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Seneca on Using Philosophy to Overcome Grief

What greater pain is there than seeing one’s own mother in distress?

This is exactly what compelled Seneca—Roman philosopher, statesman, and a man of letters—to write a letter to his mother, Helvius, during his exile for allegedly having an affair with Julia Livilla, sister of Emperor Caligula. For the next eight years he spent his life on the island Corsica, just off the coast of France. While in exile, Seneca lost his father, his son, and his wife. The only solace in this prison of loneliness and despair was to write poems and letters to friends and family. It is in these letters that we see not a man who surrendered due to his treacherous circumstances, but a man who exercised the principles of Stoicism to safeguard and facilitate the tranquility of his mind.

While many of his letters are written for consolation, they read like essays that focus not on the advice we want to hear, but reminders of what we need to hear. He was the one in exile, yet he was the one comforting others outside of it. It is in these letters that he offers his understanding of human nature, adversity, and our unquestionable power to overcome it with the aid of philosophy.

Seneca’s letter to his mother does just this; he asks her to address her own grief and look at it with a philosophical and Stoic mind to move past it and not become crippled by it.

Seneca opens with a gentle explanation to his mother:

I realized that your grief should not be intruded upon while it was fresh and agonizing, in case the consolations themselves should rouse and inflame it: for an illness too nothing is more harmful than premature treatment. So I was waiting until your grief of itself should lose its force and, being softened by time to endure remedies, it would allow itself to be touched and handled.

What follows is Seneca admonition to “expose and reopen all the wounds which have already healed.” Why would he endeavor to make his mother relive horrible memories? His methodology seems unorthodox, but he believed that by returning to the place of grief—this time with a proper mindset and guidance—one can face his or her adversity for what it is and use it as a catalyst for personal transformation.

Seneca continues,

Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.

Seneca continues this letter by reflecting on his mother’s griefs and tribulations—losing her own mother at childbirth, losing her uncle, and a month later, her husband. After the passing of her husband, she had to bury three grandchildren; twenty days later she buried Seneca’s son, who died in her arms, and to hit the nail just one more time, Seneca was sentenced to exile.

He acknowledges these misfortunes empathetically. First, after pointing out all her scars, he reminds her of the good in her life—growing up with the care of a stepmother and actually having grandchildren and a loving husband. He boldly states that the deepest scar is the most recent one, which is why he’s compelled to communicate like this. He tells his mother the following:

I have kept away not one of your misfortunes from you, but piled them all up in front of you. I have done this courageously for I decided to conquer your grief, not cheat it.

Seneca speaks with an undertone of Stoicism that has the vibrant ring of not just a positive outlook, but a thorough understanding of our nature, accepting its realities. He writes that he surrenders to wise men, meaning he’s using the wisdom of his heroes and past thinkers to aid him in troubling times.

As Henry David Thoreau once famously said, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school . . . it is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

Seneca continues:

Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me—money, public office, influence—I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away. No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was deceived by her favours.

And therein lies the wisdom. After a series of stories, explanations, and other examples of exile and misfortune, Seneca gives some of the most sound advice applicable to anyone, especially nowadays when it’s incredibly easy to perceive little threats as life-threatening dangers. He says with such perfect timing after pages of reflection and digestion,

Therefore it is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it.

This wisdom is not just for Helvius, but also for myself, too. One of the greatest consolations in my own life has been the study and adoption of philosophy. While my adversities didn’t compare to exile (but certainly felt like it at times), they were adversities nonetheless, and I had to learn to overcome them. Stoicism provided a lens that allowed more light to enter.

Seneca encourages his mother to pursue these same studies—to learn and engage a Stoic philosophy in order to deal with and overcome her grief:

Return now to these studies and they will keep you safe. They will comfort you, they will delight you; and if they genuinely penetrate your mind, never again will grief enter there, or anxiety, or the distress caused by futile and pointless suffering. Your heart will have room for none of these, for to all other failings it has long been closed. Those studies are your most dependable protection, and they alone can snatch you from Fortune’s grip.

Indeed, Stoicism came into my life when I was a young, lost college student. Everyday distractions drained me. My attention and my mind were at a constant tug-of-war and it felt like I had no control. I believed that a person or an event made me feel a certain way, rather than realizing that I feel something because of my own inward belief. This was a profound shift in my thinking. No longer were objects or people to be blamed, but rather my own erroneous thinking.

Ultimately, it was the principles that were outlined in the Stoic philosophy that resonated with me—the focus on understanding the laws of nature, the power of our perception, and a constant reminder of our impermanence. I sometimes wonder, did Seneca’s mother learn to accept this grim reality of her son? Did liberal studies, mainly philosophy, equip her with the right tools to deal with this event with humility, grace, and mindfulness? I surely hope so.

This letter infused with wisdom and love—Consolation to Helvia, originally known as De Consolatione ad Helviam Matrem—was found in On the Shortness of Life. I encourage you to pair this with Seneca’s writings on philosophy and busyness.