#004: Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

An ancient manual for living life well written in 65 A.D.

Dear reader

For number 4, I choose Letters from a Stoic from Seneca (pronounced seh·nuh·kuh). Seneca was known as a key figure of the Stoic movement. He was also tutor to Roman Emperor Nero, whose reign is usually associated with tyranny, extravagance and debauchery.

Seneca is one of the fathers of the Essay, a format he would practice in form of letter to his friends. In the case of Letters from a Stoic, he sent his thoughts on particular topics to his friend Lucilius. In these letters reside the spirit of stoicism which is shared with you in this summary. Unless expressively said, all quotes are from Seneca.

As always, it’s my pleasure to have you as a reader. Enjoy and do share if you found it worthwhile.


  • Summary: A collection of letters between Seneca and his friend Lucilius where Seneca gives advice on how to live a good life

  • Why read it: If you're curious about Stoicism, you learn the most important aspects of it from arguably one of its main historical figures

  • What you get from it: Ancient principles that can be applied today to thinking and interacting with the world; an appreciation for human spirit and encouragement that things get hard for everyone

  • Rating:

    • Timeless? ✅ written before 65 AD

    • Comprehensive? ⚠️ Letters are limited Seneca's world view and circumscribed to Ancient Roman's beliefs

    • Mental model? ✅ it includes many ideas that can build into your mental models

    • Return on investment of reading? ✅ it's not a large book and it's an easy read. Letters are small enough and independent from each other.

    • One-sided VS full-scoped: ⛔️

    • All in all: ⭐️⭐️⭐️(3/5)

  • Should you read it? Maybe. If your curiosity takes you to explore philosophy and Stoicism, this will be interesting to you.

Before we start:

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The book

Letters from a Stoic

By Seneca

Image credits: Photograph from AISA / Everett

The foundations of Stoicism: supreme ideal of man

Seneca defines, through his letters, what he calls the supreme ideal for man (Summun Bonum):

  • Wisdom

  • Courage

  • Self-control

  • Justice / upright dealing

The purpose of man, its true end, is Happiness. The only true thing worth having: Virtue.

A key aspect of stoicism is to be self-sufficient. To be self-sufficient is to not depend on any external aid in order to be happy. Specially in very hard challenging circumstances, to be self-sufficient is to only rely on our thoughts to overcome our problems.

Seneca tells the story of Stilbo. Stilbo had his village destroyed, wife and children killed. When asked by Demetrius what did he lose, he said:

Nothing for I have all my valuables with me

To be a stoic is to carry all your valuables with you. And to not put any external dependency on your happiness. There's nothing that people can take from you if you don't value anything that is capable of being taken away.

Once it starts looking outside of itself for any part of itself it is on the way to being dominated by Fortune

Ancient Romans believed in the power of Goddess Fortuna who governed luck. Anything outside of yourself, i.e. without your control, is, therefore, under the domain of Fortuna.

Further, Stoicism teaches you to be calm in the face of anxiety. Anxiety grows in the gap between what we fear it might happen and what we hope it could. In order to remove anxiety, you have to come to terms with the worst scenario. Fear and hope live together. Both project us away from the present. No one who is truly present is unhappy. Anger is created by the clash of hope and reality. If we expect the worst, then nothing will make us angry.

It’s especially interesting to note a main difference between Stoicism and Epicureanism, system of philosophy based on the teachings of Epicurus, founded around 307 B.C.. A main difference between Stoicism and Epicureanism is that epicureanism teaches not to feel your problems while Stoicism admits man will feel angst and anxiety but overcome it. To be emotional is to be a man. Therefore, to be Stoic is to assume we can be better knowing we're prone to be emotional.

Interesting quotes that represent this ideal for man:

Never hope without an element of despair
Never despair without an element of hope

In the meantime cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock.

Learning: reading, writing, teaching

Seneca warns about jumping too much between books as you should rather linger among a limited number of smart thinkers. He also said that reading required thoughtful consideration instead of being 'regurgitated' as soon as it is consumed. Like food, books are meant to be read and 'digested'.

Wanting to know more that is needed is a form of intemperance. People spend time learning things they will never need, sometimes only to repeat them to sound smart. You should choose well tried geniuses and authors, instead of going for quantity, and re-read those authors.

Further, neither books nor the process of reading are meant to be reason of pride. This would be like sheep going to the shepherd to show how much grass it has consumed. Instead, sheep use that food to grow wool and milk, which is what you get over time with books.

Seneca thinks that studies that don't connect with the hardship that man faces are worthless. Being a good, virtuous, wise man is much more important than other superfluous studies. Seneca further says that there is no use in teaching children practical learnings as they don't help you to be a better human. Obviously we wouldn't find this to be true today, as many lessons in life come from experience people have in learning their own craft.

Oh, the marvels of geometry! You geometers can calculate the areas of circles, can reduce any given shape to a square, can state the distances separating stars. Nothing’s outside your scope when it comes to measurement. Well, if you’re such an expert, measure a man’s soul; tell me how large or how small that is. You can define a straight line; what use is that to you if you’ve no idea what straightness means in life?

People learning from others should take home something new everyday.

A person teaching and a person learning should have the same end in view: the improvement of the latter

Seneca looks down on elaborate and fancy writing calling it a reflection of society. A Stoic seems to be prefer 'forceful' and virile style of writing. Like other aspects of stoicism, writing is a reflection of the spirit (indulgent, seeking validation, etc).

Finally on the topic of writing, Seneca warns of the danger of focusing all your attention in other people's work instead of having your own ideas. There is more value in being a creator than merely an interpreter for other people's ideas. Seneca recommends to not memorize sayings or things from other people in hopes people find you smart.

Just acting in a kind of secretarial capacity, making itself an instrument for what others have to say

Nothing new will be created if we just look to the past. We should use "the old roads" but we should also venture out in creating new ones; in improving on top of what is already out there.

So, before you feel everything under the sun has already been invented:

Truth lies open to everyone There has yet to be a monopoly of truth

Even during the first century people knew that invention and opportunity is always around the corner 😉

Interacting with other humans: external validation and comparison

Being with people helps one to learn better. People learn by looking at examples instead of rules. People believe in their eyes better than just reading. We're attracted by events and cases instead of just learning from rules. Also, learning should have the purpose of helping others and to be taught or read. If you've learned things that are no use to other people, you've wasted time. Teach, improve yourself and others.

For whose benefit, then, did I learn it all?

We should be content with the value of our work ourselves and not need the approval of many. Quoting Epicurus:

I am writing this not for the eyes of the many, but for yours alone. Each of us is an audience enough for the other

Also, the people who we are with end up defining us. Seneca argues that being in crowds is bad for us. We start sharing their opinions, vices, hatred. We also waste time that should be spent making us wiser. Seneca is talking specifically in letters about Gladiator fights given how bloody and gory they were, certainly not good for the human spirit.

Be with people who can improve you
Be with people who you can improve

There are people who spread tales/rumors and there are people who spread vices. Be careful of taking ideas from people who have an interest in you adopting them. Also be critical of those ideas. The modern comparison to old crowds are our phones, given that they reduce available cognitive capacity

Ultimately, being too focused externally on what others do or have can lead to unfair comparisons and survivor bias. It doesn't matter how much you have if you're always looking for more. People seem to always count what they don't have and never count what they do have.

The limit to wealth:

  • First: what is essential

  • Second: What is enough

On self-improvement and becoming wise

To better oneself is one of the best things one can do. But one should focus on improvement and not to just show others as that is a form of craving attention. We should also not pretend to be better than we are.

Anyone entering our homes should admire us rather than our furnishings.

Do everything as if someone you admire is watching

There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.

The only way to achieve everlasting happiness is through a good character. A good character is acquired through individual labor for which there are no shortcuts. Seneca tells the story of Sabinus who, having money and a need to appear wise, bought slaves to recite poems in his ear during his dinners so that Sabinus could recite it himself.

You can't buy a sound mind. To build character one must reflect on their wrong doings

Play the part first of prosecutor then of judge and finally of pleader in mitigation. Be harsh with yourself at times

Lack of character can also weigh on you. People who expect to be punished suffer in anticipation of that suffering. A burdened conscience is heavy and takes a toll on man. For that reason, man must not be evil nor do wrong.

If punishment is expected due to not meeting expectations (sometimes self imposed or bad opinions being projected), this can create anxiety without cause.

This is why your character and the pursuit of wisdom is noble.

It is easy to mistake ingenuity/creativity and wisdom. One if about perceptiveness (being aware of one's surroundings). The other is about greatness and inspiration. Wise is the person who understand how to live life well. And not the person who finds a new way to do or sell something well.
Smart is something you are. Wisdom is something you acquire. To be happy, one must be content with what we have and get from nature.

Traveling is wonderful but won't make you wise. For this, you need to study other wise people. Without wisdom, traveling is drifting because your emotions and troubles travel with you.

How can you wonder your travels do you no good, when you carry yourself around with you? You are saddled with the very thing that drove you away.

So, in summary, a recipe to be wise:

  • Keep cravings within safe limit

  • Remove evil from your personality

  • Keep good company, it rubs off on you

On Friendship

Friendship is, in itself, its own goal.

If you wish to be loved, love

Making new friends and keeping old ones is equally as good. To want a friend for selfish reasons is to not create a friend at all.

A person adopted as a friend for the sake of his usefulness will be cultivated only for so long as he is useful.

Some people when making friends seek an asset where others seek to be an asset to their friends. Be the latter. A person who is your friend because of incentives will cease to be a friend when the incentives stop.

To procure friendship only for the better and not for worse is to rob it of all its dignity

A friend trusts by default. A friend talks to another like he or she would talk to themselves.

After friendship is formed, you must trust. But before, you must judge.

Old age and mortality

You must expect death to be around any corner. So you should treat every day as your final.

Pacuvius conducted dinner funeral ceremonies for himself with lots of wine being led at the end of the night from the table to his bed while people san "he has lived, he has lived". To familiarize oneself with death is to appreciate our love for life.

Think about all the acts of God that we hear every night in the news. It's only likely that something will happen to you. Prepare mentally for it.

It's only when you're breathing your last breath that the way you've spent your time will become apparent.

What is death? Either a transition or an end. I am not afraid of coming to an end, this being the same as never having begun, nor of transition, for I shall never be in confinement quite so cramped anywhere else as I am here.

I particularly like this quote Seneca wrote about his wife:

Nothing can be so meaningful as knowing that you are dear to your wife makes you dear to yourself.

Final thoughts about Seneca and the book

  • Epicureanism is considered a 'competing' philosophy system. Yet Seneca quotes Epicurus extensively. He argues that if the teachings are true, then they also belong to him.

  • In the time of Seneca, women were second class citizens. There are many references of 'woman like' behavior as synonym to weakness. Other examples include: women could not mourn for more than 1 year whereas man could mourn indefinitely. A sad thing to read, really but represents the times in which Seneca lived.

  • Seneca was an ill man. There were many letters about being sick with asthma and other illnesses. There was one letter where Seneca describes traveling by boat in the midst of a storm, getting extreme boat sickness and asking the captain to drop him off in an island.

  • Ancient philosophy is interesting when it speaks about human relationships, emotions, limitations, resilience. When it describes their worldview based on their limited knowledge, it becomes more historical curiosity but less impactful today.

  • Seneca died in 65 AD. Nero, the emperor he tutored, sent for him to kill himself. He committed suicide.

A personal note: I find there's something soothing about reading philosophy from ancient thinkers. First because you're interacting with work produced (roughly) 2000 years ago. Second because we discover that older humans are essentially the same. Knowing that people from 2000 years ago had the same fears, insecurities, need for validation, struggles with meaning, fear of death helps me relax. Each sentence and paragraph packs a punch with meaning. Part of me wonders if this is not too easy of a read; too condensed. It feels that philosophy is like caviar: rich in flavor but hardly a full meal.