Neronian Times: Seneca on Self-Care & Hairdos

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!

Tempus Fugit! Seneca and Self-Care

Tempus fugit.   Do you lament the paucity of time?

The Stoic philosopher Seneca can advise you on the practice of two trendy movements, the pursuit of “mindfulness” and “self-care.” He vigorously reminds us  that it is important to take time for ourselves.

In the philosophical treatise, De Brevitate Vitae (On the Brevity of Life), Seneca says that life is not short:   the problem is that we waste our time.  “How much time has been stolen by a creditor, how much by a girlfriend, how much by a patron or client, how much by marital strife, how much by the chastisement of slaves, how much by running to and fro?”

He says that men hang on to their property and fight those who encroach, but they do not value their time.  “No one is found who wishes to divide his money; but with how very many people does each person share his life!  We are parsimonious with money, but when it comes to the throwing away of  our lives, we are extravagant–and this is the one case where the desire to be thrifty is creditable.”

On a much cruder level, we enthusiastically agree.   I’ve read many well-meaning but frenetic articles on how to read more books , or take more steps, or relax with a new skin-care regimen.    And I’m all for these things!  But it often involves entering data on phones. Unplugging from electronics is one of our biggest challenges.  We need to slow down, sit still, and read Seneca.

Seneca is simple and clear, and his philosophy can be life-changing.  He was a great Roman thinker, Nero’s tutor and political advisor, a playwright, philosopher, and writer of fascinating letters.

So enjoy!  On the Brevity of Life is only 22 pages.

(N.B. The translation of the brief excerpts from the Latin is my own.)

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