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Stoicism: Letters from a Stoic and the Wisdom of Seneca

The following is a transcript of this video.

The philosopher and Roman Statesman Lucius Seneca was sentenced to death by two successive emperors – Caligula in 37 AD and Claudius in 41 AD. Managing to evade both death-sentences, he then spent 8 years in exile on the island of Corsica as a result of an alleged affair with the Emperor Caligula’s sister.

But Seneca’s life of intrigue was not over as in 65 AD he was involved in a failed plot against the emperor Nero, which some say would have made him emperor. Following the failed coup Seneca was forced to commit suicide; severing his arteries in a hot steam bath.

Despite his politically tumultuous life and frequent ill-health, Seneca managed to distinguish himself as a
prominent Stoic philosopher. Today he is most famous for his work Letters from a Stoic, consisting of a series of letters addressed to a younger aspiring Stoic.

In this video we’ll summarize some of the key ideas from Seneca’s classic work.

Central to the Stoic school of thought is the idea of living “in accordance with nature.” This involves using reason to discern the principles operative in the natural world, and to conform our thoughts, emotions, and actions with these existential “givens” or “natural laws”.

For a Stoic the acceptance of fate is the foundational pillar of living in accordance with nature. This requires we recognize that while we have some power to influence the course of our life, ultimately our destiny is outside of our control:

“Nothing is durable, whether for an individual or for a society; the destinies of men and cities alike sweep onwards. Terror strikes amid the most tranquil surroundings, and without any disturbance in the background to give rise to them calamities spring from the least expected quarter.” (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

Most people rage against fate when it interrupts their life with harsh adversity. Seneca believed this response to be futile. Fate imposes the same constraints on “the lowest and the highest alike”, it “wields the same authority over all”. Every individual must endure suffering, illness, the loss of loved ones, and deal with knowledge of their impending death.

The sensible response to this fact is to accept our lot in life, make peace with fate, and courageously face whatever it brings our way:

“For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.” (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

Most people do not believe they are capable of courageously accepting whatever fate throws their way, but instead cower from suffering, illness, loss, and death.

Seneca, however, believed that we are more than capable of enduring any adversity: we merely need to look within to find the strength and inner resources required, and pay no attention to the often worthless opinions of the majority:

“But you needn’t believe the chatter of the people around you: there’s nothing in all this that’s evil, insupportable or even hard. Those people are afraid of these things by a kind of general consent…My friend Demetrius has a nice way of putting things when he says…that to him the utterances of the unenlightened are as noises emanating from the belly. ‘What difference does it make to me,’ he asks, ‘whether their rumblings come from their upper or their nether regions?’” (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

Many people are troubled as a result of paying too much attention to the rumblings of the unenlightened majority, allowing the opinions of the masses to influence their way of life. Such people usually spend immense amounts of time fine-tuning their appearances, striving primarily to look good in the eyes of others.

But as Seneca pointed out, appearances are often deceiving, and quite frequently used as a facade to hide a self that is afflicted with weakness, fear, and self-doubt.

We should therefore not judge others based on their social position, looks, or what they own, but on their inner character:

“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.” (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

Seneca didn’t think there was anything intrinsically wrong with striving after social status, wealth, or even the admiration of others; such things can bring joy and excitement to life.

But a problem arises when we become dependent on them for our well-being. All these things are external to us, and therefore ultimately out of our control – forever in danger of being taken away through no fault of our own:

“For no one is worthy of a god unless he has paid no heed to riches. I am not, mind you, against your possessing them, but I want to ensure that you possess them without tremors; and this you will only achieve in one way, by convincing yourself that you can live a happy life even without them, and by always regarding them as being on the point of vanishing.” (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

Instead of obsessing over status, possessions, and the admiration of others, we should strive for the Stoic ideal of self-sufficiency. This entails cultivating an inner fortress not dependent on anything outside of us – but equally happy amidst riches, comfort, and friendship, as among poverty, adversity, and solitude.

Seneca wrote of Stilbo, a man whose home town was captured and destroyed, his children and wife lost, who was questioned whether he had lacked anything, and replied: I have all my valuables with me.’, ’I have lost nothing’. As Seneca explained:

“‘All my possessions,’ he said, ‘are with me’, meaning by this the qualities of a just, a good and an enlightened character, and indeed the very fact of not regarding as valuable anything that is capable of being taken away….Those words of Stilbo’s are equally those of the Stoic. He too carries his valuables intact through cities burnt to ashes, for he is contented with himself. This is the line he draws as the boundary for his happiness.” (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

Most fall far short of the Stoic ideal of self-sufficiency. Rather, submerged in anxiety, fear, and insecurity, they seek to rid themselves of their inner discontent in a myriad of ineffective ways.

One such tactic is to try run away from our troubles by moving to another part of the world. Seneca warned against this tactic, writing “whatever your destination you will be followed by your failings.” Or as he put it in another passage:

“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.” (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

Instead of trying to run away from our problems, Seneca advised we overcome our fears and insecurities by studying the wisdom of individuals who have achieved a self-sufficient and enlightened character.

“But travel won’t make a better or saner man of you. For this we must spend time in study and in the writings of wise men, to learn the truths that have emerged from their researches, and carry on the search ourselves for the answers that have not yet been discovered. This is the way to liberate the spirit that still needs to be rescued from its miserable state of slavery.” (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

To muster the motivation to learn the truths found by others, and to search for answers still undiscovered, Seneca suggested we meditate on the uncertainty of our impending death:

“Just where death is expecting you is something we cannot know; so, for your part, expect him everywhere.” (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

Expecting death everywhere can act as a stimulant to life. With the realization that each moment could be our last, we’ll stop wasting our energy on trivial things, and instead focus on what is truly valuable: liberating our spirit from its state of self-imposed slavery, and cultivating a self-sufficient character that is fortified against the blows of fate.

“Of this one thing make sure against your dying day – that your faults die before you do.” (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

Further Readings