On Letters From A Stoic

I recently finished reading Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. This book was recommended by Shane Parrish (Farnam Street). What is stoicism: “The Stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers, ruled by a supreme providence which could be spoken of, almost according to choice or context, under a variety of names or descriptions including the divine reason, creative reason, nature, the spirit or purpose of the universe, destiny, a personal god, even (by way of concession to traditional religion) the gods. It is man’s duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, bringing his life into line with ‘nature’s laws’, and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him. 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.”

Below are key excerpts from this classic masterpiece:

This, the summum bonum or ‘supreme ideal’, is usually summarized in ancient philosophy as a combination of four qualities: wisdom (or moral insight), courage, self-control and justice (or upright dealing). It enables a man to be self-sufficient’, immune to suffering, superior to the wounds and upsets of life (often personalized as Fortuna, the goddess of fortune). Even a slave thus armed can be called ‘free’, or indeed titled ‘a king’ since even a king cannot touch him. Another example of these ‘paradoxes’ for which the Stoics were celebrated is one directed at the vanity of worldly possessions: “the shortest route to wealth is the contempt of wealth.”

On Personal Development:

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. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach. And there is no reason why any pride in advertising your talents abroad should lure you forward into the public eye, inducing you to give readings of your works or deliver lectures should be glad to see you doing that if what you had to offer them was suitable for the crowd I have been talking about: but the fact is, not one of them is really capable of understanding you. You might perhaps come across one here and there, but even they would need to be trained and developed by you to a point where they could grasp your teaching. ‘For whose benefit, then, did I learn it all?’ If it was for your own benefit that you learnt it you have no call to fear that your trouble may have been wasted.

On Rest:

This is incorrect. There is no such thing as ‘peaceful stillness’ except where reason has lulled it to rest. Night does not remove our worries; it brings them to the surface. All it gives us is a change of anxieties. For even when people are asleep they have dreams as troubled as their days. The only true serenity is die one which represents the free development of a sound mind. Look at the man whose quest for sleep demands absolute quiet from his spacious house. To prevent any sound disturbing his ears every one of his host of slaves preserves total silence and those who come anywhere near him walk on tip-toe.

On Living:

My own advice to you – and not only in the present illness but in your whole life as well – is this: refuse to let the thought of death bother you: nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear. There are three upsetting things about any illness: the fear of dying the physical suffering and the interruption of our pleasures. I have said enough about the first, but will just say this, that the fear is due to the facts of nature, not of illness. Illness has actually given many people a new lease of life; the experience of being near to death has been their preservation. You will die not because you are sick but because you are alive.

On Expectation:

As Posidonius said, ‘In a single day there lies open to men of learning more than there ever does to the unenlightened in the longest of lifetimes.’ In the meantime ding tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock.

On Liberal Eduction:

Why then do we give our sons a liberal education? Not because it can make them morally good but because it prepares the mind for the acquisition of moral values. Just as that grounding in grammar. as they called it in die old days, in which boys are given their elementary schooling, does not teach them the liberal arts but prepares the ground for knowledge of them in due course, so when it comes to character the liberal arts open the way to it rather than carry the personality all the way there.

On Philosophy:

Philosophy has the single task of discovering the truth about the divine and human worlds. The religious conscience. the sense of duty, justice and all the rest of the close-knit. interdependent ‘company of virtues’, never leave her side. Philosophy has taught men to worship what is divine, to love what is human, telling us that with the gods belongs authority, and among human beings fellowship. That fellowship lasted for a long time intact, before men’s greed broke society up – and impoverished even those she had brought most riches; for people cease to possess everything as soon as they want everything for themselves.

On Death:

Death you’ll think of as the worst of all bad things, though in fact there s nothing bad about it at all except the thing which comes before it – the fear of it. You’ll be scared stiff by illusory as well as genuine dangers, haunted by imaginary alarms. What good will it do you to: Have found a route past all those Arrive forts And won escape right through the enemy’s lines? Peace itself will supply you with new fears. If your mind has once experienced the shocks of fright you’ll no longer have any confidence even in things which are perfectly safe; once it has acquired the habit of unthinking panic, it is incapable even of attending to its own self-preservation. For it runs away from dangers instead of taking steps to avert them, and we’re far more exposed to them once our backs are turned.

On Working Time:

More active and commendable still is the person who is waiting for the daylight and intercepts the first rays of the sun; shame on him who lies in bed dozing when the sun is high in the sky, whose waking hours commence in the middle of the day – and even this time, for a lot of people, is the equivalent of the small hours. There are some who invert the functions of day and night and do not separate eyelids leaden with the previous day’s carousal before night sets in. Their way of life, if not their geographical situation, resembles the state of those peoples whom nature as Virgil says, has planted beneath our feet on the opposite side of the world.

On Pursuing the Straight Course:

How much better to pursue a straight course and eventually reach that destination where the things that are pleasant and the things that are honourable 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.

I highly recommend reading this book.



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