Two millennia before the clinical concept of anxiety was coined, the great Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca (c.4BC–AD 65) offered a timeless salve for this elemental human anguish in his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic (public library).
In the thirteenth letter, titled “On groundless fears,” Seneca writes:
“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.’
With an eye to the self-defeating and wearying human habit of bracing ourselves for imaginary disaster, Seneca counsels his young friend:
“What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.”
“Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”
But the greatest peril of misplaced worry, Seneca cautions, is that in constantly bracing for an imagined catastrophe, we keep ourselves from fully living — something on which he expounded in his most famous moral essay, On the Shortness of Life. He ends the letter with a quote from Epicurus illustrating this sobering point: “The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.
Drawing: Piter Paul Rubens….
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