Did the ancient philosophers invent the self-care movement?
I am a fan of Seneca (c.1 BC-AD 65), the politician, orator, and Stoic philosopher whose writings included letters, philosophical essays, dialogues, tragedies, and satires. Seneca unfortunately got in the emperors’ bad books: Caligula was jealous of his rhetorical skill; Claudius banished Seneca after accusing him of adultery with Caligula’s sister; later, Seneca became Nero’s tutor and political advisor, but Nero falsely accused him of conspiracy after his retirement and ordered him to commit suicide.
In those mad times—madder than ours?—Seneca managed to write many calming essays that fit in with today’s self-care movement. Instead of slaving at jobs for other people, or wasting all our leisure on trivial pursuits, we must take time to do the things we’ve always wanted to.
In De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life), Seneca observes that rich and poor alike complain that life is too short. (The quotes from Seneca below are my translations from the Latin.)
It is not that we have little time, but that we waste much. Life is long enough and is liberally provided for the accomplishment of the greatest things, if the whole is well spent; but when it flows away through luxury and negligence, and when it is devoted to no great thing, we feel that, driven by necessity, the life we did not understand was passing has passed.
Seneca can be whimsical. He mocks the men who claim they are too busy to pursue their dreams. He says that idlers who have “leisure” are just as nonsensically busy. He writes ,
Do you call those men idle who spend hours at the barber’s, making sure that any hair grown in the night is plucked, conferring about each hair one by one, having their disheveled hair arranged properly, or a comb-over if they are balding ? How angry they are if the hairdresser has been careless, as if he were shearing a “real man”! … Which of these fops do not prefer their country to be disordered rather than their hair?
We’re not revolutionaries: off to the hair salon we go! But we agree that we could use our time better. Seneca believed we need time to think, ponder, read, write, and do things for ourselves, even if we cannot answer the big questions. Mind you, I don’t see the Stoics’ recommending the coddling aspects of self-care–the manicures, massages, and so-on–but Seneca knew we had both more and less time than we think.
And, no, it isn’t a waste of time to read Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers series!