Seneca's Consolation Letters

A series of short audio meditations on Seneca’s Letters of Consolation to his friends Marcia and Polybius, and to his mother Helvia.

To Marcia I: Our feelings may end up feeding upon their own bitterness, until the unhappy mind takes a morbid delight in grief. But we can challenge the cognitive component of our own emotions and move forward.

To Marcia IV: In consoling Marcia, Seneca reminds her that one’s virtue is on display when the universe challenges with adversity, not when life glides easily with a favoring current.

To Marcia VII: Feeling grief and sorrow at the loss of a loved one is natural and inevitable. Dwelling on it to the point of becoming paralyzed and not being able to resume an active role in society is something we need to avoid.

To Marcia IX: One way to prepare for setbacks in life is to pay attention when they happen to others. We are not exceptions to the fabric of the universe, we are an integral part of it. What happens to others may or will happen to us.

To Marcia X: Everything we think we have is actually on loan from the universe, so to speak, and we need to be ready to give it back whenever the universe recalls the loan, no matter in what form it does it.

To Marcia XII: Seneca reminds his friend Marcia, who had lost a son a couple of years later, that it is better to be thankful for what she had, rather than resentful for what she has lost.

To Marcia XVI: Believe me — says Seneca to Marcia — [women] have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honorable and generous action.

To Marcia XVII: Every time we lose a loved one it means that we have, in fact, loved. So we should not be resentful for what the universe has taken, but rather thankful for what it has given.

To Marcia XVII: Whenever we decide to do something, we enter in a bargain with the cosmic web of cause-effect. The decision and effort is up to us, the outcome not so.

To Marcia XIX: He who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots.

To Marcia XIX: If anyone pities the dead, he ought also to pity those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor a bad thing, for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing.

To Marcia XX: If sickness had carried off that glory and support of the empire Gnaeus Pompeius, at Naples, he would have died the undoubted head of the Roman people, but as it was, a short extension of time cast him down from his pinnacle of fame.

To Marcia XXI: Life is short, and we should thread lightly, mindful of the fact that it is up to us to leave the place in good conditions, so that the next travelers will enjoy it as much as we did.

To Marcia XXI: Unless you believe in miracles, you agree that events are regulated by cause and effect. In which case the notion that someone dies “too soon” is highly problematic. Not just metaphysically, but for your own mental well being.

To Marcia XXIV: To have lived 60 years, or 70, or 100 is an interesting factoid, but the real question is: have you lived well?

To Helvia II-III: You have gained nothing by so many misfortunes, if you have not learned how to suffer.

To Helvia V: External circumstances have very little importance either for good or for evil: wise persons are neither elated by prosperity nor depressed by adversity.

To Helvia V: Always stand as it were on guard, and mark the attacks and charges of Fortune long before she delivers them; she is only terrible to those whom she catches unawares.

To Helvia V: No one loses anything by the frowns of Fortune unless they have been deceived by her smiles. The one who has not been puffed up by success, does not collapse after failure.

To Helvia VIII: Whithersoever we betake ourselves two most excellent things will accompany us, namely, a common Nature and our own special virtue.

To Helvia X: How unhappy are they whose appetite can only be aroused by costly food! And the costliness of food depends not upon its delightful flavor and sweetness of taste, but upon its rarity and the difficulty of procuring it.

To Helvia X: Why do you amass fortune after fortune? Are you unwilling to remember how small our bodies are? Is it not frenzy and the wildest insanity to wish for so much when you can contain so little?

To Helvia XIII: If you regard the end of your days not as a punishment, but as an ordinance of nature, no fear of anything else will dare to enter the breast which has cast out the fear of death.

To Helvia XVI: The best middle course between affection and hard common sense is both to feel regret and to restrain it.

To Helvia XX: These days are my best, because my mind is at leisure to attend to its own affairs, and at one time amuses itself with lighter studies, at another eagerly presses its inquiries into its own nature and that of the universe.

To Polybius I: What, indeed, have mortal hands made that is not mortal? The seven wonders of the world, and any even greater wonders which the ambition of later ages has constructed, will be seen some day leveled with the ground.

To Polybius I: Who can be so haughtily and peevishly arrogant as to expect that this law of nature by which every thing is brought to an end will be set aside in his own case, and that his own house will be exempted from the ruin which menaces the whole world itself?

To Polybius II: I would force some drops to flow from these eyes, exhausted as they are with weeping over my own domestic afflictions, were it likely to be of any service to you.

To Polybius V: If your brother wishes you to be tortured with endless mourning, he does not deserve such affection; if he does not wish it, dismiss the grief which affects you both.

To Polybius VIII: At such times let literature repay to you the debt which your long and faithful love has laid upon it, let it claim you for its high priest and worshipper: at such times let Homer and Virgil be much in your company.

To Polybius IX: If the dead retain no feeling whatever, my brother has escaped from all the troubles of life. What madness then for me never to cease grieving for one who will never grieve again?

To Polybius X: You need not think for how much longer you might have had him, but for how long you did have him. Nature gave him to you, as she gives others to other brothers, not as an absolute property, but as a loan.

To Polybius XI: “But,” you say, “he was taken away unexpectedly.” Every man is deceived by his own willingness to believe what he wishes, and he chooses to forget that those whom he loves are mortal.

To Polybius XII: Turn yourself away from these thoughts which torment you, and look rather at those numerous and powerful sources of consolation which you possess: look at your excellent brothers, look at your wife and your son.

To Polybius XIV: Fortune has not chosen you as the only person in the world to receive so severe a blow: there is no house in all the earth, and never has been one, that has not something to mourn for.

To Polybius XVII: For it is not human not to feel our sorrows, while it is unvirtuous not to bear them.

To Polybius XVIII: Prolong the remembrance of your brother by inserting some memoir of him among your other writings: for that is the only sort of monument that can be erected by man which no storm can injure, no time destroy.

To Polybius XVIII: I know that there are some, whose wisdom is of a harsh rather than a brave character, who say that the sage never would mourn. They have never  been in the position of mourners,  otherwise their misfortune would have shaken their haughty philosophy out of them.