Seneca’s thirteenth letter is one of the longest letters he wrote to Lucilius. With a lot of wisdom that goes into it, we divided the key takeaways into two parts. In this first, part we will discuss the nature of anxiety as Seneca sees it, and then on the second, we will discuss how Seneca advises Lucilius to deal with anxiety.
In letters from a stoic 13, Seneca begins by praising Lucilius for fortifying himself against obstacles in life. Throughout his letters, the wise old man has repeatedly stressed the importance of putting oneself in challenging situations to gain strength and courage. As he puts it “no prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist”. While it is important to equip ourselves with maxims, the true test of our spirit is when we go out there and experience difficulties and obstacles
The next key idea of the letter is actually very important as he talks about the fear that engulfs most of us when a challenging situation is in front of us. In particular, he is referring to anxiety which in his own words “There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality”. According to Seneca, there are three ways anxiety torment us. “Some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all”. The first one happens because we are always exaggerating things that we feel are a threat to our security. For example, we say hi to a friend at a party. He did not respond. You exaggerate it and tell yourself he did not like you when there could be a lot of reasons why he did not respond. The second one happens because we perceive future threats as if they exist at the present moment. The problem is that the mind does not differentiate an imagined and real threat and our body produces the same negative reaction to both. The third one happens because we are pain avoidance creatures. We try to anticipate threats so we could find ways to avoid it. However, anticipating threats produces negative reaction in the same way as imagined and real threats.
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