Seneca’s Guide To Relaxing

Now the holidays are here, most of us have a good idea of how we’d like to relax – often involving lying under a beach umbrella with a trashy airport novel in one hand and a colourful drink containing plenty of fruit and a little umbrella in the other. These plans would have not impressed Seneca, a Stoic philosopher who was also the emperor Nero’s tutor and advisor (4 B.C. – A.D. 65). Although Seneca spent much of his life in the luxurious surroundings of the imperial court, he believed that people should devote their lives to seeking virtue rather than pleasure. If you would like to try and achieve a proper Stoic level of relaxation this summer, here are five handy tips distilled from Seneca’s treatise On Leisure to help you on your way.

1. Don’t feel guilty about taking time out.

While the Stoics said that people should be busy and active, occupying themselves in helping others and serving the state, Seneca points out that this isn’t inconsistent with taking a break (or, for that matter, with retiring). He doesn’t mean that it’s justifiable to waste your holiday in trifling silliness, but that it’s perfectly acceptable to take some time to contemplate the mysteries of the world and think about virtue. If you don’t make that intellectual space for yourself, then you create a stumbling block for your moral growth.

2. Keep an eye on what you’re eating and drinking. 

Don’t get side-tracked by the pleasures of the flesh and forget what your holiday is for. The Stoics thought that the only thing worth pursuing was virtue, and that everything else was an indifferent. Some things, like wealth and health, were nice to have, but having them didn’t make any difference to how virtuous you were so there was no point in trying to obtain them deliberately. With that in mind, people who spend their holiday getting as much free food and booze as possible from their all-inclusive package have misjudged what will actually make them happy. They think they will enjoy the experience of eating and drinking, but their mistaken belief will mean they end up with indigestion and hangovers rather than contentment.

3. Pack some improving reading. 

Seneca is a firm believer that you are what you read. Make sure that your Kindle or hand luggage is loaded up with “the best men” (and they are all men) to take with you as holiday buddies – you should have as much of Zeno, Chrysippus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and the other Stoics as you can get your hands on. (And Seneca himself, of course.) You could pack some Epicurus as well, if only to make sure you have someone from a different philosophical school to disagree with. Seneca might even have stretched a point and allowed you to bring something written by Justus Lipsius, a Neostoic who wrote during the Renaissance – but either way, it’s time to ditch the celebrity memoirs and beach reading.

4. Experience the local culture and make sure your holiday itinerary includes some natural wonders.

Seneca believes that the Stoic God and nature have created humans to do certain things, and these provide the best guidebook for holiday activities. On the conceptual side, as well as the questions raised by your reading material, you might spend your break thinking about what virtue is; whether nature or nurture makes humans good; and whether there is only one world or whether there are many worlds like it. If you fancy getting off the sun lounger and being more active, you could see the local sights; find hidden treasures; learn about the history of the place you are visiting; and listen to the tales of local people. These excursions not only broaden our horizons, but help us contemplate the beauty and skill of nature, which in turn guides us towards the truths which underpin the world. What we see on our travels gives our minds the material to help us discover the true nature of virtue at quieter times – and since nature made humans inquisitive, we should take the opportunity of being on holiday to follow our curiosity and explore the world around us. Whether on an exotic tropic lagoon or a wind-swept beach next to the Atlantic, nature will always offer something for us to wonder at. 

5. Don’t wait for your holidays to take a break. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are two sorts of people – those who live to work and those who work to live. Seneca would challenge that dichotomy by asking whether it is even possible to work, or at least do anything that we would consider worthwhile work. He’s thinking of what elite upper-class Romans would define as work, which would be service to the state either in politics or in the army. Putting aside the Stoic view that public service is meaningless without an interest in virtue, Seneca would ask us to think about whether it is possible for us to ever find a state which is worthy of our service. Every state has at least one flaw in its constitution if you look for it, raising the problem of whether it can cope with a virtuous person serving it or if the virtuous person can put up with its imperfections. Seneca draws the analogy of someone who argues that the best life is that of the sailor, but adds that you must not sail on a sea where there are often shipwrecks and storms (serious problems before the advent of modern navigational technology). If you can’t find a state worthy of your service, then you’d be better off devoting yourself to the Stoic sort of leisure. By taking time out for deep thought, you make yourself a better person, which in turn directly and indirectly benefits those around you. After all, look at Zeno and Chrysippus – neither of them governed a state, but the philosophy they produced during their leisure has made life better for everyone. So make sure that you don’t wait until you’re officially out of the office before attending to virtue.

Perhaps it’s time to go on holiday permanently – by following Seneca’s handy guide, you might get more out of it than a sun tan.