Quoted text from Seneca's 20th letter, On Practicing What You Preach
Seneca’s philosophy has survived nearly two thousand years and continues to be a source of wisdom for all those willing to heed his words. Like the great thinkers we have studied so far, Seneca shares the conviction that philosophy is demonstrated through acts, not beliefs.
“Prove your words by your deeds.”
The highest good of Stoicism is living with virtue, and as we learned from Aristotle, one becomes virtuous by practicing virtue. We become by being. Therefore, the Stoic will make his beliefs manifest in the world through his actions and demonstrate that there is no greater indicator of what a man believes than how he lives.
“Philosophy teaches us to act, not to speak; it exacts of every man that he should live according to his own standards, that his life should not be out of harmony with his words, and that, further, his inner life should be of one hue and not out of harmony with all his activities. This, I say, is the highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom, – that deed and word should be in accord, that a man should be equal to himself under all conditions, and always the same.”
As we learned from Thoreau and Marcus Aurelius before him, we will find our greatest fulfillment when our actions coincide with our thoughts. Only when we live according to our own reason can we cultivate a life uniquely our own.
Seneca believed that the virtue which makes this life possible must be trained:
“I hold it essential, therefore, to do as I have told you in a letter that great men have often done: to reserve a few days in which we may prepare ourselves for real poverty by means of fancied poverty. There is all the more reason for doing this, because we have been steeped in luxury and regard all duties as hard and onerous.”
While times are good, Seneca taught, we should train for times of difficulty. He recommended setting aside a few days to live with the “scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress”, and ask ourselves, “Is this the condition I feared?”
The abundance we so enjoy easily pacifies the soul’s yearning to become more. Thus, purposeful scarcity will give us the opportunity to practice virtue where affluence makes it hard to do so.
“Rather let the soul be roused from its sleep and be prodded, and let it be reminded that nature has prescribed very little for us.”
The true philosopher lives his philosophy, practicing what he preaches, constantly using the world as the training ground for his soul. When we live in this way, every experience becomes an opportunity for our development. One needn’t adopt a loin cloth and a begging bowl to practice asceticism. But, every once in a while, we would do well to adopt the prescription of Seneca and live below our means.
Living simply a few days a month will recharge our virtue, add to our bank account, and most importantly, lend the perspective which allows us to see the abundance we enjoy which so often goes unnoticed. If such appreciation were the only reward of this practice, it would be a most worthy investment.