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Book Review: Letters from a Stoic: All Three Volumes by Seneca

Do we change? Or do we ask the same questions century after century despite the advantage of technology and other modern niceties? After reading Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, I have started to think the core questions are constant. We wonder the purpose of our life, where lies the idea of virtue, and what makes us happy. And it seems like the plague of greed, vanity, corruption, and the rest of the lot aren’t a new invention of our state men or the rich who has a chance for gluttony and ways to satisfy their pleasures.

If I had to take something with me from Seneca’s writing was that idleness, falling prey to depression over misfortune, and seeking power and money are not ways to conduct one’s life. That true purpose of men is to seek knowledge, to understand, to expand one’s mind. That happiness doesn’t come from quick pleasures: drinking, eating, but from active pursues. Take all this with a grain of salt. This might be my interpretation.

The book itself is hard to read and heavy sometimes, but that shouldn’t put you off reading it. I read one letter a day and thought about the issues Seneca wrote. Sometimes the letters gave me nothing, and they felt like empty words written out of responsibility to answer, or sometimes there were hastily draw together, and something felt missing. But then there were gems that outshined the others. The book is practical. Yes, it ponders the issue of virtue and morality, but nothing anyone couldn’t follow with time and patience.

I leave you with two verses which spoke to me:

“I wish, my dear Lucilius, that you would not be too particular with regard to words and their arrangement; I have greater matters than these to commend to your care. You should seek what to write, rather than how to write it – and even that not for the purpose of writing but of feeling it, that you may thus make what you have felt more your own and, as it were, set a seal on it. Whenever you notice a style that is too careful and too polished, you may be sure that the mind also is no less absorbed in petty things. The really great man speaks informally and easily; whatever he says, he speaks with assurance rather than with pains.” -Letter 115

“Now if we are agreed on this point, it is natural that we shall be agreed on the following also – namely, that the happy life depends upon this and this alone: our attainment of perfect reason. For it is naught but this that keeps the soul from being bowed down, that stands its ground against Fortune; whatever the condition of their affairs may be, it keeps men untroubled. And that alone is a good which is never subject to impairment. That man, I declare, is happy whom nothing makes less strong than he is; he keeps to the heights, leaning upon none but himself; for one who sustains himself by any prop may fall. If the case is otherwise, then things which do not pertain to us will begin to have great influence over us. But who desires Fortune to have the upper hand, or what sensible man prides himself upon that which is not his own?

What is the happy life? It is peace of mind, and lasting tranquillity. This will be yours if you possess greatness of soul; it will be yours if you possess the steadfastness that resolutely clings to a good judgment just reached. How does a man reach this condition? By gaining a complete view of truth, by maintaining, in all that he does, order, measure, fitness, and a will that is inoffensive and kindly, that is intent upon reason and never departs therefrom, that commands at the same time love and admiration. In short, to give you the principle in brief compass, the wise man’s soul ought to be such as would be proper for a god. What more can one desire who possesses all honourable things? For if dishonourable things can contribute to the best estate, then there will be the possibility of a happy life under conditions which do not include an honourable life. And what is more base or foolish than to connect the good of a rational soul with things irrational?” -Letter 92

While I may not agree with all said, those two letters are good starting points to decide what you think about happiness or the purpose of our speech.

Thank you for reading!

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