Seneca argues that chasing things like wealth or fame will result in a life that feels perpetually unfinished: “if, no matter how far you travel, there always seems to be some further place you need to reach, that is a sure sign that the desire is contrary to nature...”
In a letter to his friend Lucilius, the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BCE - 65 CE) reflects on the following statement from the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus:
If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live to please the opinions of others, you will never be rich.
Commenting on this observation, Seneca adds:
For nature has very few demands, whereas the tyranny of opinion is immense.
To illustrate this point, Seneca asks Lucilius to imagine what would occur if he inherited vast wealth:
Suppose you inherit the estates of many rich men. Fortune carries you well beyond the normal limits of a private income and covers you with gold, clothes you in the finest purple, and brings you to such an apex of luxury and wealth that you can pave your land with marble till you not merely possess riches but actually walk on them. On top of this you have statues, paintings and the ultimate adornments of luxury that any of the arts can devise…
What might the result of all this wealth be? Would Lucilius find long-term happiness at last?
Probably not, Seneca writes. In fact:
The only thing you will learn from all this will be to want still more.
Indeed, the problem with things like wealth and fame is that they have no limit: there is always more popularity to secure; always more money to accumulate.
What seemed enough yesterday has simply reset today’s baseline: we must have more.
As Seneca writes:
The desires implanted by nature [i.e. for food, water, human connection] have a limit, but those born from false opinion have no way of reaching an end…
If we measure ourselves according to external status symbols, we will never be satisfied ― for where does it end?
The upshot, then, is that if we are to possibly feel at peace in life, we cannot allow ourselves to be enslaved by desires that are impossible to fulfill.
“Pull yourself back from empty pursuits,” Seneca commands:
and if you want to know whether your ambitions stem from a natural desire or from some blind and trivial impulse, just ask whether they have a definite terminus. If, no matter how far you travel, there always seems to be some further place you need to reach, that is a sure sign that the desire is contrary to nature…
We must ask ourselves: what destination are we really trying to reach?
Might we be there already?
Of course, we need money and resources to survive; Seneca is not denying this. His point is simply not to confuse ‘survive’ with ‘thrive’.
If we have enough resources so that our natural desires (and those of our dependents) are reliably met, then why bother seeking more? What’s it all actually for?
If we dedicate our (only) lives to the accumulation of status and resources, we climb aboard a golden treadmill, frantically moving but not actually going anywhere.
“The life of such people is always unfinished,” Seneca says, and:
We cannot stand prepared for death if we are just beginning to live. We must instead make sure that we have already lived enough. And no one could think this about himself if he is forever involved in starting to live. You should not suppose that such people are few in number: almost everyone is like this. Indeed, they begin to live only when it is time to stop. If you think this strange, I will add something which will surprise you even more: some people leave off living before they have even begun…
If the purpose of philosophy is to prepare us for death, as many of the ancients thought, then we can view Seneca’s words as a challenge.
Will we vainly, blindly strut upon the gilded treadmill of wealth and fame and resource accumulation, ever grasping forward but with no real destination in mind?
Or will we climb off, and with eyes wide open, appreciate the richness, the beauty, the joy of life that is right here before us, ready for us to claim it?
If you’re interested in learning more about how Seneca thought we could live good lives, Letters from a Stoic collects his most important and illuminating writings, and features on our list of Stoicism’s best books.
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