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VINE VOICEon August 7, 2010
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.
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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.

On Death:
*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."
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on March 23, 2016
Missing several letters including letter 1, letter 14 etc etc... these letters are paramount to the book... IF I HAD OF KNOWN THIS I WOULD NEVER HAVE BOUGHT THREE COPIES AS GIFTS!!! BAAAAAAH
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on June 17, 2016
What happened to the table of contents??? I used to be able to go to each of the letters individually and then after the "update" recently the table of contents changed and there is only a single link to ALL the letters. There are 124 letters!!! This is not a novel you read start to finish, one should be able to go to the letters the want to and search through them based on their title. I'm upset because the feature was there but then it was removed. What gives Amazon?? Change it back!

I have nothing against the content, my gripe is with the Kindle version of this book. If you want to read this book on your kindle get another version.
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on December 19, 2008
The brilliance of this gem of a work, is that its 2000 years old but the essential messages Seneca conveys to his friend on a great many topics through his letters is still as relevant today as then and we can still identify with them.

After an excellent intro into the mans life with a compact explanation of the basis and foundations for the Stoic philosophy the book moves on whereby each successive chapter is basically in the form of a "letter" written by Seneca in response to an issue his protege Lucillius has raised. Each letter is basically two parts. Firstly an "analysis of the issue", secondly a discussion of the "remedy/s". An example of the variance of issues covered is listed as follows (being a mere third of the letters within the book):

Letter II: The unsettled mind
Letter III: The defining of friendship/need for...
Letter V: On the need to avoid attracting -ve attention.
Letter VI: The difference/benefit of "converse" and "discource" among peers.
Letter VII/VIII: Avoiding the crowd.
Letter: IX: The defining of contentedness
Letter XI: On handling moments of weakness
Letter XII: Aging with dignity
Letter XV: Balancing exercise of the mind with exercise of the body.
Letter XVI: The value of philosophy if fate determines ones lot.
Letter XVIII: Moderation vs Indulgence
Letter XXVI: Maintaining spirit/vigor in old age.

And so on..

The translation by Robin Campbell is excellent and so lucid it compliments rather than detracts from Senecas obvious wit and wisdom as is always a risk when converting Latin to English. Example of some of Seneca's wisdom are as follows:

Letter CVII. This letter talks of the unfairness and inequity of life. Quote: "The fairness of a law does not consist in its effect being actually felt by all alike but in its having been laid down for all alike."

Or Letter XII that talks of old age and the prospect of death. Quote: "...no one is so old that it would it would be quite unnatural for him to hope for one more day."

Letter IX: A gem of an aspect Seneca raises in this letter is the idea of "the fairweather friend". That friend who frequently calls upon us for help and assistance and who we consider a close friend. Yet low and behold when our circumstances suffer an unexpected turn for the worse and we need them, they are nowhere to be found.

Its a work full of thoughts/issues/ideas concerning everyday life that will eerily show the more things change the more they stay the same. All up such a quality read. You can go back to it time and time again and still find it refreshing and thought provoking. Its also oddly personal as you can be forgiven the way it lucidly flows for thinking Seneca is addressing us in person. All of which adds to its appeal and relevance.

My only complaint: I want more. Its that good.
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on June 13, 2013
The image / photo on the cover of this paperback, taken from an ancient sculpted bust, is not that of Seneca the Younger, but that of Seneca the Elder, the philosopher's father!!!
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VINE VOICEon January 18, 2017
Never trust a rich moralist, or so they say. Along similar lines, Elvis Costello once sang "was it a millionaire who said 'imagine no possessions?'" Truly, it seems easiest to envision living happily with nothing when one already has everything. Instances of such egregious hypocrisy - and plenty exist - have reduced the act of moralizing to the level of patent medicines and Ponzi schemes. As such, many jaded moderns, somewhat understandably, have come to reject anyone who dares to spout off to others about correct or incorrect ways to live. The distrust extends even into certain parts of academia as some authors have claimed that morality exists only to "serve the interests of power." Not to mention that the disasters of the twentieth century didn't exactly boost humanity's confidence in the powers of moral reasoning - or even reasoning in general. Modernity has not treated morality or moralists very kindly.

The Roman philosopher Seneca, born over 2,000 years ago, often serves as the ultimate example of moral hypocrisy. He wrote about "having enough," yet he possessed enormous wealth. He lived a very public life and held various high political offices, yet he excoriates fame and attention. Even worse, he may have accumulated his wealth from the ravages of the nefarious Emperor Nero. Essentially, Seneca seems to have benefited directly from the misery of others. How could anyone take him seriously as a tireless creator of moral essays that insist to know the true ethical way to live? Perhaps he provided the blueprint for so many sham motivational speakers and phony religious preachers today? Talk a lot and collect a lot of money from the desperate and gullible masses. The pattern has become almost a cliché. In year 65, following a failed plot to usurp the Roman throne, Nero demanded that Seneca commit suicide. Did he get what he deserved? Did he riddle himself with riches while acting like the prophet of goodness, leading to the inevitable fall? Did hypocrisy finally catch up to him?

It would be easy to dismiss Seneca on such terms, but something about the entire portrait doesn't seem quite right. While Nero spent the first five years philandering, Seneca and Burrus ruled over what many call the best and most just years of Imperial Rome. Not to mention that many commentators consider him one of the most eloquent writers on morality in history. If this doesn't alleviate some skepticism, diving into Seneca's works probably will, especially his unforgettable "Letters from a Stoic." Within these numerous epistolary ruminations, he explores innumerable themes. The words, though occasionally contradictory, convey a heavy, probably well earned, wisdom. Written shortly before his death, they feel like a lifetime's culmination experience reflected upon. Their earnestness unleashes a power capable of making readers question their own actions, beliefs and lives. Not everyone will get on board or find inspiration in these letters, of course, but those who do will never forget the experience. Overall, they read as utterly sincere and thoughtful mini treatises. They don't have the aura of a con-artist, unless he was far better then anyone imagines. Not only that, numerous other notable thinkers cite Seneca as an influence or quote him prodigiously, including Dante, Chaucer and Montaigne. The final argument that Seneca doesn't belong categorized with sideshow patent medicines, indulgences or swampland in Florida appears in Letter VIII: "I am pointing out the right path to others, which I have recognized only late in life, when I am worn out with my wanderings." Perhaps Seneca looked back on his life and rolled his eyes in retrospective disbelief? True, he didn't give up his wealth until seemed dangerous not to, but he seems to have made a valiant attempt to break with Nero. Not an easy thing to do, by any means, even under a sane Emperor. In any case, many readers may find Seneca's letters transformative despite persistent murmurings of his poor reputation.

The Penguin Classics edition of "Letters from a Stoic" includes 40 of the 124 known letters. Reduced and chosen to limit repetitions and by the overall interest that each letter holds, they cover endless topics that defy summary. Nonetheless, some recurring themes include the reduction of desire, excoriation of drawing attention to oneself, philosophy as a means to live better, relentless, almost self-effacing self-improvement, distrust of crowds and the vices of the multitudes, vice as a spreadable contagion, the uselessness of knowledge that doesn't lead to better living, the wiles of fortune and the inevitably inherited aspects of human existence. A perplexed mistrust of human motives runs through most of the book. Seneca was definitely confused by most human behavior, maybe even his own, and he attempts to untangle people's thoughtlessness and the pressures of society to unveil a new perspective and system of values. From this one can examine and analyze one's own life. One letter delves deeply into Stoic philosophy. At one point he claims that Stoic philosophy saved him from suicide. He suffered from intolerable asthma most of his life. Another letter recoils at the senseless slaughter of the Roman arena. Some speak of death, the great leveler and the "deep tranquility" at either end of existence. Others show glimpses of Roman life between the philosophizing. Many suggest a hardness towards life, but not in the sense that some use the term "Stoic" today. For instance, a Stoic should have the capability of enduring a life without friends, but nonetheless still want them. Also, simple life means living simply, not "paying penance." Seneca allows for some emotion into human life, but always to a cautions or suspicious degree. For this, some credit him for "humanizing" the more stiff, indifferent and cold earlier Stoicism. Quotable passages appear on just about every page. Many will sound somewhat familiar, such as "a man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is" from Letter LXVIII. In general, the letters become longer and more involved as the book progresses, but their quality never diminishes.

This shorter, though still plenty dense, version of "Letters from a Stoic" offers a decent taste of Seneca's idea and style. Anyone curious about this timeless philosopher, or about Roman or ancient philosophy in general, should find plenty to think about here. Unfortunately, the cover features a sculpture known as the "Psuedo-Seneca." Deemed as a later romanticization, Penguin had removed it from previous editions. They replaced it with the likely more accurate "Double Herm of Socrates and Seneca." This features a more stout and less idealized portrait of Seneca. The word "Seneca" even appears on the bust's chest. Why Penguin decided to restore the dismissed sculpture remains a mystery, but perhaps the image simply sells better? Regardless, the book's cover is insignificant compared to the thought-provoking, historically significant and often poignantly life-changing material that awaits inside. Open it and learn how to live.
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on October 7, 2015
 “A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.”

“If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.”

“Philosophy takes as her aim the state of happiness… she shows us what are real and what are only apparent evils. She strips men’s minds of empty thinking, bestows a greatness that is solid and administers a check to greatness where it is puffed up and all an empty show; she sees that we are left no doubt about the difference between what is great and what is bloated.”

~ Seneca from Letters from a Stoic

Stoicism is one of my favorite philosophies. What we know of this classic Hellenistic philosophy is based on the texts created by its three primary stages: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca.

Seneca: a statesman, Stoic philosopher, contemporary of Jesus, and tutor to the Roman Emperor Nero (who must not have liked Seneca’s Stoic principles too much because he eventually had him killed… either that or there may have been some political issues going on, eh? :).


The reliability of the details of Seneca’s early life are shaky at best, but he was believed to be born in Cordoba, then the most prominent city in Spain (Hispania), at about the same time as Jesus (between 4 and 1 BCE). Seneca was a statesman and a philosopher and is widely known for his skilled essays and, in fact, is recognized by many as the founder of the Essay. In 49 CE, Seneca became the tutor to the 12-year old boy who would become the emperor Nero. For eight years, he acted as Nero’s unofficial chief minister before Nero compelled him to commit suicide after the discovery of a plot that may have elevated him to the throne as emperor.

I’m excited to share some of the Big Ideas:

1. Do You Like Yourself? - Say “Yes!”! :)
2. A Disposition to Good - Create it!
3. Focus - Everywhere & nowhere.
4. Hello, God! - She’s inside you!
5. Your Ideal State - What’s your purpose?

REMEMBER! “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” So, what is it for you? Dare ya to do it. :)

(More goodness--including PhilosophersNotes on 250+ books at http://www.brianjohnson.me)
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on March 21, 2015
This book is spectacular, but advertised as containing audio version as well. The end of the book has a chapter called "Link to free audio recording of Seneca's Letters." The chapter just says "The Letters of Seneca," with no link. The text is not live either, so it's not like you touch it and it goes to the link in question.
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Although not the most original philosopher to ever bear the designation of Stoic, Seneca is most likely the best writer that school ever produced. His works are far more accessible to the general reader than the more analytical writings of Epictetus or even the more personal reflections of Marcus Aurelius. Seneca had a true gift with words, which when brought out by a skilled translator results in beautiful, inspirational prose. In this case the translation by Robin Campbell is excellent; the book reads like butter. Some of Seneca's contemporary critics complained that every line he wrote was a motto, and they were not far from the truth. Almost every sentence in this book could be singled out and quoted as "words to live by."

The basic message of Stoicism that Seneca presents here is profound and vital. The key to a happy life is to live in accordance with nature. This is accomplished by training yourself not to desire more than you have and to learn to be content with what comes to you. Govern your emotions with reason, resign yourself to fate, and free yourself from the attachments of your desires. This includes not only the extravagance with which society distracts us from nature, or the obviously harmful excesses of food and drink, but even the attachment to your own life. Only by conquering your fear of death can you experience true freedom and live a life of quality.

While Seneca states the basic concepts of Stoicism in clear and engaging language, he doesn't offer much original thought here. For those deeply interested in Stoic philosophy, these works may act as a supplement to those of Epictetus, but they are certainly no substitute. Even comparing them to Seneca's own works, these letters do not measure up to his deeper dialogues and essays. An obvious problem, common to many Stoic works, is the lack of organization and haphazard hopping from one subject to the next, which precludes an in-depth investigation into any particular topic. Another problem is the frequent digression from philosophical instruction. Oftentimes Seneca avoids specific philosophical ideas and merely sounds off generally on the value of philosophy (by which he means Stoicism) in improving people's lives. Many of the letters are light on philosophy altogether, but do have historical value. For example, Seneca gives us an insider's glimpse into aspects of Roman life such as the gladiatorial games and slavery, and relates interesting anecdotes about Socrates, Cato, and various Emperors. Although all the digressions are filtered through Seneca's uniquely Stoic lens, I found some of the wanderings too far afield for my liking. Though I enjoyed the 42 letters that Campbell has collected here, I can't say I'm eager to get my hands on a complete edition of the 124 letters any time soon.

Despite my reservations, any Stoic text is an important text, Seneca's more than most. The ancient wisdom is invaluable, and Penguin has done it justice in this volume.
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