Stoic Wisdom by Seneca – On Groundless Fears

Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all, – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.” -Seneca


Worrying and having fear for the uncertainty and unknown are no strangers to most people, including me.

To ignore real danger is wrong. But it is also wrong, as well as unhealthy, to be immobilized by excessive worry and fear for the unknown.

Work on facing my fears and having a peaceful mind is an on-going process.

In overall life is in balance and my mind is calm, yet I still can discover moments when something rocks my inner peace. It is a good time to grow, embrace the unknown, let go and make changes.

The tragedy of fear and worry is so simple to look from a witness perspective, assuming we have the inner power to step out from our thought stream.

There are many tools to eliminate fear and worry, to bring our mind back to the present moment. Meditation has been my main tool, along with psychotherapy at one point, as well as exercise, good sleep and different books.

One of these books that has had a big impact on me is “Letters from a Stoic” (moral letters to Lucilius), a collection of 124 letters which were written by Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger around 2000 years ago at the end of his life, during his retirement, and written after he had worked for the Emperor Nero for fifteen years.

The letters are all addressed to his friend Lucilius, the then procurator of Sicily, but they might as well be addressed to you and me, packed with timeless wisdom on how to overcome destructive emotions, make sense of the world, how to improve individual’s ethical and moral well-being, allowing to better understand the universal reason known also as logos.

Some of the letters are quite long like the one titled “On Shortness Of Life” (also available as a separate book), that requires about an hour of your time, while most letters take around 10 minutes to read.

Few days ago I felt the presence of anxiety rising with a good understanding of what are its roots and later when I was done with all my daily errands, grabbed “Letters from a Stoic” from my bookshelf and opened “Letter 13: On Groundless Fears”.

In this letter, Seneca explores the way in which a man should deal with fear and here are some of his thoughts that I have highlighted:

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.

There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

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.

…we are tormented either by things present, or by things to come, or by both.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Accordingly, weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears, and whenever all the elements are in doubt, decide in your own favour; believe what you prefer.

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.”

Hence there is all the more reason why you should increase and beautify the good that is in you.

The book is now also available in audio format titled “Tao of Seneca – Practical Letters from a Stoic Master“, narrated by John A. Robinson.

Thought leaders in Silicon Valley tout the benefits of Stoicism, and NFL management, coaches, and players (Patriots, Seahawks, etc.) alike have embraced it because the principles make them better competitors. If you study Seneca, you’ll be in good company. He was popular with the educated elite of the Greco-Roman Empire, but Thomas Jefferson also had Seneca on his bedside table. This philosophy is a no-nonsense system designed to produce dramatic real-world effects. Think of it as an ideal operating system for thriving in high-stress environments.

The Tao of Seneca is your guide.

Listening or reading this ancient, yet timeless wisdom can dramatically impact on how you start or end your day.


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