Summary of the Life-Changing Book
“Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca consists of a series of letters written by the great Roman philosopher and playwright. Along with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, he is considered one of the three key figures in ancient Stoic philosophy.
These letters were written towards the end of his life, touching upon the importance of accepting whatever happens to us, making the most of the time we do have, cultivating a rich inner life, and overcoming the fear of death.
Seneca the man lead a tumultuous life indeed– he was ordered to commit suicide by two different Roman emperors on separate occasions and managed to survive. It was the emperor he once advised, Nero, that finally forced Seneca to take his own life in 65 AD.
This is a classic text for anyone interested in Stoicism, as it discusses a number of key Stoic concepts with humanity and wit. Though these words were written thousands of years ago, they still strike a chord deep inside us so many years later.
Who Was Seneca?
Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, often referred to as Seneca the Younger or simply Seneca, was a Roman Stoic philosopher, orator, statesman, and tragedian that was born sometime around 4 BC in Corduba (now Cordoba) Spain.
In the mid-1st century AD, he was the leading intellectual figure in Rome. He was trained in philosophy and rhetoric and was raised in Rome.
He is best known for his philosophical works as a writer as well as for his plays. One of his most-read works is a collection of one hundred and twenty-four letters that discuss issues of morality. Along with a dozen prose essays, this collection of writings is a central piece of ancient Stoic primary material.
Seneca’s life was anything but boring– he was exiled under emperor Claudius in 41 AD, during which time he lived on the island of Corsica. Eight years later, he was permitted to return in order to tutor the infamous soon-to-be-emperor Nero.
In 54 AD, Nero became the emperor and Seneca was his advisor. Along with Sextus Afranius Burrus, he helped to create a government that was competent for a period of time. However, his influence over the increasingly tyrannical Nero declined as the years went on.
After being accused of being complicit in an assassination conspiracy against Nero, Seneca was forced to commit suicide in 65 AD. It is thought that he was probably innocent of this allegation.
The Roman Stoic is commemorated for his calm and stoic suicide in a number of paintings, including a 1773 painting by Jacques-Louis David (the painter of the famous work The Death of Marat and preeminent painter of his era.)
A Brief Summary of Letters From a Stoic
Before we get into a general overview of Letters From a Stoic, it’s worth understanding that this text is known by a number of different names, including:
- Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Latin for “Moral Letters to Lucilius”)
In this book, you’ll find 124 letters that were written by Seneca during his retirement near the end of his life. These letters were all addressed to a man named Luilius Junior, who was the procurator of Sicily during Nero’s reign.
Even though the letters were written to Lucilius, scholars typically agree that Seneca was considering a broader audience than just one man when he wrote them.
The letters frequently start with a comment and observation about daily life, and then abstract from the observation a principle or issue.
This book is basically like a philosophical meditations handbook or even a diary.
It is generally agreed upon that the current arrangement of the letters is the chronological order in which they were written. In a fascinating way, scholars can piece together when each letter was written using comments in his letters, such as his reference to a cold spring in letter 23 and discussion of the great fire of Lugdunum (currently Leon).
It’s worth noting that some of the letters are missing and therefore the collection is not complete. It isn’t believed that too many letters are missing, however, since letter 91 mentions the fire of Lugdunum which took place less than a year before his death.
This is the longest work of Seneca’s and fits within the well-established epistolary genre of the time.
As far as the content goes, all of the letters begin with the phrase “Seneca greets his Lucilius” (“Seneca Lucilio suo salutem”) and end with “Farewell” (“Vale”).
The letters are filled with guidance on how to be a better and more devoted Stoic. From this collection of writing, we are able to glimpse into both Seneca’s personal Stoicism as well as ancient Roman daily life.
Seneca focuses on the idea that the only true good in life is virtue and the only true evil is vice, which is a central concept of Stoicism. He discusses the joy that results from wisdom and focuses on the notion of the inner-life. Frequently, he references the reality that time is fleeting and that life is brief. Death and suicide are also central themes in the text, discussing both the central topic of Stoicism as well as the common use of forced suicide during the time to eliminate people that were believed to oppose the rule and power of the Emperor.
The conclusion of early letters typically has a quote or maxim as a prompt for meditation. Later letters, however, no longer use this strategy.
Major Themes and Lessons From Letters From a Stoic
Let’s take a look at some of the themes that recur throughout Seneca’s letters for you to use as a primer or a companion while you read Letters from a Stoic.
On Our Inner Lives
Cultivating our inner lives is an essential task of life, and, according to Seneca, one that is never finished.
In a society that is increasingly dominated by social media, it is all too easy to be fully consumed by curating our outward presence in the world. More important, though, is our inner life. We don’t have control over a lot of what will happen to us while we’re alive, but we can focus on cultivating a rich internal experience that we can turn to frequently throughout the day and over the course of our lives.
“Such is more or less the way of the wise man: he retires to his inner self in his own company. Not regarding as valuable anything capable of being taken away.”
In order to grow and improve ourselves, we have to first be self-aware of our own flaws.
“Why does no one admit his failing? Because he’s still deep in them. It’s the person who’s awakened who recounts his dream, and acknowledging one’s failings is a sign of health.”
On the Self-Content Man
Don’t look to others or external things to make you content or give you happiness. You must look inward, you must work on yourself.
Seneca expresses his belief that to be truly self-content, you cannot let external events or bad things that happen to you to impact the wealth of your inner world, the strength you have in who you are.
“Admire the man who refuses to allow anything that goes badly for him to affect him…”
We’ll talk a bit more about Seneca’s thoughts on friendships later on. However, he makes an interesting point that is really worth chewing on here. A person that is truly self-content is able to be happy without anyone else around, any friends to give him a sense of self-worth. At the same time, though, that doesn’t mean that he actively doesn’t want to have friends in his life.
“The wise man is self-content: he is so in the sense that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.”
In fact, this self-content, wise man, does desire to have friends. However, it is not because he needs friends to complete his incompleteness. Instead, there is wisdom in the act of friendship, and the practice of engaging in friendship is much like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to stay functional.
“The wise man, self-sufficient as he is, desires to have a friend if only to practice friendship and ensure that those talents are not idle.”
On the Joy of Wisdom
We live in a world where we can easily spend all of our time-consuming content, being fed experiences, and otherwise busying our minds with everything except contemplative silence.
For many of us, the thought of sitting quietly in a room with our own thoughts is practically mortifying. We are so habituated to constant stimulation that we have no idea what to do with ourselves when we have to wait even for a moment without our phones in our hands.
This is a problem for a lot of reasons, one of which is that we aren’t as accustomed as we ought to be when it comes to thinking for ourselves. It’s all too easy to collect opinions rather than form them. It’s all too easy to pick up little talking points we think make us sound smart rather than actually doing the hard work of engaging with the topic at hand.
If you are able to unplug, though, and slow down, you can begin to work toward the experience Seneca speaks of when he discusses what it means to have a well-ordered mind:
“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
The life-long journey towards wisdom (one that is continuously pursued but perhaps never fully fulfilled) isn’t just for your own sense of contentment, though. Wisdom is meant to be shared, and through interactions with others, you can learn even more than you can on your own.
“Part of my 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.”
On Living in Accordance With Nature
One of the concepts put forward by the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, was that we can achieve a good flow of life if we live in accordance with nature. Nature to the Stoics was a broader and richer concept than what we think of when we think of nature (i.e., plants, animals, fungi, weather, etc.) Nature referred to both the nature of man as well as the cosmic nature of the universe. The universe itself is an interconnected web, in which God, nature, and man are all integral parts.
Living in accordance with nature, therefore, refers to conforming to the knowledge of the truth in the world– what might be referred to as the laws of the divine logos.
Seneca repeatedly discusses nature in a number of his letters. In the following quote, he touches upon the notion that living in accordance with nature is how you can live a rich and virtuous life. If you fail to live in harmony with nature, though, and instead focus your mind on what other people think of you, you’ll always be scrambling and never be satisfied.
“If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor. If according to other people’s opinions, you will never be rich.”
On Virtue and Vice
To the Stoics, the only good is virtue and the only evil is vice. From his tumultuous and dramatic life, one can imagine that Seneca ran into the presence of vice in the world on more than one occasion.
In this quote, you see that Seneca believed that the people around you can have a very negative influence on your own ability to be virtuous if you aren’t careful.
“Keep your cravings within safe limits. Scour every trace of evil from your personality. If you wish to be stripped of your vices you must get right away from the examples others set of them.”
On The Fleeting Nature of Time
We all only have so much time on this earth. It’s easy to feel like the days are long and that time is endless– just as easy as it is to run around like a chicken with its head cut off saying “there isn’t enough time in the day!”
The reality of time is something that we have to accept in order to find peace of mind. We have to learn that the present moment is the only time we have to live the life we want to live. We aren’t immortal, and all too often people only realize that they could have spent their time differently once they are near the end of life.
“Bold words come even from the timidest. Only when you’re breathing your last that the way you’ve spent your time will become apparent.”
On Death, Dying, and Suicide
It makes sense that Seneca would discuss death and suicide in his letters, considering that they were written in the last few years of his life. Believe it or not, there were two separate occasions where Seneca was ordered to commit suicide by emperors that didn’t result in his death– once by Caligula and once by Claudius.
While he managed to escape death in both particular circumstances, he did end up meeting his fate through a similar avenue– being ordered to commit suicide because he was alleged to have conspired with others in order to assassinate Nero.
The Stoics were big on not fearing death, and the reality that escaping the fear of death can help you become truly free and really live your life.
“Refuse to let the thought of death bother you: nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear.”
Seneca also repeatedly makes the point that the length of a person’s life isn’t what matters.
“For if death cuts him off in the prime of his life, he has experienced every reward that the very longest life can offer, having gained extensive knowledge of the world we live in, having learned that time adds nothing to the finer things in life.”
The Stoics advocated for overcoming the fear of death, and one way you can work towards that is by meditating on death. While it might seem morbid, many people actually find it helps them realize the fleeting nature of life and seize the day. Check out these Stoic quotes on death to use as a starting point when you begin your memento mori practice.
Seneca talks about the meaning of friendship throughout his letters. On top of being friends with others, though, he discusses the need to be one’s own friend so that you can be a friend to all while simultaneously never being alone.
He discusses the fact that our positions in society don’t make us better or worse than one another, and we must treat each other as equals because that’s what we are.
At the same time, we should be very cautious about other people’s influence over us and choose our friends wisely.
“Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship.”
“Trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one.”
“If you are looking at 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.”
“Great pleasure is to be found not only in keeping up an old and established friendship but also in beginning and building up a new one.”
On Being Content With “Enough”
Another major theme in Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic is the fact that we need to learn how to be content with “enough.”
The basics, of course, are food, shelter, water, and clothing. Also essential, according to Seneca, is a rich and vibrant inner self.
It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean that you need to sell all your belongings and live in a tent in the woods. Stoicism isn’t about being ascetic, and, in fact, moderation is an important tenet of the philosophy.
When it comes to living in a home, you want your home to be comfortable and functional. Ornamentation and excessive luxuries, however, are a waste. Similarly, you should eat good, nutritious food, but you shouldn’t eat extravagantly just because you can or overindulge.
For example, have you ever known anyone (or perhaps you are this way yourself) that seems to like to go to fancy restaurants for the status and sense of luxury? To Seneca, this would be excessive and unnecessary. The person is seeking something beyond nourishment from food– a sense of status, for example.
“To want simply what is enough nowadays suggests to people primitiveness and squalor.”
“The essential things are acquired with little bother. It is the luxury that calls for toil and effort.”
“You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”
“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.”
On Dealing With Other People (AKA the Mob)
Seneca has quite a bit to say about crowds or mobs, which can be incredibly dangerous forces. If we get caught up in a crowd, we can lose control of ourselves and be led into vice.
“Let our aim be a way of life not opposed to, but better than that of the mob.”
“The standard which I accept is this: one’s life should be a compromise between the ideal and the popular morality. People should admire our way of life but at the same time find it understandable.”
“Avoid whatever is approved of by the mob, and things that are the gift of chance.”
“Inwardly everything should be different but our outward face should confirm with the crowd.”
“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 harmful. There is not one of them that will not make some vice or other attractions to us.”
On Living Simply
Seneca advocates moderation when it comes to day-to-day life. You don’t have to go hungry, but you shouldn’t stuff yourself either.
You should have the clothes you need to stay warm and dry and a comfortable house that keeps you safe. If you put too much energy into these aspects of basic necessity, though, you are using energy that could be going toward cultivating your inner world and higher purposes.
“Indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health. Your food should appease your hunger, your drink quench your thirst, your clothing keeps out the cold, your house is protection against inclement weather.”
On Escape and Travel
As they say– wherever you go, there you are! Seneca notes that traveling or moving to different cities won’t change your circumstances when your problem is who you are. You have to work on yourself if you want your life to change, not simply change your environment.
“How can you wonder your travels do you no good when you carry yourself around with you? You are saddled with the very thing that drove you away!”
On Living a Life of Peace in the City
You’ll find a lot of people these days that dream about moving out to the country so they can finally live a life of peace. To Seneca, though, you can still live a life of peace in the city.
“Could there be a scene of greater turmoil than the CIty? Yes, even there, if need be, you are free to lead a life of peace.”
“A change of character, not a change of air is what you need. Whatever your destination, you will be followed by your failings.”
On Examining Your Shortcomings
It isn’t fun to figure out where we’re falling short, but it’s how we grow. Recognizing our own flaws and working to fix them is a truly humbling experience.
“Why does no one admit his failing? Because he’s still deep in them. It’s the person who’s awakened who recounts his dream, and acknowledging one’s failings is a sign of health.”
On The Past and the Future
Lots of people these days suffer from anxiety about the future, and likely just as many spend a lot of time ruminating on the past. Seneca notes, rightfully, that animals only have to deal with actual dangers in the present, while we torment ourselves with our own thoughts of everything but the present moment.
“Wild animals run from the dangers they see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We, however, are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come.”
The concept of grief is a really interesting one to think about when it comes to being a Stoic. On the one hand, most people know it’s not a good idea to repress your emotions and that grieving after loss is a natural process. On the other, are you just letting your emotions take control when you let yourself grieve?
Here are a few of the points Seneca makes on the topic in Letters from a Stoic.
“I can scarcely venture to demand that you should not grieve at all, and yet I am convinced that it is better that way.”
“Let us see that the recollection of those we have lost becomes a pleasure to us.”
“Let us, therefore, go all out to make the most of friends, since no one can tell how long we shall have the opportunity.”
“Even a person who has not deliberately put an end to his grief finds an end to it over time.”
Finally, let’s look at a few pithy comments Seneca makes about what philosophy means in his eyes– how it can be used to advise us as we walk through our days and our lives.
“To win true freedom, you must be a slave to philosophy.”
“Every hour of the day countless situations arise that call for advice, and for that advice, we have to look to philosophy.”
“What has the philosopher taught us? In the first place, truth and nature. Secondly, a rule of life in which he has brought life into line with things universal. To not listen to false opinions, weighed and valued everything against a standard that is true.”
The History of Seneca’s Letters
We have to go all the way back to the 9th century to find the oldest known manuscripts of Seneca’s letters. For centuries, the letters appeared in two separate groups rather than circulating together. Usually, letters 1 to 88 were in one group while letters 89 to 124 were in another.
From the twelfth century onward, the letters of Seneca began to be widely circulated together.
In 1475, the letters were first printed in Naples in an edition with most of the other works of Seneca as well as some works by his father, Seneca the Elder.
Can Stoicism Improve Your Life?
Stoicism has become increasingly popular in recent years, and for good reason. There are a lot of great resources out there to help you learn about Stoicism, but it’s still worth delving into the classic works we still have access to from the ancients.
Through a combination of engaging with modern Stoicism and these ancient works, we can each work to cultivate our inner worlds, understand what is and isn’t in our control, and stop letting fear and anxiety keep us from fully being present in the moment.
There are countless inspiring quotes from Seneca’s pen that can help us make the most of each day and do so virtuously. For more quotes from the Roman Stoic, check out our ultimate list of Seneca quotes.
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