Seneca’s Letters

It’s hard to believe that having read so much of Seneca, the famous Roman Stoic who died under Nero (65 AD), I have done no more than mention him in passing. It was Seneca who reintroduced me to Stoic thought exactly ten years ago. While it’s true that I’d read and enjoyed The Handbook of Epictetus as part of a college course, I had in the interim forgotten about this interesting school of Greco-Roman moral thought. It was on a friend’s recommendation that I bought Letters from a Stoic (Penguin). I also obtained Moses Hadas’ anthology, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca (Norton), which contains some of the same epistles as well as full length essays. Although the Penguin translation is more accurate – Hadas is rather paraphrastic and steeped in mid-twentieth century idiom – the Norton copy is nonetheless easy to read and conveys the spirit of Seneca’s thought.

Speaking of people and friendship, Seneca says in Letter No. 3:

Another reprehensible pair [of examples] is the man who is never at ease and the man who is always at ease. Bustle is not briskness but the agitation of a turbulent mind. And disdaining all activity as a nuisance is not ease but enervation and inertia.

Urging moderation and genuine humility to his friend Lucilius in the practice of philosophy, the Roman writer explains in Letter No. 5:

I admonish you not to behave like those who aim at notoriety rather than progress; do not make your dress or mode of life conspicuous…. It is frugality that philosophy asks, not affectation…. Anyone who looks closely will realize that we are unlike the crowd. Anyone who enters our home will admire us rather than our furniture. It is a great man who uses earthenware as if it were silver; he is no less great who uses silver as if it were earthenware.

One of his best letters is No. 7, on crowds:

What should you put down as a thing especially to be avoided? It is a crowd; it is not yet safe for you to trust yourself to one. At least, I confess my own infirmity: I never bring back the same character I took with me…. Contact with the crowd is deleterious; inevitably vice will be made attractive or imprinted on us or smeared upon us without our being aware of it.

At least in Seneca’s day one had to leave one’s house to mingle with the rest of humanity and be exposed to spectacles and shows. Now it is made much easier by virtual means. The Stoic author urges us to be selective about the company we keep. We should spend most of our time with friends who are edifying, or those whom we can edify in turn. The same is certainly true of the things we read online or watch, since they are often the “crowd” we mingle with.

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