I recently read the book Letters from a Stoic, by the Stoic philosopher Seneca. This book represents one of a few written works documenting ancient stoic philosophy. Stoic philosophy has been undergoing a revival in the past several years, so I thought I’d read one of the few remaining primary sources. Read on for what I learned!
What the Book is About
This is not a book with a beginning, middle, and end. It is a collection of letters from Seneca to his friend Lucillius in 65 AD. The letters generally follow the pattern of Seneca making an observation from daily life, and then using it to discuss a more general philosophical concept. They each have titles like “On Old Age”, “On Drunkenness”, “On Facing the World with Confidence”.
For a full history of these letters, reference Wikipedia’s Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium. Or, even better, you can read the entire collection of letters yourself at Moral Letters to Lucilius. The eBook that I read was a “selection” of the letters.
The Book’s Core Points
Reading this selection of Seneca’s letters, I separated out what he discussed into two groups:
- General teachings
- Specific recommendations
A summary of each group is presented in the subsections below.
Seneca’s general teaching that I picked up (or, at least, that I found interesting) were:
- Living well is the gift of philosophy. The practice of philosophy grants virtue, resolve, and peace.
- The stoic philosophy calls us to live according to nature. We cannot change nature, but we can train ourselves to put ourselves in harmony with nature, welcome our station in life with vigor, and endure the ups and downs of chance. Part of this is enjoying good things when they come our way, but also being able to live without them. Stoicism calls for plain living. It does not call for a life of penance, but it shuns slavery to wealth.
- When educating yourself, there are money-making arts and then there are the liberal arts. You cannot attain virtue without food, so some education in the trades is necessary. However, food has nothing to do with virtue. Liberal studies do not bestow virtue, but they do prepare one for the reception of virtue through practice. Virtue is what sets a person free. After all, what good is it to learn how to drive a horse, when your own passion is out of control? What good is it to learn how to beat others in boxing, when you beat yourself in your anger?
- No one is born virtuous. You must learn virtue. Learning virtue is an art. To learn wisdom, work with the wise, study their works, and study their example. Associate yourself with those who will make you a better person or who you can help be better people. You will learn what you teach. This will ingrain wisdom in you. Mere memorization of pithy quotes is suitable only for children.
- Live among others with humility. Philosophy should make you feel fellowship with all people, not superiority. Speak to individuals. Do not speak for the applause of a crowd. Content yourself with the praise “What a good man you are”, not “What a learned man you are!”.
- If you live according to nature, you will never be poor. Natural desires are limited. When you are hungry, you can be satisfied with simple foods. When you are tired, you can sleep on any bed. All people can meet their natural desires. No person has the power to get whatever he wishes, but every person has the power to cheerfully employ what comes to him.
- If you live according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich. Desires based on opinion are limitless. Money, status, and luxuries are empty pleasures. There will always be those who have more than you. If you compare yourself to those people, you will always judge yourself poor.
- You are in control of your own opinion. Pain is minor if opinion has added nothing to it. You are as wretched as you have convinced yourself you are. Pain will pass and difficulties will be solved. Keep a stout heart and it will be resolved.
- It is not important to “live”. Animals “live”. Plants “live”. It is important to die honorably, sensibly, and bravely. Dying is one of life’s duties that everyone must face. It can come for us at any time. Regardless of when it comes, all lives are short. The shortness of life is not what is important. What is important is how well you spent the time given to you. The proof of a life well-lived is action.
- Use the knowledge of your mortality to moderate your life. Whatever you are doing, have regard to death. Despite living among all things that will die – people, cities, civilizations – we still live!
- You will suffer pain, thirst, hunger, sickness, old age, and death. These are not evils. None are beyond your power to bear. Face your difficulties and avoid distractions. A sick person needs medicine, not a change in scenery.
- When you wake up every day, be glad that you have one more day to live as a bonus. Let every day be welcome, and make it your own.
Advice for Living
Seneca also offered general advice for living. These were more specific than the general points made above. I noted the following:
- The foundation of virtue is reason. Cultivate your reason to cultivate virtue. Trees and animals do not possess virtue.
- Root out your fear of suffering. This includes both future suffering and memories of past suffering. This will help you make the right decisions in the moment.
- Be mindful of Fortune’s power. Trust not to prosperity and yield not to adversity.
- Value liberty. Wealth and pleasure will enslave you.
- Do what is right. It will grant you peace of mind.
- Have a mentor in mind. Imagine them and what they would do when faced with difficulty. You must have a ruler to straighten out things – including yourself.
- Value people according to their character, not their duties. People acquire character themselves. Accident assigns people’s duties.
- Exhibit courage in all of your actions. If you are sick, you can bravely wrestle with disease. You endure and overcome it. Bravery does not come just on battlefields.
- Your ability will be sound if your soul is well-ordered. Exhibit seriousness and restraint. If you blindly panic in the face of danger, you expose yourself to more danger by turning your back.
- Lack of confidence is not caused by difficulty. Difficulty is caused by lack of confidence.
My Thoughts on the Book
So far, I’m enjoying reading the works of Stoics. Years ago, I read The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I was impressed that “Meditations” represented a working journal of a practicing philosopher-Emperor. You don’t get to see the inner thoughts of such people very often! “Letters from a Stoic” feels similar, with the letters being practical advice for a person whom Seneca knew.
Some parts of the letters I discarded. For example, Seneca frequently mentions femininity as a quality to be avoided. Some parts of the letters speak to Stoic cosmology which I don’t necessarily agree with, such as its assumption of classical pantheism.
That said, I like the theme that philosophy is meant to improve your life, and the best way to improve your life is to take action. Armchair philosophers, know-it-alls, and do-nothings have no place in stoic philosophy. I admire that.
I have heard some criticisms of Stoic philosophy that it is too accepting of the natural order of things. For example, the injustice of slavery is simply accepted (indeed, Seneca possessed a slave himself). I think that the application of reason, wisdom, courage, and justice should drive us to fight social wrongs we see in the world.
My Takeaways from the Book
After reading this book, I will:
- Study virtue and apply it in my day-to-day life. The path to a fulfilled life is through study of wisdom, conscious decisions, purposeful action, and reflection.
- Practice restraint, courage, focus, and reason for better decision-making.
- Keep in mind that fortune can turn at any time. I will enjoy the times when fortune is good, and endure the times my fortune turns sour.
Cover art for this article from Wikimedia Commons.