Letters from a Stoic (c. 65CE)
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“Reflect, as I am often wont to tell you, that there is nothing in such topics for us except mental gymnastics.”
Letters from a Stoic… Good God, just thinking about the book makes me cringe! This was a few sparse bits of wonderfully refreshing philosophy interspersed with long, flowing sections of absolute boredom. If I were reading this book now, I should like to think that I’d have the self-honesty to STOP READING IT.
All this may well be ascribable to the (poor?) translation I downloaded, of course.
The book is organized into over a hundred letters, usually beginning with the title “On the ….” The chapters could use some organization, certainly, and some editors of other versions may well have done that.
Death is perhaps this stoic’s prevailing theme. Think on death often – as Steve Jobs said – and much in life will be put into perspective. Realizing you may be snatched from the world at any time, you will enjoy your days with more fullness and passion than others; yet recognizing how much life you have truly been given, despair and pain will have no power over you.
“We should be sensible, and our wants more reasonable, if each of us were to take stock of himself, and to measure his bodily needs also, and understand how little he can consume, and for how short a time! But nothing will give you so much help toward moderation as the frequent thought that life is short and uncertain here below; whatever you are doing, have regard to death.”
“He has lived eighty years, has he? That depends upon the date from which you reckon his death!”
Another few themes are woven through the letters. Greed, as noted elsewhere in history, is the one affliction that never wanes. Seneca also speaks often of studying, especially Philosophy, and treating it not as mere study for spare time, but making it a regular passion of life. Why to study? “Study, not in order to add anything to your knowledge, but to make your knowledge better.” Finally, he speaks a bit about natural desires, noting that nature does not care if the stomach is entertained, merely filled; likewise, if you are truly thirsty, the type of cup or the person who presents it will not matter. “For if you believe it to be of importance how curly-haired your slave is, or how transparent is the cup which he offers you, you are not thirsty.”
After reviewing this file, I’m glad I read the book, and I look forward to reviewing this file periodically – perhaps annually. But I doubt I will read another translation any time soon; I even doubt I will lookup the quoted passages anytime soon.