Seneca on Conquering the Conqueror - Transcripts

March 19, 2023

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In today’s episode, Ryan presents an excerpt from The Tao Of Seneca produced by Tim Ferriss’ Audio. In this letter, Seneca talks about examining the causes of our fear, the unavoidable threat of death, and more.  📖 Check out the PDF of The Tao of Seneca for free and the Penguin Edition of Seneca’s Letters at the Painted Porch.  ✉️ Sign up for the Daily Stoic email: 🏛 Check out the Daily Stoic Store for Stoic inspired products, signed books, and more. 📱 Follow us: Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook See Privacy Policy at and California Privacy Notice at


Prime members, you can listen to the Daily Stoic podcast early and ad-free on Amazon Music. Download the app today. Welcome to the weekend edition of the Daily Stoic Podcast. On Sundays, we take a deeper dive into these ancient topics with excerpts from the Stoic texts, audio books that we like here or recommend here at Daily Stoic, and other long form wisdom that you can chew on on this relaxing weekend. We hope this helps shape your understanding of this philosophy, and most importantly, that you're able to apply it to your actual life. Thank you for listening. Hey, it's Ryan Holliday. Welcome to another weekend episode of the Daily Stoic Podcast. Today we're doing a deep dive into Seneca, specifically from Tim Ferriss' wonderful audiobook edition of Seneca's Letters, The Doubt of Seneca. Tim produced this a couple of years ago. He's been nice enough to let us run it on the podcast. If you haven't bought it or read the PDF, I highly recommend it.

You can actually get the PDF totally for free at But in today's episode, Seneca is talking about conquering a conqueror. Talks about examining the causes of our fear. Talks about the unavoidable threat of death. He says, we do not fear death, we fear the thought of death. I'll just get right into it. My favorite translation of Seneca's Letters is his penguin edition, which I carry at the Painted Porch.

I'll link to that in today's show notes, and we'll just get into it. Life is short, and it's full of a lot of interesting questions. What does happiness really mean? How do I get the most out of my time here on earth? What really is the best cereal? These are the questions I seek to resolve on my weekly podcast, Life is Short with Justin Long. Follow Life is Short wherever you get your podcasts.

You can also listen ad-free on the Amazon Music or Wondery app. Chapter 30 On Conquering The Conqueror I have beheld Ophidius Basus, that noble man, shattered in health and wrestling with his years, but they already bear upon him so heavily that he cannot be raised up. Old age has settled down upon him with great, yes, with its entire weight. You know that his body was always delicate and sapless. For a long time he has kept it in hand, or, to speak more correctly, has kept it together. Of a sudden, it has collapsed. Just as in a ship that springs a leak, you can always stop the first or the second fisher, but when many holes begin to open and let in water, the gaping hull cannot be saved. Similarly, in an old man's body, there is a certain limit up to which you can sustain and prop its weakness. But when it comes to resemble a decrepit building, when every joint begins to spread, and while one is being repaired and another falls apart, then it is time for a man to look about him and consider how he may get out. But the mind of our friend Basus is active. Philosophy bestows the spoon upon us. It makes us joyful in the very sight of death, strong and brave no matter in what state the body may be, cheerful and never failing though the body fail us.

A great pilot can sail even when his canvases rent. If his ship be dismantled, he can yet put in trim what remains of her hull and hold her to her course. This is what our friend Basus is doing, and he contemplates his own end with the courage and countenance which he would regard as undue indifference in a man who so contemplated another's. This is a great accomplishment, Lucilius, and one which needs long practice to learn, to depart calmly when the inevitable hour arrives. Other kinds of death contain an ingredient of hope. A disease comes to an end. A fire is quenched. Falling houses have set down in safety those who they seemed certain to crush. The sea has cast ashore unharmed, those whom it had engulfed, by the same force through which it drew them down. The soldier has drawn back his sword from the very neck of his doomed foe, but those whom old age is leading away to death have nothing to hope for. Old age alone grants no reprieve. No ending, to be sure, is more painless, but there is none more lingering.

Our friend Basus seemed to me to be attending his own funeral, and laying out his own body for burial, and living almost as if he had survived his own death, and bearing with wise resignation his grief at his own departure. For he talks freely about death. Looking hard to persuade us that if this process contains any element of discomfort or of fear, it is the fault of the dying person, and not of death itself, also, that there is no more inconvenience at the actual moment than there is after it is over. And it is just as insane, he adds, for a man to fear what will not happen to him as to fear what he will not feel if it does happen. Or does anyone imagine it to be possible that the agency by which feeling is removed can be itself felt? Therefore, says Basus, death stands so far beyond all evil that it is beyond all fear of evils. I know that all this has often been said, and should be often repeated, but neither when I read them were such precepts so effective with me, nor when I heard them from the lips of those who were at a safe distance from the fear of the things which they declared were not to be feared. But this old man had the greatest weight with me when he discussed death and death was near, for I must tell you what I myself think. I hold that one is braver at the very moment of death than when one is approaching death. For death, when it stands near us, gives even to inexperienced men the courage not to seek to avoid the inevitable. So the gladiator, who throughout the fight has been no matter how faint-hearted, offers his throat to his opponent and directs the wavering blade to the vital spot. But an end that is near at hand and is bound to come calls for tenacious courage of soul.

This is a rarer thing, and none but the wise man can manifest it. Accordingly, I listen to Basus with the deepest pleasure. He was casting his vote concerning death and pointing out what sort of a thing it is when it is observed, so to speak, nearer at hand. I suppose that a man would have your confidence in a larger degree and would have more weight with you if he had come back to life and should declare from experience that there is no evil in death, and so, regarding the approach of death, those will tell you best what disquiet it brings who have stood in its path, who have seen it coming, and have welcomed it. Basus may be included among these men, and he had no wish to deceive us. He says that it is as foolish to fear death as to fear old age. For death follows old age precisely, as old age follows youth. He who does not wish to die cannot have wished to live, for life is granted to us with the reservation that we shall die to this end our path leaves. Therefore how foolish it is to fear it, since men simply await that which is sure, but fear only that which is uncertain. Death has its fixed rule, equitable and unavoidable. Who can complain when he is governed by terms which include everyone? The chief part of equality, however, is equality.

But it is superfluous at the present time to plead nature's case, for she wishes our laws to be identical with her own. She but resolves that which she has compounded, and compounds again that which she has resolved. Moreover, if it falls to the lot of any man to be set gently adrift by old age, not suddenly torn from life but withdrawn bit by bit, oh verily he should thank the gods one and all, because after he has had his fill, he is removed to arrest which is ordained for mankind, arrest that is welcome to the weary. You may observe certain men who crave death even more earnestly than others are wont to beg for life. And I do not know which men give us greater courage, those who call for death, or those who meet it cheerfully and tranquilly, for the first attitude is sometimes inspired by madness and sudden anger. The second is the calm which results from fixed judgment. Before now, men have gone to meet death in a fit of rage, but when death comes to meet him, no one welcomes it cheerfully, except the man who has long since composed himself

for death. Hey, I'm Mike Corey, the host of Wondery's podcast Against the Odds. Each week we share thrilling true stories of survival and put you in the shoes of the heroes who live to tell the tale. In our next season, we take you to a remote corner of Alaska that's home to one of the densest brown bear populations in the world. But in recent years, the changing climate has caused a shortage of the bear's natural food sources. More and more bears are venturing into the town of Hanes, Alaska in search of food, putting residents on edge. Then everyone's worst fears are realized. Three experienced backcountry skiers unknowingly ski over a den and awaken a mother bear and her cub. She attacks, and one of the men is left fighting for his life while his friends desperately wait for help to arrive. Follow Against the Odds wherever you get your podcasts. You can listen ad-free on the Amazon Music or Wondery app.

I admit, therefore, that I have visited this dear friend of mine more frequently on many pretexts. But with the purpose of learning, whether I should find him always the same, and whether his mental strength was perhaps waning in company with his bodily powers. But it was on the increase. Just as the joy of the charioteer is wont to show itself more clearly when he is on the seventh round of the course and nears the prize. Indeed, he often said in accord with the councils of Epicurus, I hope, first of all, that there is no pain at the moment when a man breathes his last. But if there is, one will find an element of comfort in its very shortness. For no great pain lasts long and at all events, a man will find relief at the very time when soul and body are being torn asunder, even though the process be accompanied by excruciating pain, in the thought that after this pain is over he can feel no more pain. I am sure, however, that an old man's soul is on his very lips, and that only a little force is necessary to disengage it from the body. A fire which is seized upon a substance that sustains it needs water to quench it, or sometimes the destruction of the building itself, but the fire which lacks sustaining fuel, dies away of its own accord. I am glad to hear such words, my dear Lucilius. Not as new to me, but as leading me into the presence of an actual fact. And what, then?

Have I not seen many men break the thread of life? I have, indeed, seen such men. But those have more weight with me who approach death without any loathing for life, letting death in, so to speak, and not pulling it towards them. Vassus kept saying, it is due to our own fault that we feel this torture, because we shrink from dying only when we believe that our end is near at hand. But who is not near death? It is ready for us in all places and at all times. Let us consider, he went on to say. When some agency of death seems imminent, how much nearer are other varieties of dying which are not feared by us? A man is threatened with death by an enemy. But this form of death is anticipated by an attack of indigestion. And if we are willing to examine critically the various causes of our fear, we shall find that some exist, and others only seem to be. We do not fear death.

We fear the thought of death. For death itself is always the same distance from us, wherefore, if it is to be feared at all, it is to be feared always. For what season of our life is exempt from death? But what I really ought to fear is that you will hate this long letter worse than death itself. So I shall stop. Do you, however, always think on death in order that you may never fear it.

Farewell. Amen.