Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Letters from a Stoic

 

Summary
  1. Seneca’s advice to his friend is still fantastic several thousand years later. Covers everything from his thoughts on crowds to acquiring wisdom.
Key Takeaways
  1. Spent the last years of his life writing letters to Lucilius, a very close friend and this book is a collection of those letters
  2. The primary indication of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company
  3. Contented poverty is not poverty at all
  4. It is not the man who has little, but the man who craves more, who is poor
  5. Advocates equality of sexes, scientific innovation, retirement, plain living, love of nature, elimination of gladiator games and better treatment of slaves. All novel or at least unusual points of view during this time
  6. Two elements must be rooted out once and for all – the fear of future suffering and the recollection of past suffering – the latter no longer concerns me and the former concerns me not yet
What I got out of it
  1. Incredibly interesting book with many quotable lines and great axioms to live bye. There is too much gold to try to summarize. Do yourself a favor and just read it.

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Letters (Epistles)
 
Letters II – On Discursiveness in Reading
  • The primary indication of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company
  • Being everywhere is the same as being nowhere
  • Need a good base, or root system, in order to go strong. Do not grow distracted and restless
  • Contented poverty is not poverty at all
  • It is not the man who has little, but the man who craves more, who is poor
  • Limits of wealth – first to have what is necessary and second to have what is enough
Letter III – On True and False Friendship
  • A true friend is someone you trust as you would trust yourself
  • Share with your friend all your worries and reflections
  • Regard him as loyal and you will make him loyal
  • Equally faulty to trust everyone as it is no one
Letter V – On the Philosopher’s Mean
  • Do not do things merely for other’s praise or acceptance
  • Do not dress slovenly or too finely
  • Philosophy undertakes to give all men fellow-feeling, sympathy and sociability
  • Philosophy’s motto – Live according to nature
  • Philosophy calls for plain living, not penance
  • Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they escape them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves over that which is to come as well as over that which is past. Many of our blessings bring bane to us; for memory recalls the tortures of fear, while foresight anticipates them. The present alone can make no man wretched.
Letter VI – On Sharing Knowledge
  • No good thing is pleasant to possess without friends to share (pair with Into the Wild, a movie and book about Christopher McCandless who ventures into Alaska alone but discovers that “true happiness can only be found when shared.”)
Letter VII – On Crowds
  • Avoid crowds for as yet you cannot trust yourself to them with safety
  • The greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger
  • It is too easy to side with the majority
  • You should not hate the many because they are unlike you nor withdraw into yourself as far as you can
  • Associate with those who will make you a better man
  • One man means as much to me as a multitude and a multitude only as much as a man. – Democritus
  • I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all
  • Many men may praise you but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand?
  • Your good qualities should face inwards
Letter VIII – On the Philosopher’s Seclusion
  • Material possessions possess us, not the other way around
  • Body should be treated more rigorously that it may not be disobedient to the mind. Eat merely to relieve hunger, drink merely to quench your thirst, dress merely to keep out the cold; house yourself merely as protection against personal discomfort
  • What chance has made yours is not really yours
Letter IX – On Philosophy and Friendship
  • A wise man is self-sufficient in that he can do without friends but that doesn’t mean he desires not to have them
  • A wise man despises fortune
  • Wise man is in want of nothing and yet needs many things. On the other hand, the fool needs nothing for he does not understand how to use anything, but is in want of everything
  • Nothing is necessary to the wise man
  • Unblest is he who thinks himself unblest
  • What does you condition matter if it is bad in your own eyes?
Letter XI – On the Blush of Modesty
  • Can tone down our inborn qualities but never rid them completely
  • Imagine somebody you really respect is watching your every move and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them (pair with Napoleon Hill’s mastermind group)
Letter XII – On Old Age
  • Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope but not yet reached the abrupt decline
  • tTe man is happiest and most secure when can await tomorrow without apprehension
Letter XV – On Brawn and Brains
  • Must balance physical and mental training in order to truly be healthy
  • Eat in moderation and let the spirit fly free
  • Fools life is empty of gratitude and full of fears and its course lies wholly toward the future
Letter XVI – On Philosophy, the Guide of Life
  • if you live according to nature you will never be poor, if you live according to opinion you will never be rich
Letter XVIII – On Festivals and Fasting
  • Avoid crowds as often as possible
  • Live simply – there is pleasure in this
  • If can enjoy the bare minimum, there is nothing fortune can snatch away. Simply dependent on oneself for happiness
Letter XXVI – On Old Age and Death
  • What you have done in the past will be manifest only at the time when you draw your last breath
Letter XVII – On the Good Which Abides
  • Let your faults die before you die
Letter XVIIII – On Travel as a Cure for Discontent
  • Your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel
  • Wise man prefers to be at peace than at war
  • The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation for he who does not know that he has sinned does not desire correction; you must discover yourself in the wrong before you can reform yourself
Letter XXXIII – On the Futility of Learning Maxims
  • A single tree is not remarkable if the whole forest rises to the same height
  • Only the poor man counts his flock
  • Truth will never be discovered if we rest contented with discoveries already made
Letter XXXVIII – On Quiet Conversation
  • Low toned words are more effective words
Letter XL – On the Proper Style for a Philosopher’s Discourse
  • Speech that deals with the truth should be unadorned and plain
  • Speak slowly and methodically and passionately
Letter XLI
  • In each good man a god doth dwell, but what god know we not
  • What is more foolish than to praise in a man the qualities which come from without? and what is more insane than to marvel at characteristics which may at the next instant be passed on to someone else?
  • Praise the quality in him which cannot be snatched away – it is soul and reason brought to perfection in the soul
  • Man is a reasoning animal and his highest good is attained if he has fulfilled the good for which nature designed him at birth
Letter XLVII – On Master and Slave
  • Slaves are not enemies when we acquire them; we make them enemies
  • Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see you a slave
  • Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters
  • Show me a man who is not a slave; one is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear
  • No servitude is more disgraceful than that which is self-imposed
Letter XLVIII – On Quibbling as Unworthy of the Philosopher
  • You must live for your neighbor as if you would live for yourself
  • Philosophy offers counsel
  • Frankness and simplicity beseem true goodness
Letter LIII – On the Faults of the Spirit
  • With diseases of the soul – the worse one is the less one perceives it
  • Why will no man confess his faults? Because he is still in their grasp; only he who is awake can recount his dream and similarly a confession of sin is a proof of sound mind
  • When a man is physically sick he gives up caring for all else? Why not do the same in order to achieve a sound mind?
  • Philosophy is not  a thing to be followed at odd times but a subject for daily practice
  • The power of philosophy to blunt the blows of chance is beyond belief
Letter LIV – On Asthma and Death
  • Only a fool would believe that a lamp was worse off when it was extinguished. same goes for people – we are also lighted and extinguished
  • The wise man does nothing unwillingly. He escapes necessity because he will to do what necessity is about to force upon him
Letter LV – On Vatia’s Villa
  • Huge difference between a life of leisure and a life of idleness
  • Living for pleasure – belly, sleep, lust – is the most shameful thing in the world
Letter LVI – On Quiet Study
  • What benefit is there to studying in a quiet room if our emotions are in an uproar
  • Evils of the mind do most harm when they are hidden behind a pretense of soundness
Letter LXIII – On Grief for Lost Friends
  • Let us see to it that the recollection of those whom we have lost becomes a pleasant memory to us
  • Do not grieve for too long for it does not help us nor them
Letter LXV – On the First Cause
  • Stoics declare that there are 2 things which are the causes of everything – cause and matter. Matter is a substance ready for any use whereas cause (reason) molds matter and turns it in whatever directions it will
  • There is a great difference between a work and the cause of a work
  • The wise man is so trained that he neither loves nor hates life
  • Wise men regard their body as nothing but a chain since it is the only part of man which can suffer injury
  • I have no fear of death since I have no fear of ceasing to exist; it is the same as not having begun. Nor do I shrink from changing into another state, because I shall, under no conditions, be as cramped as I am now [in my mortal body].
Letter LXXVII – On Taking One’s Own Life
  • Do you not think someone an utter fool who wept because he was not alive a thousand years ago? And is he not just as much of a fool who weeps because he will not be alive a thousand years from now? Neither of these periods of time belongs to you
  • Stop whenever you choose; only see to it that the closing period is well turned
Letter LXXVIII – On the Healing Power of the Mind
  • There are three serious elements in every disease – fear of death, bodily pain and interruption of pleasures
  • The wise and sensible man divorces soul from body and dwells much with the better or divine part and only as far as he must with this complaining and frail portion
  • Do not of your own accord make your troubles heavier to bear and burden yourself with complaining
  • In thinking something it slight – you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed
  • It is in accordance with opinion that we suffer
  • Two elements must be rooted out once and for all – the fear of future suffering and the recollection of past suffering – the latter no longer concerns me and the former concerns me not yet
  • Be your own spectator – seek your own applause
  • Only leisure is wont to make men hate their lives
  • Any life must seem short to those who measure its length by pleasures which are empty and for that reason unbounded
Letter LXXXIII – On Drunkenness
  • What makes us wicked is that none of us looks back over our lives. Our thoughts are devoted only to what we are about to do and yet our plans for the future always depend on the past
  • Drunkenness kindles and discloses every kind of vice and removes the sense of shame that veils our evil undertakings
Letter LXXXVIII – On Liberal and Vocational Studiers
  • I respect no study and deem no study good which results in money making
  • Studies of wisdom should be of the highest priority
  • Aiming to be able to lose it all with a light heart
  • The liberal studies prepare the soul for the reception of virtue
  • Temperance knows that the best measure of the appetites is not what you want to take, but what you ought to take
Letter XC – On the part played by philosophy in the progress of man
  • Living well is the gift of philosophy
  • Nature suffices for what she demands
  • He is most powerful who has power over himself
Letter XCI – On the Lesson to be Drawn From the Burning of Lyons
  • We must reflect fully upon our fortunes for chance may take all things away
  • We are unequal at birth but equal at death
  • The great founder of human law has not made distinctions between us on the basis of high lineage or of illustrious names, except while we live
  • Foolish fears – men who fear death and gossip 
Letter CIV – On Care of Health and Peace of Mind
  • I assure you, travel as far as you like, you can never establish yourself beyond the reach of desire, beyond the reach of bad temper, or beyond the reach of fear
  • No man ever saw Socrates too much elated or too much depressed. Amid all the disturbance of fortune, he was undisturbed
  • Must reject pleasures, spurn wealth. If you set a high value on liberty, you must set a low value on everything else
Letter CV – On Facing the World with Confidence
  • Everyone has strength to do you some harm
  • The most important contribution to peace of mind is never to do wrong
  • Those who lack self-control lead disturbed and tumultuous lives; their crimes are balanced by their fears and they are never at ease
  • Whoever expects punishment, receives it, but whoever deserves it, expects it
Letter CVII – On Obedience to the Universal Will
  • We cannot change the order of things but what we can do is to acquire stout hearts, worthy of good men, thereby courageously enduring chance and placing ourselves in harmony with nature
  • Whatever happens, assume it was meant to happen and do not be willing to rail at nature
  • That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure
  • Man is a weakling and degenerate who struggles and maligns the order of the universe and would rather reform the gods than reform himself
Letter CVIII – On the Approaches to Philosophy
  • Absorb all the knowledge that you can hold, not all that you wish
  • The more the mind receives, the more it expands
  • He needs but little who desires but little
  • It is easier for the will to cut off certain things utterly than to use them with restraint
Letter CXIV – On Style as the Mirror of Character
  • Man’s speech is just like his life (pair with Angel Ruiz’s The 4 Agreements – be impeccable with your word)
  • Vices are so intertwined with virtues that they drag the virtues along with them
  • When the soul is sound and strong, the style too is vigorous, energetic, manly; but if the soul lose its balance, down comes all the rest in ruins
  • When the soul has yielded to pleasure, its functions and actions grow weak, and any undertaking comes from a nerveless and unsteady source
Letter CXXII – On Darkness as a Veil for Wickedness
  • Man should anticipate the dawn and wake up early
  • If we follow nature, all is easy and unobstructed; but if we combat nature, our life differs not a white from that of men who row against the current
Letter CXXIII – On the Conflict Between Pleasure and Virtue
  • Nothing is heavy if one accepts it with a light heart and that nothing need provoke one’s anger if one does not add to one’s pile of troubles by getting angry
  • There are things which, if done by the few, we should refuse to imitate; yet when the majority have begun to do them, we following along – just as if anything were more honorable because it is more
  • No man is good by chance. Virtue is something which must be learned. Pleasure is low, petty, to be deemed worthless. Glory is an empty and fleeting thing, lighter than air. Poverty is an evil to no man unless he kick against the goads. Death is not an evil. Death alone is the equal privilege of mankind. Superstition is the misguided idea of a lunatic; it fears those whom it ought to love; it is an outrage upon those whom it worships. For what difference is there between denying the gods and dishonoring them?
Seneca: The Philosopher and His Modern Message
I – The Old and the New
  • Stoicism – believed knowledge to be attainable and defined
  • Seneca was in exile in Corsica before Nero came to power and brought him back. Seneca wrote many of Nero’s speeches and ran many parts of the government very effectively
  • Considered one of the world’s most inspiring masters of thought
II – Seneca: His Influence upon Pagan Rome
  • Seneca had a very casual writing style and this provided for many “professional” critics (professors, etc.)
  • Seneca was a pioneer who combined all moods, inventing one
  • Seneca had so many talents and different faces that he was a puzzle to most of his contemporaries
  • No animal is more pettish, or more in need of skillful handling or more to be humored than man
  • Made up his world from his own personal investigations and ideas
III – How he Appealed to the Church
  • Stoicism is a combination of sensationalism, idealism, skepticism, and mysticism and is why it has such lasting power
  • Stoicism is more realistic and believes that knowledge is attainable – wealth and power should not be completely shunned as long as it does not interfere with other beliefs – it can be advantageous in order to get what you want in life
  • Establishes the spirituality of the soul and that it lives on with all the glory of reward for a life nobly lived
  • God is within, and your demon is within
  • A holy spirit dwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian
  • Was way ahead of other Romans in terms of championing women’s rights
  • Denounces the gladiator fights
  • Was vegetarian for a while and tried to avoid alcohol
  • Had general love for all of mankind
  • The only men in the world who are really at leisure and really living are those devoted to the study of wisdom. They are not only guardians of their own careers, but they are adding all eternity to their store. To no period of history are we forbidden access and we are admitted everywhere
  • Church embraced Seneca due to his great sympathy and resemblance to Christian sentiments
IV – How he Touched the Medieval Mind
  • Very influential and affected the thinking of many medieval thinkers
V – How the Renaissance viewed Him
  • The first proof of a well-ordered mind is to be able to pause and linger within itself

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