For people with an interest in Stoicism and philosophy, the Roman power broker and politician Seneca looms large. His writing offers great insight into the mind of someone who was attempting to put the philosophy into practice, while also serving as a will and testament of a man who was guilty of falling short of what he preached at times.
Letters From A Stoic contains all 124 of the letters Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius. The book would benefit anyone who wants to pick up a bit of wisdom or change their perception of the world.
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
Writing to be remembered
Before getting into the text itself, it’s worth noting the context of who Seneca was and what he was trying to achieve through writing the letters. As an advisor to the Emperor Nero, Seneca saw a massive amount of corruption during his political career and he amassed a huge fortune for himself.
In writing The Letters, there was an element of self-improvement involved from Seneca’s perspective. But he was also writing with the intention of having his work read publicly and the pursuit of fame can’t be swept under the rug even in Seneca’s old age.
Nevertheless, The Letters offer great value for the lessons their author was trying to teach about a wide range of topics.
“Consider whether you desire the same things today that you desired yesterday. A shifting of the will indicates that the mind is at sea, heading in various directions, according to the course of the wind. But one which is settled and solid does not wander from its place.”
On love, life and death
As a writer, Seneca is a chameleon, blending into different topics and perspectives with ease. One minute he’s talking about how to save time, the next he’s chastising our natural fear of death and proposing ways to remedy the situation.
His writing style is sweeping, poetic and a pure joy to read from the metaphors and observations that are made. There was a time when Seneca the playwright and Seneca the philosopher were mistaken for being two people, so prodigious was his creativity.
Another interesting aspect of The Letters is that although Seneca was a proud Stoic, he also admired the philosophy of Epicureanism. This was considered a rival school of thought and Seneca believed it was important to study other philosophies like a spy in the enemy camp to lead a truly fulfilled life.
Here’s a list of some of my favourite letters from the collection and are worth diving into for anyone who’s never read Seneca:
- On saving time
- On philosophy and friendship
- On old age
- On groundless fears
- On progress
- On values
- On quiet and study
- On meeting death cheerfully
- On the vanity of mental gymnastics
- On the fellowship of wise men
- On self-control
- On the conflict between pleasure and virtue
When reading Letters From A Stoic for the first time, I found it useful to read 1 -2 letters per day to ensure everything could be digested properly. You could choose to read one letter in the morning and then the other at night but what matters is that you find a reading schedule that works for you.
For all its grandeur and philosophising, the greatest strength of Letters From A Stoic is that you can return to Seneca multiple times and discover new things about life and about yourself.