Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
READ: July 5, 2015
Letters from a Stoic is a first-person look into how an experienced Stoic applies philosophy to ordinary life and the world around him. From it you not only learn the core tenets of Stoicism, but get to witness the intellectual practice of someone who's who's wholly devoted to cultivating his mind, mastering philosophy, and achieving long-lasting happiness.
I've dabbled with philosophical texts before but have never felt like I've understood how philosophy is meant to be applied in every day life, or to what end. Unlike other texts I've read, Letters from a Stoic firmly grounds you in the root purpose of philosophy. In fact there were few themes throughout the book as recurrent as Seneca's view on the importance of philosophy, like the following passage:
Philosophy moulds and builds the personality, orders one's life, regulates one's conduct, shows one what one should do and what one should leave undone, sits at the helm and keeps one on the correct course as one is tossed about in perilous seas. Without it no one can lead a life free of free or worry. Every house of the day countless situations arise that call for advice, and for that advice we have to look to philosophy.
Seneca expresses dismay toward people who entertain or attempt to inspire themselves with philosophy but not actually study or practice it. Seneca also openly detests Epicureans, seeing them as pursuing a depraved form of happiness.
Consistent with Stoic tenets, Seneca preaches of avoiding vices and excess (he even discourages reading an abundant quantity of books). He especially warns of "the crowd", which he sees as the ultimate discourager of noble conduct. Seneca sees the ideal disposition as quiet, noble, and intellectual. Happiness is achieved not though anything external or material, but by devoted practice of philosophy and avoidance of all things that tempt or derail us from a cultivated disposition.
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. To be everywhere is to be nowhere.
It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. What difference does it make how much there is laid away in a man's safe or in his barns... if he is always after what is another's and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already. You ask what is the proper limit to a person's wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.
Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship. But when you have decided to do so, welcome him heart and soul, and speak as unreservedly with him as you would with yourself.
There are certain people who tell any person they meet things that should only be confided to friends, unburdening themselves of whatever is on their minds into any ear they please. Others again are shy of confiding in their closes friends, and would not even let themselves, if they could help it, into the secrets they keep hidden deep down inside themselves. We should do neither. Trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one.
Refrain from following the example of those whose craving is for attention, not their own improvement... avoid shabby attire, long hair, an unkept beard... Inwardly everything should be different, but our outward far should conform with the crowd.
Adopting stoic ideals should not mean that we live in a way that is radically different than others. Otherwise we're essentially turning our adherence to philosophy into something that we're trying to show off to others.
Let our aim be a way of life not diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the mob. Otherwise we shall repel and alienate the very people whose reform we desire... The first thing philosophy promises us is the feeling of fellowship... being different will mean the abandoning of that manifesto... In the same way as a craving for dainties is a token of extravagant living, avoidance of familiar and inexpensive dishes betokens insanity.
The standard which I accept is this: one's life should be a compromise between the ideal and the popular morality. People should admire our way of life but they should at the same time find it understandable.
You ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd. I at any rate am ready to confess my own frailty in this respect. I never come back home with quite the same moral character I went out with; something or other becomes unsettled where I had achieved internal peace, sone one or other of the things I had put to flight reappears on the scene... Associating with people in large numbers is actually harmful: there is not one of them that will not make some vice or other attractive to us, or leave us carrying the imprint of it or bedaubed all unawares with it.
A single example of extravagance or greed does a lot of harm... a wealthy neighbor provokes cravings in one; a companion with a malicious nature tends to rub off some of his rusts even on someone of an innocent and open-hearted nature...
You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world. But the right thing is to shun both purses: 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.
'Avoid,' I cry, 'whatever is approved of by the mob, and things that are the gift of chance'... we think these things are ours when in fact it is we who are caught.
'To win true freedom you must be a slave to philosophy.' A person who surrenders and subnets himself to her doesn't have his application deferred from day to day.
...this is what we mean when we say that the wise man is self-content; he is so in the sense that he is able to do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.
Anyone thinking of his own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake. Things will end as they began... These are what are commonly called fair-weather friendships. A person adopted as a friend for the sake of his usefulness will be cultivated only for as long as he is useful. This explains the cord of friends that clusters about successful men and the lonely atmosphere about the ruined – their friends running away she nit comes to the testing point... A person who starts being friends with you because it pays him will similarly cease to be friends because it pays him to do so.
The wise man, unequalled though he is in his devotion to his friends, though regarding them as being no less important and frequently more important than his own self, will still consider what is valuable in life to be something wholly confined to his inner self.
Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won't make the crooked straight.
We should cherish old age and enjoy it. It is full of pleasure if you know how to use it.
'It's not very pleasant, though,' you may say, 'to have death right before one's eyes.' To this I would say, firstly, that death ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one – the order in which we each receive our summons is not determined by our precedence in the register - and, secondly, that no one is so very old that it would be quite unnatural for him to hope for one more day...
Without wisdom the mind is sick, and the body itself, however physically powerful, can only have the kind of strength that is found in persons in a demented or delirious state. So this is the sort of healthiness you must make your principal concern. You must attend to the other sort as well, but see that it takes second place.
Make mental, not physical exercise, your primary health concern.
Devotees of physical culture have to put up with a lot of nuisances. There are the exercises... there is the heavy feeding... There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time. There is running, swinging weights about and jumping... Pick out any of these for ease and straightforwardness. But whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon.
Choose a quick and simple form of exercise.
When you look at all the people out in front of you, think of all the ones behind you. If you want to feel appreciative where the gods and your life are concerned, just think how many people you've outdone. Why be concerned about others, come to that, when you've outdone your own self? Set yourself a limit which you couldn't even exceed if you wanted to, and say good-bye at last to those deceptive prizes more precious to those who hope for them to those who have won them. IF there were anything substantial in them they would sooner or later bring a sense of fullness; as it is they simply aggravate the thirst of those who swallow them.
No one can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom, and that the perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life, although even the beginnings of wisdom make life bearable. Yes this conviction, clear as it is, needs to be strengthened and given deeper roots through daily reflection; making noble resolutions is not as important as keeping the resolutions you have made already.
Philosophy is not an occupation of a popular nature, nor is it pursued for the sake of self-advertisement... it moulds and builds the personality, orders one's life, regulates one's conduct, shows one what one should do and what one should leave undone, sits at the helm and keeps one on the correct course as one is tossed about in perilous seas. Without it no one can lead a life free of worry. Every house of the day countless situations arise that call for advice, and for that advice we have to look to philosophy. Keep a hold on it and put it on firm footing... so that what is at present an enthusiasm may become a settled spiritual disposition.
'If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people's opinions, you will never be rich.' Natural desires are limited; those which spring from false opinions have nowhere to stop, for falsity has no point of termination. So give up pointless, empty journeys...
It's only when you're breathing your last that the way you've spent your time will become apparent.
Even when they're over, pleasures of a depraved nature are apt to carry feelings of dissatisfaction, in the same way as a criminal's anxiety doesn't end with the commission of the crime, even if it's undetected at the time. Such pleasures are insubstantial and unreliable; even if they don't do one any harm, they're fleeting in character.
A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.
How can novelty of surroundings abroad and coming acquainted with foreign scenes or cities be of any help? All that dashing about turns out to be quite futile... you are running away in your own company.
Once you have rid yourself of the affliction theorem though, every change of scene will become a pleasure. You may be banished to the ends of the earth, yet in whatever outlandish corner of the world you may find yourself stationed, you will find that place, whatever it may be like, a hospitable home.
Don't travel and move in the hopes that it will bring you happiness. Traveling about and moving is really just fleeing from yourself. A good life available everywhere.
But in the case of a grown man... it is disgraceful to go hunting after gems of wisdom, and prop himself up with a minute number of the best-known sayings and be dependent on his memory as well; it is time he was standing on his own feet. He should be delivering himself of such sayings, not memorizing them... how much longer are you going to serve under others' orders? Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity.
To remember is to safeguard something entrusted to your memory, whereas to know, by contrast, is actually to make each item your own, and not be dependent on some original and be constantly looking to see what the master said... The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters. Truth likes open to everyone.
Memorization is not wisdom; wisdom is being able to deliver sayings yourself. To follow the words of others blindly is to be a slave.
I propose to value [men] according to their character, not their jobs. Each man has a character of his own choosing; it is chance or fate that decides his choice of job.
Show me a man who isn't a slave; one is a slave to sex, another to money, another to ambition; all are slaves to hope or fear.
Why does no one admit his failings? Because he's still deep in them... So let us rouse ourselves, so that we may be able to demonstrate our errors. But only philosophy will wake us.... Devote yourself entirely to her... Give your whole mind to her. Sit at her side and pay her constant court, and an enormous gap will widen between yourself and other men. You'll end up far in advance of all mankind, and not far behind the gods themselves... Philosophy's power to blunt all the blows of circumstance is beyond belief.
And there is a lot of difference between your life being a retiring one and its being a spineless one. Lest 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 can be won by anyone other than the philosopher. The person who has run away from the world and his fellow-men, whose exile is due to the unsuccessful outcome of his own desires, who is unable to endure the sight of others more fortunate, who has taken to some place of hiding in his alarm like a timid, alert, he is not 'living for himself', but for his belly and his sleep and his passions – in utter degradation, in other words.
The place one's in, though, doesn't make any contributions to peace of mind: it's the spirit that makes everything agreeable to oneself. I've seen for myself people sunk in gloom in cheerful and delightful country houses, and people in completely secluded surroundings who looked as if they were run off their feet.
Rest is sometimes far from restful. Hence our need to be stimulated into general activity and kept occupied and busy with pursuits of the right nature whenever we are victims of the sort of idleness that wearies of itself.
Can you stand people who treat their friends with complete neglect and then mourn them to distraction, never caring about anyone unless they have lost him? And the reason they lament them so extravagantly then is that they are afraid people may wonder whether they did care; they are looking for belated means of demonstrating their devotion.
No one is ignorant as not to know that one day he must die. Nevertheless when death draws near he turns, wailing and trembling, looking for a way out. Wouldn't you think a man an utter fool if he burst into tears because he didn't live a thousand years ago? A man is as much a fool for shedding tears because he isn't going to be alive a thousands years from now. There's no difference between the one and the other – you didn't exist and you won't exist – you've no concern with either period.
A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is. An complaining away about one's sufferings after they are over is something I think should be banned. Even if all this is true, it is past history. What's the good of dragging up sufferings which are over, of being unhappy now just because you were then? What is more, doesn't everyone add a good deal to his tale of hardships and deceive himself as swell in the matter? Besides, there is a pleasure in having succeeded in enduring something the actual enduring of which was very far from pleasant; ...when a man is in the grip of difficulties he should say: 'There may be pleasure in the memory Of even these events one day.'
Drunkenness inflames and lays bare every vice, removing the reserve that acts as a check on impulses to wrong behavior. For people abstain from forbidden things far more often through feelings of inhibition when it comes to doing what is wrong than through any will to good.
The question has sometimes been posed whether these liberal studies make a man a better person. But in fact they do not aspire to any knowledge of how to do this, let alone claim to do it. Literary scholarship concerns itself with research into language, or history if a rather broad field is preferred.... which of these paves the way to virtue? Attentiveness to words, analysis of syllables, accounts of myths... What is there in all this that dispels fear, root our desire or reins in passion?
Turning to the musical scholar I say this. You teach me how bass and treble harmonize, or how strings producing different notes can give rise to concord. I would rather you brought about some harmony in my mind and got my thoughts into tune... The geometrician teaches me how to work out the size of my estates – rather than how to work out how much a man needs in order to have enough.
Why then do we give our sons a liberal education? Not because it can make the morally good but because it prepares the mind for the acquisition of moral values... Someone will ask me how I can say that liberal studies are of no help towards morality when I've just been saying that there's no attaining morality without them. My answer would be this: there's no attaining morality without food either, but there's no connexion between morality and food.
To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance. Apart from which this kind of obsession with the liberal arts turns people into pedantic, irritating, tactless, self-satisfied bores, not learning what they need simply because they spend their time learning things they will never need.
What good has travel of itself ever been able to do anyone? It has never acted as a check on pleasure or a restraining influence on desires... All it has ever done is distract us for a little while, through the novelty of our surroundings, like children fascinated by something they haven't come across before.
Travel will give you a knowledge of other countries... But travel won't make a better or saner man of you. For this we must spend time in study and in the writings of wise men, to learn the truths that have emerged from their researches, and carry on the search ourselves for the answers that have not yet been discovered. This is the ay to liberate the spirit that still needs to be rescued from its miserable state of slavery.
You'll find that a large proportion of the philosopher's audience is made of this element, which regards his lecture hall as a place of lodging for periods of leisure. They're not concerned to rid themselves of any faults there, or acquire any rule of life by which to test their characters, but simply to enjoy to the full the pleasures the ear has to offer. Some of them are stirred by the mobile sentiments they hear... They are deeply affected by the words and become the persons they are told to be – or would if the impression on their minds were to last, if this magnificent enthusiasm were not immediately intercepted by that discourager of noble conduct, the crowd: very few succeed in getting home in the same frame of mind.
My advice is really this: what we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching, and the pirated and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application – not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech – and learn them so well that words become works No one to my mind lets humanity down quite so much as those who study philosophy as if it were a sort of commercial skill and then proceed to live in a quite different manner from the way they tell other people to live.
With all touch people you should avoid associating. These are the people who pass on vices, transmitting them from one character to another... And association with them does a lot of damage. For even if its success is not immediate, it leaves a seed in the mind, and even after we've said goodbye to them, the evil follows us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future.
Eventually it reaches the stage where it says... 'eating, drinking, and spending the money that's been left to you, that's what I call living – and that's what I call not forgetting that you've got to die some day, too.' These are voices which you must steer clear... How much better to pursue a straight course and eventually reach that destination where the things that are pleasant and the things that are honorable finally become for you, the same. And we can achieve this if we realize that there are two classes of things attracting or repelling us. We are attracted by wealth, pleasures, good looks, political advancement and various other welcoming and enticing prospects: we are repelled by exertion, death, pain, disgrace, and limited means. It follows that we need to train ourselves not to crave for the former and not to be afraid of the latter.