• Alex Vikner

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca is, as the name suggests, a series of letters that Seneca writes to his friend Lucilius.


In these letters, Seneca shares his version of Stoic philosophy. He discusses a wide range of topics, from forming friendship to accepting death. These are my book notes.


Top Quotes

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

  • Inwardly everything should be different, but our outward face should conform with the crowd.

  • What fortune has made yours is not your own. The boon that could be given can be withdrawn.

  • Not happy he who thinks himself not so.

  • The life of folly is empty of gratitude, full of anxiety: it is focused wholly on the future.

  • Natural desires are limited; those which spring from false opinions have nowhere to stop, for falsity has no point of termination.

  • 'Rehearse death.' To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.

  • It is one thing to remember, another to know.

  • Death is just not being. What that is like I know already. It will be the same after me as I was before me.

  • Look for the best and prepare for the worst.

  • So-called pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments.

  • In the ashes all men are leveled. We're born unequal, we die equal.

  • No one has power over us when death is within our own power.

  • First reject the life of pleasures; they make us soft and require us to make insistent demands on fortune. Then 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.

  • The poor lack much, the greedy everything.

  • He needs but little who desires but little.

  • Nothing is burdensome if taken lightly.


Letters from a Stoic by Seneca - Book Notes
Letters from a Stoic

Note on Stoic Philosophy

In case you are unfamiliar with Stoic philosophy, let me give you a brief introduction.


Stoicism was founded by Zeno (c. 336/5 BC) who lectured in a well-known stoa (a colonnade) in Athens. It was shaped by a succession of thinkers and based on the following framework of belief.


The Stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers, rules by a supreme providence which could be spoken of, almost according to choice or context, under a variety of names or descriptions including the divine reason, creative reason, nature, the spirit of the universe, destiny, a personal god or even 'the gods'.


It is man's duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, brining his life into line with 'nature's laws', and secondly, resigning completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him.


Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true, unshakeable peace and contentment to which ambition, luxury and above all avarice are among the greatest obstacles.


Living in accordance with nature means not only questioning convention and training ourselves to do without all except the necessities but developing the inborn gift of reason which marks us off as different from the animal world.


The summum bonum or 'supreme ideal', is seen as the combination of four qualities:

  1. Wisdom

  2. Courage

  3. Self-control

  4. Justice

It enables man to be 'self-sufficient', immune to suffering, superior to the wounds and upsets of life.


However, early Stoicism didn't resonate well with the masses, simply because it was too strict. The ideal of self-sufficiency made the perfect man a person detached from his fellows, superior to the world he lived in. He seemed unattainable and gradual self-improvement was hardly discussed.


Seneca's version of Stoicism diverges from this traditional framework. He speaks of struggles in the everyday life. In essence, a humanized version of Stoicism.

Letter 2 – Wisdom and wealth

Nothing 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.


To be everywhere is to be nowhere.


A plant which is frequently moved never grows strong


It is not the man who has 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.


Letter 3 – Friendship

After a friendship is formed you must trust, but before that you must judge.


Trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one.


Some men have shrunk so far into dark corners that objects in bright daylight seem quite blurred to them.


Letter 5 – Stoicism and simplicity

Inwardly everything should be different, but our outward face should conform with the crowd.


Philosophy calls for simple living, not for doing penance, and the simple way of life need not be a crude one. The standard which I accept is this: one's life should be a compromise between the ideal and the popular morality. People should admire our way of life but they should at the same time find it understandable.


Anyone entering our homes should admire us rather than our furnishings. It is a great man that can treat his earthenware as if it was silver, and a man who treats his silver as if it were earthenware is no less great. Finding wealth an intolerable burden is the mark of an unstable mind.


Letter 6 – Learning from others

There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.


Personal converse and daily intimacy with someone will be of more benefit to you than any discourse. You should really be here and on the spot, firstly because people believe their eyes rather more than their ears, and secondly because the road is a long one if one proceeds by precepts but short and effectual if by way of personal example.


A person who is his own friend will never be alone.


Letter 7 – Avoid mass crowds

Bad examples have a way of recoiling on those who set them.


When a mind is impressionable and has none too firm a hold on what is right, it must be rescued from the crowd: it is so easy for it to go over to the majority.


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.


When asked what was the object of all the trouble he took over a piece of craftsmanship when it would never reach more than a few people, he replied: "A few is enough for me; so is one; and so is none."


Your merits should not be outward facing.


Letter 8 – Luck

Avoid whatever is approved of by the mob, and things that are the gift of chance.


What fortune has made yours is not your own. The boon that could be given can be withdrawn.


Indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health. It needs to be treated somewhat strictly to prevent it from being disobedient from the spirit.


Letter 9 – Friendship

If you wish to be loved, love.


Anyone thinking of his own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake. Things will end as they began.


The ending inevitably matches the beginning: a person who starts being friends with you because it pays him will similarly cease to be friends with you because it pays him to do so.


To procure friendship only for better and not for worse is to rob it of all its dignity.


The wise man is content with himself. He is self-content and yet he would refuse to live if he had to live without any human company at all.


Not happy he who thinks himself not so.


Letter 11 – Role models

We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.


There is a new in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves.


Letter 12 – Old age

We should cherish old age and enjoy it. Fruit tastes most delicious just when its season is ending.


To live under constraint is a misfortune, but there is no constraint to live under constraint.


Letter 15 – Present moment

The life of folly is empty of gratitude, full of anxiety: it is focused wholly on the future.


Letter 16 – Happiness and philosophy

No one can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom, and that the perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life, although even the beginnings of wisdom make life bearable. Yet this conviction, clear as it is, needs to be strengthened and given deeper roots through daily reflection; making noble resolutions is not as important as keeping the resolutions you have made already. You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good becomes a disposition to good.


Philosophy is not an occupation of a popular nature, nor is it pursued for the sake of self-advertisement. It moulds the personality, orders one's life, regulates one's conduct, shows one what one should do and what one should leave undone, keeps one on the correct path as one is tossed about in perilous seas.


If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people's opinions, you will never be rich. Nature's wants are small, while those of opinion are limitless.


Natural desires are limited; those which spring from false opinions have nowhere to stop, for falsity has no point of termination.


Letter 18 – Simple living

If the soul succeeds in either heading or being carried away in the directions of the temptations that lead people into extravagant living, no surer proof of its strength of purpose can be vouchsafed it.


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 favors on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.


Anger carried to excess begets madness.


Anger is to be avoid not for the sake of moderation but for the sake of sanity.


Letter 26 – Death and freedom

It's only when you're breathing your last that the way you've spent your time will become apparent.


Just where death is expecting you is something we cannot know, so, for your part, expect him everywhere.


'Rehearse death.' To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.


Letter 27 – Good character

A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.


Poverty brought unto accord with the law of nature is wealth.


Something that can never be learned too thoroughly can never be said too often.


Letter 28 – Travel and the good life

Whatever your destination you will be followed by your failings.


How can you wonder your travels do you no good when you carry yourself around with you? You are saddled with the very thing that drove you away. You are running away in your own company.


The good life is available everywhere.


A consciousness of wrongdoing is the fist step to salvation.


Letter 33 – Think for yourself

Don't mislead the customer, so that when he enters the shop he finds nothing in stock apart from the things on display in the window.


It is disgraceful that a grown man should have a wisdom deriving solely from his notebook. Produce something from your own resources. Let's have some difference between you and the books!


It is one thing to remember, another to know.


I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up. The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters. Truth lies open to everyone.


Letter 40 – Language and truth

Language which devotes its attention to truth ought to be plain and unadorned.


A way of speaking which is restrained, not bold, suits a wise man in the same way as an unassuming sort of walk does. Be a slow-speaking person.


Letter 41 – Pride and purpose

No one should feel pride in anything that is not his own. In a man, praise is due only to what is his very own, what can neither be given nor snatched away: his spirit, and the perfection of his reason in that spirit.


Man's ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born — to live in accordance with his own nature.


Letter 47 – Justice

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


Each man has a character of his own choosing; it is chance or fate that decides his choice of job.


Only an absolute fool values a man according to his clothes or his social position.


Letter 48 – Friendship

Friendship creates a community of interest between us in everything.


No one can lead a happy life if he thinks only of himself and turns everything to his own purposes.


Letter 53 – Failings and philosophy

Why does no one admit his failings? Because he's still deep in them. It's the person who's awakened who recounts his dream, and acknowledging one's failings is a sign of health.


Only philosophy wakes us; only philosophy will shake us out of that heavy sleep. Give your whole mind to her. Sit at her side and pay her constant court, and an enormous gap will widen between yourself and other men.


Letter 54 – Accepting death

Death is just not being. What that is like I know already. It will be the same after me as I was before me.


The man whom you should admire and imitate is the one who finds it a joy to live and in spite of that is not reluctant to die.


Letter 55 – Importance of the spirit

Soft living imposes on us the penalty of debility.


The place one's in doesn't make any contribution to peace of mind: it's the spirit that makes everything agreeable to oneself.


Letter 56 – Distractions

Voices are more inclined to distract than general noise; noise merely fills one's ears, battering away at them while voices actually catches one's attention.


What's the good of having silence throughout the neighbourhood if one's emotions are in turmoil?


Night does not remove our worries; it brings them to the surface.


The fact that the body is lying down is no reason for supposing that the mind is at peace.


The harmful consequences of inactivity are dissipated by activity.


Letter 58 – Dealing with Loss

You have buried someone you loved. Now look for someone to love. It is better to make good the loss of a friend than to cry over him.


Even a person who has not deliberately put an end to his grief finds an end to it in the passing of time.


Abandon grief before it abandons you. Much as you may wish to, you will not be able to keep it up for very long, so give it up as early as possible.


Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.


Letter 65 – Body and soul

To the spirit this body of ours is burden and a torment. And harassed by the body's overwhelming weight, the soul is in captivity unless philosophy comes to its rescue, bidding it breathe more freely in the contemplation of nature, releasing it from earthly into heavenly surroundings. This to the soul means freedom, the ability to wander far and free; it steals away for a while from the prison in which it is confined and has its strength renewed in the world above.


The wise man and devotee of philosophy is needless to say inseparable from his body, and yet he is detached from it so far as the best part of his personality is concerned, directing his thoughts towards things far above.


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.


Letter 77 – Life and death

Life is never incomplete if it is an honorable one. At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is a whole.


Dying is one of life's duties. You're leaving no duty undone, for there is no fixed number of duties laid down which you're supposed to complete. Every life without exception is a short one.


As it is with a play, so it is with life – what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will – only make sure that you round it off with a good ending.


Letter 78 – Thinking and suffering

There are times when even to live is an act of bravery.


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


Tiresome it is the first stages of abstinence. Later, as the organs of appetite decline in strength with exhaustion, the cravings die down; thereafter the stomach becomes fussy, unable to stand things it could never have enough of before. The desires themselves die away. And there is nothing harsh about having to do without things for which you have ceased to have any craving.


In illness the suffering is always bearable so long as you refuse to be affected by the ultimate threat.


Everything hangs on one's thinking.


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


Be your own spectator, your own applauding audience.


In a single day there lies open to men of learning more than there ever does to the unenlightened in the longest of lifetimes.


Don't give in to adversity, never trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune's habit of behaving just as she pleases.


Letter 83 – Living in public

We should live as if we were in public view and think as if someone cold peer into the inmost recesses of or heart.


What really ruins our characters is the fact that none of us looks back over his life. We think about what we are going to do, and only rarely of that, and fail to think about what we have done, yet any plans for the future and dependent on the past.


Drunkenness inflames and lays bare every vice, removing the reserve that acts as a check on impulses to wrong behavior.


So-called pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments.


Letter 88 – Antifragility and wisdom

I have no respect for any study whose end is the making of money.


I don't know what's going to happen, but I do know what is capable of happening — and none of this will give rise to any protest in my part. I'm ready for everything.


Look for the best and prepare for the worst.


Wisdom does not lie in books.


To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance.


Letter 90 – Nature and philosophy

Cooks are as unnecessary to the human race as soldiers.


Essential things are acquired with little bother; it is luxuries that call to toil and effort.


Nature demanded nothing hard from us, and nothing needs painful contriving to enable life to be kept going. We were born into a world in which things were ready to our hands; it is we who have made everything difficult to come by through our disdain for what is easily come by.


Nature suffices for all she asks of us. Luxury has turned her back on nature.


Philosophy does not train men's hands, she is the instructress of men's minds.


Even in the best of people, until you cultivate it there is only the material for virtue, not virtue itself.


Letter 91 – Perspective and mortality

The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person's grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events.


In the absence of any enemy, we suffer all that an enemy might wreak upon us.


Overmuch prosperity if all else fails will hit on the instruments of its own destruction.


Misfortune has a way of choosing some unprecedented means or other of impressing its power on those who might be said to have forgotten it.


Nothing is durable, whether for an individual or for a society; the destinies of men and cities alike sweep onwards.


Be aware that whatever happens is never as serious as rumor makes it out to be.


All the works of mortal man lie under sentence of mortality; we live among things that are destined to perish.


In the ashes all men are leveled. We're born unequal, we die equal.


Utterances of the unenlightened are as noises emanating from the belly. They make no difference.


No one has power over us when death is within our own power.


Letter 104 – Learning and freedom

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.


To lose someone you love is something you'll regard as the hardest of all blows to bear, while all the time this will be as silly as crying because the leaves fall from the beautiful trees that add to the charm of your home.


Travel won't make a better or saner man out 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.


Wisely pick who you spend your time with, who you look up to and whose work you study.


The only safe harbor 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 to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.


First reject the life of pleasures; they make us soft and require us to make insistent demands on fortune. Then 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.


Letter 105 – The mind

Think of the things that goad man into destroying man: you'll find that they are hope, envy, hatred, fear and contempt.


To be feared is to fear: no one has been able to strike terror into others and at the same time enjoy peace of mind himself.


A guilty person sometimes has the luck to escape detection, but never to feel sure of it.


Letter 107 – The spirit

Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you. Life is no soft affair.


There are conditions of our existence which we cannot change. What we can do is to adopt a noble spirit, such a spirit as befits a good man, so that we may bear up bravely under all that fortune sends us and bring our wills in tune with nature's.


Letter 108 – Philosophy and desire

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.


When the character is impressionable it is easily won over to a passion for what is noble and honorable, while a person's character is still malleable, and only corrupted to a mild degree, truth strikes deep if she finds the right kind of advocate.


What we hear philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of a happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching, and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application—not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech—and learn them so well that words become works.


How men can prove that their words are their own: let them put their preaching into practice.


Letter 114 – Accountability and spirit

People's speech matches their lives.


See that the spirit is well looked after. Our thoughts and our words proceed from it. We derive our demeanor and expression and the very way we walk from it. If the spirit is sound and healthy our style will be firm and forceful and virile, but if the spirit tumbles all the rest of our personality comes down in ruins with it.


Letter 122 – Living in accordance with nature

Active and commendable is the person who is waiting for the daylight and intercepts the first rays of the sun; shame on him who lies in bed dozing when the sun is high in the sky, whose waking hours commence in the middle of the day.


Keep on the path which nature has mapped out for us and never diverge from it. 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.


Letter 123 –

Nothing is burdensome if taken lightly. Nothing need arouse one's irritation so long as one doesn't make it bigger than it is by getting irritated.


Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We've been using them not because we needed them but because we had them. look at the number of things we buy because others have bought them or because they're in most people's houses. One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guides by the example of others; instead of being set to rights by reason we're seduced by convention.


Let us fight the battle the other way round: retreat from the things that attract us and rouse ourselves to meet the things that actually attack us.


No man's good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt.


Last Words

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca shows a Stoicism more closely reconciled with the frailty of human nature. The ideal of self-sufficiency is modified. Self-sufficient though he is, the sapiens can now have friends and can grieve, within limits, at the loss of one. It has become his duty to be kind and forgiving towards others. In his way of living he should avoid being ostentatiously different from those he tries to win from moral ignorance. He has to battle like the rest against his failings, in a long and painful progress towards perfection.