Friday, February 24, 2012
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
Every sentence an aphorism
Although not the most original philosopher to ever bear the designation of Stoic, Seneca is most likely the best writer that school ever produced. His works are far more accessible to the general reader than the more analytical writings of Epictetus or even the more personal reflections of Marcus Aurelius. Seneca had a true gift with words, which when brought out by a skilled translator results in beautiful, inspirational prose. The translation by Robin Campbell in the Penguin Classics edition is excellent; the book reads like butter. Some of Seneca’s contemporary critics complained that every line he wrote was a motto, and they were not far from the truth. Almost every sentence in this book could be singled out and quoted as “words to live by.”
The basic message of Stoicism that Seneca presents here is profound and vital. The key to a happy life is to live in accordance with nature. This is accomplished by training yourself not to desire more than you have and to learn to be content with what comes to you. Govern your emotions with reason, resign yourself to fate, and free yourself from the attachments of your desires. This includes not only the extravagance with which society distracts us from nature, or the obviously harmful excesses of food and drink, but even the attachment to your own life. Only by conquering your fear of death can you experience true freedom and live a life of quality.
While Seneca states the basic concepts of Stoicism in clear and engaging language, he doesn’t offer much original thought here. For those deeply interested in Stoic philosophy, these works may act as a supplement to those of Epictetus, but they are certainly no substitute. Even comparing them to Seneca’s own works, these letters do not measure up to his deeper dialogues and essays. An obvious problem, common to many Stoic works, is the lack of organization and haphazard hopping from one subject to the next, which precludes an in-depth investigation into any particular topic. Another problem is the frequent digression from philosophical instruction. Oftentimes Seneca avoids specific philosophical ideas and merely sounds off generally on the value of philosophy (by which he means Stoicism) in improving people’s lives. Many of the letters are light on philosophy altogether, but do have historical value. For example, Seneca gives us an insider’s glimpse into aspects of Roman life such as the gladiatorial games and slavery, and relates interesting anecdotes about Socrates, Cato, and various Emperors. Although all the digressions are filtered through Seneca’s uniquely Stoic lens, I found some of the wanderings too far afield for my liking. Though I enjoyed the 42 letters that Campbell has collected here, I can’t say I’m eager to get my hands on a complete edition of the 124 letters any time soon.
Despite my reservations, any Stoic text is an important text, Seneca’s more than most. The ancient wisdom is invaluable, and Penguin has done it justice in this volume.
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