Seneca: Letters from a Stoic, Part I

SenecaAre you sick of me talking about dead Mediterranean dudes? Well, I have one more I’d like to hype, because he fits in so well with our discussion, then I’ll give it a rest for a while. Seneca was an eclectic and a Stoic. By most accounts, he was an imperfect man who didn’t necessarily follow all his own teachings. But, like our other old dead dudes, he encapsulated a lot of wisdom, and there’s much we can learn from him.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (a dead American dude) said: “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you the blast of a trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.” Mix in a broader array of readings and experiences, and you’ve got your very own Eclectic Living Bible.

Following is some fodder for your Bible from Seneca’s “Letters from a Stoic” (aka “Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium”). He wrote these letters to his buddy Lucilius. Here, in a two-part installment of Poppa’s Notes, I provide you with a condensed summary (bastardized, to be sure). If you want more, here’s the book. Grab what suits you best, discard the rest.

Letter 2 – Wealth is first having what you need, second having enough.
3 – Determine whether you trust someone before you befriend him, then trust him. Find balance between action and repose.
5 – Question convention, but do so without ostentation or disdain. Do not have heightened expectations or worries about what the future may hold – live in the present.
6 – I have transformed. I am great. But I have more improving to do – even understanding this is part of my improvement. I should like to shower you with my wisdom, Lucilius.
7 – The masses are dumb – stay away from them. Watching people be eaten by lions is not enlightening.
8 – I stay away from people, but in my solitude I toil for their edification and let them bask in my sunlight.
9 – Wise men are happy with themselves, but don’t necessarily prefer solitude without friends.
11 – Some fallibilities (embarrassment in certain situations, nervousness) are part of one’s nature, and that’s fine. Pretend that someone you want to emulate is your conscience.
12 – Old age is a blessing – live it well. Live free.
15 – Don’t spend too much time doing P90X – make sure to exercise your mind as well. Don’t worry too much about the future.
16 – Wisdom, Lucilius, wisdom is what it’s all about. But I’m not sure you’re up to my standards yet – you must keep searching, grasshopper.
18 – Being rich is well and good, but pretend to be poor every once in a while to appreciate sparsity (and ampleness). Epicurus says, don’t get too angry.
26 – Live as if death is nigh. Epicurus says, study and practice death – be not afraid to go gentle into that good night.
27 – Don’t consider me a proselytizer – what I say to you is also for my own edification. Improve your character, for that is the path to happiness.
28 – You cannot travel away from yourself – to discover new territory, improve your character. You can’t go home again. Epicurus says, endeavor to understand your fallibilities – only then can you fix them.
33 – Don’t follow blindly the old masters – open your eyes that you may descry your own path. Don’t pay too much attention to me.
38 – Speak softly that others may hear – it’s not the amount of words, but what they say that conveys learning and truth.
40 – Arguments are not won by those who shout the loudest and say the most. Focus on quality over quantity.
41 – God resides within. Find your true purpose and follow it – dwell not on accoutrements to the soul.
46 – Thanks for the book, Lucilius.
47 – Benevolent is the man who sups with his slaves and never beats them, except with words.
48 – As friends, we share our burdens. Philosophy should not be concerned with spurious riddles and rhymes – it should lend succor to those in need.
53 – Philosophy is the ship that will take you into deeper, rougher waters, whereupon your fallibilities will be displayed like a seasickness – weather this storm and on the other side you will find the bright skies that bring you closer to the gods.
54 – After life is death – but before life was death as well. A wise man doesn’t fear the tranquillity of death.
55 – A retirement spent idly is wasted – only the philosophical life is fulfilling. Friendship in absentia strengthens the bond.
56 – A wise man finds tranquillity even in the midst of chaos and cacophony. Still, I’m going to get the hell out of this noisy scene soon.*
63 – Grieve not overly long when a loved one dies. Sorry to hear your friend died – now get over it.
65 – In the universe, all is either cause or matter – is it not OK for me to dwell on such lofty matters?
77 – Be not afraid of death – it is but a final act that should be done with dignity.

To Be Continued


*As I read this passage, my son whined and wailed, my daughter played something loudly on the computer, and the TV droned in the background – I was not tranquil.

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