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.