Letters from a Stoic
What does a philosopher from 2000 years ago have to say to us? What revelations can a person, so long dead, make that would apply to us? It turns out, a lot!
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca is a collection of his letters to Lucilius, a good friend, and procurator of Sicily. Seneca is (one of) the first sources that used the essay as a way of conveying a thought.
From his letters, you can subtract many wise words. Each letter does have a long introduction and sometimes examples are contemporary. But believe me, when I say that each one of them contains knowledge that applies to us, maybe even more than in ancient times.
Here are some of my observations:
- The ideal or goal of each man is a combination of four qualities (or virtues): wisdom (or moral insight), courage, self-control, and justice (or upright dealings)
- “Nothing 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” – This makes me think about the psychology experiment where they let people stay alone in a room. In this room, they could shock themselves if they were bored. 67% of men and 25% of women chose to shock themselves. One participant shocked himself 190 times. What if only these people knew a bit about meditation?
- “After friendship is formed you must trust, but before that, you must judge.” – I think this fits in with the way Dutch people are (from a very selective sample), we don’t tell all our secrets to everyone, but when you trust someone you should confide in them with full confidence.
- “Inwardly everything should be different, but our outward face should conform with the crowd.” – Here Seneca speaks about how philosophers have very different thoughts than ‘normal’ people. And in a way, I can identify with this statement. Also, I believe that I shouldn’t alienate myself from others by coming out too strong with my views on things like life (extension) and money (saving).
- “There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.” – You’ve probably noticed that watching a funny movie is more fun when doing this with friends. In a way, I think this quote also refers to love, that is the only thing that rich people can’t buy. It only comes from sharing and enjoying things together.
- “…people cease to possess everything as soon as they want everything for themselves.”
- “It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants’but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.”
- “Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are.”
- “Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving.” – One thing I believe in is that you are the average of the 5 people you associate the most with. And that learning thing to others can be very rewarding.
- “…indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health.” – This refers to one of the learnings from the ancient Greeks, don’t overdo things. For me, this means that I should be careful not to drink too much. At the same time, I should listen to my body with regards to sports and prevent injuries from happening.
- “If you wish to be stripped of your vices you must get right away from the examples others set of them.”
- “One shouldn’t, accordingly, eat until hunger demands.”
- “But while he does not hanker after what he has lost, he does prefer not to lose them.” – The Stoics have some great advice when it comes to grief. You should (of course) not want to lose a friend, but don’t stay stuck in the past. Previously I’ve written some more about Stoic teachings.
- “To procure friendship only for better and not for worse is to rob it of all its dignity.”
- “Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.” – Without a way to check someone’s character you can’t improve it. This, I think, is the main reason for things like a ‘hell week’ in the military, to see someone’s real character.
- “…death ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one…” – Live life to it’s fullest, every day.
- “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions you will never be rich.” (quoted from Epicurus – founder of Epicureanism). – Here nature refers to being content with small things, not wanting to have ever more. I guess some famous people could have used this quote.
- “…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, coarse clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what I used to dread?’.” – This is one of the Stoic lessons, face the things you are afraid of (or practice negative visualisation) and find out that these things are far from as bad as you imagined.
- “If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes.”
- “Start cultivating a relationship with poverty.” – To be happy without possessions, to be happy in nature, you should get to know poverty up close.
- “…a man is wealthy if he has attuned himself to his restricted means and has made himself rich on little.”
- “A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, care-free happiness.”
- “…treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors.”
- “…there’s no state of slavery more disgraceful than one which is self-imposed.”
- “For that is what philosophy has promised me – that she will make me God’s equal.” – Later Seneca asks what the difference between God’s and yourself would be if you master the four qualities. He answers himself with “They will exist longer.” – With radical life-extension, will even this difference stand the test of time?
- “Death is just not being.” – For more discussion about death, and the argument that you may die every night when you go to sleep(?) – listen to this podcast.
- “…who finds it a joy to live and in spite of that is not reluctant to die.”
- “Soft living imposes on us the penalty of debility; we cease to be able to do the things we’ve long been grudging about doing.” – And there you have the argument for doing crazy obstacle runs.
- “The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.”
- “Refusal to be influenced by one’s body assures one’s freedom.”
- “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.” – Which is echoed almost two centuries later by Benjamin Franklin “Many people die at 25 and aren’t buried until they are 75.”
- “…man who is master of himself the master of all.”
- “…the process of becoming a good man is an art.”
- “…in the midst of pleasures there are found the springs of suffering.” – Within good things, there may hide bad things, and in bad things, you can always find something good.
- “A setback has often cleared the way for greater prosperity.”
- “…never hope without an element of despair, never despair without an element of hope.”
- “We’re born unequal, we die equal.”
- “What a blessing it would be for some people if they could only lose themselves!” – Guess why some (or most?) people drink too much.
- “Freedom cannot be won without sacrifice.”
- “Never to wrong others takes one a long way towards peace of mind.”
- “There’s only one way to be happy and that’s to make the most of life.”
Letters from a Stoic is an advanced text on Stoic philosophy. It has much to offer to anyone who is open to taking a closer look at life, and who is ready to take in some knowledge.