Letters from a Stoic

Seneca

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Highly Recommend

Incredible book, I would recommend this to anyone and everyone that wants to hear some truths about how humans live and how to be happy. Effective explanatory text of stoic philosophy that feels like moral and spiritual good is just seeping from the pages. Seneca was a trusted adviser to Nero (a Roman Empire) and this book contains letters to (presumably) an imaginary person outlining what Seneca has taught Nero.

Notes

The stoic philosophy is as follows:

  • World is a great community in which all men are brothers, ruled by a “divine reason,” “creative reason,” or “nature”
  • It is man’s duty to become in line with this nature or spirit
  • It is also man’s duty to accepting any and every fate that heads his way
  • “Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true, unshakeable peace and contentment to which ambition, luxury and above all avarice are among the greatest obstacles”
  • Part of being in line with nature is developing the inborn gift of reason which differentiates us from animals

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where his is and pass some time in his own company.”

“You should be extending you stay among writers who genius is unquestionable…”

“Certainly you should discuss everything with a friend; but before you do so, discuss in your mind the man himself.”

“For delight in bustling about is not industry – it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind.”

“Philosophy calls for simple living, not for doing penance, and the simple way of life need not be a crude one”

“…you should neither become like the bad because they are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you.”

  • “Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving

“…who when asked what was the object of all the trouble he took over a piece of craftsmanship when it would never reach more than a very few people, replied: ‘A few is enough for me; so it one; and so is none.” – Democritus

“What fortune has made yours is not your own” – Publilius

Difference between Epicurean (main philosophy outside Stoisicm at the time) and Stoics: “…our wise man feels his troubles but overcomes them, while their wise man does not even feel them”

Seneca believes in the concept that truths in this world are everyone’s property, not to be kept to certain people

Seneca believes the pursuit of wisdom is path to a happy life

  • “…no one can lead a happy life…without the pursuit of wisdom, and that the perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life”
  • “Consider above all else whether you’ve
  • In talking about pursuits in life: “So give up pointless, empty journeys, and whenever you want to know whether the desire aroused in you advanced in philosophy or just in actual years”

“Nature’s wants are small, while those of opinion are limitless”

“by something you are pursuing is natural or quite unseeing, ask yourself whether it is capable of coming to rest at any point; if after going a long way there is always something remaining farther away, be sure it is something not natural”

Seneca takes a few days each month to live in poverty to remind himself that it’s not that bad. Being afraid of losing wealth is one of the worst things.

  • When talking about periods of poverty and only eating the plainest of foods: “…but nothing gives one keener pleasure than the ability to derive pleasure even from that – and the feeling of having arrived at something which one cannot be deprived of by any unjust stroke of fortune”

“A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave”

  • “There is but one chain holding us in fetters, and that is our love of life”

“But something that can never be learnt too thoroughly can never be said too often”

Seneca has a strong position on travel: it is not valuable if you are using it to distract your mind or trying to flee from yourself.

  • “You have to lay aside the load on your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you”
  • “Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there”
  • “As it is, instead of travelling you are rambling and drifting, exchanging one place for another when the thing you are looking for, the good life, is available everywhere”

Seneca preaches the idea that while learning philosophy and pursuing wisdom is the way to the good life, he looks down on people that only quote other people. You must have original thoughts and create things.

  • “Besides, a man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking”

Seneca preached only praising people for what is truly theirs: their soul. He finds it foolish to praise people for things that can be taken away or moved to another person

  • “No one should feel pride in anything that is not his own”
  • “Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly a man’s”

“It is the person who’s awakened who recounts his dream, and acknowledging one’s failings is a sigh of health”

Seneca spends a paragraph comparing mental health to physical health. He says that if we were physically sick, we wouldn’t still be working but instead doing everything to improve our health. Applying this to mental health, if we are not completely healthy, we shouldn’t focus our time on work and other things, but instead getting healthy.

On the fact that we shouldn’t fear death: “What does it matter, after all, whether you cease to be or never begin, when the result of either is that you do not exist?”

“Let a man retire and the common crowd will think of him as leading a life apart, free of all cares, self-contented, living for himself, when in fact not one of these blessings can be won by anyone other than the philosopher”

“The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind”

Seneca believes that being busy gets in the way of pursuing wisdom and reality. This spoke to me in particular because at the current point in my life, I’m going into banking soon which is known to occupy time with a lot of busy work.

  • “People who are really busy never have enough time to become skittish. And there is nothing so certain as the fact that the harmful consequences of inactivity are dissipated by activity. “

“So it is with the love of money, the love of power and the other maladies that affect the minds of men – you may be sure that it is when the abate and give every appearance of being cured that they are at their most dangerous”

On friends dying: “you have buried someone you loved. Now look for someone to love. It is better to make good the loss of a friend than to cry over him”

“An ordinary journey will be incomplete if you come to a stop in the middle of it, or anywhere short of your destination, but life is never incomplete if it is an honorable one. At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is whole”

  • He then compares life to acting: “what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is”

“A man is unhappy as he has convinced himself he is”

“But no doctor can refuse his patient those other, greater and surer pleasures, the pleasures of mind and spirit”

  • Pg 138 (Letter LXXVIII) for more on excess and choosing the right things to pursue.

“Truth will never pall on someone who explores the world of nature, wearied as a person will be by the spurious things”

  • Pg 139 (Letter LXXVII) for more on death and the good life

Letter LXXXIII is one to read and read again (pg 140)

  • “And we should, indeed, live as if we were in public view, and think, too, as if someone could peer into the inmost recesses of our hearts”
  • “What really ruins characters is the fact that none of us looks back over his life. We think about what we are going to do, and only rarely of that, and fail to think about what we have done, yet any plans for the future are dependent on the past”

Seneca preaches some pretty practical stuff at parties: drinking is bad in excess, and finding joy in it does not lead to a good life

  • “For imagine the drunken man’s behavior extended over several days: would you hesitate to think him out of his mind?”
  • “Prove – and an easy task it is – that so-called pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments”

“Well, I have no respect for any study whatsoever if its end is the making of money”

“Why ‘liberal studies’ are so called is obvious: it is because they are the ones considered worthy of a free man”

Seneca preaches that philosophy is significantly better than anything else, including other topics of science

  • “The geometrician teaches me how I may avoid losing any fraction of my estates, but what I really want to learn is how to lose the lot and keep smiling” (More on page 154, Letter LXXXVIII)
  • “What’s the use, after all, of mastering a horse and controlling him with the reins at full gallop if you’re carried away yourself by totally unbridled emotions? What’s the use of overcoming opponent after opponent in the wrestling or boxing rings if you can be overcome by your temper?” (More on page 156, Letter LXXXVIII)

“Virtue will not bring herself to enter the limited space we offer her; something of great size requires plenty of room. Let everything else be evicted, and your heart completely opened to her”

“What about thinking how much time you lose through constantly being taken up with official matters, private matters or ordinary matters, through sleep, through ill health? Measure your life: it just does not have room for so much”

On philosophy being the only thing that is truly earned: “For if they had made philosophy a blessing given to all and sundry, if we were born in a state of moral enlightenment, wisdom would have been deprived of the best thing about her – that she isn’t one of the things which fortune either gives us or doesn’t”

Seneca is proud of philosophy and its ability to make other things unnecessary. What need is an engineer if you can instead learn to live without the luxuries of life? Because nothing is needed, the only thing that matters is understanding that nothing is needed, IE philosophy. More on pg 166, Letter XC

Seneca is a believer in living with nature. He mentions that we might complain about not having a shade to save our skin, and his response is that we didn’t have it for years and did just fine. More on pg 167, Letter XC

On philosophy (“he” in this passage): “He has condemned pleasures an inseparable element of which is subsequent regret, has commended the good things which will always satisfy, and for all to see has made the man who has no need of luck the luckiest man of all, and the man who is master of himself the master of all”

  • More on pg 173, Letter XC
  • Also more on pg 175, Letter XC

[Seneca also recognized Black Swan events:] “One is not surprised, though, that there were never any advance fears of such an expected, virtually unheard of catastrophe, considering that there was no precedent for it”

In every instance where there is pleasure, there is fear of losing it. “In the absence of any enemy we suffer all that an enemy might wreck on us”

“We should be anticipating not merely all that commonly happens but all that is conceivably capable of happening”

Letter CIV (pg 184) has a trend that travel is not everything.

  • “The good man should go on living as long as he ought to, not just as long as he likes. The man who does not value his wife or a friend highly enough to stay on a little longer in life, who persists in dying in spite of them, is a thoroughly self-indulgent character”
  • “…the man who spends his time choosing one resort after another in a hunt for peace and quiet, will in every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing”
  • From Socrates, “What else can you expect, seeing that you always take yourself along with you when you go abroad?”
  • “What good does it do you to go overseas, to move from city to city? If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”
  • “…there isn’t a single art which is acquired merely by being in one place rather than another
  • “To lose someone you love is something you’ll regard as the hardest of all blows to bear, while all the time this will be as silly as crying because the leaves fall from the beautiful tress that add to the charm of your home. Preserve a sense of proportion in your attitude to everything that pleases you, and make the most of them while they are at their best”
  • Seneca talks more about getting your mind right, and how you are always with your mind. “So long as you associate with a person who’s mean and grasping you will remain a money-minded individual yourself. So long as you keep arrogant company, just so long will conceit stick to you.”
  • “For the only safe harbor in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.”
  • “I constantly meet people who think that what they themselves can’t do can’t be done, who say that to bear up under the things we Stoics speak of is beyond the capacity of human nature. How much more highly I rate these people’s abilities than they do themselves!”

“Those who are unprepared… are panic-stricken by the most insignificant happenings”

On pg 199 (Letter CVII) Seneca talks about all of life’s variables and preaches to find peace in the spirit.

“For fate the willing leads, the unwilling drags along”

“The more the mind takes in the more it expands”

People recognize the truth when they hear it: “It is easy enough to arouse in a listener a desire for what is honorable; for in every one of us nature has laid the foundations or sown the seeds of the virtues”

Seneca talks about removing excess things from his life. In some cases he removes things for a time but brings them back: “…in these cases in which I have ceased to practice total abstinence, I succeed in observing a limit, which is something hardly more than a step removed from total abstinence (and even perhaps more difficult – with some things less effort of will is require to cut them out altogether than to have recourse to them in moderation)”

Seneca talks about how styles of writing can be generational. Groups of people make mistakes then the entire population accepts them. That’s how language and style evolve.

Seneca preaches that luxuries are unnatural: “Is it not living unnaturally to hanker after roses during the winter, and to force lilies in midwinter by taking the requisite steps to change their environment and keeping up the temperature with hot water heating?”

“Vices are manifold, take countless different forms and are incapable of classification”

“Devotion to what is right is simple, devotion to what is wrong is complex and admits of infinite variations”

Letter CXXIII has a lot of good material on accepting current circumstances

  • “…of how nothing is burdensome if taken lightly, and how nothing need arouse one’s irritation so long as one doesn’t make it bigger than it is by getting irritated”
  • “Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them. Look at the number of things we buy because others have bought them or because they’re in most people’s houses. One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lived are guided by the examples of others; instead of being set to rights by reason we’re seduced by convention”
  • “Philosophy has no business to supply vice with excuses; a sick man who is encouraged to live in a reckless manner by has doctor has not a hope of getting well.”

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