Thoughts on Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic

Image result for letters from a stoic senecaPenguin Classics has produced a collection of the selected letters of the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca. I was first introduced to Seneca in an introductory Latin course last year. My textbook included a highly dumbed-down version of a passage from Letter XII (known as De Senectute or On Old Age). In the letter, Seneca compares himself to his now dilapidated villa. His servant tells him that his house  is in need of repairs, but Seneca remembers when his villa was first built. How could he be so old? He can no longer recognize his childhood friend. The passage from Letter XII inspired me to read Seneca’s other letters.

Letters from a Stoic includes meditations on the body, death, liberal arts education, and slavery. A tutor to Nero, Seneca was a celebrated but controversial philosopher. In 65 C.E., Nero accused him of treason. Seneca was compelled to commit suicide. Seneca’s letters bear witness to the philosopher’s turbulent life. In more than one letter, he admits to having contemplated suicide. Obsession with suicide seems also to have been quite commonplace in Stoicism. The Stoics viewed the body as a prison of the soul. Consequently, the death of the body was the ultimate liberation. Seneca does not think his students should sorrow over death. Fate determines everything. The wise Stoic is indifferent to fame, riches, suffering, and even torture. Still, the Stoic is allowed to enjoy life:

And this is what we mean when we say the wise man is self-content; he is so in the sense that he is able to do without friends, not that he desires to do without them (Letter IX).

Not all of Seneca’s letters, however, deal with such unpleasant subjects. While he never pushes for the abolition of slavery, he condemns the mistreatment of slaves. Slaves are human too, so they should be allowed to eat with their masters. In general, people should make friends for self-less reasons to avoid becoming dependent on others and because there is freedom in living virtuously.

Seneca encourages his students to celebrate Truth wherever it may be found and to forge their own paths in life. In multiple letters, He positively cites his opponent Epicurus. The thought is always more important than the thinker. Seneca disapproves of cults of personality.

Ultimately, life is a play. No matter how long a person lives, he/she will eventually die. Viewed from eternity, all life is short, so live well:

Someone, though will say, ‘But I want to live because of all the worthy activities I’m engaged in. I’m performing life’s duties conscientiously and energetically and I’m reluctant to leave them undone.’ Come now, surly you know that dying is also one of life’s duties? You’re leaving no duty undone, for there’s no fixed number of duties laid down which you’re supposed to complete. Every life without exception is a short one. Looked at in relation to the universe even the lives of Nestor and Sattia were short. In Sattia, who ordered that her epitaph should record that she had lived to the age of ninety-nine, you have an example of someone actually boasting of a prolonged old age – had it so happened that she had lasted the hundredth year everybody, surely, would have found her quite insufferable! As it is with a play, so it is with life – what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will – only make sure you round it off with a good ending (Letter LXXVII).

This last quote reminds me of the following passage from Erasmus’ Praise of Folly: 

Now what else is the whole life of mortals, but a sort of comedy in which the various actors, disguised by various costumes and masks, walk on and play each ones part until the manager walks them off the stage?

Indeed, Erasmus and other Renaissance humanists were highly inspired by Seneca’s teachings.

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