Posts tagged ‘adversity’

Seneca on Adversity and Fortune

Seneca, the Roman philosopher and statesman, had a lot to say about adversity and how to deal with the strange twists of Fate. This wasn’t just philosophical musings either, because Seneca’s life was full of extreme highs and lows of fortune. He experienced times of debilitating loss as well as periods of great power and wealth. As a young lawyer he was exiled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius because of his skill at oratory- Claudius was envious of his eloquence. He sent him to Corsica, then a barren, barely populated island, for 8 years. Just before he was taken away, his young son died and while in exile his wife also died. Seneca’s life was at its lowest ebb.

When Claudius married Agrippina, she convinced the Emperor to bring Seneca back to Rome to become tutor to her son Nero. She eventually made him a Consul, a powerful political position. When Nero finally became Emperor, Seneca found himself at the centre of Roman power and he parlayed that into the amassing of great wealth, becoming one of the richest men in the Empire.

This life of extreme ups and downs gave Seneca plenty of material for his writings. He was always wary of Fortuna, the God who was behind the changes of fate. He believed you always had to look at the dark side of possible events (the bottom line). This was his reality principle:

Never give in to adversity

Don’t dare trust prosperity.

The blow you’ve anticipated

Will do the least harm.


None of us can make promises about what is to come. Even what we hold slips through our fingers; and accident cuts short the very hour we have in our grasp. Fear keeps pace with hope, like a prisoner and his escort

He claimed to have welcomed poverty when he was in exile:

Those of us who are on good terms with poverty can count ourselves rich.

The person who is truly impoverished is not the one who has little but the one who yearns after more.

Of course as a rich man he was accused of being a hypocrite for writing lines like this:

Society is unanimous on the subject of Greed- it wallows in it. People look up to money, they pray for it for themselves. They offer it up as if it were the noblest profession they could possibly have.

But Seneca the philosopher also talked about the value and importance of the soul:

Riches are not where we pile them up. It is the soul, not the safe, that we need to fill.

Seneca’s life, with its rollercoaster highs and lows, its grandeur jutted next to fears and anxieties feels very modern to me, even though he lived 2000 years ago. He is an example of how we can fall abruptly from high position and status but also can rise again from the ashes. There is hope in this. Things continually change. Nothing stays static.

But in the end, Nero forced Seneca to commit suicide, because he knew too much about Nero’s transgressions. However Seneca went down in history as having a ‘good’ philosophical death.

(Quotations from The Spiritual Teachings of Seneca by Mark Forstater and Victoria Radin)

April 17, 2009 at 3:28 pm 3 comments

The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.