Letters from a Stoic

1127397.gif I have now finished Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic and found it a bracing read; he has so many fascinating, challenging things to say about what it means to live well and how to find happiness. I enjoyed it partly, I think, because I have stoical tendencies myself; I tend to be a patient, long-suffering person, one who keeps emotion under wraps and is pretty good at accepting what comes my way. Or at least, I project that image out into the world — what I’m feeling on the inside is sometimes something different.

But stoicism is more than keeping a tight rein on emotion. It’s also about working to bring our lives in line with natural principles, so that we’re living simply and rationally, not desiring those things that harm us and instead learning how to live contentedly with whatever happens. It’s about learning to accept death and suffering and to keep desire from overwhelming us and causing unhappiness. At times Seneca sounds like a Buddhist, urging people to recognize the dangers caused by unchecked desire.

I didn’t always agree with Seneca, however. He has a tendency to devalue the body at the expense of the mind and spirit. He wants people to do the bare minimum to maintain physical health and spend all the rest of their time studying philosophy. He thinks of the body as a separate entity from the mind, as a vessel there merely to keep the mind going. It won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t particularly like this, as I believe the mind and body have an extraordinarily complex relationship and that devoting time to taking care of the body can contribute to happiness just as studying philosophy can. I also don’t like the way Seneca elevates philosophy above every other discipline; he has a letter in which he compares philosophy to literary criticism, and philosophy comes out way ahead. He makes literary studies seem like a frivolous waste of time compared to the depth and weight of philosophy.

In spite of some disagreements, however, I found much to admire. Here is one passage I particularly liked:

For a life spent viewing all the variety, the majesty, the sublimity in things around us can never succumb to ennui; the feeling that one is tired of being, of existing, is usually the result of an idle and inactive leisure. Truth will never pall on someone who explores the world of nature, wearied as a person will be by the spurious things. Moreover, even if death is on the way with a summons for him, though it come all too early, though it cut him off in the prime of life, he has experienced every reward that the very longest life can offer, having gained extensive knowledge of the world we live in, having learnt that time adds nothing to the finer things in life. Whereas any life must needs seem short to people who measure it in terms of pleasures which through their empty nature are incapable of completeness.

What we need is not a long life, although a long life can be good, but instead an ability to live fully. If we can live fully, any amount of time we have on earth is enough.

And here’s another fine passage:

… no new findings will ever be made if we rest content with the findings of the past. Besides, a man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking. “But surely you are going to walk in your predecessors’ footsteps?” Yes, indeed, I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up. The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters. Truth lies open to everyone. There has yet to be a monopoly of truth. And there is plenty of it left for future generations too.

There’s a lot of wisdom to be found in this book — I like the idea that there “truth lies open to everyone” — and a lot to quarrel with too. Both of these qualities make this a satisfying book to read.

15 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays

15 responses to “Letters from a Stoic

  1. I’ll have to look into this book. I’m fascinated by the ancient Greeks!

  2. So is Seneca a contemporary of Plato and Socrates, Dorothy? I get very confused with the Ancient Greeks.

  3. I’m just tentatively dipping my toe into Philosophy. Is this a good place to start?

  4. I have to say, I thought this sounded like it might be sort of dry reading, but the passages you shared have actually been very interesting. I’m not always one to live contentedly with anything that happens in my life–perhaps I should give his essays a try and see what he has to say about all this.

  5. Edd

    Dorothy,

    What a perfect analysis from a work of our friend Mr. Lucious Annaeus Seneca.

  6. Love the quotes. A lot of Emerson is based on stoic philosophy. I’ll have to get ahold of some Seneca for some comparing and contrasting.

  7. Brandon — yes, I do recommend this book — although Seneca is a Roman (4BC – 65AD). But he has great things to say about Stoicism.

    Litlove — I’m not so good with the period either! :) But Seneca is later, as you can see from the above comment.

    Ann — I’d say it’s good if you are interested in Stoicism, and want something a little lighter than most straightforward philosophical texts, as it’s essayistic as well as philosophical. I’m not sure I’d start with Seneca, though, if a survey of philosophy is what you want. But for dipping your toe into it? Seneca could work …

    Danielle — he will certainly make you think about contentment. I read this book very slowly, and that worked well; the essays/letters are short, so I never felt bogged down.

    Edd — thank you! You write the nicest comments! :)

    Stefanie — yes, I recognized Seneca in a lot of your Emerson posts — it would be fun to read some of Emerson’s influences, wouldn’t it?

  8. Interesting that he will choose the “shorter” and “easier” path over the path of his elders. This is a problem that we face today as well. Ofttimes we skip over the true reward or learning of the journey in favor of expedience. What good is it to get someplace quickly and easily, if we were meant to learn something from the difficulty or the time spent?

    Your writing entices me to read his. Keep up the good work.

  9. Brenton

    Great review… I read the book for my class and wanted more depth you did it, great quotes
    keep up the great work

  10. Very engaging review, Dorothy. You succeed in making a book that initially might seem boring as three bags of hell, seem interesting and very worthwhile.
    In the opening portion of the first extended quote, I think of the psychologist, Abraham Maslow and his pyramidical construct of man’s “hierarchy of needs”.
    What Seneca is referring to as “a life spent viewing all the variety,” Maslow called “freshness of appreciation.” What [much later] M. Scott Peck would call “living in awareness.” What I would call, “not waiting for tomorrow.”
    You make me want to read the ancients.

  11. Bikkuri — it’s interesting that I didn’t read the quotation quite as negatively — I thought of finding the easier route as being willing to innovate, to find new and better ways of doing things, to overthrow authority when necessary. But I do see your point too. I suppose there are shortcuts that can genuinely make our lives better and shortcuts that simply make us lazier.

    Cipriano — thank you! Really, it’s not boring, although I’m not sure anyone should trust my definition of what’s boring and what’s not. But, really, he’s got a lot of wisdom to share, so it’s worth checking out (as are many of the ancients! :) )

  12. See, I told you that you had a much more positive outlook on things than I do. :)

  13. Frank

    Oh, and there is so much more in these essays…

    1. You are annoyed that Seneca raises philosophy above literary criticism. But he goes much further than that. Seneca suggests that philosophy offers to make us the equals of the gods themselves. Indeed, more than equal: philosophy makes us superior to a god because a god has its own nature to thank when it comes to living fearlessly. A philosopher is able to achieve fearless living in spite of not having been born a god.

    I would argue that Seneca does not raise philosophy above literary criticism. He raises the art of self awareness above all other activities because no activity is beneficial if not undertaken with complete self awareness (or self control, or enlightenment, or whichever word you prefer). Literary criticism is not ‘below’ philosophy. A person may live an enlightened life without literary criticism but it is impossible to live an enlightened life without enlightenment. “I will no more be overcome by the glitter of gold than by the glitter of a sword; I will overcome with sublime purpose of will the things all others hope for and the things all others fear.”

    2. Seneca observes that reading too widely is like eating too heavily: why push one more delicacy or morsel in your mouth from an endless buffet only to regurgitate it all and start over, having gained neither health nor self respect? A small amount of simple food is best because it gives your body what it needs to function at its best. Have a treat once in a while, but keeo your body’s urges in check. Diabetes, heart disease, chronic indigestion, obesity… overeating is not unproductive, it is counterproductive. Reading as though you are at an endless buffet of words is no different. Read 1,o00 works. Read 2,000 works. Read 10,000 works. You will discover that you are living neither better nor more wisely. You will discover only that you have the itch to read more: to stick one more morsel in your mouth before passing out at the table. Seneca very wisely urges us to read one or a few works well. How can you find a role model if you fail to pay attention to anyone? What is more, Seneca urges us not to confuse others’ ideas with our own. What do you think? What do you have to say? What have you accomplished? Stop reading and start doing. Seneca says this, Plato says that, Lao Tze says another thing… but what do you have to say? What do you believe? Stop waiting for someone else to reveal the truth to you. Start paying attention to life and you will discover it for yourself. It is all around you.

  14. I agree with everything you say, Dorothy. I got the most out of the longer Seneca pieces I read when I substituted “studying philosophy” in my head for “doing something truly nourishing” or “focusing on the important things.” Not so elegantly phrased, but a bit more inclusive. I disliked his devaluation of the body and also of things like nurturing friendships and family ties, but with a little bit of tweaking I also got a lot out of his words.

  15. Recently read the book and loved it. Thanks for the post.

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