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Let Seneca Help You Slay Desire

Seneca was a Roman citizen of the Equestrian order in ancient rome at the time of the three tyrants Claudius, Caligula and Nero.

Seneca amassed a fortune under Nero and became one of the richest men in Rome. Nero eventually forced him to commit suicide.

Most of Seneca's writing deals with the concept of wealth, death, power, society and how to live.

I’ll share with you a sentence that acted as a catalyst to change my perspective on wealth (from Seneca's Letters to Lucilius).

Nature's wants are slight. The demands of desire are boundless


All nature demands for us - to live and thrive as a human beings - is sufficient food, shelter from the elements and companionship.

The price tags on nature’s necessities for life are negligible in most countries today. The increase in productivity from advances in technology saw to that. But we want more – much more. We’re on what the psychologists today call the "hedonistic treadmill" (or ratrace). We can never satisfy desire. The moment we get something we want something else or more of it.

We are chasing our own tails running in circles. We are happy when we catch it, but then we chase it again. We're all genetically wired to want social status, wealth, pleasure etc. Having these things were important to survive and produce the most offspring in competition with others. But the desire for them is boundless and cannot be satisfied in any permanent way (ask any tyrant).

So what, shouldn’t I just maximize pleasure until I die? See how many yachts, women, sports cars, houses I can collect? That's fine with me, I'm not here to morally judge you and I can't fault you for just following your standard wiring. However, there's another way. You can try to control your actions with your rational mind instead of yielding to desires – and that is Seneca’s point.

The benefits of taking the rational approach can be life changing. If we expend all of our efforts in one dimension of our life - on maximizing our career, earnings, power, status etc. – we do it by neglecting something else. Your time is finite and so is your life. What you spend on A you cannot spend on B – so everything is a tradeoff.

The Golden Mean

In "The Nicomachean Ethics" Aristotle argues that the good life is one following the golden mean – extremes are bad. Eating enough is good - eating too much will make you fat. Having too much courage is rashness and too little is cowardice etc. Aristotle spends most of the book going over character traits and actions in this way. Aristotle thinks that a balanced life is a good life – a happy life.

But I don’t want a balanced life – I want to excel? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be the best in the world at something while maintaining a balanced life. You don’t get to be the President, CEO of Goldman Sachs or create a world class company from scratch while having a balanced life. Make a choice - but know that it’s always a tradeoff.

If you want to make someone richer don't add to his wealth but subtract from his desires


So back to the ratrace stuff. You can only be rich, if you think you’re rich. It's your perception that matters – not how much you have. I don't think there's anything wrong with amassing wealth or having luxury items. Things are just neutral. But your perception of your things can have a negative or positive effect. It’s the same with power. If you have absolute power and is not actively trying to avoid sliding into tyranny - that's where you’ll end up (Marcus Aurelius kept a notebook to remind himself of this).

Do you really need the object of your desire? Will it improve your life? You can pass on most things, if you examine the reasons that you want it in the first place.

The unexamined life is not worth living


Socrates knew the importance of examining our motivations, emotions and actions. Look at yourself as an observer looking at a lab rat. This way you'll be able to overrule your emotions with your rational mind when your emotions wants you to do something that runs counter to your long term happiness in life.

Anger begets madness


Here's a perfect example of why it can pay dividends to control your emotions. Our evolutionary history has equipped our brains with the “fight” or “flight” response. Either state is far removed from rational thought. Frustration leads to anger - and anger leads to fight.

When we're angry we do stupid things that we instantly regret when we calm down. If we had kept anger at bay and used our rational mind it would have been better. How many times have we apologized for angry words or actions that we would never have done if we hadn't let anger run amok?

The quotations in this blog post are from "Letters on Ethics" Lucius Annaeus Seneca (he quotes Epicurus in some of these).

Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics" is a treatise on philosophy (it's really his notes for lectures later published after his death).

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