Thursday, January 28, 2010

Letters from a Stoic

Letters from a Stoic
© 1969, 2004;  translated by Robin Campbell
253 pages


Seneca's appearance in The Humanist Anthology piqued my interest, so I purchased Letters from a Stoic soon after finishing it, specifically the Penguin Classics edtiion translated by Robin Campell. Seneca's letters, along with Marcus Aurelius' Meditations and Epictetus' Enchiridion, comprise the only Stoic texts that have survived the march of time. The letters are Seneca's side in an extended exchange between himself and his friend Lucilius. They are often written in resposne to Lucilius' questions or complaints to Seneca as he pursues the philosophical life, but often Seneca takes up the stylus to muse upon a subject and share his reflections. His musings -- and resulting lectures -- typically result from happenings in his own life, and almost all reflect teachings and values from the philosophy of Stoicism inside them. Seneca acts a teacher to Lucilius, encouraging him to practive philosophy more actively and expand his horizons. He often quotes from Epicures, the father of a school the Stoics held in opposition to themselves, in an effort to show Lucilius that wisdom is not held in monpoly by just those we admire. Campbell's translation is quite readable, and the letters as a whole convey a sense of Seneca as being an observant and stern old man full of advice and more than few wry comments.  He comes off as a bit grumpy at times, but that is a subjective matter and never detracted from his words.

The letters are more varied and greater in volume than the Meditations or The Art of Living, and I suspect that the format -- personal letters -- will make it easier for readers to relate to Seneca than to the other Stoic writers, although Aurelius and Epictetus both provide more information on Stoicism proper than does Seneca. Epictetus teaches its fundamentals, and Aurelius constantly reminds himself of them, but Seneca takes Lucilius' knowledge of Stoicism for granted and advises him on practicing the wise life.  I've been reading through the letters a little at a time for several months now -- off and on -- and have enjoyed them greatly, making this an easy recommendation. If you are interested in reading some of his works, Heisodos at "Works and Days" has been commenting on individual passages for some time now. We appear to be using the same translation.


  • The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton. Seneca is the source of one chapter as philosophy as a consolation for anger. Similarly...
  • Seneca on Anger, a television special inspired by de Botton's work and hosted by de Botton himself. 

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