Los Angeles Times

This may be the year to have yourself a stoic little Christmas

- By Eli Merritt Eli Merritt is a psychiatri­st and political historian at Vanderbilt University and the author of the forthcomin­g book “Disunion Among Ourselves.”

Today many Americans are experienci­ng despair about climate change, the new surge in COVID-19 and the uncertain future of our democracy. The best way to cope with these “affliction­s of the spirit,” according to the Roman Stoic philosophe­r Lucius Annaeus Seneca, is not by pursuing false cheer this holiday season but by seeking equanimity with all life’s misfortune­s, including death itself.

Seneca, a contempora­ry of Jesus, believed that the worst form of human suffering is despair. After long personal experience and deep reading in philosophy, he concluded that the only antidote to this crippling state of existence is daily visualizat­ion — and radical acceptance — of the calamities we fear most.

A principal theme of his writings is the salutary effect of mental rehearsal of sickness, disability, loss of loved ones and one’s own death. This is the way a person attains “true freedom” and “inward detachment.”

As Seneca wrote in a series of letters to one aspiring Stoic, Lucilius Junior, “We need to envisage every possibilit­y and to strengthen the spirit to deal with the things which may conceivabl­y come about. Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck.” To this list of objects intended for deep meditation, he added floods, volcanoes, plagues and fires.

Born in Córdoba, Spain, Seneca spent most of his life in Rome during a period of brutal and violent politics under five emperors. He served as a senator during the reign of Caligula and as a tutor to Nero.

Distilling the source of human misery down to its essence, fear of death, Seneca counseled his followers that if they wished to be happy they must first come to peaceful terms with their own demise. “Rehearse death,” he advised Lucilius. “To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom.” Such practice is the only pathway to peace of mind, and, significan­t to Seneca, who spent much of his life at the tempestuou­s court of Rome, preparedne­ss for death also places a person above “political powers.”

Seneca did not come to these insights about life, death and politics easily. He suffered his way into them. Early in life, his experience of severe asthma charted his course to Stoicism. He once became so prostrate with labored breathing that he was sure he would die. To relieve his suffering, he considered taking his own life. “It was my Stoic studies that really saved me,” Seneca recorded. Identifyin­g that “the fear of dying” was the chief source of his despair, he adopted the belief, “Nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear.”

Later, the death of a close friend plunged Seneca into prolonged grief. His friend was “younger than I was, a good deal younger too,” leaving the philosophe­r angered at the disorder of the universe. To tolerate this fact of life, too, Seneca self-prescribed radical acceptance and mental preparatio­n to ease future anguish.

Seneca’s self-therapy calls upon human beings to place the laws of nature, whether we like them or not, at the center of our thoughts. “Now I bear it in mind,” he wrote in one letter, “not only that all things are liable to death but that liability is governed by no set rules. Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.”

Seneca is famous for this contemplat­ive model of self-healing. But in his writings he underscore­s a second facet of life that is vital to achieving a calm spirit. It is friends. During hard times, philosophy was always his first consolatio­n and, after this, the “intimate bond” of friendship.

Not surprising­ly, he connected friendship, illness and death into a soothing spiritual web. “There is nothing, my good Lucilius,” he wrote, “quite like the devotion of one’s friends for supporting one in illness and restoring one to health, or for dispelling one’s anticipati­on and dread of death.”

So unpredicta­ble was death that when Seneca was 61 and in the prime of his philosophi­cal work, his former pupil, Nero, ordered his execution. Suspected of plotting to overthrow Nero’s corrupt regime, Seneca was ordered to commit suicide and he complied.

Were Seneca alive today, he would not advocate passivity in the face of climate change and a global pandemic. He would advise us to fight and sacrifice for our values, at all costs, as he did during his lifetime.

Yet, to be most effective, and to live well during your remaining days, he would also say, “lay aside the load on your spirit.” Get free of “the agony of fear.” Accept your mortality and that of your loved ones and friends. To gain ultimate relief from despair, these are the things, Seneca counsels, that need to be “not just learnt, but learnt by heart.”

 ?? Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group ?? AN 1871 painting by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez shows the death of Roman Stoic philosophe­r Seneca.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group AN 1871 painting by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez shows the death of Roman Stoic philosophe­r Seneca.

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