A resilience building exercise in Seneca’s Letters asks us to live every day as if it were to complete our life. He says treat each day as if it ends the series of days that adds up to our life. It doesn’t mean we should grasp each day as if it was our last. Rather, every day of our life should be brought into balance so we aren’t overwhelmed by the many imperfections of living. A danger of that overwhelm is it can make us want to put things off. The immediate benefit of the balancing exercise is we finish each day satisfied and diminish any sense of anxiety about our next day. The exercise of trying to balance each day helps us to get the important things done.
This idea of balancing each day is found in the 12th letter of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics. There he wrote about human lives as a series of concentric circles. The first of these circles is our childhood; the second represents where our early adulthood came to an end. The largest circle represents our whole life. Each month is a smaller circle and each day is the smallest circle in the collection of circles.
Physics and an art of living
Seneca’s idea of life as a series of concentric circles seems to be another of his novel contributions. Robin Campbell, translating in the Penguin Letters from a Stoic, goes so far as to refer to it as an obscure digression, and leaves it out altogether. Yet for us, it provides two ideas that can guide how we understand a Stoic art of living in the time of ecological collapse, and the sort of modifications we have to make to Seneca’s art of living to live fruitfully in the 21st century.
These two ideas are 1) the image of concentric circles allows us to keep in mind the central role physics plays in the Stoic conception of a good life. Understanding humanities place in the universe was central for the Stoics. The second is the concentric circles digression provides a small window to reflect on just how different Seneca’s time was to our own.
The ancient universe
The ideas about the universe Seneca thought he inhabited was vastly divergent from the one we think we inhabit. By the 4th century BCE a two sphere view of the cosmos had been generally accepted by Greek astronomers and philosophers. In this view of the universe the earth was stationary at the center, and surrounded by a huge sphere containing all the stars. The sun moved in the space between the earth and the stars. Between the 4th century BCE and Copernicus’ time in the 16th century CE, this 2 sphere framework was almost never questioned, and guided the thoughts of most philosophers (and astronomers).
It is possible that these concentric spheres or circles guided Seneca when he imagined a human life in universal time. It could be, that representing human life as a collection of concentric circles enabled Seneca to directly link human life with the universe. This link between physics and ethics was a crucial element of Stoic thought in ancient times (a topic to be explored in a later post). That connection reminds us that the connection is not a fact of nature, it is a choice.
It is important to remember that, because in the 21st century, so much of contemporary moral philosophy has wrapped itself in the authority of a range of sciences. It is presented as the natural order of things today. Regardless of how important science is to living, its use as a foundation for an ethical art of living is still a choice today. A choice that if taken needs to carefully navigate the dangerous reefs of scientism and naturalism.
There are many differences between our time and Seneca’s, not least of these was how times was tracked with calendars. Living in Rome in the late 50’s early 60’s CE Seneca would have been living under the Julian Calendar. It had undergone its last revision in 8 CE, after being introduced in 45 BCE. Should Seneca have traveled to Athens or anywhere that used the Athenian calendar, or Mesopotamian and other places that used the Babylonian calendar between January and March, he would have found those places to be not just in a different month but a different year. The Babylonian calendars year started around April 8th, and the Athenian year around July the 12th.
From time to time when we are reading Seneca’s Letters, we need to take these differences into account. We need to pay attention to what he says and not who he is, and thinking about these differences is a great aid for that mindset. Building a Stoic resilience will call on us to think about our conception of the universe, and the place of humans in it. Ecologically we will think how we improve our relational mindfulness in our personal niche.
Seneca’s idea of balancing each day as if it had been our last is so we stop wasting energy on the future, and to ensure we postpone nothing. When life ends is a mystery, so too is what we can accomplish with it. In these circumstances being honorable and holding our ground each day is a good way to live. If we can live as if everyday were to complete our life, we may experience the joy Seneca reported in letter 6 “You cannot conceive what distinct progress I notice each day brings me.”
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 Richardson-Hay First Lessons 2006. p362.
 Seneca Letters from a Stoic Penguin 2004 Campbell R Trans p58.
 Kuhn The Copernican Revolution 1999. P27.
 Ibid. P28.
 MÜLLER J.W. 1994 Synchronization of the Late Athenian With The Julian Calendar in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 103 (1994) 128–138, p133
 Seneca Epistles 1 – 65. Gummere translation Loeb.