Evan Leach's Reviews > Letters from a Stoic

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
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Apr 29, 2012

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bookshelves: 0-999, roman-literature, philosophy, letters
Read in September, 2012

Along with his tragedies, treatises and longer dialogues, the philosopher Seneca wrote 124 letters addressed to his friend Lucilius. Whether these letters were actually sent is unknown, but their style indicates that they were intended for publication at some point. These letters are really mini-essays in disguise, discussing Seneca’s Stoic beliefs and his outlook on life in general. This collection contains about a third of Seneca’s surviving letters, some of which are abridged.

For readers interested in Stoicism and Roman philosophy generally, I think these letters do just as good a job (if not better) of expressing Seneca’s beliefs as his dialogues do, and are more pleasant reading to boot. Stoicism (which had been around much longer than Seneca) held that men should live ‘in accordance with nature,’ learning to live in conformity with the world as it is and accepting whatever fate should bring their way. People should value and cultivate reason, and discipline the pleasures and the passions. Only in this way can true happiness be achieved. The duties Stoicism glorified – courage, self-control, simple habits, rationality and obedience to the State – corresponded closely to traditional Roman values, and Stoicism was the most influential philosophy in the Roman world for a long time. To some degree, it contrasted with Epicurean thought, which placed more value on the pursuit of individual pleasure. But in his letters Seneca displayed a remarkably open mind regarding Epicurus and his disciples, and the two schools of thought were not entirely at odds.

Many of the values Stoicism promoted were universal ones with wide appeal. Also, although the Stoics believed in a supreme providence that governed the universe, they were not particularly concerned with how this force was labeled: nature, divine reason, god, destiny, etc. This flexibility helped Stoicism adapt and fit within all kids of belief systems. Interestingly, the early Christian Church (which was very disfavorably disposed to most pagan writings) viewed Seneca as ‘one of them’ for this reason. This popularity was to continue into medieval times – in the Inferno Dante placed Seneca in Limbo, the highest place a non-Christian could aspire to, and Queen Elizabeth I “did much admire Senca’s wholesome advisings.”

However, Seneca has had his critics too over the centuries. He preached simple living and a rejection of luxury in his writings, but Seneca was one of the most powerful men in Rome and one of the wealthiest in the Western world during his lifetime. He was Emperor Nero’s chief advisor, and ‘the real master of the world’ for a while according to one modern writer. As chief imperial advisor, he almost certainly assisted Nero in the murder of the emperor’s own mother. Wealth and virtue are certainly not mutually exclusive, but extravagent wealth, advising a tyrant and being an accessory to murder do not scream good Stoic living. Whether Seneca lacked the courage of his own convictions, or was unable to practice what he preached, is at least in doubt. Also, Seneca is rarely (if ever) praised as a groundbreaking philosophical thinker. He did not invent Stoicism, but instead “spiritualized and humanized it” in his writings. Readers expecting Plato or Aristotle will probably be disappointed.

But readers interested in learning about Stoicism in general will be well served by this book. As I said earlier, I thought these letters were on the whole better than Seneca’s longer dialogues (which are not really ‘dialogues’ at all in any traditional sense, with one exception). As an introduction to Stoic philosophy, which was an important school of thought in the Greco-Roman world and beyond, you could do a lot worse. 3.5 stars.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Ryan (new)

Ryan Well written sir.

Evan Leach Ryan wrote: "Well written sir."

Thanks buddy...I think you'd find this book interesting (and as I noted in my review, probably more engaging than his longer dialogues/essays). I still like his tragedies best, though.

[Name Redacted] To a certain extent, it sounds like Seneca was to Zeno what Aquinas was to Maimonides.

Evan Leach Ian wrote: "To a certain extent, it sounds like Seneca was to Zeno what Aquinas was to Maimonides."

From what little I know about Maimonides, I'd say that's an apt comparison. Seneca was definitely more of a refiner & tinkerer than in innovator.

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