Seneca was a prominent Roman philosopher and playwright who published several essential works about Stoicism. He is considered one of the three key Stoic philosophers (alongside Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus), counseled Emperor Nero, and is often credited with rendering Stoicism more accessible to a larger audience than his counterparts. You can read a longer profile about Seneca here.
In basic terms, Stoicism teaches us that if we have the essentials and a strong inner spirit, we can radically accept and endure whatever circumstances the universe throws at us. Letters from a Stoic, which Seneca wrote toward the end of his life from approximately 63 AD to 65 AD, expands upon these lessons.
Letters from a Stoic is presumably a collection of 124 letters Seneca sent to his friend Lucilius – then the procurator of Sicily (essentially an official in Ancient Rome) — advising him on how to become a better Stoic.
“Presumably” because many scholars have hypothesized that Seneca’s letters were “essays in disguise” – there is no evidence of Lucilius writing back to Seneca, and the letters’ style suggests that they were meant to be published rather than read by a friend. The first recorded full translation of these letters to English was by Thomas Lodge in 1614, and they have been translated many times since.
Letters from a Stoic contains a selection of these letters and key lessons about Stoicism, such as making the most with what we have in the time we have. We have broken down the central lessons from the book below.
ON BEING CONTENT WITH “ENOUGH”
“Enough” is the essentials for living – food, water, shelter, and clothing – and a strong inner self, as mentioned above. While some philosophical schools of thought teach that “enough” is meager food, a shack to live in, threadbare clothing and then learning how to be satisfied with that, Stoicism does not demand those kinds of sacrifices.
“Philosophy calls for simple living, not for doing penance, and the simple way of life need not be a crude one.”
Seneca says that we should eat nutritious, nourishing food, but only enough to keep our bodies in good health and our stomachs full – we shouldn’t stuff ourselves nor eat extravagant meals just because we can. Avoid binging on that whole bag of Doritos, basically. We should have comfortable homes, but shouldn’t concern ourselves with ornamentation that serves no functional purpose – it’s a waste of resources and energy. If something is well constructed and fulfills its purpose, that’s all we should want from it – we shouldn’t be lusting after pillows with pom-poms or perfectly polished floors.
We are raised in a society that values ornamentation, so it may be tricky to rid ourselves of that desire. Seneca gives us guidelines on how to free ourselves from this mindset. We should work on being satisfied with what we do have, to take pleasure in the simple things. Those who want more than what they need and what they have will always want more, and this only leads to a cycle of dissatisfaction.
We must also eliminate the fear of living without “the extras.” Many of us are afraid of losing our possessions – our phones, our jackets, our cars. Seneca advises us to spend time living without these extras of our own free will. He says we should cultivate a relationship with poverty. In a modern context, we might experiment going without our computers, our phones, our TVs and intentionally fasting from time to time. Once we know we can handle life without these things, we can be free from the fear of losing them.
Finally, we should always remind ourselves that it doesn’t matter how cool our things are, or exotic our surroundings are – if we are miserable with ourselves, we will be miserable wherever we go. On top of being happy with the essentials, developing our inner self is key. Seneca has advice on how to do that as well.
ON DEVELOPING OUR INNER SELVES
Developing our inner selves is a lifelong process that we must always work at. How many of us have put off mental health practices because we “don’t have time” or find the thought of meditating when we’re busy more stressful than useful? Seneca insists that these are not worthy excuses – we can and should make time for our mental health – it is an important full-time job, not something we should shove to the side in favor of other tasks.
But where do we start on this self-improvement journey? Being content with enough as discussed above is an important piece. However, Seneca expands upon self-improvement in more ways throughout his texts.
One of the first steps to improving ourselves is recognizing our own flaws. Not one of us is perfect, and identifying which areas of ourselves we need to work on is crucial – if we don’t see the problems, how can we find the solutions?
For a lot of us, being troubled by the outside world is one of those flaws. Some philosophies aim to eliminate feeling those troubles at all. While Stoicism wants to lessen the impact of external factors on our happiness, it does not tell us to avoid being troubled, which Seneca views as unrealistic, but rather to know that we will overcome these troubled feelings. That knowledge is important and boils down to recognizing that “this too shall pass.”
Another key to improving our inner selves is to not compare ourselves to others. It’s a fruitless waste of energy – our life is our own and not anyone else’s. Our goals should make sense to us, and we shouldn’t worry about others judging them, only about achieving them for our own purposes.
“Why be concerned about others, come to that, when you’ve outdone your own self? Set yourself a limit which you couldn’t even exceed if you wanted to, and say good-bye at last to those deceptive prizes more precious to those who hope for them than to those who have won them. If there were anything substantial in them they would sooner or later bring a sense of fullness; as it is they simply aggravate the thirst of those who swallow them.”
This also goes for when we make positive progress — when we are further along on our journey, we should also not “show off” our commitment to Stoicism. Bragging about this lifestyle not only defeats part of the essence of the lifestyle, as showing off to others is an external form of validation rather than inner, but it also may alienate others from trying it out. We should lead quietly by example and then help those curious rather than trying to proselytize.
As an aside, Seneca does not suggest that physical health is unimportant – maintaining our health is important for both ourselves and those who care about us — but does say that more energy should be put into cultivating our minds. Our bodies will eventually fail us as we age and illness strikes, but enduring these eventualities is easier when we have strong minds.
Finally, we should embrace the present moment. While we should examine our past and our flaws in order to make future decisions, we should live in the present as much as possible. Besides learning from our mistakes, or occasionally reflecting on a fond memory, dwelling on the past does us no good – it’s already over with! As for anxiety – worrying about the future – that does not help either. What will come, will come. The best thing we can do is fortify ourselves and know that we will overcome our misfortunes, but dread does not serve us.
Throughout his letters, Seneca contemplates the meaning of friendship, and how to make it ideal. He also emphasizes the importance of being your own friend; that the person who befriends themselves will never be alone and will be a friend of all.
First, we must acknowledge that we are all equals. We are not better than others due to our circumstances, our occupation, or our place in our society. Our positions can change at any moment – slaves become masters, masters become slaves, princes become paupers, and so on — we should not look down on anyone based on our current, possibly temporary, positions. We are only “better” than one another due to the content of our character, nothing more and nothing less.
Then we must judge who is worthy of being our friend. The “masses” are not our friends. We should be cautious of their influence. Crowds can lead us to indulge in our vices in ways we may not on our own. Think of being encouraged to down shot after shot at a party, or the mobs of old gathering their pitchforks in united bloodlust. This mob mentality is not only dangerous to others, but to our own character. Crowds can lead us to losing control of ourselves, which Stoicism strongly discourages.
However, Seneca does not urge us to isolate ourselves from all of society. We can celebrate, holidays for example, with others if we are determined to avoid indulgence in excess, as well as to avoid becoming too involved in groupthink. Perhaps you will be cajoled, made fun of, or otherwise judged – peer pressured — by those who want to bring you to their level. But Seneca reminds us that the judgments of others do not matter as much as our own – we must strive to live with virtue and integrity, because at the end of the day it is ourselves we must face.
Now who should be considered worthy of being a friend? Seneca advises that we do not use the term friend lightly — his teachings here boil down to quality over quantity. It doesn’t matter if we are surrounded by tons of friends if we don’t have a deep understanding of any. We should spend our energy on cultivating a few friendships rather than many.
Next, we should consider our potential friend’s character. Is our potential friend a good influence? We should surround ourselves with people we seek to be like, who will help us improve and grow, rather than those who may negatively impact our lives. While we of course can counsel those who are in a bad place, we should be wary of allowing them to come so close that we are affected by their negativity.
Also, we should not base the friendship on how useful the friendship is, even if the friendship is useful to both parties. This is because once that usefulness has dried up, the friendship will likely fall apart. We often call these people “fair weather friends.” They will not stick around when we need them most.
Okay, say we’ve done all that vetting. This next lesson is key. Once we’ve determined that we have a friend that is a good influence, and that our connection goes beyond utility, we must trust our friend absolutely. Trust breeds trust. Loyalty breeds loyalty. If we treat our friends with suspicion, like they might betray us, then we may bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“But when 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.”
With this trust and loyalty, we can allow ourselves to grow a truly meaningful relationship. We should be able to tell our friends things we only tell ourselves. We should learn from each other’s wisdom – what is the point of knowledge if we don’t share it? While Seneca does tell us that time away from a friend does help us grow fonder of them, he also reminds us that it’s key to appreciate them while they’re around – don’t take your friend for granted.
What about losing a friend? To circumstance or to death? While grief is only natural, we should not succumb to it. We must recognize the sweetness of the friendship, the positive, cherished times we had. We can endure loss, and we will grow from it. We will find new friendship, new love. It won’t be quite the same, but neither will we. These are Seneca’s lessons on friendship – from how they begin to their very ends.
The sections above cover the majority of the musings and lessons found in Letters from a Stoic. We do, however, encourage you to read the book for yourself, which you can purchase here. For now, we’ll leave you with a collection of other prominent quotes from Letters from a Stoic.
“What man can you give me who puts any value on time, who counts a day, who understands that he dies daily? This is our big mistake: to think we look forward to death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.”
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”
“It is not the man who has too little that is poor, but the one who hankers after more.”
“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.”
“Barley porridge, or a crust of barley bread, and water do not make a very cheerful diet, but nothing gives one keener pleasure than having the ability to derive pleasure even from that– and the feeling of having arrived at something which one cannot be deprived of by any unjust stroke of fortune.”
“I have withdrawn from affairs as well as from society, and from my own affairs in particular: I am acting on behalf of later generations. I am writing down a few things that may be of use to them.”
“‘I shall show you,’ said Hecato, ‘a love philtre compounded without drug or herb or witch’s spell. It is this: if you wish to be loved, love.’”
“The wise man, he said, lacked nothing but needed a great number of things, whereas, the fool, on the other hand, needs nothing (for he does not know how to use anything) but lacks everything. The wise man needs hands and eyes and a great number of things that are required for the purposes of day-to-day life; but he lacks nothing, for lacking something implies that it is a necessity and nothing, to the wise man, is a necessity.”
“Supposing they say they are happy, will their own opinions to this effect make them happy? It does not make any difference what a man says; what matters is how he feels, and not how he feels on one particular day but how he feels at all times…Only the wise man is content with what is his. All foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself.”
“Happy the man who improves other people not merely when he is in their presence but even when he is in their thoughts.”