Letters from a stoic

August 25, 2020 · 18 mins read By Seneca


Seneca’s life

  • Born in Cordoba.
  • Chronically ill (asthma).
  • Speaker at Senate. Got excited by emperor Claudius.
  • Spent 8 years in exile in Corsica. Emperor’s new wife asked for him back.
  • Became tutor to future Nero. Wrote his speeches.
  • Seneca and Burrus (army officer) were advising Nero in his first years. Almost running the country.
  • After Burrus’ death, Seneca had less influence over Nero.
  • He left Rome and political life after that.
  • Discovery of a plot to kill Nero (maybe with Seneca in?) made Nero kill Seneca and his other “enemies” by asking them to commit suicide.
  • Note: Seneca’s main criticism is that he did not live up to the values he preached. Differences between his teachings and practice. He was very rich and extravagant.

Seneca’s philosophy

  • Stoicism started centuries before Seneca. Founded by Zeno, who lectured in a stoa.
  • Framework: the world is a single community, rules by a supreme “power” that can be called whatever you like (gods, nature…). Man’s duty is to live according to the divine will / nature’s laws (the cosmos, cf Parenthese Culture). And resign completely to whatever happens. Only by doing so (and not setting a value on things that can be taken away) can he achieve peace.
  • Living “in accordance with nature” = only need necessities + develop reason to conquer emotions and fears. “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”.
  • End goal: achieve “virtus”. Supreme ideal: wisdom + courage + self control + justice.
  • This will allow men to be immune to suffering from the wounds and upsets of life.
  • This philosophy grew in popularity in Rome, as it fit the roman ideals closely. But stayed in the educated circles, not reaching the masses.
  • The “sapiens” (= wise man/philosopher) give an image of a perfect being, hard to achieve. No talk of gradual self-improvement.
  • Seneca’s role: reconciled this view with a down to earth man and life.
  • The Sapiens can now have friends and not be too different from his fellows. He battles against his failings, like everyone else.
  • This relationship to the “god” is closer to a Christianity than the roman state religion, which was mostly rituals.
  • Stoicism has a tendency to put man first, instead of gods. So it will not take the same place as Christianity.
  • Modern philosophy is not something Seneca would like. Arguing over the meaning of words degrades philosophy. But also, philosophy for him is to turn people into better versions of themselves, which modern philosophy doesn’t do. Philosophy should be useful.
  • Seneca’s letters were far in advance of their time: anti-slavery, belief that everyone was equal. Can be found again in the French and US revolutions.

Seneca’s style

  • Seneca gave a lot of importance to style.
  • Strives for terseness and originality: makes his style hard to read today.
  • Context: after the republic, rhetoric went from a practical skill to a leisure, and turned into style shows.
  • Often criticized for repeating the same ideas over and over in different words.


II - On not being scattered

Instead of jumping from 1 thing to another all the time, do 1 thing, well. Example with reading.

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

For each day, pick one thought and spend time digesting it:

“After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day.”

“You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”

III - On friendship

You should have absolute confidence in your friends. Meaning that you should think before you make anyone your “friend”.

“if you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship.”

Seek balance:

  • telling everyone about your life <-> not confiding in anyone
  • restless/busy <-> relaxed all the time

“You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”

V - On appearances and living in the present

As a philosopher, focus on inward change, not outwards change to bring attention to yourself. Philosopher should be a member of a community. Being different alienates you from the rest.

“The first thing philosophy promises us is the feeling of fellowship, of belonging to mankind and being members of a community; being different will mean the abandoning of that manifesto.”

Hope and fear are very similar: rooted in non-present conditions. Vs living in the present:

“Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.”

“A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely.”

VI - On teaching and learning

  • Key to learning comes from ability to teach afterwards.

    “part of my joy in learning is that it puts me in a position to teach”

  • Being immersed in a field teaches you more than reading.

“Personal converse, though, and daily intimacy with someone will be of more benefit to you than any discourse.”

VII - On crowds

  • Crowds will affect you negatively by their vices.
  • Gives a detailed description of the horrors of a gladiator (?) show.
  • A crowd can sway people by sheer number, and we are all unable to resist.

“When a mind is impressionable and has none too firm a hold on what is right, it must be rescued from the crowd: it is so easy for it to go over to the majority.”

“inability of any of us, even as we perfect our personality’s adjustment, to withstand the onset of vices when they come with such a mighty following.”

VII - On retiring from public life and gifts of chance

  • Retired from public life to be more of service to the public through teachings.
  • Avoid whatever is mainstream and gifts of chance. (note: why?)

“Avoid,’ I cry, ‘whatever is approved of by the mob, and things that are the gift of chance.”

  • Only pursue the material benefits that you need:

“indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health”

  • Ideas do not belong to people:

    “Quite possibly you’ll be demanding to know why I’m quoting so many fine sayings from Epicurus rather than ones belonging to our own school. But why should you think of them as belonging to Epicurus and not as common property?”

VII - On solitude

  • Being “self content” doesn’t mean being alone. It means not needing other people to be happy.

    “he is so in the sense that he is able to do without friends, not that he desires to do without them”

  • On the pleasure of having friendships for the sake of them with no ulterior motive.

    “Great pleasure is to be found not only in keeping up an old and established friendship but also in beginning and building up a new one.”

“To procure friendship only for better and not for worse is to rob it of all its dignity.”

  • Difference between need and lack.

    “The wise man, he said, lacked nothing but needed a great number of things, whereas ‘the fool, on the other hand, needs nothing (for he does not know how to use anything) but lacks everything.’ The wise man needs hands and eyes and a great number of things that are required for the purposes of day-to-day life; but he lacks nothing, for lacking something implies that it is a necessity and nothing, to the wise man, is a necessity.”

  • Being happy comes from inside. You must think you have enough and not need more to be satisfied.

    “‘Any man,’ he says, ‘who does not think that what he has is more than ample, is an unhappy man, even if he is the master of the whole world.”

XI - On public speaking

  • Blushing and other natural flaws of the body can’t be beaten, only tamed.

    “These are things which neither training nor experience ever eliminates.”

  • Advice for a moral compass: pick someone you respect and live your life as if that person was always looking over your shoulder.

XII - On old age

  • Old age can be pleasant if you have the right mindset.

    “Well, we should cherish old age and enjoy it. It is full of pleasure if you know how to use it.”

  • Live everyday as if it was your last. Then tomorrow will always be a gift.
  • Ideas don’t belong to anyone:

    “And I shall persist in inflicting Epicurus on you, in order to bring it home to the people who take an oath of allegiance to someone and never afterwards consider what is being said but only who said it, that the things of greatest merit are common property.”

XV - On physical exercise

  • Physical exercise is important, but don’t let it consume too much of your time.

    “There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time.”

  • Don’t forget to exercise your mind too.
  • Gratitude and realizing what you have beat anxiety and expectations about the future.

    “The life of folly is empty of gratitude, full of anxiety: it is focused wholly on the future”

  • Have no expectations.

    “why should I demand from fortune that she should give me this and that rather than demand from myself that I should not ask for them?”

XVI - On keeping with the practice

  • Important to keep exercising [philosophy] even after the first interest fades out.

    “making noble resolutions is not as important as keeping the resolutions you have made already”

  • Philosophy is a long term occupation.
  • The importance of philosophy if we have no free will (god/chance).
  • On living according to nature and not what you are expected to have:

    “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.”

“whenever you want to know whether the desire aroused in you 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 not something natural”

XVII - On practicing poverty

“set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, coarse clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what one used to dread?’ It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs”

Note: See [[4-hour-workweek#3 Dodging bullets]]

XXVI - On death and aging

  • Aging: body weakens but spirit is still strong.
  • Imagine a “hard reset” on your deeds to be able to live your life as you want it.
  • Prepare for death: rehearsing death and thinking about it makes it easier to handle when it inevitably comes.
  • Thinking about death will make you think about how you live your life:

    “all your debates and learned conferences, your scholarly talk and collection of maxims from the teachings of philosophers, are in no way indicative of genuine spiritual strength. It’s only when you’re breathing your last that the way you’ve spent your time will become apparent.”

XXVII - On working on yourself

  • Working on your character is the only way to tranquility and happiness.

    “Of this one thing make sure against your dying day – that your faults die before you do.”

“A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.”

  • It cannot be delegated.

XXVIII - On traveling

  • Traveling will not be the solution to feel better.

    “How can you wonder your travels do you no good, when you carry yourself around with you? You are saddled with the very thing that drove you away.”

  • Once you have a good soul, traveling will become more enjoyable.

    “Once you have rid yourself of the affliction there, though, every change of scene will become a pleasure.”

“Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there. We ought not, therefore, to give over our hearts for good to any one part of the world. We should live with the conviction: ‘I wasn’t born for one particular corner: the whole world’s my home country.”

  • Note: see https://moretothat.com/travel-is-no-cure-for-the-mind/

XXXII - On internalizing ideas ❤️

  • First letter without a teaching from someone else at the end.
  • Speaks against excerpts and blurbs.

    “When things stand out and attract attention in a work you can be sure there is an uneven quality about it”

(yes, ironic 😄)

  • Judge and get ideas for ideas, not for who said them. Speaks against argument of authority.
  • Small, bite-sized ideas and aphorisms are good for novices, but after a while you should be internalizing the ideas rather than remembering them. Use them to create your own.

    “It is one thing, however, to remember, another to know.”

  • Following’s other people’s thoughts can be dangerous:
    • When the person was wrong.
    • When the subject is not clear-cut. New developments may have been made since then.

XXXVIII - On teaching

  • 1-1 teaching > lectures. Lectures make people want to learn, 1-1 makes them actually learn.
  • Using the right words is powerful. A few words can have a big impact, like seeds.

    “precepts have the same features as seeds: they are of compact dimensions and they produce impressive results – given, as I say, the right sort of mind, to grasp at and assimilate them.”