Summarizing Seneca’s Letters from A Stoic
"... an artist derives more pleasure from painting than from having completed a picture." - Seneca
I’ve been meaning, for the longest time, to write about Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic. This is one of the wisest and most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. I want to briefly touch upon the maxims and the philosophical meditations that Seneca puts across.
A great read if you want to get started with philosophy as well. Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were the first two books I read when I started reading philosophy for the first time.
Lesson 1 - Becoming an Ideal Self
Seneca examines this notion of “becoming an ideal self” in a deeply philosophical and rational manner.
He says that we are all too afraid of who we want to become- even though it’s something that we desire and aim for and one of the ways we play out this fear is by repeating empty descriptions of what an ideal self looks like.
We’re trapped by the appearance of an ideal self and how it’s supposed to look to us and to the world that we never really begin acting on that impulse, that desire to be better.
Only by action, and not thinking, can we bridge that gap between who we are and who we want to be.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” - Marcus Aurelius
Lesson 2 - Cease to Hope What Seneca captures so well is the lesson of being present at the moment and estimating reality based on what it is right now and not what was, just a minute ago or what is going to be tomorrow.
It is very obvious that we are more influenced and affected by our estimation of time based on a past self and a future self and we’re never truly confronting what is our present self.
This can have an effect on so many aspects of one’s life. But focusing on right now gives way to more freedom.
Seneca writes that whatever can happen, happens in the present moment of our performing the action, denying ourselves the expectation to live stops us from fearing life’s uncertainty itself.
“Fear keeps pace with hope to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.” - Seneca
This is also synonymous with a quote by Alfred Adler:
“We are not determined by our experiences, but are self-determined by the meaning we give to them; and when we take particular experiences as the basis for our future life, we are almost certain to be misguided to some degree. Meanings are not determined by situations. We determine ourselves by the meanings we ascribe to situations.” - Seneca
Lesson 3 - Never Be Disobedient to the Spirit For Seneca the spirit is the soul, it holds more value than the matter that you own and that you project unto others as a way of reconciling with yourself. The spirit is the only aspect of your life that needs to be taken care of and never abandoned.
“Cling, therefore, to the sound and wholesome plan of life: indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health. It needs to be treated somewhat strictly to prevent it from being disobedient to the spirit.” - Seneca
So where does this lead to? What progress does a life of self-discipline make? According to Seneca, this leads you to begin to be your own friend. Seneca’s writing urges you to retire into your own self as much as you can.
“Life, in general, has no meaning… Whatever meaning life has must be assigned to it by the individual.” - Alfred Adler
I don’t think we can completely rid ourselves of the uncertainties and anxieties of life and living, in that I think they do serve a purpose when weighed against the realities of human life, but what Seneca does so brilliantly is doesn’t ignore the limitations of this anxiety and how crippled it can make us feel and despite that to understand philosophy and self-discipline as a way of coping with that reality, rather than be afraid of it.
Lesson 4 - Accepting the (Hidden) Role of Anxiety
According to Seneca, our anxieties are telling us something and because we’re so afraid of feeling anxious, we look for ways to mute that anxiety without even confronting what it’s trying to tell us. It’s our flight or fight response that kicks in when we feel uncomfortable feelings.
Seneca regards this as being the opposite of mindfulness. When we’re so frightened of our anxiety. To the point where it numbs us.
“So long as you carry the sources of your troubles about with you, those troubles will continue to harass and plague you wherever you wander on land or on sea. 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.” - Seneca
Lesson 5 - Meditating Death
There are two very beautiful passages from the book that contemplates death as a part of living.
“What is death? Either a transition or an end. I am not afraid of coming to an end, this being the same as never having begun, nor of transition, for I shall never be in confinement quite so cramped anywhere else as I am here.” - Seneca
“We, too, are lit and put out. We suffer somewhat in the intervening period, but at either end of it there is a deep tranquillity. For, unless I am mistaken, we are born, my dear Lucilius, in holding that death follows after, when in fact it precedes as well as succeeds. 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?” - Seneca
On the topic of death, if this is something that interests you and you want to know more about our denial and recognition of death, I highly recommend Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.
In it, Becker explains the ways in which we fail, and how we refuse to acknowledge our mortality. It’s a great read that is both philosophical and psychological.
Lesson 6 - Change as the Only Certainty
Seneca continually insists on accepting change as a part of who you are. “A change of character, not a change of air, is what you need.”
The lesson here is to never associate with things that are stagnant and unchanging. This can apply to emotions, thoughts, experiences, and the way we perceive people and things and life.
The law of life, according to Seneca, is of the opposites, and how we react to this flow of life is what’s most important and reveals to us the true meaning of life, that is if you’re still seeking some meaning to cling to.
“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.” - Seneca
This can feel existential in a lot of ways. Creating our own meaning from our actions.
“When we discern the unreality of everything, we ourselves become unreal, we begin to survive ourselves.” - E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born
Lesson 7 - Everything Hangs on One’s Thinking
Another point that Seneca makes is that much of what we feel and think is based on what others feel and think. Even in our experience of pain and discomfort, we are conditioned to react in the way we are taught or shown to react.
“Besides, there is a pleasure in having succeeded in enduring something the actual enduring of which was very far from pleasant; when some trouble or other comes to an end the natural thing is to be glad. There are two things, then, the recollecting of trouble in the past as well as the fear of troubles to come, that I have to root out: the first is no longer of any concern to me and the second has yet to be so.” - Seneca
This book feels like a conversation you would like to have with yourself. And that’s the point of even opening and reading a book like this, it is to have a more philosophical perspective on life and your own solitude and to see, without judgment, what comes up.
I also highly recommend Meditations by Marcus Aurelius for philosophical introspection and guidance.
I also recently finished reading On Becoming A Person by Carl Rogers, another very insightful and thought-provoking read on mental health, the process of therapy, and contemplation.
“This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life. Yet the deeply exciting thing about human beings is that when the individual is inwardly free, he chooses as the good life this process of becoming.” - Carl Rogers