“Roman Stoicism, by contrast, was a practical discipline—not an abstract system of thought, but an attitude to life,” said Gregory Hays in the introduction to Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. An addition to reading Aurelius’s profoundly moving journal, which wasn’t meant for publication, comes another classic that focuses on the letters written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca—statesman, Roman philosopher, tutor and advisor to Nero.
I read Letters From a Stoic about a year ago, found it incredibly challenging and at times hard to digest, but recently returned to it with a mature mind. Within just a few pages, I caught myself highlighting almost every other paragraph, scribbling keywords like “mindfulness, self-awareness, humility, nature, travel, friendship, learning,” on the margins.
Seneca had many admirers—from Queen Elizabeth I, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dante, Chaucer, Montaigne, John of Salisbury and many more—Seneca’s letters provide practical principles on living well. His ability to empathize the human condition, how we fit into this world and alongside nature, how we can persevere in times of adversity, are all relevant messages to today’s trials and tribulations.
As Robin Cambell says, “Although Seneca wrote for a relatively narrow circle of educated persons (usually addressing his compositions to a particular friend or relative as if he were that person’s special spiritual advisor) his letters and essays show a Stoicism more closely reconciled with the facts and frailty of human nature.”
First, it’s important to understand the perspective of Roman Stoicism, and why it serves as a fruitful system to help you overcome obstacles and to focus on what truly matters. Robin Cambell, the translator of this timeless book, provides an excellent analysis [emphasis by me]:
The Stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers, ruled by a supreme providence which could be spoken of, almost according to choice or context, under a variety of names or descriptions including the divine reason, creative reason, nature, the spirit or purpose of the universe, destiny, a personal god, even (by way of concession to traditional religion) ‘the gods’. It is man’s duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, bringing his life into line with ‘nature’s laws’, and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him. Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true, unshakeable peace and contentment to which ambition, luxury and above all avarice are among the greatest obstacles.
Cambell goes on to say:
His [Seneca’s] tremendous faith in philosophy as a mistress was grounded on a belief that her end was the practical one of curing souls, of bringing peace and order to the feverish minds of men pursuing the wrong aims in life.
Having a philosophy to life—a set of rooted beliefs and principles to help you navigate more mindfully in life—is ultimately what helped me become unstuck.
In Letter XVI, Seneca shares the importance of philosophy and the pursuit of wisdom [emphasis by me]:
Philosophy is not an occupation of a popular nature, nor is it pursued for the sake of self-advertisement. Its concern is not with words, but with facts. It is not carried on with the object of passing the day in an entertaining sort of way and taking the boredom out of leisure. It 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. Every hour of the day countless situations arise that call for advice, and for that advice we have to look to philosophy.
One of my favorite sections is Seneca on friendship, and how having many friends is not as great as having few, great friendships. He goes on to say:
But if you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship.Certainly you have discussed everything with a friend; but before you do so, discuss in your mind the man himself. After friendship is formed you must trust, but before that you must judge. Those people who, contrary to Theophrastus’ advice, judge a man after they have made him their friend instead of the other way around, certainly put the cart before the horse. 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. You should, I need hardly say, live in such a way that there is nothing which you could not as easily tell your enemy as keep to yourself; but seeing that certain matters do arise on which convention decrees silence, the things you should share with your friend are all your worries and deliberations.
A few letters later, he talks more about friendship and the very essence of why some friendships end up in a disaster. This is all too relevant in today’s culture where most friendships aren’t actually friendships, but business deals in disguise [emphasis by me]:
Anyone thinking of his own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake. Things will end as they began; he has secured a friend who is going to come to his aid if captivity threatens: at the first clank of a chain that friend will disappear. These are what are commonly called fair-weather friendships. A person adopted as a friend for the sake of his usefulness will be cultivated only for so long as he is useful. This explains the crowds of friends that clusters about successful men and the only atmosphere about the ruined—their friends running away when it comes to the testing point; it explains the countless scandalous instances of people deserting or betraying others out of fear for themselves. The ending inevitably matches the beginning: a person who starts being friends with you because it pays him will similarly cease to be friends because it pays him to do so.
Self-awareness, Learning, and Stealing From Your Heroes
Seneca on being self-critical and self-aware [emphasis by me]:
Naturally there are a lot of things about me requiring to be built up or fined down or eliminated. Even this, the fact that it perceives the failings it was unaware of in itself before, is evidence of change for the better in one’s character. In the case of some sick people it is a matter for congratulation when they come to realize for themselves that they are sick.
That bold statement is one that I chewed on for some time. I understand it like this: To recognize a flaw (a bad habit, an addiction, etc.) is progress in itself, but to remain stagnant and not make a difference, to say “this is just the way I am,” hinders that progress completely. You create yet another illusion to protect yourself from taking on further responsibility for the quality of your life.
Seneca on the joy of learning and teaching—a letter sent to his friend and correspondent Lucilius [emphasis by me]:
You can’t imagine how much of an alteration I see each day bringing about in me. ‘Send me, too’ you will be saying, ‘the things you found so effectual.’ Indeed I desire to transfer every one of them to you; part of joy in learning is that it puts me in a position to teach; nothing, however outstanding and however helpful, will ever give me any pleasure if the knowledge is to be for my benefit alone. If wisdom were offered me on the one condition that I should keep it shut away and not divulge it to anyone, I should reject it. There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.
Seneca offers similar advice:
Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. This is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.
Letters From a Stoic is a timeless read, filled with wisdom that has been exercised and adapted in many forms that continuously reverberate throughout time, and helps those in the dark illuminate their own light. Pair this with the Shortness of Life, avoiding mass crowds, and his heart-warming letter to his mother on overcoming grief.