Do you want more freedom? If so what sort of freedom are you seeking, and what do you want it for? Seneca’s Letters on ethics begins with the directive to free ourselves. This theme is the core of Seneca’s philosophy, and is the central aim of his program in the Letters.
So what sort of Stoic freedom is at the centre of Seneca’s art of living?
The freeing of ourselves so we live life rather than spending our short time on this planet as slaves and time servers.
For Seneca, the Stoics and other ancient practitioners, philosophy was not just a therapy for healing what is amiss in your life, it was also the truest and perhaps only pathway to the most important freedom.
“Do that…assert your own freedom”
This quote is the first line of Seneca’s 475 page masterpiece. Notably he does not use the Latin word for liberty to describe the freedom he directs Lucilius to claim for himself. His choice is a legal term used to describe the process of liberating a slave in Ancient Rome. It was also a term used to intimate claiming the self, which is part of what Seneca means by Stoic freedom in the first and subsequent letters of the Moral Epistles. In our era of authenticity, we might say reclaiming our self.
So what is it that enslaves us that we need to liberate ourselves from? The answer to this question will evolve as we move through the Letters. However, Stoic philosophers are infamous for wanting to free people from their passions. That idea underpins understanding of Stoic philosophy as “a therapy of desire.” It seems to me a better moral ideal for the twenty-first century is to translate it as “a therapy for craving.” This is a clearer description of our aim when we use Seneca as a resource for life coaching.
A therapy of craving
There are many places to begin when you make your own life the subject of your philosophical art of living. As we begin to navigate through the letters and Seneca’s Stoic notions of what is good, and how we can transform ourselves, I think it prudent to start with work on our cravings. These are much easier to identify as something to address than a focus on our behaviours or patterns of thinking. Especially when we are uncertain about what ideas underpin those behaviours. Cravings are also far easier to evaluate whether they are supporting or undermining the style of life we aspire to. And, in many areas – food and entertainment for instance – they are relatively trivial in moral terms, and go to the heart of what distracts us from the way we want to live our life.
Throughout the ages there is one craving that has lead to much craven, character undermining behaviours: the urge to remain alive. This idea of wanting to live at all costs can become dangerous in the eyes of the Stoic philosophers. While they still love life, they are concerned as thinkers with a healthy regard to the limits of human existence and the ecology that supports it, that there are times when craving to stay alive or stay alive for a very long time, can damage our perspective on a good life. In contemporary times we see the repeated example of craven behaviour from political parties desperately trying to hang on to power in the lead up to elections. In literature, the long drawn our death or hanging onto life of Paul Morel’s mother in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers is a dramatic example.
In his first of 124 letters, Seneca begins to build the argument that conflating life with time lived is a problematic notion that feeds a vacuous craving for life at the expense of life itself and the desire to live a good life. Seneca appears to be telling us we ought to conceive time as a tool to use in the project of freeing ourselves. We cannot free ourselves in an instant, it takes time and application. If we think of time as our life, our life slips away from us. If we think of time as something given to us, we can make sure we use it as a tool in our journey to freedom. If we mistake time alive for life, we crave more time on this planet and never satisfy our true potential for freedom. If we can see time as something to be used to cultivate Stoic freedom, we can work towards real living which is to say freedom from the cravings that enslave us.
In the first letter, Seneca has linked time to freedom as the only tool that is truly ours. Next time we explore the second letter. It outlines one of the exercises that helps to navigate the process of turning philosophical ideas in to actions that will transform our life.