A stoic view on enjoying travel
It’s time for some more stoic reflection in this blog. Reading Senecas letters this past month has been great – he’s a far more fun read than Marcus Aurelius, though Aurelius is a bit more stable of mind than Seneca who seems to have been more at peace with corruption in his later years given the help he provided Nero as his mentor.
But I thought I’d re-write one of his letters for this blog, thinking this might be a recurring feature of some of the blog posts going forward. I hope to re-write the letters somewhat to modernize the translation a bit, and I’ve taken the liberty to remove long passages of examples of various leaders to try and get to the source of his meaning.
In one of his letters, which I find helpful during this pandemic as I cannot travel, Seneca writes his friend Lucilius, on getting out of Rome to take a holiday by his vineyard as he’s feeling ill;
… I expect you’re keen to hear what effects it had on my health, this decision to leave? Well, as soon as I got out of the city and that reek of smoking cookers, with their awful ashes from years of being used I started feeling better right away. Getting to my vineyards I felt much stronger! I had no problem eating heaps of food as I arrived, and the view of the garden with the animals that had just come out to enjoy the spring grass was a wonderful sight. So by now, I really feel like my old self again and I can get down to some whole-hearted work.
I want to underline how this is not just because of improved surroundings, as if it wasn’t for the minds ability to provide its own form of retreat in pressured moments it wouldn’t have worked. On the contrary, if a person spends his time choosing one resort from another in a hunt for peace and quiet, will in every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing. There’s a story of a man who complained to Socrates that travelling abroad had never done him any good and Socrates just replied: “What else can you expect, seeing that you always take yourself along with you when you go abroad?”… What a blessing it would be for some people if they could only lose themselves! These kinds of people are a worry and a burden to themselves and they let their own mind be the source of their demoralization and anxiety. What good does it then do to go overseas, to move from city to city? If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place, but to be a different person. If you go to Athens, or Rhodes, or any country you like – what then does the character of the place make? You’ll only be importing your own with you.
On your travels, you’ll still think wealth is something to be valued, thus your poverty will be causing you torment, while (this being the most pathetic thing about it all) your poverty will be imaginary. However much you possess there’s someone else who has more, and you’ll be fancying yourself to be short of things you need to the exact extent to which you lag behind them.
Another thing you’ll value are successes in public life (career); in which case you’re going to feel resentment when so-and-so is elected consul, and be jealous whenever you see a person’s name appearing too often in the honours-lists. You ambition will be running at such a feverish pitch that if anyone’s ahead of you in the race you’ll see yourself as coming last.
Death you’ll think of as the worst of all bad things, though in fact there’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing which comes before it, i.e. the fear of it. You’ll be afraid of illusionary as well as real dangers, haunted by imaginary alarms.
Even then, peace itself will create new fears within you! If your mind has once experienced the shocks of fright, you’ll no longer have any confidence even in things which are perfectly safe. Your mind will be occupied by panic to such an extent that your mind won’t be able to attend to its own self-preservation and thus you’ll actually be exposed to these dangers. For running away from dangers instead of taking steps to avert them will result in you being more exposed to them.
To lose someone you love is something you’ll regard as the hardest of all blows to bear, while all the time this will be as silly as crying because the leaves fall from the beautiful trees that add to the charm of your home. Preserve a sense of proportion in your attitude to everything that pleases you and make the most of them while they are at their best! At one moment chance will carry off one of them, at another moment another; but the falling of the leaves is not difficult to bear, since they grow again, and it is no harder to bear the loss of those whom you love and regard as brightening your existence, for even if they do not grow again, they are replaced.
“But they will never be quite the same” you might think. No, and neither will you. Every day, every hour sees a change in you, although the ravages of time are easier to see in others; in your own case they are far less obvious, because to you they do not show. While other people are snatched away from us, we are being secretly stolen away from ourselves.
Are you never going to give any of these above considerations any thought and never going to apply any healing treatment to your wounds, instead of sowing the seeds of worry for yourself by hoping for this or that, or despairing of obtaining this or that other thing? If you’re sensible you’ll run the two together, and never hope without an element of despair, never despair without an element of hope.
So long, in fact as you remain in ignorance of what to aim at and what to avoid, what is essential and what is superfluous, what is upright or honourable conduct and what is not, it will not be travelling but drifting. All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re travelling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way.
Take my word for it, there’s no trip that can set you beyond the reach of cravings, fits of temper or fear.
So, what you must do is to mend your ways and get rid of the burden you’re carrying. Keep your cravings within safe limits. Scour every trace of evil from your personality. If you want to enjoy your travel, you must make your travelling companion a healthy one. So long as you associate with a person who’s mean and grasping you will remain a money-minded individual yourself. So long as you keep arrogant company, just so long will conceit stick to you. Cruelty you’ll never say goodbye to while you share the same roof with a torturer. Familiarity with adulterers will only inflame your desires. If you wish to be stripped of your vices, you must get right away from the example’s others set of them. The miser, the swindler, the bully, the cheat, who would do you a lot of harm by simply being near you, are actually inside you.
- Excerpts from letter CIV by Seneca
I quite enjoy this letter as it points out something crucial I think we all feel now during these lockdowns. We all miss being able to travel, and the freedom of not having to abide by the most autocratic rules Europe has seen since before the fall of the wall. It’s important to reflect over the why of travel and making sure I enjoy my travels as I am travelling with my own thoughts and not the judgement of others via social media posts about my travel is another modern addition to include in this I believe. I for one miss embracing the character of a place without importing any burdens as Seneca writes.
Hope you enjoyed it - safe travels.