Stoic Balance

Seneca on why we need to balance activity and rest.

Posted Jan 17, 2020

By Stephencdickson/Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Source: By Stephencdickson/Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca has significant wisdom to offer us. We need to balance our attitudes toward activity and rest. We need a mindset that helps us balance the pace of our lives.

"A delight in bustling about is not industry–it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind."

This is, in many ways, the plague of our age. We are always busy, talking about how busy we are, complaining about how busy we are, or humble-bragging about how busy we are. Some of us use our busyness to avoid the struggles of life.

Perhaps we do so to numb some pain of life or to avoid an inner emptiness or shallowness that we sense is there but refuse to face head-on. We want to be productiveefficient, useful, because we think this makes our lives worthwhile, or perhaps it is how we ascribe value to ourselves. Of course, these are good things. But they are not the ultimate goods. 

"The state of mind that looks on all activity as tiresome is not true repose, but a spineless inertia."

At the other end of the spectrum are those of us who simply don't like to exert ourselves, physically or mentally. Work is nothing more than a necessary evil, and we look for a bit of rest or peace in our next weekend (or late weeknight) Netflix binge. Recreation becomes our highest good, but not the kind that will require something from us and give us the type of rest we need.

Rather, we want to be disengaged and simply receive experiences as passive receptacles. Rest is good, including the kind that demands nothing from us. But when it becomes a consistent "spineless inertia," Seneca would have us make some changes in how we live.

"A balanced combination of the two attitudes is what we want; the active man should be able to take things easily, while the man who is inclined towards repose should be capable of action."

The answer, then, is to make space for both attitudes. We should not seek activity to pacify our restless minds. Nor should we look to a slothful rest as all that we need.

Instead, we need a balanced approach where we are active, giving ourselves to important projects and people. We also need time for "repose," to value such leisure time, because it is in the quiet stillness that we can find ourselves and tap into the resources that energize us to return to our work and relationships with vim and vigor.

In his closing thought on these issues, Seneca writes, "Ask nature: she will tell you that she made both day and night." We need to follow suit. A good life combines activity and true leisure in ways that contribute to good character and to our own ultimate fulfillment.

References

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic (Penguin Classics), p. 36.