On the Lesson to be Drawn from the Burning of Lyons
How do you deal with disasters? How do you give advice to someone who's home or whole city has been burned to the ground? Or who's island is completely leveled by a hurricane?
This letter will give ideas for how to deal with devastating events whether you are the one experiencing them or if you are trying to console someone who has to deal with them.
The friend of Lucilius and Seneca was dealt the news that the entire colony and city of Lyons was burned to the ground in one night. It seems that their friend, Liberalis, had practiced premeditatio malorum but the news of the devastation of Lyons was so shocking that his previous practice had not prepared him for the magnitude of the incident.
this incident has served to make him inquire about the strength of his own character, which he has trained, I suppose, just to meet situations that he thought might cause him fear. I do not wonder, however, that he was free from apprehension touching an evil so unexpected and practically unheard of as this, since it is without precedent. ... Every great creation has had granted to it a period of reprieve before its fall; but in this case, only a single night elapsed between the city at its greatest and the city non-existent.
And here is the first lesson of the letter. Not only should we practice premeditatio malorum, but we should attempt to envision anything that can happen to us. Don't ever think, "that can't happen to me." Rather, spend time with it and then learn how to prepare for it.
nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.
Whenever I read or watch the news, I try to find the wild, almost unbelievable stories. Over the years, I've read various stories from homeowners dealing with perpetual black widow infestations, to a man catching a flesh-eating disease from a minor cut on his skin, to tragic incidents of parents unknowingly backing over their child in the driveway or a father of four children dying from a freak accident while slowly driving a motorcycle down the neighborhood street. There are so many unique, wild events in the world, that one can choose from ample examples as they practice premeditatio malorum.
And just when things seem to be going smoothly, is exactly when you need to prepare for something unexpected to happen.
in the midst of our very pleasures there spring up causes of suffering. War arises in the midst of peace, and that which we depended upon for protection is transformed into a cause of fear; friend becomes enemy, ally becomes foeman. The summer calm is stirred into sudden storms, wilder than the storms of winter.
Further recall, that everything has an expiration date. Even the burning sun will be extinguished one day and turn into a black hole. Buildings rise and collapse. Nations are born and empires die.
Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed by a single day. ... Achaia, the foundations of the most famous cities have already crumbled to nothing, so that no trace is left to show that they ever even existed? ... the peaks of mountains dissolve, whole tracts have settled, and places which once stood far from the sight of the sea are now covered by the waves.
The last part, about how places once stood high above the sea are now covered by waves, is interesting. Even today, over 2000 years after Seneca, people continually clamor about rising sea levels. It seems lands have been disappearing and appearing throughout all time. Why should we be shocked that sea-levels are rising and continue to rise?
How should we react to all these changes?
we ought to bear with untroubled minds the destruction of cities. They stand but to fall! ... all the works of mortal man have been doomed to mortality, and in the midst of things which have been destined to die, we live!
Furthermore, we ought to keep all these things in mind. We ought to continually reflect on flux.
reflect upon all contingencies, and should fortify our minds against the evils which may possibly come. Exile, the torture of disease, wars, shipwreck, – we must think on these.
And if you need consolation after practicing reflection on all this devastation, recall that things can be built up again. While cities may fall, they may rise again too. Stoics have also reasoned that Nature perpetually lives the same existence over and over again, in the exact manner. This is called the Eternal Return.
a reverse has but made room for more prosperous fortune. Many structures have fallen only to rise to a greater height.
Do not let all this change and flux bother you. Nature will continually run her course.
let the mind be disciplined to understand and to endure its own lot, and let it have the knowledge that there is nothing which fortune does not dare – that she has the same jurisdiction over empires as over emperors, the same power over cities as over the citizens who dwell therein. We must not cry out at any of these calamities.
As to your own life, reflect on all that can happen, and when it does happen, you will meet it with equanimity.
By equanimity. You must suffer pain, and thirst, and hunger, and old age too, if a longer stay among men shall be granted you; you must be sick, and you must suffer loss and death. Nevertheless, you should not believe those whose noisy clamour surrounds you; none of these things is an evil, none is beyond your power to bear, or is burdensome. It is only by common opinion that there is anything formidable in them.
The more you contemplate troubles in a detailed manner, the more comfortable you are with them. And the more often you practice this and prepare for these events, the surprise and opinion of these events being bad, lessens. Nothing will surprise you, and you will be able to keep a level head while all others are in distress. Do this even with your life. Reason to the point of choosing a noble death, and when the opportunity presents itself, you will not flinch. Hold death in contempt or even better, embrace it as a friend. But do not fear it and nothing in the living world will cause you fear.
We are in the power of nothing when once we have death in our own power!
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