Letters From a Stoic is best for those interested in classic philosophy and don’t mind parsing that language. It’s also good for those interested in friendship, death, wealth, and developing a good life.
Difficulty to Digest:
Letters from a Stoic is a fairly difficult book to digest. Much of the language is outdated and can be hard to follow if you don’t often read old philosophy. Most people will be well served by adding a guide or outline chart.
Key Insights of “Letters From a Stoic”:
Seneca covers a huge range of topics in his letters, with only slight connections between each ‘chapter’. Here, we’ll focus on some of the major themes that stood out, however, they are in no means the totality of the writings. In general, however, the letters are fairly concise and pointed toward answering a particular question. Due to the age of the text, this can be a bit difficult to parse at times, but overall includes lots of metaphors and other comparisons that help drive the points home.
One of the most consistent themes is speaking of death and acceptance of death. Seneca uses a number of interesting points to try to make death more palpable. For example, asking if you’re sad about all the time that happened before you were born, then following it by asking if not, why you’re sad about the time you’ll miss in the future.
He also spends several passages showing that many people are afraid of death as a single instant, but actually every moment in the past is part of death. Each moment spent is irreversibly spent, and the timing of the last one isn’t as important as it seems. The quality of life is far more important than quantity – even though most people worry about moments. Living with a horrible quality of life isn’t worth it, according to Seneca.
Another example; Seneca mentions Death is actually nice because it removes the risk of all negative events. Death means no more feeling sick, no fear of imprisonment, etc. While there are plenty more nuances, it’s another angle used to show that death is not to be feared but to be understood as part of the process of life.
Several letters focus on the value of friendship, essentially valuing good friends at an absolute premium. Seneca also mentions true friends are people we talk to the same as we talk to ourselves, with no secrets. Since friends are so valuable, he recommends developing as many as possible, and to weigh kindness higher than rudeness.
Internal Resilience vs. External Wealth
Another repeated theme is the idea of developing yourself and how you deal with cravings as far more important than external objects. What good are golden plates if we can’t handle fear, loathing, jealousy, or other emotions? Inside order is far more useful for a good life than outside order.
Seneca also makes a point that having nothing doesn’t prove you’re emotionally more resilient either. That being said, intentionally experiencing poverty will show that there’s nothing to fear. You can get by. Showing luxury and amassing wealth, on the other hand, is completely pointless. At what point will you be satisfied? How does it add to your wellbeing? Better to work on managing your desires than on accumulating material possessions.
Another important point is that external wealth is subject to the whims of fortune. At any moment, people can lose their possessions, but internally developed values cannot be taken away. Fortune or bad luck cannot affect them. Since everything is transient, better to get used to the facts and work on what’s within grasp. On a related note, who you are is far more important than where you go.
On Good Living
Seneca also covers, in a number of ways, what constitutes a good life. You’ll have to read the book to get all the nuances, but at a high-level Seneca speaks of using time in a way that’s productive and acting from general principles. This means avoiding a lot of topics that produce wit, but not a better life.
He also covers ideas like gratitude, grit, reducing anxiety, overexercising, speaking simply, creating values, and becoming educated, not for the sake of memorization, but for producing new novel knowledge. Choices matter more than origins.
Final Opinion on “Letters From a Stoic”:
Letters From a Stoic is an interesting read with some novel ideas, however, it’s a bit challenging to parse. If you’d rather skip the challenge, I recommend some sort of summary, guide, or alternative source that will help you get the main points without delving into the nuance.
Some of the letters cover subjects that seem quite random and disparate. If you’re looking for a guide to better living, expect to take quite a few detours into other realms. While not completely disorienting, it can be a bit hard to follow at times and occasionally is on the dry side.
Unfortunately, there are quite a few sexist comments peppered through the book. Seneca speaks about women in a way quite negative and as though they are so different from men as to be unable to understand the concepts in the book. In addition, ‘effeminate’ men are also negatively spoken of quite a few times. For those averse to this type of language, it can be a major downside.
- What is your relationship with death?
- How might you develop more, quality friendships?
- Do you spend more time building internal resilience or external wealth?