Seneca part 18: Voluntary poverty

We have a month of festivities behind us. For many, January is the month to get back on our feet and get sober once more – perhaps even literally. As for myself, I noticed that December had some fun (although I managed to restrain myself well), but that I started January with newfound motivation to pursue my Stoic Journey. As Seneca says in his eighteenth moral letter to Lucilius: in December “license is given to the general merrymaking”, but it should not last for the entire year. We don’t have to ignore festivities: it can even be a great test of strength. But we should keep ourselves in check.

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For this is the surest proof which a man can get of his own constancy, if he neither seeks the things which are seductive and allure him to luxury, nor is led into them. It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way

With the new year, we might embrace new challenges, either as New Year’s resolutions or just as regular intentions. Seneca proposes a challenge that can have great benefits for your happiness and calm. This is the challenge of voluntary poverty. He describes it as follows:

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Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” (…) Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.

Exposing ourselves to hardships in untroubled times prepares us for more difficult times ahead. An athlete trains his muscles before he competes in a match. We can train our mind and spirit before we need them most:

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In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.

Voluntary poverty trains our spirit: it makes us stronger. Maybe this practice is too extreme for you, but at least give it a try. Because the result can be amazing: strength of will and character, fearlessness for loss of luxury, and happiness from the smallest of things.

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For though water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of Pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one’s needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.

So after the December holidays, are you prepared to challenge yourself? Do you think you can not only stand poverty, but even enjoy while being poor? Try it out. Dress in simple clothing, even in the winter cold. Be content with simple bread and water. Sleep on the floor or with a thin cover. Experience what it is to lose luxuries you take for granted. And you will see: it is not that bad. We can do with less luxury and still be happy. If you can discover and prove this in January, then you have started the new year very well.

This article is part of the weekly Seneca series. New articles will be published every Thursday. Be sure you don’t miss any of them by subscribing here. Thanks!

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