Lessons from a Stoic – Practical Philosophy by Seneca

Imagine you were alive during the height of the Roman empire, at the start of the Christian calendar. As an admired political figure, you spend most days orating in parliament or tutoring soon-to-be emperors. Everyday life brings you huge banquets, death sentences and near-fatal strokes of disease – not exactly the circumstances inductive to the virtuous life. Yet it was under those temptations that Seneca, one of the most practical philosophers, relentlessly focused on improving his personal character. The series of letters he wrote at the end of his life, collected in “Letters from a Stoic”, are a must read for every (young) person who is interested in forming his or her own character.

Seneca’s writings are surprisingly timely and highly practical. I have collected below excerpts from his letters that I found truthful or that triggered personal questions. Note that I do not agree with all quotes below.

“Extend your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, […] if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”

“Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship. But when you have decided to do so, welcome him heart and soul, and speak as unreservedly with him as you would with yourself. […] Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal.”

“Personal converse and daily intimacy with someone with someone will be of more benefit to you than any discourse. […] Plato and Aristotle derived more from Socrates’ character than from his words.”

“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.”

“The many speak highly of you, but have you really any grounds for satisfaction with yourself if you are the kind of person the many understand? Your merits should not be outward facing.”

“Indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health. Spurn everything that is added on by way of decoration and display by unnecessary labor. Reflect that nothing merits admiration except the spirit, the impressiveness of which prevents in from being impressed by anything.”

“If you wish to be loved, love.”

“The wise man, unequalled though he is in his devotion to his friends, though regarding them as being no less important and frequently more important than his own self, will still consider what is valuable in life to be something wholly confined to his inner self.“

“We need to set out 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.” 

“Every day should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives.” 

As the opening of a letter: “I trust this finds you in pursuit of wisdom”

“When a person is following a path, there is an eventual end to it; with wandering at large, there is no limit. If you want to know whether the desire to pursue a journey is natural or unseeing, ask yourself whether it is capable of coming to rest at any point.”

“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.”

“Appoint certain days on which to give up all physical pleasures and make yourself at home with next to nothing: bread, water, a bed. Cultivate a relationship with poverty.”

“Assume authority […] and produce something from your own resources. The people who are forever acting as interpreters and never as creators are always lurking in someone else’s shadow.”

“Praise others for what is truly their own. Do not praise for possessions or physical shape, but praise for spirit and certain characteristics you admire.”

“Treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors. […] To be really respected is to be loved; and love and fear will not mix”

“Let us rouse ourselves, so that we may be able to demonstrate our own errors.”

“People who are really busy never have enough time to become skittish. And there is nothing so certain as the fact that the harmful consequences of inactivity are dissipated by activity.”

2 thoughts on “Lessons from a Stoic – Practical Philosophy by Seneca

  1. Pingback: Becoming a Stoic - A Philosophy for Life: Part 2

  2. Pingback: Becoming a Stoic – A Philosophy for Life: Part 2 | vividhope

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