In the letter IV [Letters to Lucilius], Seneca discusses the correct attitude to be taken towards life and death, because the two are indissoluble indeed. In so doing, he also tells us how to understand “possession”, directing our attention to its essential characteristic, which always implies the possibility of loss.
It is not worth living as if our happiness depended on attachment to things or to life itself: on the contrary, the opposite is true, and that is that a serene life depends on the awareness of its transientness. Thus, we can live a better life in quality, without paying so much attention to the number of years lived or to live, in fact, the more we abandon the fear of losing it, the more we can live fully.
In this sense, material goods also have a very relative value and what man really needs is easily obtainable, therefore, it makes no sense to sweat to obtain the superfluous. The cause of unhappiness stems not only from an excessive attachment to goods but also from an excessive attachment to life itself. [Bisogno, Maurizio. La filosofia di Seneca (Kindle Locations 59-80)]
In practical terms
Let’s direct those principles towards practical life situations. Let’s imagine we desire a villa, or a bigger and sportive car or a diamond, something very expensive, because we think that once we got it, we will be happy. Nevertheless, it is something that we don’t really need or that we cannot afford; they are a desire. The question should be: Are we right in desiring that object? One effective way to answer to this question would be to imagine that we have it already, then reflecting on what will happen in this case. Once you have done this, reflect on the other situation: What will happen to me if my desire is not accomplished?
Alain De Botton suggests the following steps:
- Define your project for happiness. Ex. In order to be happy I must have one million
- Imagine that your project may be false. Ex. Could I have one million and still not be happy? Could I be happy with much less money?
- If you find an exception, then the object of your desire is not going to make you happy. Ex. Although I have a million, I don’t have any friend and I feel isolated; there is nobody to share my joy. Having less money and real friends and basic comfort would make me happy.
- Now, your project acquires a more inclusive aspect: In order to be happy with a million, I will need friends or loved ones around me; I could be happy with less money and more love in my life.
- At this point, your initial desire appears under a new light: My happiness depends on more than having a million, it is linked to my affections, to a calmer soul.
So, starting from reflection made by Seneca over two thousand years ago we have seen the benefit in applying it in our life of today.
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