Seneca on Mentorship: Words from a Stoic and Living Our Masonic Teachings

by Midnight Freemason Regular Contributor
Phillip Welshans

Seneca was a Roman statesman, poet, and Stoic philosopher. Some of his most famous writings that have survived the lapse of time are personal letters published as Letters from a Stoic. They contain Seneca's thoughts on Stoicism and how to apply it to everyday life. Stoicism is similar to Freemasonry in that while it contains much in the way of metaphysics, it is ultimately a philosophy that is meant to be practiced and lived on a daily basis. 

In one of his letters, Seneca quotes another Stoic Epicurus, by writing: "Cherish some man of high character, and keep him before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them." 1 Put simply, Seneca was advising us to find a mentor; to both humbly seek knowledge from others, and to apply that knowledge in our lives. This is extremely Masonic advice, as it has both operative uses and calls us to practice what my friend, brother Charles Matulewicz calls Applied Masonry. Let us examine both implications here briefly. 

Every young person starts their career thinking, "how hard can this be?" and quickly learns that life as an adult can, in fact, be very hard and that there are a bevy of important skills we lack as young 20-somethings. The most thoughtful will realize they cannot do it alone and will seek out the counsel and knowledge of an older, more experienced colleague. In many fields, this is a feature of the system, as young electricians, plumbers, carpenters, iron workers, doctors, and engineers (not to mention stonemasons!) enter into apprenticeships that are designed to impart these skills and wisdom.

Seneca tells us our careers as human beings in the work of life also require apprenticeships. The Stoics believed the details of how to live were just as important for a man to learn as the skills for carpentry or farming. Without farming, men starve. But without guiding principles, men also cannot fully live. Seneca believed we should choose a person who we would not want to disappoint by our actions. By imagining our mentor or teacher is there watching us, we can find a way forward and live better lives. Would they approve of our actions? Would our actions fit with what they have taught us? It is a useful method and typical of Stoic teachings, which are designed to be applied directly into our daily lives.

This is very similar to Freemasonry, which is also meant to be both studied and applied. The concept of mentorship and the passage of knowledge from the more experienced to the less is deeply engrained in the Craft. In the Entered Apprentice Charge, we admonish the newly initiated brother to study and improve in Masonic knowledge by conversing with well-informed brethren, who will be always as ready to give as they will be to receive instruction. The Master's Lecture is meant to impart knowledge as well, for the new brother is a blank slate, Masonically speaking and needs wisdom most of all. And of course, the system of teaching brethren the catechism of the degrees is exactly the kind of student-teacher mentoring system Seneca and the other Stoics espoused. At its heart, this is a system that requires great humility on the part of the learner. We must know what we do not know, and accept help from those who do.  

But we are not just meant to learn Masonry; we should endeavor to apply it in our daily lives just like Stoicism. We should spread the Masonic light we acquire in the lodge out into the world. Are we treating others with equality, rectitude, respect, and charity? Would our mentors be happy with our efforts, or would they counsel us to try harder? Asking, and answering, these questions with our more experienced Masonic brethren in mind will yield better dividends for ourselves and our communities.

 1. Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, Letters from a Stoic (New York, Penguin Books, 1969), p. 56


Phillip Welshans is Senior Warden of Palestine Lodge #189 in Catonsville, MD under the Grand Lodge of Maryland A.F. & A.M. He is also a member of the Maryland Masonic Lodge of Research #239, and the Hiram Guild of the Maryland Masonic Academy. As a member of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, S.J. in the Valley of Baltimore, he has completed the Master Craftsman programs and is a member of the Scottish Rite Research Society. His interests are primarily in Masonic education, particularly the history of the Craft, esotericism, and the philosophy of Masonry.

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