Seneca: Not as Difficult as You Think

In this series of blog posts I attempt to translate the Moral letters to Lucilius by Seneca into modern English. In them you can learn about the good life from a true Roman statesman. Here I present the main themes from all his letters, distilled into one easy to read guide.

Who Was Seneca?

The Roman stoic Seneca (ca. 4 BCE – 65 CE) was a philosopher, dramatist and statesman known for his many essays and letters on philosophical topics, as well as a number of dramatic tragedies. Seneca was sentenced to death by his own hand after he was accused of participating in a plot to assassinate the Roman emperor Nero, the most well known of his former pupils.

Written around 65 CE and addressed to a Roman official stationed in Sicily by the name of Lucilius, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic are an exploration of the good life. Drawing on the rich tradition of stoic philosophical thought, Seneca advocates simple living in harmony with nature, avoidance of temptations and vice and the continuous honing of the mind through the study of philosophy. That, Seneca argued, was the path to true happiness.

While you can read each letter in detail, here’s are my key learning points:

  1. True wisdom is knowing how to live a simple life in accordance with nature.
  2. Divinity isn’t just something out there in the world – it’s also something that’s within every one of us. The divine resides in our souls. It’s part of us, but it isn’t truly ours. Because they’re not ours, we can’t work on our souls or take credit when they’re praised. But there is something we can work on: the mind.
  3. Our minds are unique. They differentiate us from one another. They also set us apart from the animal world, since what defines man is that he can think rationally. Rational thought is a product of the mind. That means we can, and should, devote ourselves to honing and perfecting it.
  4. The fruit of working on our minds is wisdom, and attaining wisdom is the primary aim of our lives.So what does it mean to be wise? Wisdom is knowing how to live as nature intended us to and constantly striving to stay true to that intention.
  5. Nature’s plan for us is to live simply, to abstain from worldly pleasures and the desires that drive us to accumulate vast fortunes, gorge ourselves on food and desperately seek fame and fortune.
  6. Living in accordance with nature also means confronting the fears that emerge when we look upon the natural cycle of life, in which loss and death are inevitable.
  7. All it takes is a little work every day. Philosophy is the key that unlocks wisdom and happiness. Philosophy is the key to the good life and virtuous living.
  8. Take the fear of death. When we think philosophically, we see that it’s just as much part of the natural order of things as life itself. Why should we fear something that belongs to nature? Or think of the desires that animate our attempts to accumulate riches or seek out the pleasures of intoxicants like wine. Philosophy shows us that both drunkenness and wealth are fleeting moments. So, once we look at the world rationally, we begin to attune ourselves to nature. In turn, this provides us with true happiness.
  9. They don’t seem unhappy that they’re not sleeping in rooms outfitted with finest marble from Carrara; they appreciate what they have, however little that might seem when you compare it to a palace. Just as we don’t need luxury to find shelter, there are many other things we don’t need to be happy.
  10. Philosophy teaches us what nature intended for us. It helps us learn how to face our fears and achieve a sense of balance while doing away with pointless distractions and focusing on true happiness.
  11. Don’t just study any old way, do it properly! Studying has to be taken seriously. You can’t just skim the surface, you have to plumb the depths. Casually perusing lots of different authors will only give you a superficial understanding of their ideas. The best course of action is to take an established and trusted author and stick to him. It’s in the deeper end of the pool that you’ll really start learning how to swim! Sticking to an author means studying his work in detail, but it doesn’t mean ignoring everyone else.
  12. You don’t just need to read widely and deeply; you also need to read actively. This means comparing their insights and drawing your own conclusions. Once you start doing that, you’re already contributing to philosophical knowledge about the world.
  13. Your mind is your most valuable possession; it’s your home and the guarantor of peace and health.
    Travel can be a form of escapism. What you neglect is what really matters: developing your mind. If you take care of your mind, you’ll be at home anywhere in the world. Peace of mind comes from inside – you can’t find it in the outside world.
  14. True serenity is achieved by looking inwards and quieting your mind. Philosophy, which teaches us how to live in accordance with nature, is the handmaiden of tranquility.
  15. Health is a necessary but insufficient condition of the good life. Exercise is important and useful for that reason, but only when it doesn’t become an obsession.
  16. All those hours working out will amount to time you could have spent cultivating your mind.
    Just think what happens if illness strikes. No amount of muscle will support you or restore your health. A sound mind, by contrast, can make all the difference. It can provide the mental strength you need to get through trying times and ultimately help you recover.
  17. Steer clear of temptation and vice by staying focused on the truth.
  18. There are countless vices, and some are commonplace. So if vice is everywhere, how do you steer clear of it? By living in harmony with nature.Vice is the fruit of a wish to be better than others. It thrives among those who spurn a normal, simple life. Wanting to be different is what drives people to spend their time and money on fripperies like stylish clothes, fancy carriages and extravagant banquets.
  19. Think of dreams. When we are sound asleep and unconscious to ourselves, we rarely notice our dreams. Living well is similar. When we’re busy pursuing petty pleasures and reacting to fleeting pains, we are unconscious to ourselves and to what we really need. That’s why those of us who have the most work to do on ourselves are usually unaware of what we really ought to be doing.
  20. Master your fears and anticipate the worst. Become comfortable with the idea of poverty. Take a few days every now and again to live as the poorest do. Once you’ve learned to take pleasure from a few paltry scraps of bread, you’ll begin to realize that there’s nothing to be afraid of when it comes to poverty. This, in turn, will help you cultivate a sound mind.
  21. Because nothing lasts forever, it’s a good idea to anticipate other disasters, too.
  22. Fairness and unfairness don’t come into play. Every living being and thing is subject to the same unpredictable workings of fate.
  23. Prepare for the direst outcomes, even when things are at their best. Anticipate the eventuality that everything you have might be taken from you.
  24. Choosing your friends wisely is vital. But once they’re in, you should really let them in.Your best bet when it comes to choosing friends is to base your decision on trust. Befriend those who you’re sure you can rely on. Even better is a trustworthy fellow traveler – someone on the same path of discovery as you. The best friends we make don’t just reflect who we already are, they also change us for the better. Friendship is about learning and improving yourself.
  25. If you’re pretty certain you’ve made the right decision, share everything with your friends. Open the door and let them into your life. Best of all, assume that they’ll be loyal to you – that’s often the best way to make sure that they are loyal!
  26. True friendship is built on a solid foundation, and becoming friends with someone for the right reasons is its cornerstone.
  27. What the wise appreciate is that friendship is valuable in itself. Creating and sustaining friendships is part of the good life.
  28. Face your fear of death. Think of eating strawberries. They’re at their succulent, sweet best at the end of summer, just before fall, right? Old age is like that too. It’s not all about illness, frailty and decline – in fact, aging has its own unique pleasures. But to appreciate them you have to come to terms with your fear of death.
    Each period in a life is part of the inescapable cycle of nature.
  29. Celebrate what you’ve already had – the years you’ve lived – and to be grateful for everything that might be given to you tomorrow.
  30. Once we have conquered our fear, we can begin celebrating what we’ve already had of life, and each new day becomes a special blessing.
  31. Clinging onto life merely for the sake of living is pointless.
  32. We often forget that death is also a duty we have to fulfill. The best end to an honorable life is an honorable death.
  33. Health isn’t just a matter of hitting the gym and maintaining a healthy diet – it’s also about training your mind and cultivating a healthy attitude. So don’t forget to complement your fitness regimen with some mental gymnastics. Studying and learning don’t just keep your mind agile, they also open the door to the great truths of the world and mentally prepare you to cope in trying times.

Photo on Foter.com

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