weisheit glueck vernunft karriere burnout

Dare more happiness instead of more career

Dare more happiness instead of more career: Seneca

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (around 1-65 AD) was a Roman knight’s son in what is now Córdoba. He was one of the richest and most powerful men of his time. Among other things, he was the principal educator and advisor to the future Emperor Nero. His actions as a politician were partly in contradiction to his philosophical writings, which earned him criticism from contemporaries. Seneca’s effort to influence Nero in his favour was not a lasting success. Finally, the emperor accused his inconvenient tutor of participating in a conspiracy and ordered him to commit suicideSeneca was forced to comply with this order.

Seneca wrote numerous memoirs and consolation, essays and even tragedies. His philosophical considerations do not form a uniform system, though. He relied primarily on the Greek representatives of the Stoa but never was a dogmatist of the stoic school. 

His 124 Moral Letters to Lucilius, an administrator in Sicily at the time, are believed to be disguised essays. At least, this Lucilius seems never to have answered Seneca. The essays have impressed many thinkers, from Church Fathers like Tertullian to Erasmus of Rotterdam and Montaigne. They are short pieces in which Seneca gives the addressee advice on moral and ethical issues. His main concern is the connection between wisdom and virtue, which were the key to a good life. He tries to answer questions like: What is the good life? How should we shape our life? What is the meaning? Can we be independent? What is the nature of friendship?

For Seneca, friendship is an issue of great importance for happiness. He regards trust and suspicion as extreme in equal measure because we should probably share everything, but only with a few intimate friends.

For him, philosophy, following on from the ideas mentioned in the previous section, is the basis of happiness because it leads us to moral perfection. Life is a gift from the gods; learning to live correctly is a gift from philosophy.

Dare more happiness instead of more career: Self-confidence

At Senecawealth, success, and beauty are meaningless to happiness. (The accumulation of money, prestige, and luxury goods or jet-set trips worldwide, even today, arouse suspicions, besides envy. Seneca believed that they merely were various ways to disturb the mind while voiding it of its contents.) Variety will always keep us under the spell of new and unknown experiences. But we can’t indeed permeate any of them because we are already on our way to the next one. We will also lose sight of our problems because we are constantly running away from ourselves. Neither wealth nor beauty nor strength and luxury withstand transience and time. We receive them due to external coincidences. And due to some coincidence, we will lose them again.

For managers used to success, this contempt for success sounds rather tricky. But Senecaemphasises that there is only one fixed value in life: self-confidence. We achieve self-confidence through a balanced lifestyle and the formation of our minds. This balanced way of life arises from frugality. According to Seneca, neither the gods nor nature required hard work and wealth from us. Nature provides for all of our needs. We can quench thirst with water, and the thirst will pass. Although Seneca was immeasurably wealthy, he advocated limiting possessions to the measure of nature. He declared all striving for wealth, outward success or beauty to be a sure source of unhappiness. None of them ever satisfy, but greed always demands more money and effort. Ambition and indulgence appear to many to be the purpose of life and a promise of satisfaction and calm, but enjoyment leaves us ever hungrier and thirstier. The rich man thirsts for more money despite his wealth and remains unhappy. The rich man does not possess his wealth; instead, wealth possesses him. It holds him in its grip like a fever that attacks a sick person. Temperance is the real wealth. By the way, this does not mean that we have to abandon style, walk around shabby, or become poor and ugly. But we ought to reduce the care of our body to the bare minimum, taking care of our mind being much more critical. One should fast several days a month, renounce all luxuries and live only on water and the cheapest bread. In this way, one learns to forego wealth and not see poverty as a threat.

Dare more happiness instead of more career: Virtue

As mentioned above, the greatest good for Seneca was moral perfection. While many philosophers establish a hierarchy of values, Seneca opposed such a ranking. Moral perfection cannot be increased, regardless of whether the morally perfect feels joy or suffers torture. External circumstances do not influence moral perfection. Whether a person is rich or poor, sick or ugly, does not change anything in his moral perfection or deficiency. People seek joy and avoid pain. But joy or suffering, like torture or wealth, are purely external and depend on chance. Neither can they be increased nor decreased and therefore are not authentic goods compared to moral perfection. Devotion to the coincidental affects, desires and passions such as love, hate, joy or sadness, are the breeding ground for worry. Since they can drive our body, they are also physical. Even virtues and vices are physical, as are wisdom, moral perfection or, on the contrary, greed and cruelty. All emotions have a natural origin in our body; they serve pleasure and self-preservation. The great sage avoids both fear or love for others. To claim that such a life was not possible — explains Seneca — meant nothing else but secretly refusing to give up vice. Sufficient confidence and goodwill can banish corruption.

For Seneca, it is not the result that is decisive for the rightness of action, but the intention. For the artist, too, painting is more valuable than the picture itself, or, for the wise, moral activity more valuable than the rewards of virtue. Despite all efforts, dangers or disadvantages, he will choose a morally good deed, but neither for fame, money, nor for power a morally reprehensible act. Senecagives intriguing advice on this: we should always think and act as if a strict overseer or a wise advisor were looking over our shoulders and judging us because we only did reprehensible or wrong things when we felt unobserved, alone and safe. (Contemporary psychological studies support this opinion.) As counsellors, we should choose noble role models and imagine that they were always watching us. Their imaginary presence not only keeps us from evil but will gradually render us noble and wise. Their example shows us the way to moral perfection.

For Seneca, true happiness comes from within. We should check whether they were indeed unavoidable and whether they were our free choice with every action and effort. (We often complain about the difficulties of our careers and the risks of business decisions, while at the same time worrying about our relationships.) Seneca regarded hopes and ideals as self-imposed. To be free and happy, we simply have to give up our self-chosen bondage, thus becoming independent of external circumstances and the opinion of others or chance. But Seneca was not an enemy of joy. His stoicism teaches us to feel as much of it as possible every day. However, it should be absolute joy coming from within us and, therefore, sustainable and permanent. External amusement, enjoyment of wine or superfluous luxury goods are no veritable joy. True joy arises only from the elevation of the soul through inner goods and truths.

Dare more happiness instead of more career: Reason

Wisdom as the basis of happiness is rooted in the wholeness between word and deed: our actions should not contradict what we say. We should base our lives on firm beliefs so that we are in harmony with ourselves at all times. That frees us from fears, illusions, and dependencies. Because the source of our unhappiness is seldom actual loss, but above all, the fear of a possible one. (As Michel de Montaigne wrote, our lives were ‘full of misfortunes, most of which never happened.’)

Following AristotleSeneca finally declared reason to be what distinguishes us from animals. The reason is our destiny and our nature. Hence it is the purpose of life to develop wisdom to perfection. Seneca recognised, though, that real sages were very rare. Like the phoenix, they are only born every 500 years but then point us in the right direction. For him, wisdom was the source of true and lasting happiness.


Dirk Stemper: Know yourself – lead with empathy and values! Self-discovery & self-organisation for leaders. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *