Breakfast with Seneca
Anyone who reads Stoic literature has had moments when you’re reading along, and all of a sudden you feel like an ancient author is talking directly to you, about your life and what you are feeling in that moment. He seems to know exactly what you’ve been thinking, calling out your faults and telling you how to fix yourself for good. It’s both eerie and marvelous at the same time, knowing that Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius understood you better than you understand yourself.
For me, one of those moments came when I first read Seneca’s Letters on Ethics, written (supposedly) to his friend and protégé Lucilius. Seneca resolved a lingering mystery that had been bothering me for over a decade. As a teenager living in the boring American suburbs, I had developed an intense desire to live in Europe. Anywhere in Europe; it didn’t really matter where. I had visions of cobblestone streets, art museums on every corner, Alpine cottages and sunsets on the Riviera. I thought anything would be better than where I was at the time.
In my twenties I had managed to make this dream a reality: I lived in Paris, Munich, Vienna, Oxford, Istanbul, and many of the most beautiful cities of the continent. But no matter where I moved or what I did, I was always unhappy. I had everything I wanted and achieved my dream many times over, but even in the most charming places in the world I was disappointed and dissatisfied. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
Years later, long after I had moved back to the U.S. and settled down, the answer came, like a slap in the face, from 2,000 years ago. In Letters on Ethics, Seneca wrote:
Do you think you are the only person this has happened to, and feel amazed as if this was a new experience, that after such prolonged travels and with such changes of scene you have not shaken off your sadness and depression? You should change your attitude not your surroundings.
Why are you surprised that travelling does you no good, when you are carrying your own state of mind around with you?
Seneca’s remarkable insight helped me understand my problematic state of mind, and in the years since then his wise words have helped me to change my mindset for the better. Like almost everyone else who has read his works over the past two millennia, I have found his life guidance and psychological acumen to be profound and healing.
This is exactly the side of Seneca that David Fideler plays up in his excellent new book, Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living. Even though Seneca’s life and works have been canonical for 2,000 years now, in this book he comes across as fresh, modern, and as relevant to our lives as ever. Fideler skillfully integrates his own life experiences with his reading of Seneca, resulting in an engaging and well-informed introduction to Seneca’s philosophical thought.
Each chapter in Breakfast with Seneca presents a topic examined by the great Roman Stoic, from friendship to wealth to the value of time. Anyone already familiar with Seneca’s oeuvre will find the topics most important to him—anger, grief, overcoming adversity and our fear of death—covered in a straightforward manner with ample quotations. (Fideler adds that these are new translations, created in partnership with Elizabeth Mercier at Purdue University.)
The most original part of the book, however, lies in Fideler’s extension of Seneca’s thinking on social relations. In two chapters called “Vicious Crowds and the Ties that Bind” and “How to Be Authentic and Contribute to Society,” he details Seneca’s analysis of social influence and how our desire for social approval can lead us into error. As Fideler points out,
While very few people have noticed this, Seneca did extend Stoic thought in significant ways. He carried it forward by combining it with his own profound insights into human psychology and human motivations. Earlier Stoics understood that false beliefs lead to psychological suffering. But Seneca was the first Stoic to explain, in much greater depth, how those false beliefs are assimilated through socialization and social conditioning. (p. 157)
Notably, Seneca’s association with Nero allowed him a close-up view of corruption and vice, and he surely witnessed firsthand how a person can be negatively influenced by their environment and acquaintances. As many other commentators have pointed out, our current times are not so different from Rome in Seneca’s lifetime, and we face many of the same social challenges. Fortunately for us, we have had 2,000 additional years of history and research to help us understand them.
For instance, Fideler connects Seneca’s distrust of crowds to modern sociological concepts such mob mentality, social contagion, and unconscious socialization. We in the 21st century are still subject to the types of unconscious influence that animated Romans in the Colosseum or on the Senate floor, but today we have Twitter and cable news to keep us constantly under the influence of other people. The powers that be have a vested interest in keeping us agitated and pitted against one another because toxic tribalism sells. Culture wars and identity politics result in more clicks, more profit, and more influence for them. So these days it may not be enough to seek out mentors or salutary friendships, as Seneca advised; we also need to regulate our consumption of news and social media to keep our minds sane and our spirits healthy.
Fideler also points out, quite correctly, that the flip side of all this negative social conflict is a sense of social unity, which the Stoics called oikeiosis. Rather than getting whipped up into a frenzy about other people who may be different from us in some way, we should be concentrating on what we all have in common and how we can come together to solve our most pressing problems. Seneca, and the Stoics in general, provide a necessary antidote to 21st century herd mentality. By subjecting our own partial view of the world to a rigorous reality check, we can overcome myopic partisanship and start thinking independently, together.
I highly recommend Breakfast with Seneca no matter your existing level of familiarity with Seneca’s work. I think everyone will find something to enjoy here. For newcomers, this is a great introduction to the practical highlights of a historically influential and perennially relevant thinker. For experienced Stoics, Fideler offers an appealing review of Seneca’s greatest hits as well as fresh insights into his relevance for us today. Breakfast with Seneca is a welcome addition on my Stoic bookshelf, one I’m sure I will return to often in years to come.