on July 28, 1999
The first time I read this book I was amazed and excited, and entering middle age. Seneca's thoughts on the human condition seemed like they could have been written today. Except for some dated Roman references, here is a man trying to define how to live, in what we today would call "the secular society." The series of letters reads like a personal guidebook to ethics. It still speaks to us across the centuries. Seneca was priveleged, ego centric, and all too aware of the fleeting nature of life. He was also a tutor of Nero, a dramatist, philosopher, slave owner, etc. But his essay-like letters - by turns glib and medatative - reveal a man struggling to make sense of a world of power, wealth and abundance, oestensibly ruled by reason, suffused with uncertainty and enveloped in paganism. He was also no doubt polishing his image for future generations. Nonetheless, he talks of god and spirituality, and the early Christians were said to have valued his wisdom. I've read this two or three times. Each time I've given it away to a friend. Once you read it, you'll go back to it again and again. His maxims are famous. His commonsense advice still rings true.
on February 25, 2006
Stoicism has been much misunderstood, and the adjective "stoic," which loosely can be taken to mean bearing up under duress, is partly correct but does not do justice to one of the world's great philosophies. This Penguin volume presents a great selection from the letters of Seneca, which hits all the high points of the philosophy and captures Seneca's remarkable personality, which has made him a hit with the cognoscenti for 2,000 years. Few perhaps realize that the Stoics postulated a great commonwealth governed by law, or that they idealized democracy. Seneca mentions Solon the lawgiver as the creator of democracy and refers numerous times to the Roman Stoic saint, Cato, who strove mightily (and unsuccessfully) to preserve the Roman Republic.
Seneca, like other Stoics, has a doctrine of nature that is remarkably close to that of Emerson or modern American environmentalists. The wise man (sapiens) will never be bored when contemplating the simple things of nature. The natural beauty of the countryside and the healthful action of the waves can have a calming effect (although there's a memorable passage in which a storm causes terrible sea sickness). He also believed in the simple and strenuous life and the avoidance of luxury and decadence, and there are numerous passages in these letters to his disciple, Lucilius, which decry the ostentatious, self indulgent practices of his contemporaries. These are sentiments and ideas adopted by many in the modern world, including President Theodore Roosevelt. Seneca has no patience for philosophy as a word game or a practice of engaging in hair-splitting arguments for their own sake. He rather sees it as a practice or way of life that all those who seek the good should investigate and adopt. While the Stoics believed in democracy and republicanism, their doctrine of freedom is different from the modern idea of Liberty. Freedom was the ability to endure and pursue the good even under tyranny. While that may be admirable, modern commentators on liberty (such as Isaiah Berlin) have pointed out that defining down the range of one's actions is not a satisfactory solution to the problem of the absence of liberty in society or the world.
No stranger to power himself, Seneca virtually ruled Rome as tutor of the boy Nero--and yet he adopts a quite believable stance of simplicity and humility. It's a good bet these letters will still be found absorbing by readers for another 2,000 years.
This will not be a review about Seneca. I suppose I will attempt that one day once I manage to go thru my library's Loeb Classical Library edition of Seneca's Epistles.
The purpose of this review is to bellyache about the Penguin Classics' edition of this work. I come not to criticize this translation. I have no Latin. For all I know it is brilliant.
What I am here to criticize is the decision to edit Seneca's work all to Tartarus and back. There are 124 Letters in Seneca's Epistles. Campbell gives you 40. Or just over 32%! Campbell's criteria as to which letters to present is a personal one. He evaluated their interest and whether or not they were repetitive. His is admittedly charming in his own defense on this issue. He quotes Roger L'Estrange (another anthologist of Seneca's) from 1673 to the effect that anyone who complains about the selection is an unmannerly guest who eats at his host's table and then critiques the meal. I embrace this description. I may well use The Unmannerly Guest as my nom de plume for my reviews from now on.
Here is my problem. All too often the editors or translators of the Penguin Classic editions decide that they know better than the ancient author what is valuable about the work for today's reader. Their Plutarch is one such travesty. Their edition of Polybius is another. What makes it more confusing is they can get it right sometime, as with their edition of Livy.
I think they are really missing their chance here. The Penguin Classics series is the perfect publishing series for modern and complete editions of ancient authors presented in their original form as much as is possible.
Let us look at how personal Campbell's choice is. I happen to be reading The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection by Gretchen Reydams-Schils. She happens to cite 185 passages from Seneca's Epistles during the course of her book. Because I am The Unmannerly Guest, I took it upon myself to count up how many of those passages were not in Campbell's selection. 122 of the 185 or just over 65%. In other words, she made as much use of the letters Campbell did not publish as those he did. His choices were no more representative of Seneca's thought to Reydams-Schils than the letters he rejected.
Here's another way to look at it. Seneca was writing about a philosophy to be lived. Not a system of thought but a guide to behavior. It is inevitable that such a guide would be repetitive. The same sort of issues, of temptations, of annoyances come up again day after day with slight variations (e.g.,anyone trying to raise courteous children knows what I mean). Repetition in an author dealing with such a guide is to be expected; indeed, it is to be appreciated as helpful. It takes time to learn how to live.
I think we ought to take old Seneca and Plato and Augustine and Machiavelli and Locke and so on seriously. When we read them we should try to sink into their way of living not just their way of thinking about that life. Only then can we evaluate how much they speak to us.
The Penguin Classics, accordingly to this Unmannerly Guest, do not help us in this endeavor. And the fact that they have chosen to present us with a highlighted tour of ancients like Seneca and Polybius is a betrayal of the original mission of the series which was to make the classics easily available to the masses. I speak for those masses as much as anyone. And I say, give me the whole da*@ book. Let me be the one to make the editing decisions.
on March 1, 2002
This book is the fundamental vademecum for every day life. No person that I know has left this book suffer the dust and the quiet tranquillity that any other philosophy book enjoy in a library. This letters contain all the wisdom and the poise to enable any inquisitive soul to aquire selfcontrol, to endure with dignity the burdens of misfortune, to take success and fame with humbleness and cynicism, to prepare with serenity to die. Finally, to consider the end of life with the detachment of someone who has used well a precious object, without contracting the disease of jealousy.
This is a very easily readable book, and it was written by Seneca in the last four years of his life (62-65 A.D.). In my opinion is the masterpiece of his moral philosophy.
Seneca's literary style was criticized by his contemporaries for its fragmentary and non-classic hues, and it is truly very modern. Caligula defined it as "sand without lime". St. Augustine in his City of God, in a reference to his contradictions, criticized the fact that this man who almost achieved real freedom through philosophy, pursued what he criticized, did what he loathed and inculpated what he adored. AND WHAT DOES MODERN MAN DO? Maybe we must admit that Seneca lived a life full of contradictions, triumphs and failures but he never truly believed in the roles that he had to play and he was always ready to detach himself from material things, devoid of illusions but also of bitterness.
That is why his work has survived the ages and has been celebrated for his modernity. I would say that his teachings are atemporal, and this is the best tribute to him. Maybe this is why
his letters were the bedside book of Montaigne. And mine.
I tore this book to pieces. My copy is overflowing with tabbed pages and highlighted lines and notes in the margins. Seneca of course, is a fascinating figure. Gregory Hays once said about Marcus Aurelius that "not being a tyrant was something he had to work at one day at a time" and often, Seneca lost that battle. He was the Cardinal Richelieu behind Nero. He sat back and enjoyed the spoils of his student who had clearly lost his way--at least Aristotle didn't profit from Alexander's lust for power. However, there is some interesting evidence put forth in a paper titled - Seneca: The Case of the Opulent Stoic in which Lydia Motto presents that what we know of Seneca's reputation comes almost entirely from a single, less than objective source. And in fact, if we can trust the way in which Seneca faced his forced suicide there was not much difference between practice and philosophy.
The book is profoundly insightful, it calls you to action, and it has that 'quit your whining--this is life' attitude that so defines the Roman Stoics. This is by no means an all inclusive list but is Seneca on some important topics:
On doing more than consuming:
He should be delivering himself of such sayings, not memorizing them. It is disgraceful that a man who is old or in sight of old age should have wisdom deriving solely from his notebook. 'Zeno said this.' And what have you said? 'Cleanthes said that.' What have you said? How much longer are you going to serve under others? Assume authority over yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources.
Life's no soft affair. It's a long road you've started on: you can't but expect to have slips and knocks and falls, and get tired and openly wish--a lie--for death.
On freedom from perturbation:
Show me a man who isn't a slave; one who is a slave to sex, another to money, another to ambition; all are slaves to hope or fear. I could show you a man who has been a Consul who is a slave to his 'little old woman', a millionaire who is the slave of a little girl in domestic service. And there is no state of slavery more disgraceful than one which is self-imposed.
On quoting what you read:
There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with. I shall send you, accordingly, the actual books themselves, and to save you a lot of trouble hunting all over the place for passages likely to be of use to you, I shall mark the passages so that you can turn straight away to the words I approve and admire."
on November 17, 2004
Seneca's one hundred and twenty four letters to Lucilius constitute a secular bible, an ethical catechism written in a gnomic and epigrammatic style that sparkles as it enlightens. So impressed were the early church fathers with Seneca's moral insights that they advanced (fabricated?) the speculation that he must have come within the influence of Christian teachings. T.S. Eliot sneers at Seneca's boyish, commonplace wisdom and points out that the resemblances between Seneca's 'stoic philosophy' and Christianity are superficial. For those seeking a practical, modern manual on how to do good and how to do well, written in the 'silver point' style that values brevity, concision and memorable expression, Seneca's letters are indeed the Good Book.
on October 27, 2009
Seneca was born around 4 BC and died in 65 AD. It is said he was one of the most remarkable people of his time: he deserves a place in the history books not just for his philosophical writings but for acting as primary advisor to the emperor Nero, for his skill and success as a playwright, and for his financial acumen--acting in his day as the equivalent of an investment banker. The Letters were written by Seneca around AD 62 to his friend Lucilius and are best described as exercises in practical philosophy. Seneca believed that the primary reason for philosophy is so we can live better lives:
"A person who goes to a philosopher should carry away with him something or other of value every day; he should return home a sounder man or at least more capable of becoming one."
In a beautiful letter Seneca provides this wonderful wisdom on why we should study philosophy;
"It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind. Countless things that happen every hour call for advice; and such advice is to be sought in philosophy."
That is a wonderful thought and has to be one of the best reasons for studying Philosophy and Seneca is one of the best to study. His intellectual engagement was shaped by a wide range of substantial philosophical interests and concerns with Platonism, Aristotelianism, and even with Epicureanism but it is his Stoic Philosophy that shapes much of his wisdom. Listen to the proper goal of Stoic philosophy according to Seneca;
"Philosophy . . . takes as her aim the state of happiness." And "What we [Stoics] are seeking . . . is how the mind may always pursue a steady and favourable course, may be well-disposed towards itself, and may view its conditions with joy, and suffer no interruption of this joy, but may abide in a peaceful state, being never uplifted nor ever cast down."
A life of inner peace and joy - what a wonderful goal. As discussed in the Wisdom Note on The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius the Stoics are not out to banish the emotions; they are out to reduce, to the extent possible, negative emotions, such as feelings of anger or grief that will disrupt our tranquillity. They value positive emotions, with feelings of joy being at the top of their list.
Seneca speaks on many topics from friendship to thoughts, the universe and fate, on issues of the passions, the structure of the soul, the nature of the `will' and the `self'. He reminds us that;
"Your greatest difficulty is with yourself; you are your own stumbling-block."
In his Letters we discover how to remove that stumbling block with the wisdom of this remarkable man.
on January 31, 2008
Seneca was probably not the most original thinker of the Stoic school. His writing style was also not the most agreeable to many. However, Seneca has had a profound influence on many, many later writers. Pliny the Younger, St. Augustine, and Ralph Waldo Emerson all quote, and borrow from Seneca. With Marcus Aurelius, Seneca is one of the most accessible of the Stoics. He is also an invaluable source of information about Stoicism's rivals, Epicurus and his followers. This particular volume is also filled with very helpful notes, and it is a good place to start a journey with the stoics.
on January 18, 2015
These letters of Roman philosopher Seneca are a treasure chest for anybody wishing to incorporate philosophic wisdom into their day-to-day living. By way of example, below are a few Seneca gems along with my brief comments:
"Each day acquire something which will help you to face poverty, or death, and other ills as well. After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested throughout the day." --------- I'm completely with Seneca on this point. I approach the study of philosophy primarily for self-transformation. There is no let-up in the various challenges life throws at us - what we can change is the level of wisdom we bring to facing our challenges.
"It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more." ---------- This is the perennial philosophy from Aristotle to Epicurus to Epictetus to Buddha: we have to face up to our predicament as humans; we are in the realm of desire. The goal of living as a philosopher is to deal with our desires in such a way that we can maintain our tranquility and joy.
"But if you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him (or her) as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship." --------- Friendship was one key idea in the ancient world that modern philosophy seems to have forgotten. Seneca outlines how we must first test and judge people we consider as possible friends, but once we become friends with someone, then an abiding and complete trust is required.
"The very name of philosophy however modest the manner in which it is pursued, is unpopular enough as it is: imagine what the reaction would be if we started dissociating ourselves from the conventions of society. Inwardly everything should be different but our outward face should conform with the crowd. Our clothes should not be gaudy, yet they should now be dowdy either. . . . Let our aim be a way of life not diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the mob.". ---------- The call of true philosophy isn't an outward display but an internal attitude. There is a long, noble tradition of living the life of a philosopher going back to ancient Greece and Rome, that has, unfortunately, been mostly lost to us in the West. It is time to reclaim our true heritage.
"You may be banished to the end of the earth, and yet in whatever outlandish corner of the world you may find yourself stationed, you will find that place, whatever it may be like, a hospitable home. Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there." -------- This is the ultimate Stoic worldview: our strength of character is more important that the particular life situation we find ourselves in. Very applicable in our modern world; although, chances are we will not be banished to another country, many of us will one day be banished to a nursing home.
"This rapidity of utterance recalls a person running down a slope and unable to stop where he meant to, being carried on instead a lot farther than he intended, at the mercy of his body's momentum; it is out of control, and unbecoming to philosophy, which should be placing her words, not throwing them around." --------- The ancient world had many people who talked a mile a minute, an unending gush of chatter. The Greco-Roman philosophers such as Seneca and Plutarch warn against garrulousness. Rather, we should mark our words well. From my own experience, when I hear long-winded pontifications, I feel like running away.
"The next thing I knew the book itself had charmed me into a deeper reading of it there and then. . . . It was so enjoyable that I found myself held and drawn on until I ended up having read it right through to the end without a break. All the time the sunshine was inviting me out, hunger prompting me to eat, the weather threatening to break, but I gulped it all down in one sitting." --------- Ah, the experience of being pulled into a good book! When we come upon such a book, go with it!
on September 27, 2015
As I progress on my quest for wisdom from the classical periods I recently read Cicero's "Selected Works" and Lurcreius' "On the Nature of Things" both of which I thought lacked in any deep knowledge and found them both to be greatly disappointing. So it was to my great delight that I stumbled on Seneca's "Letters From a Stoic" which I highly recommend. Some of my favorite passages loosely organized around a theme are as follows:
On One's Relationship to the Material World:
*It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.
*You ask what is the proper limit to a person's wealth? First, having what is essential, and second having what is enough.
*Although the wise man does not hanker after what he has lost, he does prefer not lose them.
*The qualities of a just, a good and an enlightened character does not regard as valuable anything that can be taken away.
*I am not against possessing riches but I want to ensure that you possess them without tremors.
On One's Relationship to Society:
*Inwardly everything should be different but our outward face should conform to the crowd.
*The road is long if one poceeds by way of precepts but short and effectual if by way of personal example.
*You ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd.
*Associating with people in large numbers is actually harmful.
*Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you.
*Avoid whatever is approved of by the mob.
*If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people's opinions you will never be rich.
On One's Relationship to the Body:
*Pick (any exercise) for ease and straightforwardness...but whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon.
*Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.
*A way of speaking which is restrained, not bold, suits a wise man in the same way as an unassuming sort of walk does.
*Refusal to be influenced by one's body assure one's freedom.
*People who know no self-restraint lead stormy and disordered lives.
*Every day, therefore, should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives.
*If God adds the morrow we should accept it joyfully.
*The man 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.
*You will go the way that all things go...This is the law to which you were born.
*You will die not because you are sick but because you are alive...In getting well again you may be escaping some ill health but not death.
*We are born unequal, we die equal.
On the Value of Philosophy/Stoicism:
*It molds and builds the personality, orders one's life, regulates one's conduct, shows one what one should do and what should leave undone, sits at the helm and keeps one on the course as one is tossed about in perilous seas.
*Only philosophy will wake us; only philosophy will shake us out of that heavy sleep. Devote yourself entirely to her.
*For the only safe harbor in this life's tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.
*It is in not man's power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn't got.
*Part of the blame lies on the teachers of philosophy, who today teach us how to argue instead of how to live...The result has been the transformation of philosophy, the study of wisdom, into philology, the study of words.
*No man is good by accident, virtue has to be learned.
By the way, before renouncing all worldly possessions keep in mind that Seneca did not practice what he preached, was intimately attached to the material world, and readers interested in an excellent biography of Seneca's life and role during Nero's reign should consider reading James Romm's "Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero."