Letters 6: Knowledge, Self-Reflection And Improvement

In this series of blog posts I attempt to translate the Moral letters to Lucilius by Seneca into modern English. In Letter 6, he discussed why practicing Stoic philosophy generates self knowledge. And this in turn allows you to notice faults in yourself, and help others.

There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with. – Seneca.

Being able to identify and work on areas of personal improvement is important. Of course, there will always be something to enhance, it’s an ongoing lifelong project. Share the areas that you’re working on with friends, especially those who experience similar worldviews and shared problems. This will benefit not only them but you, as having wisdom is of little use unless you are willing to share and teach. It helps them as it they learn from your knowledge efforts, and in turn you can learn from their wisdom and struggles. This, in some ways, is more important that trying to improve alone.

And remember that if a friend asks for advice based on your knowledge, then you should give it. But take care that you don’t force your advice onto people who aren’t asking for it.

Knowledge can be attained through the use of reason. Truth can be distinguished from fallacy—even if, in practice, only an approximation can be made. The senses constantly receive sensations: pulsations that pass from objects through the senses to the mind, where they leave an impression in the imagination.

The mind has the ability to judge. To approve or reject an impression, enabling it to distinguish a true representation of reality from one that is false. Some impressions can be assented to immediately, but others can only achieve varying degrees of hesitant approval, which can be labeled belief or opinion (doxa). It is only through reason that we gain clear comprehension and conviction (katalepsis). Certain and true knowledge (episteme), achievable by the Stoic sage, can be attained only by verifying the conviction with the expertise of one’s peers and the collective judgment of humankind.

Finally, remember that even though you may have deficiencies that you want to correct, you should accept who you are, acknowledge your efforts and avoid excessive self-criticism. If you do this then you’ll feel happier about yourself. This in turn means that you’ll be more forgiving of others too.

Take care.

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