Letters from a Stoic

Campbell curates the collection of 124 letters to Lucilius into 40 relevant ones which include nuggets of wisdom both from Seneca and from readings he consumes (Hecato, Epicurus, Pomponius). His nuggets are referred to as “deposits to his account”, as if he owes them to Lucilius.
Letter II:
Getting to know each other, instructing him to remain steady in his reading habits, not wandering about. Advice to pick one thought to be digested thoroughly that day.

Be careful, however, that there is no element of discursiveness and desultoriness about this reading you refer to, this reading of many different authors and books of every description. 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. People who spend their whole life traveling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships. The same must needs be the case with people who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, paying flying visits to them all. Food that is vomited up as soon as it is eaten is not assimilated into the body and does not do one any good; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent changes of treatment; a wound will not heal over if it is being made the subject of experiments with different ointments; a plant which is frequently moved never grows strong. Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in the mere passing. A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.

Letter III:
On the nature of friendship and being true to one’s self. Judging people carefully before becoming friends, behaving as if you are by yourself when with a friend.
Letter V:
on the proper conduct and manners of a Stoic; inwardly different from the crowd but outwardly conforming. Living in harmony with nature, simple living. Cease to hope so that you cease to fear.
Letter VI:
Part of the joy of learning is that it enables him to teach. Sharing knowledge instead of greedily lapping it up to store away for one’s self.
Hecato’s wisdom, “What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.”


Letter VII:
Avoiding the mass crowd since sensitive people are susceptible to becoming hardened by the vices they are exposed to en masse. Surround yourself with people who are good influences.
Democritus says, “A single man is a crowd, and a crowd is a single man.”
Someone’s answer to why he took so much trouble over a piece of craftsmanship that would only reach a few people, “A few is enough for me; so is one; so is none.”

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. A single example of extravagance or greed does a lot of harm – an intimate who leads a pampered life gradually makes one soft and flabby; a wealthy neighbor provokes cravings in one; a companion with a malicious nature tends to rub off some of his rust even on someone of an innocent and open-hearted nature – what then do you imagine the effect on a person’s character is when the assault comes from the word at large? You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world…. 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.

Letter VIII:
Seneca pats himself on the back a bit, says he’s studied all this so that he can tell future generations how to live. His writing might be seen as a bit of “inactivity” or withdrawal from public life, but it’s more productive than the daily duties of court. He defends himself for quoting the rival school of thought, saying a well turned phrase belongs to everyone.
Epicurus: “To win true freedom you must be a slave to philosophy”
Letter IX:
On the difficulty of translating the Greek apatheia to Roman impatientia (mind devoid of feeling)… invulnerable, above all suffering. On the pleasure of making friends and keeping them. Does a wise man need a friend? Don’t enter into a friendship with an eye on profiting from it. You can’t be happy if you think you’re not happy.
Hecato: if you wish to be loved, love.
Letter XI:
On meeting a mutual acquaintance who blushes, the honesty of a blush, nature’s anti-lying device. Set a standard for yourself to be measured against, pick a mentor whom you imagine is always around and who can see your every action.
Letter XII:
On aging, seeing himself crumble as the buildings crumble, cherishing old age, appreciating being beyond desires.
Epicurus: To live under constraint is a misfortune, but there is no constraint to live under constraint.
Letter XV:
On the pursuit of wisdom being better for you than working out with weights, Seneca bashes people who exercise and eat a lot to gain mass, instead counseling some short and simple exercises that save time: running, swinging weights about, and jumping. Exercise your brain night and day. “Cultivate an asset (your brain) which the passive of time itself improves.”
Letter XVI:
Exhortation to live a life in pursuit of wisdom, to cautiously examine yourself to ensure you are staying true to the path. Don’t let your spiritual enthusiasm cool off, but keep hold of it, put it on firm footing so that it may turn into a settled spiritual disposition. Keep your eye on the prize. Live simply, naturally, and you will be rich for lack of wants.
Letter XVIII:
The December festival of Saturnalia has the whole town reeling in drunkenness, so Seneca asks whether to join them or to hold himself aloof? He decides to be among the crowd, but not participate in the drunkenness. He urges Lucilius to set aside a few days a month to prepare for poverty, to act as if he has nothing, to eat a few crumbs and appreciate them all the more. Convince yourself that you can live a happy life without your riches. This letter’s nugget of wisdom is “Anger carried to excess begets madness.”
Letter XXVI:
More on aging and dying, how moving gently towards dissolve is a good way to leave life. Rehearse death, so that when you do it once, you know what you’re doing.
Letter XXVII:
Make sure your faults die before you do. “A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.” The story of Calvisius Sabinus, who has a bad memory and hires slaves to memorize Homer and the nine lyric poets, having them quote from those epics to guests that he then repeats.
Letter XXVIII:
In response to Lucilius’s complaint that he was unable to shake melancholy after a trip abroad, Seneca instructs that you can’t escape because you are traveling with yourself. A change of character, not a change of scenery, is what is required. It doesn’t matter where you arrive, but what sort of person you are when you arrive there. You are rambling and drifting, but the good life is available everywhere.
Nugget of wisdom is Epicurus: “A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.” Be harsh with yourself, evaluate your sins, pass judgement.
Letter XXXIII:
Apparently Lucilius has been begging for more scraps of sayings to be fed him. Seneca points out that things look sparkling and stand out when the stuff they were amidst wasn’t very good. Then he demands that we not merely consume but create:

In the case of a grown man who has made incontestable progress it is disgraceful to go hunting after gems of wisdom, and prop himself up with a minute number of the best-known sayings, and be dependent on his memory as well; it is time he was standing on his own feet. He should be delivering himself of such sayings, not memorizing them. It is disgraceful that a man who is old or in sight of old age should have a wisdom deriving solely from his notebook. ‘Zeno said this.’ And what have you said? ‘Cleanthes said that.’ What have you said? How much longer are you going to serve under others’ orders? Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources.

Letter XXXVIII:
On the power of words and conversation instead of lectures and harangues. Words are seeds, our thoughts germinate and grow into a wholly separate thing.
Letter XL:
On the benefits of letters, even more than pictures of absent friends because the handwriting provides more personal touch. How philosophers should be gently eloquent, not speaking too quickly. Popular talk being about swaying a mass audience, much like current political talk it “carries away unpracticed ears by the force of its onslaught. It never submits itself to detailed discussion, is just wafted away.” There is no pleasure in a “noisy promiscuous torrent of words.” Be a slow speaking person.
Letter XLI:
On elevating the soul, each of us containing a divine spirit inside. To be a person who fears nothing and affected by no external circumstance.
Letter XLVI:
Seneca reviews Lucilius’ book, gushing over the writing quality, emphasizing that the book subject was well chosen to fertilize the mind.

It was so enjoyable, though, that I found myself held and drawn on until I ended up having read it right through to the end without a break. All the time the sunshine was inviting me out, hunger prompting me to eat, the weather threatening to break, but I gulped it down in one sitting.

Letter XLVII:
On treating everyone, including slaves, as equals.
Letter XLVIII:
On the follies of philosophical thought wrapped in logic puzzles (mouse is a syllable, and a mouse nibbles cheese; therefore a syllable nibbles cheese.) Learn only the essential things.
Letter LIII:
Seneca takes a trip by boat, gets freaked out and has the boatman take him close to shore where he jumps out. Acknowledge your failings as the first step to gaining health.

Away with every obstacle and leave yourself free to acquire a sound mind – no one ever attains this if he’s busy with other things. Philosophy wields an authority of her own; she doesn’t just accept time, she grants one it. She’s not something one takes up in odd moments.

Letter LIV:
Seneca’s asthma attack which is referred to as rehearsing for death, despite this he never ceased to have cheerful and courageous reflections. Do not be reluctant to die.
Letter LV:
Seneca’s sedan chair ride. Soft living makes us feeble. His ride takes his past Vatia’s house where Vatia retired out of public eye, Seneca accuses him of hiding.
Letter LVI:
(Weird font at the beginning of this letter.) You don’t need to go into seclusion to study if you are Seneca, noises do not bother him, he can sit at the foot of the tower of Babel and focus, by becoming self-absorbed in his thoughts. Rest is sometimes far from restful if your emotions are in turmoil. At the end, Seneca admits that he is moving elsewhere to a quieter spot, he just wanted to test himself.
Letter LXIII:
Don’t mourn for your dead friend, celebrate his life. Tears but no lamentation. We grieve openly for the show of it. Time softens grief, make new friends to replace the old.
Letter LXV:
Philosophy debate: all things are derived from cause and matter. What about time, place, motion, ideas. The soul is in captivity unless philosophy comes to the rescue.
Letter LXXVII:
How to die nobly, leave life in the right way. Marcellinus’s 3 day fast then lying in a steam bath until he faded away. Don’t cry about death, it’s a certainty. The Spartan who was taken prisoner and refused to be a slave, cracking his own skull open on the wall. Just as a play, what matters about life is how good it is, not how long the acting lasts.
Letter LXXVIII:
Seneca’s history of sickness, how philosophy saved him along with his friends, his stopping himself from suicide on behalf of his father’s grief. Don’t be afraid of death. The miracle of pain, how when it becomes intolerable, the body ceases to feel it. Forever quoting Virgil, “There may be pleasure in the memory of even these events one day.”
Letter LXXXIII:
Seneca’s daily routine: going for a run, then a cold plunge then hot bath, breakfast of dry bread, then a nap. Examples of leaders who kept secrets even though they were drunks: Lucius Piso, Cossus. Pleasures beyond a certain level become punishments (drinking too much).
Letter LXXXVI:
Seneca staying in Scipio’s old house, the bath hidden away in the corner, a fortress. Not needing to bathe every day in the olden days, now people stink like scent. How to transport olive vines.
Letter LXXXVIII:
Seneca’s rousing support of liberal arts (Well, some of them). Language, history, poetry are all well and good but don’t point the way to virtue. Philosophy leads toward virtue except when it doesn’t. Look for the best and expect the worst. “To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance.” (oops, guilty of that)

Why ‘liberal studies’ are so called is obvious: it is because they are the ones considered worthy of a free man. But there is really only one liberal study that deserves the name – because it makes a person free – and that is the pursuit of wisdom.

Letter XC:
He lost me on this one, a kind of diatribe on how Posidonius grants everyday creations to the philosophers when in fact they were invented by slaves (shorthand, bread making, windows in buildings, sailing ships). Hammering home how we were born in innocence but didn’t realize how lucky we were to be in tune with nature.
Letter XCI:
The town of Lyons has burned to the ground, but our grief is only because it was unexpected.
Letter XCIV:
Repeated wisdom from Letter XXVIII about how travel doesn’t help you because you’re carrying your unresolved mind around with you. There is no art that can be picked up by simply being in one place vs. another. How easy it is to see the change in other people but not notice it in ourselves, “While other people are snatched away from us, we are being filched away surreptitiously from ourselves.”
Letter XCV:
Rues to live safely; things that goad men into killing others: hope (to battle this, own nothing), envy (show no ostentation), hatred (don’t give offense), fear (to be feared is to fear), contempt. In essence, keep to yourself, talk to others as little as possible and with yourself as much as possible.
Letter XCVII:
Seneca tells Lucilius to stop bemoaning his runaway slaves, life is tough, expect the worst.
Letter CVIII:
Keep your appetite for food/drink in check, sleep on a hard bed, prepare the mind. Pythagoras was a vegetarian (Seneca too, until his father asked him to stop). How various people focus on the same thing in different ways.
Letter CXIV:
The corruption of styles of writing and speaking, imitators.
Letter CXXII:
People who flip day and night and party all night only to sleep all day are unnatural, avoid them.
Letter CXXIII:
Don’t wish for what you don’t have and make the most of what comes your way.