Jerzy's Reviews > Listy moralne do Lucyliusza

Listy moralne do Lucyliusza by Seneca
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May 08, 2014

it was amazing
bookshelves: philosophy

a.k.a. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, or the Moral letters to Lucilius

This was my 2015 reading from the Great Philosophers series from Gazeta Wyborcza. Since then I've also read:
* 2016: Aristotle's Protrepticus and Physics
* 2017: Aristotle's Great Ethics and Poetics
* 2018: Plato's Symposium, Statesman, Sophist, and Euthyphro


I read this in Polish translation as part of the Great Philosophers series from Gazeta Wyborcza. So far I've also read Aristotle's Protrepticus and Physics.

TLDR: Don't Panic! Just like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy advises, Seneca tells us not to flip out when bad things happen (as they inevitably will). Steel yourself for fate to take away everything you love; don't covet wealth or power since they can be lost at any moment; live life fully and responsibly but always be ready to face your own death, the one thing we can all rely on. This sounds grim, but Seneca makes it into something uplifting, a rousing battle cry to keep you going through tough times. Plus, he's quite funny---for example, telling his correspondent that if this letter is too long, it's his own dang fault for asking such questions :)

My grandparents left me a collection of philosophy books, and I admit to picking up Seneca first just because I heard the name in a goofy old song. But he's a good place to start indeed. It's taken me years of on-and-off reading to finish, largely because I'm not super fluent with the old-sounding Polish translation, but the content is great. I'll be curious to see the upcoming new English translation, Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius, from UChicago Press.

I don't know if there was a real Lucilius and this was a two-way correspondence, or if Seneca just makes up his friend's "requests" for more info as an excuse to write his essays informally. (How did these letters originally get saved, collected, and published?) Either way, Seneca writes with humor, with self-awareness of his own contradictions and hypocrisies, and with plenty of pithy quotable phrases. He focuses on practical matters---how to live well---and makes fun of other philosophers who study brainteaser-like logic exercises that have no pragmatic impact.

These letters are also full of nuggets about daily life in ancient Rome: people's behavior in the bathhouse, menus at extravagant orgies, travel conditions... Many of the vices he describes (coveting power and wealth, shallow friendship, being drawn like magpies to novelty) are still with us today; it's a great reminder that people are people everywhen. I also enjoyed the commentary on famous Greeks and Romans: Socrates, Alexander the Great, Scipio, Cato, and others are constantly trotted out as examples of virtue or vice. I never studied Latin or Greek, so it's been a great experience learning about the culture alone, as a bonus to all the Stoic thought.

Some of that thought is hard to understand correctly from a modern point of view. Some views sound misleadingly like modern psychology or science, for example, but clearly that can't be what he meant---but it's hard to guess his intended interpretation when our modern one is so entrenched in my head.

Sometimes his descriptions of God and the soul almost seem drawn from Christianity, but I'm pretty sure that's not the case since Jesus lived at basically the same time (so I assume the church hadn't ramped up yet) and Seneca never mentions him. (If anything, the influences might run in the opposite direction, with Stoic thought pervasive enough that it influenced early Christian thinkers?) Thanks to Practical Philosophy: The Greco-Roman Moralists, I've learned that the Stoics had a kind of pantheism that was almost monotheism: God is the rational spark that dwells in everything, and God and nature and Providence are all mixed up together. The virtuous life follows God in the sense that the virtuous life is in harmony with the nature of how things are. So as far as I understand, when Seneca talks about God, it is not the old guy with a beard from Sunday school, nor the more subtle Christian God as a force of love---but parts of it do sound similar.

The Practical Philosophy course also says that unlike some contemporaries like the Skeptics, the Stoics were dogmatists: they believed that we can know things such as what is virtue, how to live well, etc. The discussion isn't just an academic exercise---there are right and wrong answers. Furthermore, Seneca and his contemporaries focus on changing the individual, rather than on politics more broadly, largely because they lived in a centuries-old empire that seemed unchangeable (unlike the Greek city-states of earlier philosophers, which were small and local enough that any citizen could hope to impact how the city-state was governed). This all leads to an unusual mix of optimism and pessimism: You can't change the world, but you can survive anything. Instead of today's pop-psych "You can accomplish anything you set your mind to!" Seneca is more along the lines of "You can handle anything that Fortune throws at you."

All in all, I've loved going through this book, underlining favorite phrases, arguing with Seneca in the margins... and I'll miss this lively interaction now that it's over. I look forward to revisiting this again and again over the years.
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Reading Progress

January 1, 2013 – Started Reading
May 8, 2014 – Shelved
May 8, 2014 – Shelved as: philosophy
May 31, 2015 – Finished Reading
June 1, 2015 – Shelved (Other Hardcover Edition)
June 1, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read (Other Hardcover Edition)
June 1, 2015 – Shelved as: philosophy (Other Hardcover Edition)

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