Seneca part 22: Withdraw from business

Nowadays, most of us work hard to earn money. However: the question we should ask ourselves is this: do we need that money? Will we become happier if we get a bigger paycheck? Or should we withdraw from business? Seneca argues we should in any case not work just to be working. We should choose carefully what we do with our time and effort.


a good man will not waste himself upon mean and discreditable work or be busy merely for the sake of being busy. Neither will he, as you imagine, become so involved in ambitious schemes that he will have continually to endure their ebb and flow. Nay, when he sees the dangers, uncertainties, and hazards in which he was formerly tossed about, he will withdraw, – not turning his back to the foe, but falling back little by little to a safe position.

I found the last sentence of this section especially interesting: we should not cut ourselves off with a mighty stroke, but withdraw little by little. Don’t run away, but back off. The question that remains is: how? Seneca answers as follows:


From business, however, my dear Lucilius, it is easy to escape, if only you will despise the rewards of business. We are held back and kept from escaping by thoughts like these: “What then? Shall I leave behind me these great prospects? Shall I depart at the very time of harvest? Shall I have no slaves at my side? no retinue for my litter? no crowd in my reception room?” Hence men leave such advantages as these with reluctance; they love the reward of their hardships, but curse the hardships themselves.

We must see that the rewards from business are not an end in itself. Money is nice to have, but is not earned without a cost. The time spent working is useless if the work itself is not worth it. If you’re doing it for the money, you’re doing it wrong. Realise this, and you will start becoming more free and live a more meaningful life. If you don’t realise it, you are bound and confined.


Search the minds of those who cry down what they have desired, who talk about escaping from things which they are unable to do without; you will comprehend that they are lingering of their own free will in a situation which they declare they find it hard and wretched to endure. It is so, my dear Lucilius; there are a few men whom slavery holds fast, but there are many more who hold fast to slavery.

So: our job keeps us occupied. If that’s all, then it might very well be a waste of time. If you’re doing meaningful work, then of course there’s nothing wrong. But if you are only chasing fortune, you might want to rethink your course.


A man has caught the message of wisdom, if he can die as free from care as he was at birth.


Seneca warns us, though: the way to freedom is not without sacrifice. If we really want to be free, then we have to leave some things behind. This may include our wealth:


But if you keep turning round and looking about, in order to see how much you may carry away with you, and how much money you may keep to equip yourself for the life of leisure, you will never find a way out. No man can swim ashore and take his baggage with him. Rise to a higher life

Rise to a higher life, indeed. Detach yourself from the pettiness of earning money just to spend it. Think about what is important; to you, to the people close to you, and to the world at large. And then consider what is best: to remain in the corporate arena, or to withdraw little by little.

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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