Seneca: 60 Insightful Quotes by the Stoic Philosopher

Written by Daniel Seeker

Jan 26, 2023

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BCE – 65 ACE), also known as Seneca the Younger, was a Roman statesman, dramatist and Stoic philosopher. He was chiefly known as a philosopher who taught the Stoic art of self-restraint, mainly in order to help man better navigate and cope with the harsh conditions of a short life. He is also known for being an advisor to emperor Nero, which later had him killed through suicide.

Stoicism as a distinct school of philosophy is known to have been founded by Zeno of Citium (335-264 BCE). The term stoicism comes from the Greek “stoa poikile” which was the place or literally ‘porch’ in Athens where Zeno had most of his philosophical discourses with his disciples. The Stoics believed that man must resist and overcome the impulses, habits and fears which led people to vices, and in doing so, reaching a state of eudaimonia, blessed and tranquil state of mind.

The Life of Seneca

Born in 4 BCE in Corduba in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica (southern Spain), Seneca was the son of Helvia (mother) and his father Seneca the Elder (54 BCE – c. 39 ACE), who was a noted rhetorician and writer himself and authored the works “Controversiae” and who lived through the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. One of three brothers, Seneca (the Younger), moved with his family except for his mother Helvia, to Rome to get an proper education. In Rome Seneca was schooled in rhetorics and law but later came to be more interested in philosophy. It was during the reign of Tiberius, under the tutelage of the stoic Attalus, that Seneca learnt the basic tenets of Stoicism and of the ascetic lifestyle. In one of his letters, Seneca mentions his teacher Attalus with respect and praise:

And in truth, when he began to uphold poverty, and to show what a useless and dangerous burden was everything that passed the measure of our need, I often desired to leave his lecture-room a poor man. Whenever he castigated our pleasure-seeking lives, and extolled personal purity, moderation in diet, and a mind free from unnecessary, not to speak of unlawful, pleasures, the desire came upon me to limit my food and drink.
Seneca (Moral Letters to Lucilius – Letter 108)

Seneca is known for having suffered from poor health throughout his life, especially from asthma. His asthma attacks were severe and usually passed after one hour or so. Seneca mentioned his struggles with asthma and illnesses in another letter:

My ill-health had allowed me a long furlough, when suddenly it resumed the attack.

“What kind of ill-health?” you say.

And you surely have a right to ask; for it is true that no kind is unknown to me.

But I have been consigned, so to speak, to one special ailment. I do not know why I should call it by its Greek name; for it is well enough described as “shortness of breath.” Its attack is of very brief duration, like that of a squall at sea; it usually ends within an hour. Who indeed could breathe his last for long? I have passed through all the ills and dangers of the flesh; but nothing seems to me more troublesome than this. And naturally so; for anything else may be called illness; but this is a sort of continued “last gasp.”

Hence physicians call it “practising how to die.” For some day the breath will succeed in doing what it has so often essayed.
Seneca (Moral Letters to Lucilius – Letter 78)

Because of his health problems, at a young age, he sometimes contemplated suicide, but the thought of imposing this burden upon his father stopped him from doing so:

I often entertained the impulse of ending my life then and there; but the thought of my kind old father kept me back. For I reflected, not how bravely I had the power to die, but how little power he had to bear bravely the loss of me. And so I commanded myself to live. For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live.
Seneca (Moral Letters to Lucilius – Letter 78)

Before he became a member of the Senate in Rome, he lived with his aunt in Egypt for a couple years, mainly due to health reasons. During this time he furthered his studies in various disciplines, not limiting himself only to the established Greek body of knowledge but the Egyptian as well.

His political life in Rome was tumultuous to say the least, as he came into conflict with three different emperors, Caligula, Claudius, the latter whose wife banished Seneca to the island of Corsica for 8 years on the charges of having an affair with Caligula’s sister Julia. After that, Seneca was invited back to Rome by Claudius’ new wife Julia Agrippina, who wanted the wise Seneca to become a teacher for her twelve-year-old son Lucius Domitrius Ahenobarbus, who later became Emperor Nero.

When Nero came to age and inherited the throne, Seneca became his imperial advisor alongside with the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Sextus Afranius Burrus. During this time Seneca amassed a lot of wealth and properties.

Though Seneca tried to retire from his role as imperial advisor a couple years prior to his death, he was forced to keep his position. In the year 65, Seneca was accused of participating in a conspiracy, carried out by the Roman Senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso, for the purpose of overthrowing the emperor, and Seneca was ordered to kill himself.

Seneca’s stoicism placed reason and virtue first. Through reason one can keep the capricious emotions in order, a way to better cope with adversities and accidents that life will inevitably bring. In other words the equilibrium of mind was the goal of Seneca’s stoicism.

With that said, here is a collection of quotes and excerpts taken from the works of one of the greatest Stoic philosophers:

Time discloses the truth.
Seneca (Of Anger – Book II)

Man is a reasoning animal.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter XLI)

It takes two men to fight.
Seneca (Of Anger – Book II)

Ignorance is the cause of fear.
Seneca (Natural Questions)

A good mind is a lord of a kingdom.
Seneca (Thyestes)

All art is but imitation of nature.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter LXV: On the First Cause)

Who profits by a sin has done the sin.
Seneca (Medea)

All cruelty springs from weakness.
Seneca (On the Happy Life)

Men learn while they teach.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter VII: On Crowds)

It is quality rather than quantity that matters.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter XLV)

Fire tries gold, misfortune tries brave men.
Seneca (On Providence)

Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.
Seneca (The Madness of Hercules)

If we let things terrify us, life will not be worth living.
Seneca (Epistles)

No one is able to rule unless he is also able to be ruled.
Seneca (Of Anger – Book II)

It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter LXXXIV: On Gathering Ideas)

What is harder than rock? What is softer than water? Yet aren’t hard rocks hollowed out by soft water?
Seneca (Natural Questions)

That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.
Seneca (Letter to Serenus – On Tranquility of the Mind)

Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter XLVII: On Master and Slave)

The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter LXX)

Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic)

If one doesn’t know his mistakes, he won’t want to correct them.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter XXVIII: On Travel as a Cure for Discontent)

It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter II: On Discursiveness in Reading)

They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter XVI)

You will understand that there is nothing dreadful in this except fear itself.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter XXIV: On Despising Death)

You can tell the character of every man when you see how he gives and receives praise.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter LII: On Choosing our Teachers)

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter I)

No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter IV: On the Terrors of Death)

You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter III)

On him does death lie heavily, who, but too well known to all, dies to himself unknown.
Seneca (Thyestes)

The part of life we really live is small. For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter II)

If you are wise, mingle these two elements: do not hope without despair, or despair without hope.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter CIV: On Despising Death)

But those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and troubled.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter XVI)

No evil propensity of the human heart is so powerful that it may not be subdued by discipline.

The works which philosophy has consecrated cannot be harmed; no age will destroy them, no age reduce them.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter XV)

We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty.
Seneca (Letter to Serenus – On Tranquility of the Mind)

Before I became old I tried to live well; now that I am old, I shall try to die well; but dying well means dying gladly.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter LXI: On Meeting Death Cheerfully)

Good men are at peace among themselves; bad ones are equally mischievous to the good and to one another.
Seneca (Letter to Serenus – On the Firmness of the Wise Man – Chapter VII)

Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter LXXI: On the First Cause)

Just as we suffer from excess in all things, so we suffer from excess in literature; thus we learn our lessons, not for life, but for the lecture room.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter CVI: On the Terrors of Death)

It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and – what will perhaps make you wonder more – it takes the whole of life to learn how to die.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter VII)

Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter II: On Discursiveness in Reading)

You are younger; but what does that matter? There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic)

Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter XXII: On the Futility of Half-way Measures)

It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter I)

Apply reason to difficulties; harsh circumstances can be softened, narrow limits can be widened, and burdensome things can be made to press less severely on those who bear them cleverly.
Seneca (Letter to Serenus – On Tranquility of the Mind)

In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter III)

Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter VII: On Crowds)

Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter XXIV: On Despising Death)

The greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow and wastes to-day. You dispose of that which lies in the hands of Fortune, you let go that which lies in your own.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter IX)

Shun no toil to make yourself remarkable by some talent or other; yet do not devote yourself to one branch exclusively. Strive to get clear notions about all. Give up no science entirely; for science is but one.

Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter VII)

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter XLVII: On Master and Slave)

The space you have, which reason can prolong, although it naturally hurries away, of necessity escapes from you quickly; for you do not seize it, you neither hold it back, nor impose delay upon the swiftest thing in the world, but you allow it to slip away as if it were something superfluous and that could be replaced.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter VI)

The time will come when diligent research over periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden…Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memories of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has something for every age to investigate. nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.
Seneca (Opera: Naturalium Quaestionum Libri)

Do not quarrel with your own good advantage, and, until you shall have made your way to the truth, keep alive this hope in your minds, be willing to receive the news of a better life, and encourage it by your admiration and your prayers; it is to the interest of the commonwealth of mankind that there should be someone who is unconquered, someone against whom fortune has no power.
Seneca (Letter to Serenus – On the Firmness of the Wise Man – Chapter XIX)

No man is ever made braver through anger, except the one who would never have been brave without anger. It comes, then, not as a help to virtue, but as a substitute for it. And is it not true that if anger were a good, it would come naturally to those who are the most perfect? But the fact is, children, old men, and the sick are most prone to anger, and weakness of any sort is by nature captious.
Seneca (Of Anger – Book I)

And, on the other hand, if death comes near with its summons, even though it be untimely in its arrival, though it cut one off in one’s prime, a man has had a taste of all that the longest life can give. Such a man has in great measure come to understand the universe. He knows that honourable things do not depend on time for their growth; but any life must seem short to those who measure its length by pleasures which are empty and for that reason unbounded.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic)

Life is divided into three periods – that which has been, that which is, that which will be. Of these the present time is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain. For the last is the one over which Fortune has lost control, is the one which cannot be brought back under any man’s power. But men who are engrossed lose this; for they have no time to look back upon the past, and even if they should have, it is not pleasant to recall something they must view with regret.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter X)

But the very thing they do not know is whether they are suffering loss; therefore, the removal of something that is lost without being noticed they find is bearable. Yet no one will bring back the years, no one will bestow you once more on yourself. Life will follow the path it started upon, and will neither reverse nor check its course; it will make no noise, it will not remind you of its swiftness. Silent it will glide on; it will not prolong itself at the command of a king, or at the applause of the populace.
Seneca (On The Shortness of Life – Chapter VIII)

Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born. If anyone pities the dead, he ought also to pity those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor a bad thing, for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing: but that which is nothing, and reduces all things to nothing, does not hand us over to either fortune, because good and bad require some material to work upon. Fortune cannot take ahold of that which Nature has let go, nor can a man be unhappy if he is nothing.
Seneca (Of Consolation, To Marcia)

There are times when we ought to die and are unwilling; sometimes we die and are unwilling. No one is so ignorant as not to know that we must at some time die; nevertheless, when one draws near death, one turns to flight, trembles, and laments. Would you not think him an utter fool who wept because he was not alive a thousand years ago? And is he not just as much of a fool who weeps because he will not be alive a thousand years from now? It is all the same; you will not be, and you were not. Neither of these periods of time belongs to you. You have been cast upon this point of time; if you would make it longer, how much longer shall you make it? Why weep? Why pray? You are taking pains to no purpose.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic)

Just as the mother’s womb holds us for ten months not in preparation for itself but for the region to which we seem to be discharged when we are capable of drawing breath and surviving in the open, so in the span extending from infancy to old age we are ripening for another birth. Another beginning awaits us, another status. We cannot yet bear heaven’s light except at intervals; look unfalteringly, then, to that decisive hour which is the body’s last but not the soul’s. All that lies about you look upon as the luggage in a posting station; you must push on. At your departure Nature strips you as bare as at your entry. You cannot carry out more than you brought in; indeed, you must lay down a good part of what you brought into life. The envelope of skin, which is your last covering, will be stripped off; the flesh and the blood which is diffused and courses through the whole of it will be stripped off; the bones and sinews which are the structural support of the shapeless and precarious mass will be stripped off. That day which you dread as the end is your birth into eternity.
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic)

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Daniel Seeker

Daniel Seeker is a wandering dervish, creator of Nirvanic and a lifelong student of the past, present and future. He realized that he was made of immaculate and timeless consciousness when meditating in his hermit cave on the island of Gotland. His writings and his online course are mostly a reflection of that realizaton. Daniel has studied history, philosophy, egyptology and western esotericism at Uppsala Universitet. He’s currently writing his B.A. thesis in history which explores how Buddhist and Hindu texts were first properly translated and introduced to the western world in the late 18th and 19th century.


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