An Historic Conversation with Seneca

by Keith Savage · 13 comments

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Every year around this time we break out the Halloween decorations and watch copious amounts of ghost-hunting reality TV. As we dig through the closet for lawn graves and talking skeletons, my eyes invariably drift up to the Ouija board buried under board games on the top shelf.

Sarah has refused to use it since some freaky happening back in college, but I decided now would be a good time to take my Ouija maiden voyage. I set up the board on our kitchen table and prepared a digital recorder (in case of auditory phenomena).

Admittedly, I know very little about this sort of thing but I understand the gist is to contact spirits. They typically move a chair or rattle the table, your eyes bug out, and you spend the rest of the night under the covers with a flashlight capable of lighting up Yankee Stadium. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Seneca – you know, the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher – so I decided to try and contact him. I figured he’d be able to give me some good travel advice seeing as how I’m six weeks away from quittin’ day.

The results were astounding.

Rather than attempt to retell exactly what happened, I’ve provided a transcript* of what the Ouija pointer spelled out in response to my questions. Enjoy…


…[after five minutes of invoking Seneca in various nerdy ways learned from Buffy the Vampire Slayer]…

Traveling Savage: Hello…? If this is Seneca, please let me know.

[the pointer moves to Y]

Traveling Savage: Ok! I’ll get straight to the point: I’m in the middle of a major life change that would greatly benefit from your insight and advice.

Seneca: I’m ready for everything. If I’m let off in any way, I’m pleased.

Traveling Savage: Wow! So accommodating. Essentially, I’m quitting a good job to travel, explore, and write about the world.

Seneca: I wasn’t born for one particular corner: the whole world’s my home country.

Traveling Savage: Crazy, I kinda feel the same way. The fact is that after more than seven years, I’ve grown complacent and feel trapped by a good job that simply isn’t fulfilling me.

Seneca: To live under constraint is a misfortune, but there is no constraint to live under constraint. And there’s no state of slavery more disgraceful than one which is self-imposed. There is but one chain holding us in fetters, and that is our love of life.

Traveling Savage: Perhaps I should have conjured you sooner. I found that out the hard way. At the beginning of the year I heard about this Japanese term “ikigai,” meaning “that which one gets up in the morning for.” The idea just would not stop haunting me – I couldn’t easily identify my ikigai.

Seneca: Whoever has said ‘I have lived’ receives a windfall every day he gets up in the morning.

Traveling Savage: Exactly, and the occasions for me to say that had been growing fewer and farther in between. It seemed ridiculous even to me: here I am with a house, a wonderful wife, every convenience of modern times, and still there was some hollowness inside me. I could just have easily continued down this path with my head down, but…

Seneca: A life spent viewing all the variety, the majesty, the sublimity in things around us can never succumb to ennui: the feeling that one is tired of being, of existing, is usually the result of an idle and inactive leisure. What really ruins our character is the fact that none of us looks back over his life. We think about what we are going to do, and only rarely of that, and fail to think about what we have done, yet any plans for the future are dependent on the past.

Traveling Savage: Really? I kind of feel that the past doesn’t dictate the future. Though I’ve always been somewhat of a dreamer, and now that part of me is taking the lead. Hmm.

Seneca: We need to bestir ourselves; life will leave us behind unless we make haste; the days are fleeting by, carried away at a gallop, carrying us with them; we fail to realize the pace at which we are being swept along; here we are making comprehensive plans for the future and generally behaving as if we had all the leisure in the world when there are precipices all around us.

Traveling Savage: Completely, totally agree with you on that. Actually, I’ve written about metaphorical precipices – weird! It’s an enormous trade-off, though, choosing to pursue a passion at the expense of financial comfort.

Seneca: Men in a state of freedom had thatch for their shelter, while slavery dwells beneath marble and gold. It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.

Traveling Savage: I hear you. I’m definitely not seeking more things; in fact, things are starting to feel like they’re tethering me down now that I’ve got this plan to travel.

Seneca: Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.

Traveling Savage: I blame it on weddings. Why do I need another set of dishes exactly? Anyway, back to travel-

Seneca: If you want to enjoy your travel, you must make your traveling companion a healthy one. So long as you associate with a person who’s mean and grasping you will remain a money-minded individual yourself.

Traveling Savage: Actually, I’m traveling solo. Three or four times a year I’ll be somewhere for a month at a time. By somewhere I mean one place, traveling slowly (or not at all).

Seneca: Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

Traveling Savage: I agree with you in theory, but the truth is I’m anxious about the plan. Excited, but anxious.

Seneca: There is a pleasure in having succeeded in enduring something the actual enduring of which was very far from pleasant. There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.

Traveling Savage: Well, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. Hopefully, since I don’t aim to possess anything in particular, and instead seek to grow through the course of travel, that won’t be an issue.

Seneca: Travel won’t make a better or saner man of you.

Traveling Savage: Wow, is this what the afterlife is like? Filled with grumpy ancient philosophers? Based on your responses the other side must be a riot. Travel is important! Especially now, when our worldviews are so easily shaped by media. People need to get out and see the world for themselves.

Seneca: You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world. What good has travel of itself ever been able to do anyone? It has never acted as a check on pleasure or a restraining influence on desires; it has never controlled the temper of an angry man or quelled the reckless impulses of a lover; never in fact has it rid the personality of fault. It has not granted us the gift of judgment, it has not put an end to mistaken attitudes. All it has ever done is distract us for a little while, through the novelty of our surroundings, like children fascinated by something they haven’t come across before.

Traveling Savage: Wait…yep, pretty sure I disagree with you there old man. I know you spent much of your life crippled by asthma and unable to experience the wonders of the Roman empire, but don’t you think you’re being a bit close-minded?

Seneca: To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life traveling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships. If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.

Traveling Savage: I didn’t say “escape,” you said it. But don’t you think people can grow and change the more they travel and learn?

Seneca: To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance.

Traveling Savage: I think we’re done here. Tell Nero I said hi.

…[various crashing noises]…


*Everything in this account is based on a true story except for the parts about the Ouija board and talking to Seneca. All of Seneca’s responses are quotes from Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Penguin Classics). Hope you enjoyed it!

Original photo by hermenpaca via Flickr under Creative Commons

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar September 22, 2010 at 5:44 PM

This made me chuckle. Heh. 🙂

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 22, 2010 at 7:35 PM

Success! 🙂

Hong Kong Travel GuyNo Gravatar September 22, 2010 at 10:38 AM

HA! This is awesome, wouldn’t it be cool if you could actually do this?
BTW, very inspiring change of path in your life. Can’t wait to read about your travel experiences to come.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 22, 2010 at 7:35 PM

Yes, would be very cool…and scary. Who doesn’t fear a good berating at the hands of an ancient philosopher?

ayngelinaNo Gravatar September 22, 2010 at 8:27 AM

This post brought a smile to my face, nice one!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 22, 2010 at 10:50 AM

Hey Ayngelina, glad you liked it. It’s a bit off-kilter from usual, but it was fun to write.

AndiNo Gravatar September 21, 2010 at 9:55 AM

Hahaha, what a clever post!!!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 21, 2010 at 6:47 PM

Thanks Andi! I tried. 🙂

The JetpackerNo Gravatar September 20, 2010 at 9:19 PM

Man, those are some impressive Ouija results. The only results we garnered were incoherent rambling and eventually burn marks (no joke).

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 21, 2010 at 6:47 PM

Well, considering this entire post is a joke meant to convey some wisdom from Seneca, your Ouija story is downright terrifying. Burn marks??

KenNo Gravatar September 20, 2010 at 9:06 PM

If you think Seneca’s bad, don’t conjure Kierkegaard.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 21, 2010 at 6:46 PM

I’ve heard horror stories.

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