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.


Reading Notes: Ron Hansen’s Mariette

~ Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) by Ron Hansen ~

There’s an old friction in Christianity between the longing for mystical experience and the keep-your-head-down plodding work of the humble, devotional life. Hansen’s book succeeds best when he keeps to this theme, exploring the jealousies and factionalism that erupt at an upstate New York convent when a teenage postulant suffers a series of increasingly intense mystical experiences.

Unfortunately, Mariette in Ecstasy also suffers from a bad case of what I like to call “Writer’s-Workshopitis.” I could smell Hansen’s MFA after just a few pages. In this particular case, symptoms include present-tense narration, an excess of lyricism and ambience and a corresponding dearth of story and character, and too much poetic neologizing. For example, a cruel wind “sharks” through the fields; and rather than gently touching or caressing an object, hands must be “tendering” them. The fact that this second usage occurs twice in a book of a mere 180 pages is, in my opinion, unforgivable.

I appreciate the theme of Mariette in Ecstasy, and I admire its final solution (and I do think Hansen offers one), but the book reads too much like an outline of the novel that it was supposed to be.

Reading Notes: James Richardson’s Vectors

~ Vectors (2001) by James Richardson ~

My reading had been scattershot lately. I’d been dipping into Kipling’s short stories, and into Chekhov’s. I’d been reading essays by Loren Eiseley and George Orwell, too, but one of the few books I’d read cover to cover in the latter half of June was this one. James Richardson is a poet, but I don’t read much poetry and didn’t know him that way. He’s quite a good aphorist, however, and it seems to me that aphorists are due some fresh appreciation in our era of abbreviated attention spans.

Which is not to say that a good aphorism is exhausted in the few seconds it takes to read it. On the contrary, a good aphorism cracks open at the end in some unexpected way and rewards leisured contemplation. Take, for example, this one, which I have selected at random from my well-marked copy Vectors:

“Ah, what can fill the heart? But then, what can’t?”

Indeed. We like to think grandly of ourselves, don’t we? But then it may be that the heart is not always so expansive a place as we imagine. Petty obsessions, grudges, etc. may consume it totally.


“On what is valuable thieves and the law agree.”

Let us think twice before we place ourselves in their company.

One more:

“If the couple could see themselves twenty years later, they might not recognize their love, but they would recognize their argument.”

As a husband for something near the twenty-year mark myself, I like this one very much. Love need not vanish within two decades, of course, and I’ve been blessed in this regard, but love will – and, I think, must inevitably – change. That’s because love is alive. It grows, alters, matures in unpredictable ways, like any living thing. This is as it should be, and I would never trade the love I have toward my wife now for the by-comparison-adolescent love I had for her when we first married.

That said, it’s true we argue today about the same things that we did at the beginning of our relationship. Perhaps that’s because the unhappy parts of any relationship are unhappy because they lack a life of their own, because they are the dead ends we drag about with us.