Seneca the Younger

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There is one thing that matters—to set a chime of words tinkling in the minds of a few fastidious people.
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Time discovers truth.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (often known simply as Seneca, or Seneca the Younger) (c. 4 BC - 65 AD) was a Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and humorist.


The spirit in which a thing is given determines that in which the debt is acknowledged...
  • He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.
    • On Benefits, Book II, 22, line 1
  • Ignoranti quem portum petat nullus suus ventus est.
    • If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable, Epistulae Morales
  • Might makes right.
    • Hercules Furens
  • Successful and fortunate crime is called virtue.
    • Hercules Furens, Book I, 1, line 84
  • Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.
    • Hercules Furens
  • A good mind possesses a kingdom.
    • Thyestes, 380
  • The spirit in which a thing is given determines that in which the debt is acknowledged; it's the intention, not the face-value of the gift, that's weighed.
    • Moral Letters to Lucilius
  • He who profits by crime commits it.
    • Medea
  • He who does not prevent crime when he can encourages it.
    • Troades
  • Illi mors gravis incubat
    Qui notus nimis omnibus
    Ignotus moritur sibi
    • On him does death lie heavily who, but too well known to all, dies to himself unknown.
      • Thyestes, chorus 2.
  • Worse than war is the fear of war.
    • "Thyestes"
  • Everywhere is nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends.
    • Ad Lucilium Epistle 2, line 2
  • Omnis enim ex infirmitate feritas est.
    • All cruelty springs from weakness.
      • As quoted in Caxtoniana: A Series of Essays on Life, Literature, and Manners (1864) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
  • Death is the release from all pain and complete cessation, beyond which our suffering will not extend. It will return us to that condition of tranquility, which we had enjoyed before we were born. Should anyone mourn the deceased, then he must also mourn the unborn. Death is neither good nor evil, for good or evil can only be something that actually exists. However, whatever is of itself nothing and which transforms everything else into nothing will not all be able to put us at the mercy of Fate.


The best ideas are common property.
  • Tanta stultitia mortalium est. (1, line 3)
    • What fools these mortals be.
  • Non qui parum habet, sed qui plus cupit, pauper est. (2, line 6)
    • It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.
  • Love of bustle is not industry. (3, line 5)
  • Live among men as if God beheld you; speak to God as if men were listening. (10, line 5)
  • The best ideas are common property. (12, line 11)
  • Nec speraveris sine desperatione nec desperaveris sine spe.
    • Hope not without despair, despair not without hope.
      • Ep. civ. 12, as translated by Zachariah Rush
  • Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man's power to live long. (22, line 17)
  • A great pilot can sail even when his canvas is rent. (30, line 3)
  • Man is a reasoning animal. (41, line 8)
  • That most knowing of persons — gossip. (43, line 1)
  • It is quality rather than quantity that matters. (45, line 1)
  • Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. (47, line 10)
  • Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors. (47, 11)[1]
  • You can tell the character of every man when you see how he receives praise. (52, line 12)
  • Nothing is so certain as that the evils of idleness can be shaken off by hard work. (56, line 9)
  • All art is but imitation of nature. (65, line 3)
  • Sapiens vivit quantum debet, non quantum potest.
    • The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can. (70, line 5)
  • It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness. (84, line 13)
  • It is better, of course, to know useless things than to know nothing. (88, line 45)
  • Do not ask for what you will wish you had not got. (95, line 1)
  • We are mad, not only individually, but nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders; but what of war and the much-vaunted crime of slaughtering whole peoples? There are no limits to our greed, none to our cruelty. And as long as such crimes are committed by stealth and by individuals, they are less harmful and less portentous; but cruelties are practised in accordance with acts of senate and popular assembly, and the public is bidden to do that which is forbidden to the individual. Deeds that would be punished by loss of life when committed in secret, are praised by us because uniformed generals have carried them out. Man, naturally the gentlest class of being, is not ashamed to revel in the blood of others, to wage war, and to entrust the waging of war to his sons, when even dumb beasts and wild beasts keep the peace with one another. Against this overmastering and widespread madness philosophy has become a matter of greater effort, and has taken on strength in proportion to the strength which is gained by the opposition forces.
    • 95, beginning at line 30, as translated by Richard M. Gummere
  • Non scholae sed vitae discimus. (106)
    • Not for school, but for life do we learn.
  • A great step towards independence is a good-humored stomach, one that is willing to endure rough treatment. (123, line 3)

Moral Essays

  • Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes uiros.
    • Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.
      • On Providence, 5, line 9
  • Veritatem dies aperit.
    • Time discovers truth.
      • On Anger, 2, line 22
  • Whom they have injured they also hate.
    • On Anger, 2, line 33
  • I do not distinguish by the eye, but by the mind, which is the proper judge of the man.
    • On the Happy Life, 2, line 2
  • A great fortune is a great slavery.
    • To Polybius on Consolation, 6, line 5

On Tranquility of the Mind

A letter to Serenus as translated in Tranquillity of Mind and Providence (1900) by William Bell Langsdorf
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.
  • 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. 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.
  • That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.
  • Should I be surprised that dangers which have always surrounded me should at last attack me? A great part of mankind, when about to sail, do not think of a storm. I shall never be ashamed of a reporter of bad news in a good cause.
    • Variant translation: I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.
  • Virtue runs no risk of becoming contemptible by being exposed to view, and it is better to be despised for simplicity than to be tormented by continual hypocrisy.
  • Our minds must have relaxation: rested, they will rise up better and keener. Just as we must not force fertile fields (for uninterrupted production will quickly exhaust them), so continual labor will break the power of our minds. They will recover their strength, however, after they have had a little freedom and relaxation.
  • Whether we believe the Greek poet, "it is sometimes even pleasant to be mad", or Plato, "he who is master of himself has knocked in vain at the doors of poetry"; or Aristotle, "no great genius was without a mixture of insanity"; the mind cannot express anything lofty and above the ordinary unless inspired. When it despises the common and the customary, and with sacred inspiration rises higher, then at length it sings something grander than that which can come from mortal lips. It cannot attain anything sublime and lofty so long as it is sane: it must depart from the customary, swing itself aloft, take the bit in its teeth, carry away its rider and bear him to a height whither he would have feared to ascend alone.
    • Quotations Seneca makes this passage have been attributed to him, but he states himself to be quoting others, including Aristotle: "There is no great genius without some touch of madness."


  • Quemadmodum gladius neminem occidit, occidentis telum est.
    • A sword never kills anybody; it is a tool in the killer's hand.
  • It is foolish to stop in the middle of a crime.


  • Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.
    • As quoted in What Great Men Think About Religion (1945) by Ira D. Cardiff, p. 342; No original source for this has been found in the works of Seneca, or published translations (see: talk).

Notes and references

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