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Letters from a Stoic

SENECA
41 A.D.

Introduction by Robin Campbell
  • The Stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers, ruled by a supreme providence which could be spoken of, almost according to choice or context.
  • It is man’s duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, bringing his life into line with ‘nature’s laws’, and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him. Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true, unshakeable peace and contentment to which ambition, luxury and above all avarice are among the greatest obstacles.
  • Virtue was to be looked on as its own reward and vice as its own punishment.
Letters
  • 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.
  • To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life travelling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships.
  • It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. What is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.
  • Live in such a way that there is nothing which you could not as easily tell your enemy as keep to yourself. Trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one (though I should call the first the worthier and the second the safer behaviour).
  • Let our aim be a way of life not diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the mob.
  • The first thing philosophy promises us is the feeling of fellowship, of belonging to mankind and being members of a community; being different will mean the abandoning of that manifesto. We must watch that the means by which we hope to gain admiration do not earn ridicule and hostility.
  • One’s life should be a compromise between the ideal and the popular morality. People should admire our way of life but they should at the same time find it understandable.
  • Fear keeps pace with hope. Both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future.
  • There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.
  • Associating with people in large numbers is actually harmful: there is not one of them that will not make some vice or other attractive to us, or leave us carrying the imprint of it or bedaubed all unawares with it.
  • Nothing is as ruinous to the character as sitting away one’s time at a show – for it is then, through the medium of entertainment, that vices creep into one with more than usual ease.
  • You should neither become like the bad because they are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you.
  • Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.
  • Indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health. It needs to be treated somewhat strictly to prevent it from being disobedient to the spirit.
  • If you wish to be loved, love. 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. A person who starts being friends with you because it pays him will similarly cease to be friends because it pays him to do so.
  • The wise man, nevertheless, unequalled though he is in his devotion to his friends, though regarding them as being no less important and frequently more important than his own self, will still consider what is valuable in life to be something wholly confined to his inner self.
  • Any man who does not think that what he has is more than ample, is an unhappy man, even if he is the master of the whole world.
  • Every pleasure defers till its last its greatest delights.
  • Every day should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives.
  • To spend one’s time exercising the biceps, broadening the neck and shoulders and developing the lungs is to put a greater load on the body and is crushing to the spirit and renders it less active. So keep the body within bounds as much as you can and make room for the spirit. Devotees of physical culture have to put up with a lot of nuisances such as: exercises, toil involved in which drains the vitality and renders it unfit for concentration; the heavy feeding which dulls mental acuteness. There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay. There is running, swinging weights about and jumping. But whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon.
  • Voice-training: the natural thing is to lead up to it through easy stages. Our purpose in all this is not to give the voice, exercise, but to make it give us exercise.
  • No one can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom, and that the perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life.
  • Philosophy moulds and builds the personality, orders one’s life, regulates one’s conduct, shows one what one should do and what one should leave undone, sits at the helm, and keeps one on the correct course as one is tossed about in perilous seas.
  • If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.
  • Natural desires are limited; those which spring from false opinions have nowhere to stop. Whenever you want to know whether the desire aroused in you by something you are pursuing is natural or quite unseeing, ask yourself whether it is capable of coming to rest at any point.
  • It takes a more developed sense of fitness to make of oneself neither indistinguishable from those about one nor conspicuous by one’s difference, to do the same things but not in quite the same manner. For a holiday can be celebrated without extravagant festivity.
  • Appoint certain days on which to give up everything and make yourself at home with next to nothing. Start cultivating a relationship with poverty.
  • You have to lay aside the load on your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you.
  • A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation. A person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right.
  • Words need to be sown like seed. No matter how tiny a seed may be, when it lands in the right sort of ground it unfolds its strength and from being minute expands and grows to a massive size.
  • Treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors.
  • With afflictions of the spirit, the worse a person is, the less he feels it.
  • Philosophy wields an authority of her own; she doesn’t just accept time, she grants one it. She’s not something one takes up in odd moments. She’s an active, full-time mistress, ever present and demanding. Philosophy tells all other occupations: It’s not my intention to accept whatever time is left over from you; you shall have, instead, what I reject. Give your whole mind to her. Sit at her side and pay her constant court, and an enormous gap will widen between yourself and other men. You’ll end up far in advance of all mankind, and not far behind the gods themselves.
  • A god has nature to thank for his immunity from fear, while the wise man can thank his own efforts for this.
  • Philosophy’s power to blunt all the blows of circumstance is beyond belief. The philosopher alone knows how to live for himself.
  • The person who has run away from the world and his fellow-men, whose exile is due to the unsuccessful outcome of his own desires, who is unable to endure the sight of others more fortunate, who has taken to some place of hiding in his alarm like a timid, inert animal, he is not ‘living for himself’, but for his belly and his sleep and his passions
  • There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighbourhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil?
  • Night does not remove our worries; it brings them to the surface.
  • The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.
  • When one has lost a friend one’s eyes should be neither dry nor streaming. Tears, yes, there should be, but not lamentation. What is behind extravagant weeping and wailing? We are trying to find means of proving that we feel the loss. We are not being governed by our grief but parading it.
  • Stoic philosophers maintain that there are two elements in the universe from which all things are derived, namely cause and matter. Matter lies inert and inactive, a substance with unlimited potential, but destined to remain idle if no one sets it in motion; and it is cause (this meaning the same as reason) which turns matter to whatever end it wishes and fashions it into a variety of different products.
  • Aristotle thinks that the term ‘cause’ can be used in three different ways:
    • The first cause is matter – without it nothing can be brought into existence;
    • the second is the craftsman; and
    • the third is form.
    • There is a fourth as well: the purpose of the whole work.
    • Plato adds a fifth: the idea
  • What is death? Either a transition or an end. I am not afraid of coming to an end, this being the same as never having begun, nor of transition, for I shall never be in confinement quite so cramped anywhere else as I am here. Refuse to let the thought of death bother you: nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear.
  • Let us overcome all things, with our reward consisting not in any wreath or garland, not in trumpet-calls for silence for the ceremonial proclamation of our name, but in moral worth, in strength of spirit, in a peace that is won for ever once in any contest fortune has been utterly defeated.
  • Pleasures are of two kinds. The physical pleasures are the ones which illness interferes with. Indeed, if you take a true view of the matter, they are actually sharpened by illness.
  • Posidonius said: In a single day there lies open to men of learning more than there ever does to the unenlightened in the longest of lifetimes.
  • We should not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock.
  • We should, indeed, live as if we were in public view, and think, too, as if someone could peer into the inmost recesses of our hearts – which someone can! For what is to be gained if something is concealed from man when nothing is barred from God?
  • What really ruins our characters is the fact that none of us looks back over his life. We think about what we are going to do, and only rarely of that, and fail to think about what we have done, yet any plans for the future are dependent on the past.
  • How I can say that liberal studies are of no help towards morality when I’ve just been saying that there’s no attaining morality without them. My answer would be this: there’s no attaining morality without food either, but there’s no connexion between morality and food.
  • Philosophy has taught men to worship what is divine, to love what is human, telling us that with the gods belongs authority, and among human beings fellowship.
  • There is nothing dangerous in a man’s having as much power as he likes if he takes the view that he has power to do only what it is his duty to do.
  • To govern was to serve, not to rule.
  • Philosophy is far above invention. She does not train men’s hands: she is the instructress of men’s minds. What has the philosopher brought to light? In the first place, truth and nature, and secondly, a rule of life, in which he has brought life into line with things universal. And he has taught us not just to recognize but to obey the gods, and to accept all that happens exactly as if it were an order from above. He has told us not to listen to false opinions, and has weighed and valued everything against standards which are true. He has condemned pleasures an inseparable element of which is subsequent regret, has commended the good things which will always satisfy, and for all to see has made the man who has no need of luck the luckiest man of all, and the man who is master of himself the master of all.
  • The growth of things is a tardy process and their undoing is a rapid matter.
  • We need to envisage every possibility and strengthen the spirit to deal with the things which may conceivably come about. Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck.
  • To return to life for another’s sake is a sign of a noble spirit;
  • The man who spends his time choosing one resort after another in a hunt for peace and quiet, will in every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing.
  • Never to wrong others takes one a long way towards peace of mind. People who know no self-restraint lead stormy and disordered lives, passing their time in a state of fear commensurate with the injuries they do to others, never able to relax.
  • The spirit is our queen. So long as she is unharmed, the rest remains at its post, obedient and submissive. If she wavers for a moment, in the same moment the rest all falters.
  • Devotion to what is right is simple, devotion to what is wrong is complex and admits of infinite variations. It is the same with people’s characters; in those who follow nature they are straightforward and uncomplicated, and differ only in minor degree, while those that are warped are hopelessly at odds with the rest and equally at odds with themselves.

Find out more about Seneca at dailystoic.com/seneca


© 2020 Cedric Joyce