Seneca to Lucilius, 28: traveling won’t cure your inner problems
“Are you amazed to find that even with such extensive travel, to so many varied locales, you have not managed to shake off gloom and heaviness from your mind? As if that were a new experience! You must change the mind, not the venue.” (XXVIII.1)
Seneca begins this way his 28th letter to his friend Lucilius, part of an amazing collection that, in essence, constitutes an informal curriculum in the study of Stoic philosophy. I don’t know about you, but I found myself, and I’ve known plenty of people who have been at one point or another, in the same exact situation, making the same common misdiagnosis of what was going on.
Seneca is not arguing against traveling, either as a learning experience or simply for leisure. He did quite a bit of that in his own life time. He is, rather, arguing against traveling as a way to escape our problems. Sure, some rest may be helpful, as we take our minds off our immediate situation. But if the issue is internal — if we are unhappy because of our own attitude toward things — than looking elsewhere for solutions is a palliative at best, and distracting and counterproductive at worst.
The letter continues:
“Socrates said to a person who had the same complaint as you: ‘Why are you surprised that traveling does you no good, when you travel in your own company? The thing that weighs on your mind is the same as drove you from home.’ … Do you ask why your flight is of no avail? You take yourself along.” (XXVIII.2)
The idea, then, is that there really is no shortcut for dealing with our problems, especially those that are internally generated. If the issue is caused by an externality, we usually know what to do (even though we may, of course, not succeed in our efforts to resolve it). Did you lose your job? You know how to bring your resume up to date and start applying for a new position. Is the problem one of health? Your general practitioner is your first stop. You are not in a relationship but would like to be in one? Join a club or download a dating app!
But if you are dissatisfied with who you are, things are a bit more complicated, and the path to follow is not quite as straightforward. Sure, you can go to a psychotherapist. But much psychotherapy focuses, naturally enough, on pathological situations, such as depression, or on trauma, as when a loved one dies. What about therapy for the sane, so to speak? Most of us, most of the time, just have to deal with regular life issues, and of course the Stoic answer (which can be helpful also in situations of trauma, and even of depression or other disability) is to work on ourselves, i.e., on our character. In other words, practicing philosophy.
“Once what is amiss is gotten rid of, then every change of place will become pleasurable. Even if you are exiled to the furthest corners of the earth, you will find that whatever barbaric spot you wind up in is a hospitable retreat for you. Where you go matters less than who you are when you go.” (XXVIII.4)
Seneca here is making an obvious reference to his own experience in exile in Corsica, where he was banned for a period by the emperor Claudius, and about which he wrote in a letter to his mother Helvia. I’ve never been sent to exile, but I can attest to the truth of what Seneca is saying here. I have lived in places as little as a couple thousand inhabitants and as large as any modern metropolis, and I have always found myself in a good place because I managed to focus on the things that were important to me and under my control. This doesn’t mean that I don’t very much prefer to be living in New York, where I have been since 2006, to a number of other places where I have had residence in the past. Seneca too preferred living in Rome to the then desolate island of Corsica. But I have made friends everywhere and have lived a productive and mostly serene life in each abode. Where you go matters less than who you are when you go, indeed.
“We should live with this conviction: ‘I was not born in any one spot; my homeland is this entire world.’” (XXVIII.4)
Here Seneca briefly broadens the scope of his advice to Lucilius, making reference to the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism. I will return to this topic in the near future, as I’m reading a very informative essay on the differences between Cynic and Stoic cosmopolitanism by John Sellars, but it is worth remarking on the fact that the Stoics were the first truly cosmopolitan philosophers of the West, and possibly beyond. They believed that there is a basic communality that we have with every other members of the species Homo sapiens, in virtue of our shared ability to reason. And they explicitly said that this does not license discrimination against women or people who happen to be in an “inferior” social position, including slaves. Two millennia later and I wish a bit more of the world had caught up with such enlightened ideals.
Seneca then veers back to his original theme, moving from the broad notion that everywhere in the world is our home to the corollary that, assuming we are okay with who we are, we will live well no matter what the specific circumstances:
“The object of your search — namely, to live well — is to be found in every place.” (XXVIII.5)
At the very end of the letter, as he does for all the early ones he writes to Lucilius, Seneca pays his friend his customary “harbor tax,” i.e., he sends him as a present a quote from another philosopher, who invariably happens to be Epicurus, from one of the major rival schools of Stoicism:
“‘Awareness of wrongdoing is the starting point for healing.’ Epicurus spoke very well here, I think, for he who does not know that he is doing wrong does not wish to be set right. Before you can reform yourself, you must realize your error.” (XVIII.9)
This is reminiscent of the practice of a number of 12-step organizations, where one’s treatment begins with the acknowledgment that one has a problem. Too often we rationalize our issues away, shifting the blame to other people, stubbornly refusing to take responsibility for what we do. This isn’t a simplistic call to clean up your own house because everything else out there is just fine. Things are not fine. There are systemic injustices and inequalities, racism, and sexism. But surely some of our problems are at least in part of our own doing. And the solution, therefore, begins at home. Wherever home happens to be.