I knew very little of Seneca and of Stoicism before picking up this book, but after further recommendations via Tim Ferriss’s podcast (which you all should definitely be listening to), I jumped right in. What I discovered in Letters from a Stoic was a way of life that I already half-understood and followed even less. But it certainly made me reassess what is truly important.
This ~2000 year old long-form essay, hidden in the guise of a collection of letters to Seneca’s friend Lucilius, forms the basis of the Stoicism movement first introduced by Zeno, some 400 years earlier. Seneca was the first to adequately formulate the central ideas to this movement, which are still quite relevant even in modern times.
Perhaps Stoicism’s main function is the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will that is in accordance with nature, and to avoid destructive emotions. In these letters Seneca speaks of endurance, and the power to expect pain and misfortune, to not be as rocked by it when it comes; of freedom from material wealth, and how to not be a slave to money or possessions; and of doing worthy acts, as opposed to merely studying and quoting others, without yourself contributing anything further.
There are some fantastic lessons to be drawn from here, particularly on resistance to setbacks. Seneca advises that everyone should “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?'”. If you practice poverty every now and then, if it ever should arise in reality, you will not find it too jarring, and will be able to cope much easier. Tim Ferriss actually does commit to this for a week every 3 or 4 months, and I’d like to do the same.
In the end, Seneca provides something quite apart from the usual philosopher fare, that being a set of useful guidelines and advice for daily life, instead of critical analyses of the world and cryptic turns of logic. Even 2000 years on, people who search internally for meaning or load up at the self-help aisle of the library will find much to like about Letters from a Stoic
“It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers for more.”