours sincerely,Alan B

24 Mike February 6, 2011 at 10:19 pm

This just again proves that it is the most simple truths that are true: Imagination torments us more than reality.

This reminds me of this past summer when I studied abroad in Italy. In the days leading up to my departure I was filled with anxiety of traveling, leaving behind my friends and family from home during one of only times of the year I see them and having to meet a slew of new people going on the trip, in addition to an ex-roommate who there was some bad blood with. I was even starting to think I should back out that I became so worried.

Even once I we arrived in Italy and checked into the college we were staying at I remember dropping off my luggage in my room, walking out the door to goto an orientation meeting and stopping in the stairwell just filled terror. “What the fuck am I doing here, I’d rather be home,with my friends, somewhere predictable and comfortable, this is going to be hell…”.

This mindset lasted for little more than a few hours. That night all of us who were on the trip walked to the small town we were near and went to the bars. Some drinks later and I realized I was having the time of my life. Everyone on the trip had something about them that was truly unique and good, the local people were kind and welcoming, our professor was a very down to earth man and class mostly consisted of us just talking about whatever we wanted (in Italian of course). I conversed with locals and my Italian became better in 6 weeks than it had the entire year I studied it at my university. I met people that made lasting impressions on me, made friends that I still talk to, and even made good with my ex-roommate. It was truly a life changing experience.

Now, when I feel anxious about going into any situation I think back to that pang of fear and terror I felt in the that stairwell in Italy and remind myself that that pang of terror was the starting point of one of the single most positive experiences of my life.

25 Maru February 7, 2011 at 1:49 am

Thank you for your praise, Josh. It makes me happy to know that my writing makes for pleasant reading. I’ve got a long way to go yet, but the fact that I can write it out tells me that I’m starting to get there. The next thing is applying it. That, of course, is where the really heavy lifting starts.

All the best, and good luck applying this to you, Brett, and everyone else here.

26 Nick February 7, 2011 at 11:23 am

Great information, thanks for posting…the highlights were perfect. I’ve read some of Seneca writings before, but it really helps me to focus on smaller pieces of his writing.

@Maru…the quote you expounded on definitely had the greatest impact on me as well. Thank you for your thoughts on this post. The passionate tone of your writing was spot-on for this topic. You should turn that into a full post, and send it in…I mean, what are you waiting for :) ?

27 Flaviu Simihaian February 7, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Great post. I am a fan of Stoicism also, and have recently made a podcast about Seneca’s Letters. If you have a chance to listen to it, let me know what you think: http://readncode.com/podcast/seneca-and-the-zen-of-python

28 roger February 8, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Isn’t it strange that despite the distants time puts between us and the days of Seneca only the trappings of our surroundings have changed. We are still at times governed by the same emotions and find ourselves in the same situations as people in ancient times. These words could have been written yesterday when one considers the force they carry. These are not the words of a person who is looking towards a non-existant being for help, but instead tells us to reach into ourselves to find the way to solve the problems before us. Seneca says ”we suffer more often in imagination than reality”. How very true this statement trully is.

29 Maimónides February 10, 2011 at 11:59 am

Do you mean the Cordoban Stoic Philosopher?

30 Darrius Antonopoulos February 10, 2011 at 4:26 pm

This is great-much needed- thanks

31 James Yarbrough February 11, 2011 at 8:54 am

A great reminder to not whine about your life but to live it like it will end at any minute.

32 jordan w February 24, 2011 at 1:11 am

funny coincidence…Great Zamboni also mentioned Seneca in the latest message on his blog.. and the amazing Flo from the “Alice” sitcom… of course you see the connection right?
thanks for your article…
-great Z

33 Manny January 27, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Excellent piece. Thank you.

34 joe August 19, 2013 at 12:14 am

if you think the tea party is an awakening you should probably do some more reading.

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