Letters From a Stoic by Seneca

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a philosopher who lived during the Julio-Claudian era in Roman history during the first century A.D. His school of philosophical ideology was known as ‘Stoicism’, a manner of living & of perceiving the world which encouraged abstinence from unnecessary excess & a perpetual cultivation of the mind, primarily through a concept the Romans called the ‘summum bonum’, or ‘supreme ideal’. This ideal was comprised of four fundamental qualities : wisdom, courage, self-control & justice. A man whose life was devoted to upholding these core values would be self-sufficient, tolerant of suffering, self-reliant & ‘superior to the wounds & upsets of life’. Stoicism also valued upright conduct & fair, just dealings, simple living habits that abstained from overly indulgent, or luxurious extravagance. It also strongly encouraged obedience to the state, as the school of Stoicism perceived the world as a ‘single great community’.

Seneca was a highly educated man, he was accomplished in rhetoric, grammar & ethics which garnered his work tremendous influence in the ancient Roman world. It also seemed to attract the ire of Roman emperors like moths to the flame. Caligula absolutely detested Seneca & everything about his writing, often publicly mocking him as he did for other writers, such as Titus Livy & the poet Virgil. On one occasion Gaius disparagingly referred to the Stoic philosopher as a “textbook orator”, his rhetoric derisively degraded as “simple school exercises”. Caligula’s own speaking style & rhetoric tended toward being very aggressive & often flagrantly direct, he opted for short, powerful statements & abstained from unnecessary verbiage. As such, he absolutely detested Seneca’s often-flowery prose which often contained lessons or proverbs embedded in the rhetoric itself. Seneca’s style was specifically designed to elicit contemplation after reading it. Caligula bluntly declaimed it as “sand without cement” meaning that Gaius believed the Stoic’s rhetoric to be a collection of loose words without substance holding it together, so much superfluous linguistic regurgitation. After Seneca was alleged to have had an affair with Caligula’s sister Julia Livilla, he was exiled from Rome. Claudius recalled him, then exiled him once more.

Finally, Agrippina the Younger afforded Seneca the opportunity of a lifetime after her son Nero had become emperor after Claudius’ death in the year 54 A.D. She needed someone to tutor her son to the best of his abilities, to provide to him instruction on effective ruling. This was probably one of the most amazing comebacks ever chronicled throughout history, in my opinion. He & Nero’s mother had a symbiotic relationship, she needed his reputation & learning to educate her young & wayward son & he needed her for protection & financial backing.

‘Letters from a Stoic’ is actually a selection taken from a more substantial work entitled the ‘Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium’. It means ‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’. Lucilius was Seneca’s dear friend & companion. The complete work contains one hundred & twenty-four letters in total, & Penguin’s ‘Letters from a Stoic’ is a selection of forty of them. So it’s not a lengthy book by any means, nor is the reading challenging.

Seneca’s style, probably his entire way of looking at the world, is something that is practically extinct in our day & age. The letters are so tactfully composed that one literally feels as they’re reading a constant stream of proverbs. And they are immensely well-conceived, to boot. It is believed that Seneca wrote these letters whilst he was in his declining years preceding his very-tragic suicide. Some of the statements Seneca makes in ‘Letters from a Stoic’ are so beautiful not only because of his language, but also for the resounding, unmistakable dirge of truth practically radiating from them. The values & the ethics they encourage are those of fundamental concepts every human being learns from a young age regardless of nationality or country of origin, such as mere kindness or unselfishness to one’s neighbors.

‘If wisdom were offered me on the one condition that I should keep it shut away & not divulge it to anyone, I should reject it. There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.’

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