Seneca’s Take on the Influence of the Company You Keep

A timeless reflection on the effects of our social environment on our actions and values

teenagers on their cells
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“So long as you associate with a person who’s mean and grasping you will remain a money-minded individual yourself. So long as you keep arrogant company, just so long will conceit stick to you. Cruelty you’ll never say goodbye to while you share the same roof with a torturer. If you wish to be stripped of your vices you must get right away from the examples others set of them.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

Be careful of the company you keep. We’ve all heard this before, especially from our mothers. For the most part, we know this to be true: the habits and values of the people we surround ourselves with tend to rub off on us.

What’s interesting here is not the recognition that behaviors and values are contagious, or the advice to distance yourself from the vices you seek to shed.

What’s noteworthy are the specific traits Seneca mentions and how incredibly difficult it can be to break away from people who display such traits.

It is definitely not a given that people seek humility instead of vanity, equality instead of disparity, compassion instead of cruelty.

I know of someone who paid rent at a luxury building for her college age son so that he would associate with the “right” people, make the “right” connections. The rent was, if not beyond her means, at least a big stretch.

Does this person even recognize her arrogance as vice? If she does, she’s certainly not looking to strip herself of it.

Like me, you may know folks who’ve done very well economically, and who only look to associate with other rich people, systematically, and have no interest in people “below” them.

If these individuals recognize their prejudice and conceit as vices, they’re definitely not on the path to getting rid of them.

As we’ve heard too, members of violent gangs usually associate only with fellow gang members. Even if they’d never engaged in serious violence before joining, they soon learn how to commit such violent acts.

Sadly, when a gang member desperately wants to say goodbye to cruelty, the environment and repercussions make it enormously hard. Where will he turn to for community and protection? What will the gang’s punishment be?

What does this all say?

To me, it says that vice is all around us. It says that, if you recognize vice as such and want to strip yourself of it, you need to be exceedingly brave to distance yourself from it.

Take a moment today to reflect, honestly, on the company you keep.

In this time of remote contact, one thing we can do is establish virtual connections with individuals and content that promote the values we want to nourish in ourselves.

This is my 5th piece for a 30-day writing challenge on a single 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.


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On Longevity: This Seneca Quote Puts Its Value in Perspective

A long life ought not be our ultimate pursuit

Young and old
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

“As it is with a play, so it is with life — what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

It’s torture to sit through a movie or play that’s both bad and long. By contrast, it’s thrilling to watch a short, brilliant, performance.

In the same way, a life of greatness has nothing to do with how long it is.

Think, for example, of Irving Berlin, Simon Bolivar and Ann Frank. They lived, respectively, 101, 47 and 15 years.

Composer and lyricist, Irving Berlin wrote some 1,500 songs, including “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.”

Bolivar liberated -or had a central role in liberating- not one, not two, but six countries from Spain: Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama and Bolivia.

Through the act of writing, Anne Frank conveyed -in a way everyone can understand- both the sublime goodness and the depths of evil humans are capable of.

Clearly, these individuals’ greatness is not proportional to their longevity.

No good life need be long either. And yet we devote much more physical and mental energy to lengthening it rather than elevating it.

Even when we care for loved ones, we’re compelled to prioritize length of life over how good the life is.

Hence we’ll make decisions for parents with dementia, for example, that prolong life, yet detract from quality and enjoyment of life (which, to my mind, are part of a good life).

A good life, to me, is a life lived based on coherent ideals that guide your actions. Whatever these values may be, we need to focus on them every day, every hour. The more we do so, the more our life will be a good life.

However old or young you are and feel, you may live two more months, five more years, or even 93 more years. You may live to, say, 37, 49, 81 or even 118. No one knows!

Let’s obsess less on longevity and put our energies into living a good life today. That’s what matters.

This is my 4th piece for a 30-day writing challenge on a single 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.

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