Letters from a Stoic

This is one of my desert island books. It’s hard to feel down about your circumstances when you read Seneca, and Campbell’s translation is clear and concise. These are selections from a larger body, but they are the best ones.

I’ve been reading Seneca and Stoic philosophy since it became all the rage with the cools kids after Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way, sometime back in 2014-2015. To be fair, I’d read Marcus Aurelius many times over the years, but I hadn’t had exposure to some of the other Stoics until Holiday’s book inspired me to reach out further.

Of all the Stoics Seneca feels the most real. The advice is tangible, and rarely does he go off into Aristotlean pedantic philosophical ramblings (though occassionally as the letters get longer, Seneca violates even his own advice and starts to nitpick with words). Seneca doesn’t feel 2000 years ago the way that Epictetus feels. Robin Campbell’s translation may help, but Seneca’s writing feels very “now” in a way that’s hard to describe for a Roman writer.

The letters themselves are have a structure, and though it changes over time, it follows a pattern, almost like television. Like episodes of Friends, I found myself referring to them as “The one about friendship”, or “The one about dying”. Thats a lot easier to remember that “Letter XXXVII”.

Following are brief personal notes on each. This will be updated periodically.


Letter II - The one about reading deeply

Extend your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, rather than flitting about from author to author.

To be everywhere is to be nowhere.

Pick out one thought, digest it thoroughly, throughout your day.

It’s not the man who has too little, but too much who is poor. First, have what is essential, then have what is enough.

Letter III - The one about friendship

Trusting everyone is as bad as trusting no one.

Think hard and judge whether to allow someone into your friendship, but once you do speak as freely with them as if you were alone.

Balance between activity and repose. There is night and day for a reason.

Letter V - The one about attention grabbing

Don’t strive to gain attention, strive for improvement.

Inwardly everything may be different, but in outward appearance don’t try to stand out from the crowd.

Doing without gold and silver isn’t a sign that you’re living the good life anymore than having gold and silver is a sign.

Live simply, but not in penance.

Finding wealth intolerable is the sign of an unstable mind.

Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.

Hindsight and forethought are both a blessing and a curse. Tame them and adapt yourself to the present.

Letter VI - The one about learning together

Part of the love of learning comes from the joy of teaching.

Knowledge should be shared.

There is no way to enjoy something valuable without someone to share it with.

In the meantime, at least be your own friend.

Letter VII - The one about crowds

The larger the crowd, the worse it is.

(On the public executions) Some may desire punishment, but what have you done to deserve to watch it.

Should you hate or imitate the world? Neither. Shun both courses.

Associate with those who may improve you, welcome those that you might improve.

A few is enough, and so is one, and so is none.

Letter VIII - The one about fortune

Avoid whatever is approved by the mob or things that are the gift of chance. They are snares.

Indulge the body just so far as it suffices for good health.

Thatch makes just as good a roof as gold.

What fortune has made yours is not your own.