Book Notes: Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
February 4, 2017
[My Rating 4/5]
These are the notes that I took:
- Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.
always read well-tried authors, and if at any moment you find yourself wanting a change from a particular author, go back to ones you have read before.
- if you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship.
- the things you should share with your friend are all your worries and deliberations.
- Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal.
- Trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one (though I should call the first the worthier and the second the safer behaviour).
sacrifice everything to your single-minded efforts to make yourself every day a better man.
- Refrain from following the example of those whose craving is for attention, not their own improvement, by doing certain things which are calculated to give rise to comment on your appearance or way of living generally.
- Avoid shabby attire, long hair, an unkempt beard, an outspoken dislike of silverware, sleeping on the ground and all other misguided means to self-advertisement.
- Let our aim be a way of life not diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the mob.
the Stoic writer Hecato). Limiting one’s desires actually helps to cure one of fear. ‘Cease to hope,’ he says, ‘and you will cease to fear.’
part of my joy in learning is that it puts me in a position to teach;
- There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.
Hecato today. ‘What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a person will never be alone, and you may be sure he is a friend of all.
- You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world. But the right thing is to shun both courses: you should neither become like the bad because they are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you.
- Retire into yourself as much as you can.
- Your merits should not be outward facing.
- ‘Avoid,’ I cry, ‘whatever is approved of by the mob, and things that are the gift of chance. Whenever circumstance brings some welcome thing your way, stop in suspicion and alarm: wild animals and fish alike are taken in by this or that inviting prospect. Do you look on them as presents given you by fortune? They are snares.
- ‘To win true freedom you must be a slave to philosophy.’
wise man feels his troubles but overcomes them,
- ‘a man is unhappy, though he reign the world over, if he does not consider himself supremely happy.’
- All foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself.
- ‘We need to set our 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.’ This, my dear Lucilius, is Epicurus’ advice,
misdeeds are greatly diminished if a witness is always standing near intending doers.
- Happy the man who improves other people not merely when he is in their presence but even when he is in their thoughts!
- The time of life which offers the greatest delight is the age that sees the downward movement – not the steep decline – already begun; and in my opinion even the age that stands on the brink has pleasures of its own
the things of greatest merit are common property.
- ‘The life of folly is empty of gratitude, full of anxiety: it is focused wholly on the future.’
he means our own life, precipitated by blind desire into activities that are likely to bring us harm and will certainly never bring us satisfaction – if they could ever satisfy us they would have done so by now – never thinking how pleasant it is to ask for nothing, how splendid it is to be complete and be independent of fortune.
- So continually remind yourself, Lucilius, of the many things you have achieved.
- If you want to feel appreciative where the gods and your life are concerned, just think how many people you’ve outdone.
- Why be concerned about others, come to that, when you’ve outdone your own self?
we still need to practise philosophy. Whether we are caught in the grasp of an inexorable law of fate, whether it is God who as lord of the universe has ordered all things, or whether the affairs of mankind are tossed and buffeted haphazardly by chance, it is philosophy that has the duty of protecting us.
- Whatever is well said by anyone belongs to me.
- ‘If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.’
- I propose to give even you the following direction found in great men’s teaching: set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, coarse clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what one used to dread?’
- If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes.
security from care is not dependent on fortune – for even when she is angry she will always let us have what is enough for our needs.
- I imagine to myself that the testing time is drawing near, that the day that is going to see judgement pronounced on the whole of my past life has actually arrived, and I take a look at myself and address myself in these terms: ‘All that I’ve done or said up to now counts for nothing.
- Without anxiety, then, I’m making ready for the day when the tricks and disguises will be put away and I shall come to a verdict on myself, determining whether the courageous attitudes I adopt are really felt or just so many words, and whether or not the defiant challenges I’ve hurled at fortune have been mere pretence and pantomime.
- Away with the world’s opinion of you – it’s always unsettled and divided.
- We must needs continually study a thing if we are not in a position to test whether we know it.
- ‘Rehearse death.’ To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom.
- A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.
nothing may stand in the way of our being prepared to do at once what we must do at some time or other.
- A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.
- Even if some obstacle to this comes on the scene, its appearance is only to be compared to that of clouds which drift in front of the sun without ever defeating its light.’
your pace could be increased. There’s a lot of work remaining to be done, and if you want to be successful you must devote all your waking hours and all your efforts to the task personally.
- With some people you only need to point to a remedy; others need to have it rammed into them.
- A change of character, not a change of air, is what you need.
- Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.
- We should live with the conviction: ‘I wasn’t born for one particular corner: the whole world’s my home country.’
Slavery is only one, and yet the person who refuses to let the thought of it affect him is a free man no matter how great the swarm of masters around him.
- ‘A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.’
- For a person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right.
- You have to catch yourself doing it before you can reform.
- Some people boast about their failings: can you imagine someone who counts his faults as merits ever giving thought to their cure?
- Be harsh with yourself at times.
- Produce something from your own resources.
- How much longer are you going to be a pupil? From now on do some teaching as a man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking.
- ‘But surely you are going to walk in your predecessors’ footsteps?’ Yes indeed, I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up.
- Truth lies open to everyone. There has yet to be a monopoly of truth. And there is plenty of it left for future generations too.
precepts have the same features as seeds: they are of compact dimensions and they produce impressive results – given, as I say, the right sort of mind, to grasp at and assimilate them. The mind will then respond by being in its turn creative and will produce a yield exceeding what was put into it.
- This copious and impetuous energy in a speaker is better suited to a hawker than to someone who deals with a subject of serious importance
- I am telling you to be a slow-speaking person.
- And if you come across a man who is never alarmed by dangers, never affected by cravings, happy in adversity, calm in the midst of storm, viewing mankind from a higher level and the gods from their own, is it not likely that a feeling will find its way into you of veneration for him?
- No one should feel pride in anything that is not his own.
in a man praise is due only to what is his very own.
- Suppose he has a beautiful home and a handsome collection of servants, a lot of land under cultivation and a lot of money out at interest; not one of these things can be said to be in him – they are just things around him. Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly a man’s.
- You ask what that is? It is his spirit, and the perfection of his reason in that spirit. For man is a rational animal.
- Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born. And what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy – that he live in accordance with his own nature.
- All the time the sunshine was inviting me out, hunger prompting me to eat, the weather threatening to break, but I gulped it all down in one sitting.
- You needn’t be apprehensive, you’ll hear nothing but the truth.
- Straightforwardness and simplicity are in keeping with goodness.
- The place one’s in, though, doesn’t make any contribution to peace of mind: it’s the spirit that makes everything agreeable to oneself.
- Life would be restricted indeed if there were any barrier to our imaginations.
- Voices, I think, are more inclined to distract one than general noise; noise merely fills one’s ears, battering away at them while voices actually catch one’s attention.
- People who are really busy never have enough time to become skittish.
- Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.
- Greater power and greater value reside in that which creates (in this case God) than in the matter on which God works.
- What is death? Either a transition or an end.
- There are times when even to live is an act of bravery.
- the fear is due to the facts of nature, not of illness.
- So do not go out of your way to make your troubles any more tiresome than they are and burden yourself with fretting.
Provided that one’s thinking has not been adding anything to it, pain is a trivial sort of thing. If by contrast you start giving yourself encouragement, saying to yourself, ‘It’s nothing – or nothing much, anyway – let’s stick it out, it’ll be over presently’, then in thinking it a trivial matter you will be ensuring that it actually is.
- Everything hangs on one’s thinking.
- Another thing which will help is to turn your mind to other thoughts and that way get away from your suffering.
- Call to mind things which you have done that have been upright or courageous; run over in your mind the finest parts that you have played.
- And cast your memory over the things you have most admired; this is a time for recollecting all those individuals of exceptional courage who have triumphed over pain: the man who steadily went on reading a book while he was having varicose veins cut out: the man who never stopped smiling under torture albeit that this angered his tormentors into trying on him every instrument of cruelty they had.
- If pain has been conquered by a smile will it not be conquered by reason?
- I should find it difficult to say which of these people annoy me most, those who would have us know nothing or the ones who refuse even to leave us the small satisfaction of knowing that we know nothing.
- Even in the best of people, until you cultivate it there is only the material for virtue, not virtue itself.
nature is saying to you, “Those things you grumble about are the same for everyone. I can give no one anything easier. But anyone who likes may make them easier for himself.’ How? By viewing them with equanimity.
- But you needn’t believe the chatter of the people around you: there’s nothing in all this that’s evil, insupportable or even hard.
- If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.
- Every day, every hour sees a change in you, although the ravages of time are easier to see in others; in your own case they are far less obvious, because to you they do not show.
- Are you never going to give any of these considerations any thought and never going to apply any healing treatment to your wounds, instead of sowing the seeds of worry for yourself by hoping for this or that, or despairing of obtaining this or that other thing? If you’re sensible you’ll run the two together, and never hope without an element of despair, never despair without an element of hope.
- What you must do, then, is mend your ways and get rid of the burden you’re carrying. Keep your cravings within safe limits.
- Scour every trace of evil from your personality.
- The miser, the swindler, the bully, the cheat, who would do you a lot of harm by simply being near you, are actually inside you.
- Move to better company: live with the Catos, with Laelius, with Tubero. If you like Greek company too, attach yourself to Socrates and Zeno: the one would teach you how to the should it be forced upon you, the other how to the before it is forced upon you. Live with Chrysippus, live with
- Posidonius; they will give you a knowledge of man and the universe;
think of the things which goad man into destroying man: you’ll find that they are hope, envy, hatred, fear and contempt.
- One has to accept life on the same terms as the public baths, or crowds, or travel.
- Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you. Life’s no soft affair.
- The more the mind takes in the more it expands.
- No need to do as the crowd does: to follow the common, well-worn path in life is a sordid way to behave.
- How nothing is burdensome if taken lightly, and how nothing need arouse one’s irritation so long as one doesn’t make it bigger than it is by getting irritated.
- Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.
- Look at the number of things we buy because others have bought them or because they’re in most people’s houses.
- As for those sour and disapproving characters, those critics of other people’s lives – and spoilers of their own – who set themselves up as moral tutors to society at large, you needn’t give tuppence for them;
you needn’t ever have any hesitation when it comes to putting good living before a good reputation.’
- We are attracted by wealth, pleasures, good looks, political advancement and various other welcoming and enticing prospects: we are repelled by exertion, death, pain, disgrace and limited means. It follows that we need to train ourselves not to crave for the former and not to be afraid of the latter.
- Let us fight the battle the other way round – retreat from the things that attract us and rouse ourselves to meet the things that actually attack
- Let us fight the battle the other way round – retreat from the things that attract us and rouse ourselves to meet the things that actually attack us.
- The path that leads to pleasures is the downward one: the upward climb is the one that takes us to rugged and difficult ground.
- ‘No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing.