Seneca

Letters from a Stoic

“Whatever your destination you will be followed by your failings.”

“Whatever your destination you will be followed by your failings” wrote Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) in a letter urging us to lay aside our spirit of self in order to feel renewed. Otherwise, “You are running away in your own company.”

It is advice he never heeded. Born in Cordoba the same time as Christ, Seneca rose to power during Emperor Caligula’s rule and despite execution sentences and banishments, played advisor to several Roman emperors.

But Seneca never seemed to relinquish the trappings of power and wealth and as a result, although he is certainly one of the most famous stoics, he was quite possibly the worst example of stoicism.

Pseudo-Seneca, featured in Seneca's "Letters of a Stoic" in The Examined Life Library.
A bust done ‘in the style’ of Seneca. This concept, known as “Pseudo-Seneca” are a series of sculptures and manuscripts that were influenced by the philosopher without actually being of or by him. A metaphor for Seneca’s existence. Photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011), CC BY 2.5.

His writing comes to us in Letters from a Stoic, a collection of letters and essays that demonstrate deep complexity.

For example, Seneca extols the virtues of “going into one self” to phrase Rilke, and yet recommends a voracious reading of other “geniuses” in order to bolster one’s own mind:

Restlessness of that sort is symptomatic of a sick mind. Nothing, to my way of thinking, is 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… You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere.1

Solitude is ideal, however Seneca also urges to surround oneself with the the kind of people that bring a fullness of being and banish the void.2

Thank you for writing so often. By doing so you give me a glimpse of yourself in the only way you can. I never get a letter from you without instantly feeling we’re together. If pictures of absent friends are a source of pleasure to us, refreshing the memory and relieving the sense of void with a solace however insubstantial and unreal, how much more so are letters which carry marks and signs of the absent friend that are real. For the handwriting of a friend affords us what is so delightful about seeing him again, the sense of recognition.3

On the other hand, too many individuals dilutes our morality. Seneca urges avoidance of the masses.

You ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd. It is something to which you cannot entrust yourself yet without risk. I am ready to confess my own frailty in this respect. I never come back home with quite the same moral character I went out with; something or other becomes unsettled where I had achieved internal peace, some one or other of the things I had put to flight reappears on the scene.

[…]

Associating with people in large numbers is actually harmful: there is not one of them that will not make some vice or other attractive to us, or leave us carrying the imprint of it or bedaubed all unawares with it.

Seneca was well known for his complexity (some might say hypocrisy), practicing and preaching a stoic life and yet, living a life of grand material wealth and prosperity.

Yet he extols pleasure from the simplest of things, like ridding oneself of busyness and ambition.

You rush hither and thither with the idea of dislodging a firmly seated weight when the very dashing about just adds to the trouble it causes you. […] Once you have rid yourself of the affliction there, though, every change of scene will become a pleasure. You may have banished to the ends of the earth, and yet in whatever outlandish corner of the world you may find yourself stationed, you will find that place, whatever it may be ink, a hospitable home.

Seneca’s life and works summons thought of another philosopher, Simone Weil, who, like the Roman, suffered chronic ill health. Weil lived in the early 20th century and died at age thirty-four. Unlike Seneca, she insisted on living within the bounds of her beliefs, which were radically leftist, and ultimately died as she forced herself to follow the diet of the French prisoners of war and refused to treat her tuberculous.4

Ultimately, Seneca’s reluctance to follow his stoic principles cost him his life. He was executed (ordered to commit suicide) when the Emperor feared his power had grown too great. Seneca did little to extinguish that fear.

Manuel Dominguez Sanchez "El Suicidio de Seneca" in Seneca's "Letters from a Stoic" in the Examined Life Library.
“El Suicidio de Seneca,” 1871 by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez. Learn more. El Museo del Prado, Spain.

Contradictions notwithstanding, Seneca’s stoic beliefs – that we should live in accordance with nature, that reason and rationality should be our guides and (contradictory to Epicureanism) that the body is subsumed by matters of the soul and mind, and that all men are brothers – are extremely important today.

And yet, when reading Seneca and contemplating his contradictions I am reminded of this passage in Okakura Kakuzo’s wisdom when reflecting on voices from the past:

The old masters are rightly to be honoured for opening the path to future enlightenment. The mere fact that they have passed unscathed through centuries of criticism and come down to us still covered with glory commands our respect. But we should be foolish indeed if we valued their achievement simply on the score of age.

From Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea

Enjoy this entertaining, aphoristic collection of letters from this very interesting character alongside the writings of stoic philosopher (and Emperor) Marcus Aurelius who lived 200 years before Seneca but did not turn to stoicism until the end of his life and thus, offers a more consistent portrait.