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Letters from a Stoic (Penguin Classics) Paperback – July 30, 1969
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Text: English, Latin (translation)
About the Author
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4BC-AD65) was born in Cordoba, Spain, where he was brought up studying the traditional virtues of republican Roman life. He became a teacher of rhetoric but attracted attention for his incisive style of writing. Closely linked to Nero, his death was ordered by the emperor in AD65. Seneca committed suicide.
Robin Campbell is a well-known translator.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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."