We like to imagine that life used to be more simple — a time before social networking and outsourcing and pressure to think global and shop local.

We like to imagine that life used to be more simple — a time before social networking and outsourcing and pressure to think global and shop local.


It’s worth remembering that, since man first rubbed two sticks together and harnessed the power of fire, every generation has had to confront advances in technology and the increasing pace of modern life.


I’ve recently been wrapped up in just such a confrontation in the writings of Seneca, the philosopher and public servant who ruled ancient Rome while the emperor Nero was too young to independently exercise his authority.


His “Letters from a Stoic” — one side of a correspondence between he and his philosophical protege, Lucilius — are filled with advice that is surprisingly relevant to modern life.


Seneca died in the year 65, but reading his letters (in the 1969 Penguin translation by Robin Campbell), it’s hard not to think of the last time you lost an evening to Facebook.


Perhaps you only intended to spend a few minutes, but before you know it, you’re looking at that adorable polar bear on Cute Overload and two hours of your life are gone forever.


“Whenever circumstance brings some welcome thing your way, stop in suspicion and alarm: wild animals and fish alike are taken in by this or that inviting prospect. Do you look on them as presents given you by fortune? They are snares,” Seneca writes. (Perhaps you’d like to pause now to “like” this quote or share it with your friends.)


“Anyone among you who wishes to lead a secure life will do his very best to steer well wide of these baited bounties, which comprise yet another instance of the errors we miserable creatures fall into: we think these things are ours when in fact it is we who are caught.”


Seneca could have been talking about the Internet. As modern thinkers like Jaron Lanier and Douglas Rushkoff have said, if you’re not paying for a service on the Internet, you’re not the customer — you’re the product.


More specifically, your attention is the product being sold to paying advertisers. Attention has become an increasingly valuable resource in the age of always-on communications.


When your cell phone vibrates, do you jump to see who has sent you a text message? Here, too, Seneca sets the example, recalling the first century equivalent of the “you’ve got mail” alert.


“While everyone around me was hurrying thus from all directions to the waterfront, I found a great deal of pleasure in refusing to bestir myself,” he wrote. “Although there would be letters for me from my people over there I was in no hurry to know what reports they might be carrying or what might be the state of my financial interests there.”


Whether talking about excess money, a fancy home or extravagant food, Seneca spent a lot of time warning against chasing the brass ring. Wealth, in his estimation, was “the wage of slavery.”


“We have to reject the life of pleasures; they make us soft and womanish; they are insistent in their demands, and what is more, require us to make insistent demands on fortune.”


In other words, don’t live a life that depends on luck.


With that “womanish” comment, you can see that not everything Seneca wrote is appropriate by today’s standards. He spent one letter praising Lucilius for living on friendly terms with his slaves. “It is just what one expects of an enlightened, cultivated person like yourself.”


He also had views on deodorant that are best ignored today: “I have always abstained from using scent, as the best smell a body can have is no smell at all.”


But more often than not, his advice ranges from timeless to eerily prescient.


Seneca even presaged the modern foodie movement and people like Michael Pollan, whose book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” urged us to be conscientious about the sources of our food.


Recounting an earlier stoic philosopher’s decision to adopt a vegetarian diet, Seneca wrote: “Sextius believed that man had enough food to sustain him without shedding blood, and that when men took this tearing of flesh so far that it became a pleasure, a habit of cruelty was formed.”


If there’s a theme to Seneca’s writings, it’s that the responsibility for living a life of freedom — in every sense of that word — lies in oneself.


Life is short, and it’s hell to get old. If you don’t seize control of what little time we have in this world, someone else will. Those are facts worth remembering the next time you’re asked to stay late to complete a few extra TPS reports.


“The wine which is poured out first is the purest wine in the bottle, the heaviest particles and any cloudiness settling to the bottom,” Seneca wrote. “It is just the same with human life. The best comes first. Are we going to let others drain it so as to keep the dregs for ourselves?”


Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587 or brian.mackey@sj-r.com.