Reading Notes: Seneca’s Letters

~ Letters from a Stoic by Seneca (trans. Robin Campbell) ~

It’s an interesting exercise to read Seneca’s letters and Homer’s Iliad at the same time: you get a sense for how arbitrary our fashionable categories may be. Both ostensibly belong to “classical literature,” though eight hundred years separate them. Seneca and we are divided by a gulf of history more than twice that deep, but his world and our own have so much more in common with one another than either shares with the Achaean armies camped on the beach at Troy. Again and again, while marking up my copy of this book I found myself muttering, “My God, we are still the Romans!”

Letters from a Stoic is a collection of Seneca’s Moral Epistles to Lucilius, superbly introduced, edited, and translated by Robin Campbell. I’d recently read James Romm’s Dying Every Day, a biography of Seneca, which first put me on the scent of the present title. I’d been looking for an entrée to Seneca for a long time, and this was the right one at the right time for me.

Seneca was both a philosopher and a statesman, and while serving as the young Nero’s tutor and defacto regent he was possibly the most powerful man in the western world. Seneca was also a great hypocrite – at least many of his contemporaries thought so. He preached the embrace of poverty while at the same time amassing enormous wealth. He championed a blameless life while abetting or at least turning a blind eye to Nero’s murder of his own brother and other family members. In the end, of course, Nero turned on him too. As an elderly man trying to live quietly in retirement, Seneca was commanded on the emperor’s orders to open his veins and end his own life, and he did so without complaint.

Was Seneca a hypocrite, and would being so make him unworthy of our consideration? Let’s say that Seneca is not for the youthful idealist; he will be better appreciated by someone with at least three or four decades under his belt. Seneca’s life was an especially powerful demonstration of the economizing we all engage in, to one degree or another, when we try to live according to our highest convictions in a world that requires everyone who would not be a monk in a cell to dirty his hands.

These letters (which read more like essays) Seneca wrote in the last years of his life. As they demonstrate, he was well aware of his failures, but they also prove his continued commitment to the life of philosophy – to philosophy as a practical pursuit of wisdom, of the honorable life, freedom from fear, joy in our own being, and compassion for our fellow creatures. There’s a humility and humanity in these letters that surpasses anything you may find in Seneca’s fellow Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. I took so many notes. I copied out so many passages. This is one of those books you want to loan to everyone, except that you can’t bear to part with it.

Some favorite passages:

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.

It is not the man who has too little who is poor but the man who hankers after more.

In the case of some sick people it is a matter for congratulation when they come to realize for themselves that they are sick.

You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world.

All foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself.

Whatever is true is my property.

Natural desires are limited; those which spring from false opinions have nowhere to stop, for falsity has no point of termination.

A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.

Each man has a character of his own choosing; it is chance or fate that decides his choice of job.

With afflictions of the spirit…the worse a person is, the less he feels it. You needn’t feel surprised, my dearest Lucilius. A person sleeping lightly perceives impressions in his dreams and is sometimes, even, aware during sleep that he is asleep, whereas a heavy slumber blots out even dreams and plunges the mind too deep for consciousness of self. Why does no one admit his failings? Because he’s still deep in them.

The man whom you should admire and imitate is the one who finds it a joy to live and in spite of that is not reluctant to die.

Night does not remove our worries; it brings them to the surface.

I should prefer to see you abandoning grief rather than it abandoning you. Much as you may wish, you will not be able to keep it up for very long, so give it up as early as possible.

At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is a whole.

There are times when even to live is an act of bravery.

You will die not because you are sick but because you are alive.

[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.

To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance.

It would be some relief to our condition and our frailty if all things were as slow in their perishing as they were in their coming into being: but as it is, the growth of things is a tardy process and their undoing is a rapid matter.

We’re born unequal, we die equal.

What good does it do you to go overseas, to move from city to city? If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.

To be feared is to fear: no one has been able to strike terror into others and at the same time enjoy peace of mind himself.


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