Revisiting Seneca’s “Letters” (2,000 Years Later)

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“Vita sine litteris mors est” — Life without learning is death. The authenticity of Seneca’s words, despite being written almost 2,000 years ago, is easily apparent. Letters From a Stoic (officially Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium) offers insight into living the moral life, free of distraction and temptation but full of meaning.

Seneca focuses on the mind over the soul. The soul, while technically a part of us, is not truly our own. Souls are not for people, but rather, are for the divine. As such, Seneca is more concerned with our minds and our ability to think rationally.

Wisdom, the product of focusing our efforts on perfecting the mind, is about living in accordance with nature. Nature intends for us to live simply, devoid of temptations, desires, and hedonism. Wisdom permits the individual to transcend the trappings of daily life and the many obstacles in our way, including death.

Seneca notes that many of our fears are without merit. Death, for instance, is a natural part of life’s cycle. Why fear the natural?

Another fear experienced by many is the fear of poverty. Seneca offers a rather unique solution to this fear: voluntarily (and temporarily) become poor. Wear simple clothes and eat rotten food for a few days every so often. We not only become aware that there is nothing to fear in such a lifestyle, but we are also able to appreciate our own fortunes when we return back to our normal lives.

A sound mind can thwart ever-present vices. Ancient Rome was a place of many vices. But while alcohol, games, sex, and other distractions tempt us in our surroundings, Seneca reminds us that we are always in control. A sound mind can feel at ease anywhere.

Seneca also recommends that we confront our fears.

Life is full of disappointments, bad luck, and loss. Soldiers train not during times of war, but during times of peace. We must too prepare for hardship, so that when we are faced with strife, we too are prepared — like the soldier.

Friendships are important to Seneca, and much of the Letters deal with whom we should trust.

In an Aristotelian sense, Seneca warns of the two extremes of friendships — divulging personal information to any casual acquaintance that we run into, or being so secretive and protective of our personal life that we keep the most basic elements of our life a secret.

Seneca recommends only letting those that we trust into our lives. But once we trust them, we must truly let them in. It is better to have a few deep friendships than many shallow ones.

“After friendship is formed you must trust, but before that you must judge,” Seneca notes.

Seneca finishes with the story of Pacuvius, the governor of Roman-occupied Syria. Pacuvius lived each day as if he were expecting to die. Every night, he would hold an elaborate party celebrating his life. Servants would carry him to bed, chanting “he has lived” in Greek.

While Seneca does not endorse this specific practice, he does admire that we are capable of changing our attitude towards death.

Like Pacuvius, we can treat each day as a special blessing.

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