Letters from a Stoic – Seneca

Letters from a Stoic – by Seneca
Date read: 2/13/17. Recommendation: 9/10.

Introduction to Penguin Classics edition. Perhaps the most highly regarded/referenced work of Stoic philosophy along with Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Go straight to the source. It's a classic and one of the most important works you'll read. 

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews. 


my notes:

Introduction in Penguin Classics:
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.

Letter II:
You do not tear from place to place and unsettle yourself with one move after another. Restlessness of that sort is symptomatic of a sick mind. Nothing, to my way of thinking, it 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.

To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life traveling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships.

A multitude of books only gets in one's way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.

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

Leter III:
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.

For a delight in bustling about is not industry - it is only the restless energy of a haunted mind.

Letter V:
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; we shall make them, moreover, reluctant to imitate us in anything for fear they may have to imitate us in everything.

People should admire our way of life but they should at the same time find it understandable.

Letter IX:
What difference does it make, after all, what your position in life is if you dislike it yourself?

Letter XII:
The man who looks for the morrow without worrying over it knows a peaceful independence and a happiness beyond all others.

Letter XV:
Without wisdom the mind is sick, and the body itself, however physically powerful, can only have the kind of strength that is found in person 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.

So continually remind yourself, Lucilius, of the many things you have achieved. When you look at all the people out in front of you, think of all the ones behind you.

Letter XVI:
No one can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom...

[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 fear or worry.

Epicurus: 'If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people's opinions you will never be rich.' Nature's wants are small, while those of opinion are limitless.

Letter XVIII:
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, course 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.

If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes.

Security from care is not dependent on fortune - for even when she is angry she will always let us have what is enough for our needs.

For no one is worthy of a god unless he has paid no heed to riches. I am not, mind you, against your possessing them, but I want to ensure that you possess them without tremors; and this you will only achieve in one way, by convincing yourself that you can live a happy life even without them, and by always regarding them as being on the point of vanishing.

Letter XXVII:
Of this one thing make sure against your dying day - that your faults die before you do.

Letter XXVIII:
Though you cross the boundless ocean, whatever your destination you will be followed by your failings.

Socrates: "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."

You have to lay aside the load on your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you.

As it is, instead of traveling you are rambling and drifting, exchanging one place for another when the thing you are looking for, the good life, is available everywhere.

I do not agree with those who recommend a stormy life and plunge straight into the breakers, waging a spirited struggle against worldly obstacles every day of their lives. The wise man will put up with these things, not go out of his way to meet them; he will prefer a state of peace to a state of war.

Letter XLI:
No one should feel pride in anything that is not his own.

Suppose he has a beautiful home and a handsome collection of servants, a lot of land under cultivation and a lot of money out at interest; not one of these things can be said to be in him - they are just things around him. Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly man's.

Letter LV:
Soft living imposes on us the penalty of debility.

The place one's in, though, doesn't make any contribution 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.

Letter LXIII:
When one has lost a friend one's eyes should be neither dry nor streaming. Tears, yes, there should be, but not lamentation.

Would you like to know what lies behind extravagant weeping and wailing? In our tears we are trying to find means of proving that we feel the loss. We are not being governed by our grief but parading it.

Even a person who has not deliberately put an end to his grief finds an end to it in the passing of time. And merely growing weary of sorrowing is quite shameful as a means of cutting sorrow in the case of an enlightened man. I should prefer to see you abandoning grief that it abandoning you.

Letter XLV:
What is death? Either a transition or an end. I am not afraid of coming to an end, this being the same as never having begun, nor the transition for I shall never be in confinement quite so cramped anywhere else as I am here.

Letter LXXVII:
No one is so ignorant as not to know that some 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 a prize fool if he burst into tears because he didn't live a thousand years ago? A man is as much a fool for shedding years because he isn't going to be alive a thousand 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.

As it is with a play, so it is with life - what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is.

A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.

What's the good of dragging up sufferings which are over, of being unhappy now just because you were then?

In the meantime cling 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.

So-called pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments...

Letter XC:
We were born into a world in which things were ready to our hands; it is we who have made everything difficult to come by through our own disdain for what is easily come by. Shelter and apparel and the means of warming body and food, all the things which nowadays entail tremendous trouble, were there for the taking, free to all, obtainable at trifling effort. With everything the limit corresponded to the need. It is we, and no one else, who have made those same things costly, spectacular and obtainable only by means of a large number of full-scale techniques..

Letter XCI:
We should be anticipating not merely all that commonly happens but all that is conceivably capable of happening, if we do not want to be overwhelmed and struck numb by rare events as if they were unprecedented ones...

One thing I know; all the works of mortal man lie under sentence of morality; we live among things that are destined to perish.

A setback has often cleared the way for greater prosperity. Many things have fallen only to rise to more exalted heights.

In the ashes all men are leveled. We're born unequal, we die equal.

Letter CIV:
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.

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, an carry on the search ourselves for the answers that have not yet been discovered.

Letter CV:
Envy you'll escape if you haven't obtruded yourself on other people's notice, if you haven't flaunted your possessions, if you've learnt to keep your satisfaction to yourself.

Besides, 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.

Never to wrong others takes one a long way towards peace of mind. People who know no self-restraint lead stormy and disordered lives, passing their time in a state of fear commensurate with the injuries they do to others, never able to relax.

Letter CVII:
Everyone faces up more bravely to a thing for which he has long prepared himself, sufferings, even, being withstood if they have been trained for in advance. Those who are unprepared, on the other hand, are panic-stricken by the most insignificant happenings. We must see to it that nothing takes us by surprise. And since it is invariably unfamiliarity that makes a thing more formidable than it really is, this habit of continual reflection will ensure that no form of adversity finds you a complete beginner.

Letter CVIII:
He needs but little who desires little. He has his wish, whose wish can be to have what is enough.

Letter CXXII:
No need to do as the crowd does: to follow the common, well-worn path in life is a sordid way to behave.

Letter CXXIII:
Nothing need arouse one's irritation so long as one doesn't make it bigger than it is by getting irritated.

Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We've been using them not because we needed them but because we had them. Look at the number of things we buy because others have bought them or because they're in most people's houses. One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guided by the example of others; instead of being set to rights by reason we're seduced by convention.