Seneca: All Life is Slavery

This article, dated October 18, 2010, is re-posted with permission from Adam at  Be sure to visit Thrivenotes.  You’ll find some interesting reading.  Thanks Adam!



The ties of obligation.


We are all tied to each other by the bonds of duty, responsibility, kinship, and social pressure. At times these obligations are wearisome, the contracts interminable, our superiors insufferable. At times it feels like slavery. And surely thinking it so would not help in the slightest… But here, if we expand our thinking and take all forms and lengths of the chains between us to be forms of servitude, and act with the wisdom of Seneca in mind, we may find it to have a liberating effect on the mind, one that lessens the burdens we feel:


“We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves; unless perchance you think that a chain on the left side is lighter. Honors bind one man, wealth another; nobility oppresses some, humility others; some are held in subjection by an external power, while others obey the tyrant within; banishments keep some in one place, the priesthood others. All life is slavery…”


Like birds on a wire we all have certain ties that bind.

We're all bound by certain ties.

In essence, what he means here is that we all have our place in life, one in which we are basically stuck, but then, he says, even the very fortunate are chained to their heavy, gold chains, however blessed they may seem. We all have our personal prisons which we must acknowledge; we all have things to trip us up, things we resent in life, so the overall perspective becomes very important in trying to decrease the burden and the feelings of resentment we feel. He continues…


“All life is slavery. Therefore each one must accustom himself to his own condition and complain about it as little as possible, and lay hold of whatever good is to be found near him. Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find comfort in it. Small tablets, because of the writer’s skill, have often served for many purposes, and a clever arrangement has often made a very narrow piece of land habitable. 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.”


It is, of course, a brave claim that we are all equally burdened in life. I’m afraid Seneca may often be misread in this case, but the wisdom is not to be found in what seems an oversight or an ignorance of vast differences in opportunities, his negligence of the global wealth-gap, or other inequalities. The wisdom of these lines is that summed up in phrases like roll with the punches and go with the flow. There is a natural rhythm that life provides, that situations seem to circumscribe, and a life without bonds and obligations and struggles is unthinkable; we were all put on this earth to climb personal mountains, to fight invisible, personal demons — and sometimes big external ones, too. So do what you can, says Seneca, do what you can with the forms of slavery that plague you…


Having recognized our chains as a part of a great big interdependent web, I would like to present another psychologically stabilizing quote, a Chinese proverb about work and duty. This is one that speaks to a special sense of freedom that sadly goes unrecognized most of the time. It goes like this:


“If a man does only what is required of him, he is a slave. If a man does more than is required of him, he is a free man.”


This is a simple, but profound line that makes me think about my work as a teacher: As a teacher, there is always more work to do, and I could leave just when my lessons finish, but I often feel better doing just a bit more at the end of the day to help prepare myself for tomorrow. I feel like this proverb supports that sentiment nicely. By doing just a bit more when you are indeed free not to is, in terms of time commitment, trivial, but, in terms of building intrinsic motivation, quite substantial and symbolic.


There is an attitude change that seems to set in if you apply this wisdom often enough. The best part of this is that the positive shift in thinking is generally quite disproportionate to the amount of effort that is required do that extra bit of work. Come in a minute or two early to school. Symbolically, you are demonstrating to yourself your own freedom to do it. Try it. Bring in an snack to share with colleagues at lunch time. Offer to make copies for your busy co-worker. Come a few minutes early to help set up for the meeting. You may find that small, symbolic acts of freedom like these can change your outlook and your feelings about your work.


But does this really apply to everyone?


A room full of students.Being that I work in educational institutions, I have to be fair and say that my work is rarely that tedious or insufferable; my most arduous tasks generally grading and paperwork, and it is principled work too — the majority of the time it is obvious what the purpose of it is. This is due to the idealism which is fused into the foundations of the work I and other teachers do all over the world: Ultimately, we strive to help young people develop their minds and their abilities and prepare to be independent adults.


So, 99% of the time the what and the why of my work are clear to me and I consider myself very lucky. Perhaps that’s why these quotes about responsibility and doing a little extra do not strike me as at all odd. After all, it’s not like I’m that waitress (Jennifer Aniston) in the restaurant in Office Space who gets reprimanded for not wearing more than the minimum 15 pieces of flair or anything… Such a person, and I don’t know, maybe you are that person, could reasonably be insulted by the “wisdom” conveyed by these quotes, thinking: “Why should I wear 16 pieces of flair at work? How could that extra bit help me at all? How could that possibly make me any happier with my work?” So, clearly, in some circumstances, the words of Seneca and our anonymous Chinese philosopher fall on deaf ears. This is where you do the extra bit, though, and try to think about where these quotes are applicable to your life. It doesn’t have to be work-at-work, after all. Just think about these examples in the social and personal realms:


In Social Settings:


I often find that those parties-I-don’t-really-want-to-go-to are worse when I show up late. It’s like I feel the obligation, but I resent it, so I come late and ironically I feel guilty for it. Somehow I’m better off coming early this time. Try it: Show up on time because you’re free to, pitch in in the kitchen after being treated to some home-cooking because you’re free to, tip the fast pizza delivery-guy a little better or buy a down-trodden friend a beer — all because you are free to. The ways in which you view these acts is largely what determines the emotional reward you receive from them. Again, you can see each of these extras as everyday social obligations, but you can also see them as something you are free to do — that’s where it gets liberating.


Personal Goal Setting:


Increase your personal goal.

Can you do one more?

Let’s consider the sense of freedom to be gained in the personal realm now. Say you want to get in shape and you’ve resolved to do 20 push-ups a day. At first you work up slowly to 20, but then after that you’re back in that drudgery zone. “Ugh”, you say, “I did it yesterday… Surely I can skip it today. It won’t make any difference, right?” — Now this is the perfect place to try on the proverb. Say to yourself “Okay, today I’ll do twenty and then maybe a couple more.” Surprisingly, you do 22 and feel great, much better that you would if you’d done either 0 or the required 20, and it is because you are taking the one true route to that hidden store of freedom within you; with 20 you’d have done the minimum; and, with 0 you’d have just made excuses and probably lost some resolve to maintain your goal at the same time… So we see personal goals like doing 20 push-ups a day can become opportunities to feel free as well, by doing just a bit more. It feels good, even if it is, strangely enough, just you freeing yourself from self-imposed slavery.


May you find freedom in the slack that your chains provide…


Readers may also enjoy this post at thrivenotes:

Seneca the Younger Once Said…


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The  folks at Javabird also recommend reading Letters From A Stoic By Robin Campbell


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