Seneca on Greatness: What Makes a Person Great?

How you view and treat your material possessions says much about your greatness

Gold and silver coins
Photo by Stanislaw Zarychta on Unsplash

“It is a great man that can treat his earthenware as if it was silver, and a man who treats his silver as if it was earthenware is no less great.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

I’m sad to say that, going by Seneca’s description of what makes a great person, I know hardly anyone who is truly great.

Most treat their valuable stuff as silver, and waste enormous resources preserving it just because it’s expensive. They may devote more time and energy to their silver than to their families, nature, or their mind and spirit.

Ironically, many do treat a good deal of their non-valuable stuff (their earthenware) as silver, but they do it for all the wrong reasons. They may do so when it’s convenient, as with toilet paper nowadays; or for fear of future regret, like when we ask ourselves, What if I ever happen to need a blue bowl precisely this hue?

In general, though, we’re more likely to view our earthenware as junk -junk that, eventually, we have no trouble throwing in the trash or giving away to the less fortunate.

Diego, my 26-year-old son, has an IQ of 53 and a diagnosis of autism. He doesn’t have a paying job or pay taxes. He doesn’t have a high school or college degree and reads at a first-grade level.

 Yet he comes closest to being great than anyone I know.

He cares about the old stuffed frog his cousin gave him when he was 6 as much as he does about the expensive gold crucifix that hangs from his neck. He appreciates any gift immensely, regardless of its monetary value.

The most extraordinary thing about Diego, though, is that he values people’s time and attention above all else, and he’s infinitely generous with his. He just knows  what matters. Perhaps you need to be wired differently, like Diego is, to be truly great.

Do you know any great men or women? What can you learn from them?


This is my second piece for a 30-day writing challenge on a single topic.

Topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them. 

Share Article

Seneca on Death: Why Will You Die?

For no other reason other than the fact that you’re alive

Poppy
Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

“You will die not because you are sick but because you are alive. That end still awaits you when you have been cured.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

Most of the time, we are oblivious to something essential we have in common with all other humans and living things:

We will, one day, die.

Even when death becomes something we can’t ignore, like when a friend or relative dies, we still foolishly regard it as something foreign, even avoidable and unique.

My mother immediately comes to mind. It has always struck me how intensely she mourns people’s deaths, whether it’s the death of a sibling, an acquaintance, or a distant relative she never even met.

It was odd, for instance, that when my father-in-law passed away from a protracted illness, she cried more than anyone in his immediate family, including his own wife and children. 

My mom shuns conversations about wills and such. One thing she has made clear, though, is that she wants to be kept alive, at any cost, for as long as possible.

My mom’s an extreme example of how difficult and even taboo it is to bring up the subject of every single person’s inescapable mortality. By contrast, we easily discuss beating all kinds of diseases and eliminating all manner of risks — as if by doing so we’ll come closer to beating death too.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of our common fate. Although some are at greater risk of dying from the Coronavirus, anyone who gets it could die, regardless of race, wealth or anything else. Why? Because they are alive.

Yes, the majority who fall ill will fortunately live on, for a while at least. Eventually, though, they too will die. In fact, the vast majority of the 7.8 billion or so people alive today will not be around in a hundred years! The world will be inhabited by billions of new humans.

Death confronts us with our arrogance and hubris. It reminds us that we’re not invincible and forces us to ask ourselves the simplest and most important questions: What matters? What impact are you having during your short residence on Earth?

When we overcome this virus, whether through a cure, vaccine or treatment, let us not forget that death still awaits every single one of us. How will you live your life before it comes?


This is my first piece for a 30-day writing challenge on a single topic.

Topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them. 

Share Article