Letters From a Stoic

By

Seneca

My Thoughts

It's hard to believe this was written 2000 years ago as it speaks to just about everything we deal with today.

Highlights & Summary Notes

Key takeaways

  • Pursue experience, knowledge and good judgement
  • Be content with yourself
  • Stick to what is essential, avoid luxury
  • Don’t allow the thought of death to affect you
  • Rest is important, know when to take breaks
  • Be self aware—you can’t improve yourself, if you can’t see your faults
  • Happiness is a choice
  • Embrace nature
  • Don’t value others by their social position, clothing and possessions
  • Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Vices are contagious

Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.

You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.

Trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one (though I should call the first the worthier and the second the safer behaviour).

I view with pleasure and approval the way you keep on at your studies and sacrifice everything to your single-minded efforts to make yourself every day a better man.

Refrain from following the example of those whose craving is for attention, not their own improvement, by doing certain things which are calculated to give rise to comment on your appearance or way of living generally.

Anyone entering our homes should admire us rather than our furnishings.

Limiting one’s desires actually helps to cure one of fear. ‘Cease to hope,’ he says, ‘and you will cease to fear.’

If wisdom were offered me on the one condition that I should keep it shut away and not divulge it to anyone, I should reject it.

Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.

Your food should appease your hunger, your drink quench your thirst, your clothing keep out the cold, your house be a protection against inclement weather. It makes no difference whether it is built of turf or of variegated marble imported from another country: what you have to understand is that thatch makes a person just as good a roof as gold does.

If you wish to be loved, love.

A person adopted as a friend for the sake of his usefulness will be cultivated only for so long as he is useful.

‘The wise man is content with himself.’

‘Any man,’ he says, ‘who does not think that what he has is more than ample, is an unhappy man, even if he is the master of the whole world.’

Not happy he who thinks himself not so.

What difference does it make, after all, what your position in life is if you dislike it yourself?

Death ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one – the order in which we each receive our summons is not determined by our precedence in the register

Every day, therefore, should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives.

I’m not telling you to be always bent over book or writing-tablets. The mind has to be given some time off, but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed till it goes to pieces.

Continually remind yourself of the many things you have achieved. When you look at all the people out in front of you, think of all the ones behind you. If you want to feel appreciative where the gods and your life are concerned, just think how many people you’ve outdone. Why be concerned about others, come to that, when you’ve outdone your own self?

Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, coarse clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what one used to dread?’ It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.

The outcome of violent anger is a mental raving, and therefore anger is to be avoided not for the sake of moderation but for the sake of sanity.

A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.

There’s a lot of work remaining to be done, and if you want to be successful you must devote all your waking hours and all your efforts to the task personally.

And if you want to know why all this running away cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company.

A person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right. You have to catch yourself doing it before you can reform.

Bold in attack, as nature meant him to be, in all his unkempt beauty, a beast whose glory it is that none can look on him without fear, he stands higher in people’s eyes than the other, docile, gold-leaf coated creature.

No one should feel pride in anything that is not his own.

Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly a man’s. You ask what that is? It is his spirit, and the perfection of his reason in that spirit.

Man’s ideal state is realised when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born.

Treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors.

I propose to value them according to their character, not their jobs.

A man who examines the saddle and bridle and not the animal itself when he is out to buy a horse is a fool; similarly, only an absolute fool values a man according to his clothes, or according to his social position, which after all is only something that we wear like clothing.

To be really respected is to be loved; and love and fear will not mix.

Friendship creates a community of interest between us in everything.

We have neither successes nor setbacks as individuals; our lives have a common end. No one can lead a happy life if he thinks only of himself and turns everything to his own purposes. You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself.

Death is just not being.

Death is all that was before us. What does it matter, after all, whether you cease to be or never begin, when the result of either is that you do not exist?

So let us bear it constantly in mind that those we are fond of are just as liable to death as we are ourselves.

There’s no difference between the one and the other – you didn’t exist and you won’t exist – you’ve no concern with either period.

Every journey has its end.

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.

Refuse to let the thought of death bother you: nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear.

A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.

Nature suffices for all she asks of us. Luxury has turned her back on nature, daily urging herself on and growing through all the centuries, pressing men’s intelligence into the development of the vices.

For nature does not give a man virtue: the process of becoming a good man is an art.

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.

Does it surprise you that running away doesn’t do you any good? The things you’re running away from are with you all the time.

But first we have to reject the life of pleasures; they make us soft and womanish; they are insistent in their demands, and what is more, require us to make insistent demands on fortune. And then we need to look down on wealth, which is the wage of slavery. Gold and silver and everything else that clutters our prosperous homes should be discarded. Freedom cannot be won without sacrifice. If you set a high value on her, everything else must be valued at little.

Now think of the things which goad man into destroying man: you’ll find that they are hope, envy, hatred, fear and contempt.

Envy you’ll escape if you haven’t obtruded yourself on other people’s notice, if you haven’t flaunted your possessions, if you’ve learnt to keep your satisfaction to yourself.

One has to accept life on the same terms as the public baths, or crowds, or travel. Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you. Life’s no soft affair. It’s a long road you’ve started on: you can’t but expect to have slips and knocks and falls, and get tired, and openly wish – a lie – for death.

The poor lack much, the greedy everything. The greedy man does no one any good, But harms no person more than his own self.

He needs but little who desires but little. He has his wish, whose wish can be To have what is enough.

Let me indicate here how men can prove that their words are their own: let them put their preaching into practice.

Vices are manifold, take countless different forms and are incapable of classification. Devotion to what is right is simple, devotion to what is wrong is complex and admits of infinite variations.

For those who follow nature everything is easy and straightforward, whereas for those who fight against her life is just like rowing against the stream.

It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.

Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are.

One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage. For even if its success is not immediate, it leaves a seed in the mind, and even after we’ve said goodbye to them, the evil follows us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future.

Retreat from the things that attract us and rouse ourselves to meet the things that actually attack us.

You know the difference, Lucilius, between the postures people adopt in climbing up and descending a mountain; those coming down a slope lean back, those moving steeply upwards lean forward, for to tilt one’s weight ahead of one when descending, and backwards when ascending, is to be in league with what one has to contend with.