Notes and Review: Letters from a Stoic (Seneca) (Campbell translation)

I found out about this book after Sreejith wrote a note about it. I knew vaguely about Seneca as being a philosopher of some kind, but I had not considered reading any of his work before seeing this note. Now, I have read the book and it is at the top of the list of books that I strongly recommend to everyone. In this post, I have put together some of the most insightful things that I think Seneca talks about in this book. This book is a perennial guide to living the life of a “wise person”: happy, contented, and prepared for whatever fortune might throw their way.

This book was written in the first century, some 2000 years ago. Going into the book, I expected to find some references to things that were simply outdated and ancient. But this was not the case at all: The maladies that Seneca says affect society have remained unchanged through a variety of events that we believe have changed the world, but which have only changed the presentation of those maladies, without getting rid of them or even altering the underlying anxieties that people tend to feel in society (envy, fear, contempt, etc).

This is a book of letters that Seneca rights to his friend and student Lucilius. In these letters, Seneca gives Lucilius direct advice about how to behave and how to lead a life that is contented and free of the anxieties that Lucilius or the people around him have probably been facing. There is a tinge of mystery as we get to see only one side of the communication between these two men, leading to the reader having to fill in the blank about what it was that Lucilius asked Seneca for counsel on. This mystery did not hamper my ability to learn from this book, and identify the “rules” that I can apply to my own life.

Seneca’s writing (and Campbell’s translation) is fresh and lucid. It is not the stuffy, intellectual writing of a philosopher who is trying to find arguments and connect dots that don’t deserve or need to be connected to gain something new. This is addressed in one of the letters where Seneca says how philosophy has been reduced to philology, the study of words and how modern philosophers (modern when the letters were written, i.e. 1-100 AD) were splitting hairs about what a word means or how a syllogism is inaccurate etc. This meta-theme, “what should philosophy do for the reader”, can be found in several letters throughout the book and it was one of the important things that I learned from this book.

Bonus: He has a really good sense of humor.

‘Mouse is a syllable, and a mouse nibbles cheese; therefore, a syllable nibbles cheese.’ Suppose for the moment I can’t detect the fallacy in that. What danger am I placed in by such lack of insight? What serious consequences are there in it for me? What I have to fear, no doubt, is the possibility, one of these days, of my catching a syllable in a mousetrap or even having my cheese eaten up by a book if I’m not careful. Unless perhaps the following train of logic is a more acute one: ‘Mouse is a syllable, and a syllable does not nibble cheese; therefore, a mouse does not nibble cheese.’ What childish fatuities these are! Is this what we philosophers acquire wrinkles in our brows for? Is this what we let our beards grow long for? Is this what we teach with faces grave and pale?

– Letter XLVIII (48)

This is the kind of joke I would not be surprised to find in a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up comedy act.

Recurring themes

There are 3 themes that recur through the book and are approached from various angles and when dealing with problems faced by various people.

Steel yourselves against misfortune

As a member of the Stoic school of philosophy, Seneca is obsessed with how the “wise man” would react to misfortune, be it in the form of persecution, natural disasters, war, the death of a loved one or even his own death.

His advice is deceptively simple: Prepare to lose everything you have to the whims of fortune and yet, continue to live a good life despite the loss.

I know about the popularization of this principle (“prepare for the worst, hope for the best”), but the missing piece in the popularization is the reason one should prepare for the worst. Why should you prepare for the worst, when the worst is highly unlikely? Why should you hope for the best, when that is equally unlikely? Wouldn’t the wise man prepare and hope for the usual? If one were to do that, given the utter randomness of everything, they would be well-prepared for most things and ill-prepared for the small minority.

Seneca explains the reason eloquently:

For what is there that fortune does not when she pleases fell at the height of its powers? What is there that is not the more assailed and buffeted by her the more lustrous its attraction? What is there that is troublesome or difficult for her?

– Letter XCI (91)

One can know very little about what will happen and to assume that the usual turn of events will continue for a long period of time is incorrect. In fact, the usual turn of events will only continue for a limited period of time and the worst thing that you can think of will always end up happening.

So, one’s goal should always be to remain unaffected in the face of the things that happen to them (good or bad) and the only way to remain unaffected by anything that happens to you is to foresee the worst possible scenario. The change in my thinking was about this goal. My previous conception framed the goal of “preparing for the worst” in the next part of the adage, “hope for the best”: I am hoping for the best because my goal is to get through whatever happens unscathed, not to remain unaffected irrespective of what happens. Once again, I hand the mic over to Seneca who explains what our attitude should be: (emphasis added)

This is why we need to envisage every possibility and to strengthen the spirit to deal with the things that may conceivably come about. Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. Misfortune may snatch you away from your country, or your country away from you, may banish you into some wilderness - these very surroundings in which the masses suffocate may become a wilderness. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes; we should be anticipating not merely all that commonly happens but all the that is conceivably capable of happening, if we do not want to be overwhelmed and struck numb by rare events as if they were unprecedented ones; fortune needs envisaging in a thoroughly comprehensive way.

– Letter XCI (91)

This might sound pessimistic to some readers. It felt like the pragmatic course of action to me.

Study philosophy to build a better character, not a better intellect

This is a meta thread of reasoning that runs through the book. (As this is a book with philosophical arguments, the philosophical argument for what the purpose of philosophical arguments are can be considered to be “meta”). Seneca is convinced that the purpose of philosophy is to reform people’s characters and make them better people and that it is not to improve the reader’s intellect or make them look well-read or intelligent to their friends through syllogisms, clever turns of phrase or “the other toys of sterile intellectual cleverness” (Letter CVIII).

The purpose of the philosopher’s audience is to “rid oneself of his faults and acquire a rule of life by which to test his character” (paraphrase from Letter CVIII).

This was an enlightening concept to me: I have dabbled in the study of philosophy. I have read articles about the core tenets of Nietzsche, Sartre, and Socrates. Admittedly, I did that because I wanted to give the appearance of knowing about the different schools of philosophy. I was not looking for something in their arguments that would help me become a better person. I wanted to get the general lay of the land without any deep idea about specific characteristics of the landscape. The closest I came to that “active” part of philosophy was watching the TV Show “The Good Place” and hearing the makers talk about it on a podcast. This was an incorrect approach to the study of philosophy. Indeed, I should have read Sartre because I wanted to understand his existential argument and think about how it could help me become a better person or update my reasons about what I should and should not do.

On this point, the letters give the reader hope.

It is easy enough to arouse in a listener a desire for what is Honorable; for in every one of us nature has laid the foundations or sown the seeds of the virtues. We are born to them all, all of us, and when a person comes along with the necessary stimulus, then those qualities of the personality are awakened, so to speak, from their slumber. Haven’t you noticed how the theater murmurs agreement whenever something is spoken the truth of which we generally recognize and unanimously confirm?

– Letter CVIII (108)

I believe that a person has come along with the necessary stimulus for me.

Side note: Philosophy gets a bad rap, it’s students and practitioners should elevate it’s name through their wholehearted embrace of it for the right reason: gaining the wisdom required to lead a life that is “better than the mob”.

Avoid shabby attire, long hair, an unkempt beard, an outspoken dislike of silverware, sleeping on the ground and all other misguided means to self-advertisement. The very name of philosophy, however modest the manner in which it is pursued, is unpopular enough as it is: imagine what the reaction would be if we started dissociating ourselves from the conventions of society.

– Letter V (5)

Don’t expect a change in surroundings to fix you

What good does it do you to go overseas, to move from city to city? If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.

– Letter CIV (104)

There is a lot to be said about the merits of travel and going to a new place. It makes you worldly; it puts you in a surrounding that you haven’t been before, reducing you to a child, lost and alone; it lets you see new mountains, landscapes and rivers.

But don’t expect the change in surroundings to change you, even if you don’t put in any effort yourself. I don’t know if a lot of people travel to get rid of anxiety in the present day. I have thought about doing this before: When I felt stressed out or suffocated in college, I would go to Kolkata for a weekend. If I was tightly wound for some reason, then the trip helped me loosen up but it didn’t help me get rid of the underlying cause of the stress or the suffocation. I was not surprised by the lack of efficacy; but I was also unable to articulate the reason.

The rule on this particular theme is hard to pinpoint and I think it changes depending on who you are and how much experience you have had. I am looking forward to thinking about what the rule is for me and how I can apply it in my life.

Not completely convinced

I am not completely convinced about one point that he brings up in one of his letters. He says that the recounting of past sufferings and one’s victory over them is a pointless exercise and serves only to be detrimental to one’s conception of the past, that suffering and one’s spirit.

What’s the good of dragging up sufferings which are over, of being unhappy now just because you were then? What is more, doesn’t everyone add a good deal to his tale of hardships and deceive himself as well in the matter? Besides, there is a pleasure in having succeeded in enduring, something the actual enduring of which was very far from pleasant; when some trouble or other comes to an end the natural thing is to be glad. There are two things, then, the recollecting of trouble in the past as well as the fear of troubles to come, that I have to root out: the first is no longer of any concern to me and the second has yet to be so.

– Letter LXXVIII (78)

I don’t strongly advocate for thinking or recounting past sufferings. But this particular point seems to be at loggerheads with something that Seneca advocates for: self-analysis to improve one’s character.

I shall put myself under observation straight away and undertake a review of my day – a course which is of the utmost benefit. What really ruins our characters is the fact that none of us looks back over his life. We think about what we are going to do, and only rarely of that, and fail to think about what we have done, yet any plans for the future are dependent on the past.

– Letter LXXXIII (83)

I will re-read Seneca’s arguments in these two letters and think some more about what he is talking about. I suspect that, in the end, I will agree with him (he was wise, after-all), I am not convinced at the current juncture about it though.

P.S. I have used Roman numerals here because Seneca himself lived under the Roman empire and uses these numerals are used throughout the book. I have put the decimal representation of the numbers in parentheses because I found those easier to write and refer to when talking about the letters in my notes.