Letters from a Stoic (a selection)Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Philosophy is good advice; and no one can give advice at the top of his lungs.

One of the most persistent criticisms made of modern philosophy is that it isn’t useful. The critics have a point. Modern philosophy largely concerns itself with a variety of theoretical problems. Even though many of these problems do have practical ramifications, many do not; and regardless, the debates can often get so technical, so heated, and so abstract, that it is difficult to see modern philosophy as the path to wisdom it once professed to be. People don’t have time or patience for logic-chopping; they want useful advice.

Those of this persuasion will be happy to find a forerunner and a sage in Seneca. As the opening quote shows, he conceived philosophy to be, above all, the giving of good advice. Seneca thus finds a perfect vehicle for his thought in the form of the letter. Although this book apparently consists of the private correspondence between Seneca and his friend Lucilius, it is obvious from the first page that these were expressly written for publication and posterity. This book should rather be thought of as a collection of moral essays and exhortations.

Even in translation, Seneca is a master stylist. He is by turns intimate, friendly, self-deprecating, nagging, mundane, and profound. He has an enormous talent for epigram; he can squeeze a lifetime into a line, compress a philosophy into a phrase. He is also remarkably modern in his tolerant, cosmopolitan, and informal attitude. Indeed I often found it difficult to believe that the book was written by a real Roman. Montaigne and Emerson obviously learned a great deal from Seneca; you might even say they ripped him off. The only thing that marks Seneca as ancient is his comparative lack of introspection. While Montaigne and Emerson are mercurial, wracked by self-doubt, driven by contrary tides of emotion, Seneca is calm, self-composed, confident.

Perhaps because of his professed aversion to abstract argument, Seneca is not a systematic thinker. Emerson wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and Seneca apparently would agree, for there are many inconsistencies to be found in these pages. Sometimes God is conceived of as an impersonal order of the universe, and at other times a personal deity; sometimes Lucilius is advised not to take the opinions of friends and family into account, other times to do so. Seneca’s metaphysical arguments are weak and confused affairs; he is not one for disputation. But for all this, there is a core of good sense contained within these pages, which Seneca himself summarizes:

No man is good by chance. Virtue is something which must be learned. Pleasure is low, petty, to be deemed worthless, shared even by dumb animals—the tiniest and meanest of whom fly towards pleasure. Glory is an empty and fleeting thing, lighter than air. Poverty is an evil to no man unless he kick’s against it. Death is not an evil; why need you ask? Death alone is the equal privilege of mankind.

Like Marcus Aurelius, a prominent statesman in troubled times, Seneca is very concerned with how to be happy in spite of circumstances. There is no satisfaction to be had through external goods, like fame and riches, because these cannot be gotten unless fortune is kind, and fortune is notoriously fickle. Even in good times, this can only lead you into an empty, meaningless competition, valuing yourself for something that isn’t really yours, causing you to ceaselessly measure yourself against others. You must rather become content with yourself, taking pleasure in life whether fortune smiles or frowns: “We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in externals.”

Of course, this is easier said than done, and Seneca does not have a fully worked-out system for reaching this state. He offers, instead, an unsystematic mass of advice. It is here that Seneca is most charming and helpful, for most other philosophers would not deign to offer such workaday recommendations and observations. Here is Seneca on negative thinking:

The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry.

It is in these sections, of plain, friendly advice, that I think Seneca is at his best. Certainly not all of his advice is good; every reader will pick and choose what suits them best. But much of Seneca’s advice is timeless, and phrased in deathless prose. Most refreshing is Seneca’s insistence that his advice is for action and not reflection. This is more than slightly ironic, considering that Seneca is often accused of being a hypocrite whose lifestyle was far removed from his doctrines; but, to quote a modern philosopher, “There is no contradiction, or even paradox, in describing someone as bad at practising what he is good at preaching.” So preach on, Seneca.

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