Travel and Seneca

Travel and Seneca

Mt fuji

I just returned from an adventure hiking mountains in Japan, and was feeling that deflated sense of meaning upon returning home. I opened one of my favourite books for guidance, Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. A Roman statesman and philosopher who provides phenomenally relevant advice for living the good life, even though his words were written 2000 years ago!!!

Yes that was an excessive use of exclamation marks, I apologise. It just blows my mind that we have access to the words and thoughts of someone who died not hundreds of years ago, but thousands.

Anyhow, moving right along.

I happened to open to this chapter, and rather than pollute it’s wisdom with my words, I will leave it in it’s entirety below (NOTE: everything in bold, besides the title, is my attempt at highlighting the key point):

LETTER XXVIII

Do you think you are the only person to have had this experience? Are you really surprised, as if it were something unprecedented, that so long a tour and such diversity of scene have not enabled you to throw off this melancholy and this feeling of depression? A change of character, not a change of air, is what you need. Though you cross the boundless ocean, though, to use the words of our poet Virgil,

Lands and towns are left astern,

whatever your destination you will be followed by your failings. Here is what Socrates said to someone who was making the same complaint: “How can you wonder your travels do you no good, when you carry yourself around with you? You are saddled with the very thing that drove you away.” How can novelty of surroundings abroad and becoming acquainted with foreign scenes or cities be of any help? All that dashing about turns out to be quite futile. And if you want to know why all this running away cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company. You have to lay aside the load on your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you. Imagine your present state of being like that of the prophetess whom our Virgil represents in a roused and excited state, largely taken over by the spirit not her own:

The Sibyl raves about as one possessed,

In hopes she may dislodge the mighty god

Within her bosom.

You rush hither and thither with the idea of dislodging a firmly seated weight when the very dashing about just adds to the trouble it causes you – like cargo in a ship, which does not weigh her down unduly so long as it does not shift, but if it rolls more to one side than the other it is liable to carry the side on which it settles down into the water. What ever you do is bad for you, the very movement in itself being harmful to you since you are in fact shaking up a sick man.

Once you have rid yourself of the affliction there, though, every change of scene will become a pleasure. You may be banished to the ends of the earth, and yet in whatever outlandish corner of the world you may find yourself stationed, you will find that place, whatever it may be like, a hospitable home. Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there. We ought not therefore, to give over our hearts for good to any one part of the world. We should live with the conviction: ‘I wasn’t born for one particular corner: the whole world’s my home country.’ If the truth of that were clear to you, you would not be surprised that the diversity of new surroundings for which, out of weariness of the old, you are constantly heading fails to do you any good. Whichever you first came to would have satisfied you if you had believed you were at home in all. As it is, instead of travelling you are rambling and drifting, exchanging one place for another when the thing you are looking for, the good life, is available everywhere.

Could there be a scene of greater turmoil than the city? Yet even there, if need be, you are free to lead a life of peace. Given a free choice of posting, though, I should flee a long way from the vicinity, let alone the sight of the city. For in the same way as there are unpleasent climates which are trying even to the most robust constitutions, there are other which are none too wholesome for the mind, even though it is a sound one, when it is still in an imperfect state and building up its strength. I do not agree with those who recommend a stormy life and plunge straight into the breakers, waging a spirited struggle against worldly obstacles every day of their lives. The wise man will put up with these things, not go out of his way to meet them; he will prefer a state of peace to a state of war. It does not profit a man much to have managed to discard his own failings if her must ever be at loggerheads with other people’s. ‘Socrates’ they will tell you, ‘had the thirty tyrants standing over him and yet they could not break his spirit.’ What difference does it make how many masters a man has? Slavery is only one, and yet the person who refuses to let the thought of it affect him is a free man no matter how great the swarm of masters around him.

It is time I left off – not before I have paid the usual duty, though! ‘A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.’ This remark of Epicurus’ is to me a very good one. For a person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right. You have to catch your self doing it before you can reform. Some people boast about their failings: can you imagine someone who counts his faults as merits ever giving thought to their cure? So – to the best of your ability – demonstrate your own guilt, conduct inquiries of your own into all the evidence against yourself. Play the part first of prosecutor, then of judge and finally of pleader in mitigation. Be harsh with yourself at times.

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