I’ve been engaged in reading some Hellenistic philosophy recently, more specifically Stoicism and Epicureanism. The reason behind this was personal, to see if I could glean some wisdom to help me with a few personal issues that have been bothering me. I uncovered some interesting findings I thought I’d share here, some rather unexpected, some useful, and some a little dated for my purposes. After all, this was going back some time!.
In short, the period we are talking about is the 3rd century BC. Hellenistic culture was formed in many respects by the conquests of Alexander the Great of the Persian Empire and sparked a period of Greek colonization and cultural diffusion over a wide area including the Near and Middle East.
My interests, were based on the stoic philosophy on overcoming adversity, and managing to maintain a self-control and resiliance based on the laws of nature (as they were at the time). This reading was due to an overwhelming need to get back to basic principles of living that have been usurped by modern living in Norway. The Stoics controlled their emotions and were very influential during the early Hellenistic period.
Seneca (c.4 BCE – 65 CE) has had a remarkable, yet under valued contribution to the history of ideas, and I’ll share some of the most interesting thoughts I found in his works, especially the fascinating “Letters from a Stoic”. Here, Seneca discusses wide ranging philosophical issues, from fear, to desire and death and even the role of physical activity and the need NOT TO OVERDO IT!. This is probably the one insight that has influenced me most this year!.
In his letters to his disciple Lucilius, Seneca advocates a simple life, free of decadence, full of humbleness and striving to face your deepest fears that enable one to face adversity head on, and come out, well, philosophical about life!. The search for meaning, has to come through learning, which is through philosophy. One must strive to live within one’s means, yet “your greatest difficulty is with yourself; you are your own stumbling-block.” Here, he warns Lucius to work on cultivating his morals, for every man is a slave to fear, sex, mony and ambition. Good advice is for everyone to use, and to apply to their lives, not merely acknowledge the source.
In Letter XV, Seneca talks about “Balancing exercise of the mind with exercise of the body”. I was suprised and happy to come across this, and intrigued as to how relevant it was to my own way of thinking about the balance between my own training and academic life today. Remember this was not a period of comfort Seneca was writing about. It was harsh, and freedom was certainly not taken for granted. But for Seneca, philosophy was to be practically used in order to pursue the good, whilst enduring hardship. It was no good just reading and thinking, or exercising religious beliefs if ones inner morals and ethical choices were not formed and played out in everyday life. It is here I found resonance with Seneca in the way we live today. One can live a life of happiness, but one must not be greedy, hide behind wealth or ignorance, selfishness and withdrawl. One must face fears head on, and look towards nature as a guiding force of longevity.
“The greater the load, moreover, on the body is crushing to the spirit and renders it less active. So keep the body within bounds as much as you can and make room for the spirit” Letter XV
“There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time. There is running, swinging weights and jumping – either high jumping or long jumping…pick out any of these for ease and straightforwardness” Letter XV
Seneca appears here as a personal trainer type mentor to young Lucilius, warning of the excesses of overtraining, but making it clear that moderate exercise of the simple kind is beneficial to the body, and more importantly, to the mind which needs cultivating day and night.
Seneca encourages his pupil to seek satisfaction on a daily basis, not to wait for something better to appear, or to dwell too much on the sage-like advice that floats about. For me and my training and personal issues, Seneca revealed a lot to me about the nature of stoicism within us all, and the need to extend yourself through “constant nourishment” from those who are gifted in what they do, whether a writer, or a coach. For people who look upon exercise as a fleeting recreation in which to try numerous different disciplines and techniques, without much reflection on the nuanced way it effects your mind/body performance, then we look to Seneca’s analogous referral to being “everywhere, but nowhere”.
Whether it is friendships, careers or sporting activity, Seneca speaks to the ethics of life as a fleeting chance that may be swept before us before it is too late to fulfil our potentials. I’ll post more on this and other interesting topics from Seneca and other stoics later, and talk about the Epicureans as well. Slow things down, enjoy good food, be social and enjoy nature and experiences free from all the “stuff” society tells us to be surrounded by. Chill out, that’s what the vibe was 2000 years ago…unless you were a slave that it.