One of the things I enjoy about reading stoic authors like Seneca or Marcus Aurelius is seeing how frequently the authors discuss something that I struggle with today even though they lived roughly 2000 years ago. We have so many problems and challenges today that feel like they are new problems for humanity, but very often people have faced the same types of issues in the past (even the very distant past) and we can learn a lot from people who came way before us. An example of this is advice that Seneca provides in Letters From a Stoic about the ways we should think of our bodies.
Seneca writes, “He will have many masters who makes his body his master, who is over-fearful in its behalf, who judges everything according to the body. We should conduct ourselves not as if we ought to live for the body, but as if we could not live with out it.”
Part of his quote and advice is about physical comfort and indulgence, but part of his quote is also about body image. Either way, both angles of viewing this quote can teach us important lessons about ourselves today through the lenses of the past. His advice feels rather contemporary in an age when how we think about our bodies is front and center in many ways in our society.
First, we can think of this in terms of taking pleasure in the world. If we make our whole lives about doing things that feel good like sitting on the couch, eating cheesecake, and generally looking for pleasurable and easy things to do, we will be at the mercy of others in terms of our happiness. We would be relying on things that others produce to make us happy as we would not be relying on our own efforts to build something that engages us and helps us be connected to the world. If you purely seek pleasure as your main goal, another person can always ruin your life.
Second, if we think of our physical body as defining who we are, we can go too far in a different direction, constantly working out, eating, and presenting ourselves in a way to make our bodies look the best they can. Our own opinion of ourselves becomes meaningless as we seek the approval of others and only define our success based on the way other people think about us. We give a great deal of control and self-value to someone outside ourselves. We likely see threat everywhere we go, and live our lives protecting our body out of fear, and not out of a desire to be healthy to live well for ourselves, our family, and for our society.
There are more ways to think about our physical body based on the quote from Seneca, but both ways that I presented for interpreting his quote demonstrate real world current problems in a frame from many years ago. We have evolved and changed the tools available to us to shape our body or find enjoyment, but the resulting problems and underlying psychology remain the same. It was important thousands of years ago for people to not be too indulgent in pleasure and leisure, and it was also important for them to not spend all their time crafting the perfect body to impress other people. The problems we face today are not something we have to deal with entirely on our own. We can recognize that many people have dealt with these issues and take some pressure off ourselves and act accordingly.
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