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Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (The Penguin Classics L210)

by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Robin Campbell

Buy the book: Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (The Penguin Classics L210)

Release Date: July, 1969

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (The Penguin Classics L210)

Secular wisdom for today

Freethinkers, Deists, Humanists and others who have thrown off the yoke of theism & dogma will find much food for thought here. Especially new freethinkers who are still being warned by well intentioned "true believers" that an ethical, moral life is only possible with a personal deity. Lookng back to the classical pagan world of stoicism, we find Seneca, a philosopher that continues to illuminate the world with insights into conducting ones life according to reason and the affirmation to all that life has to offer without resorting to false piety and religious apologetics. These are views from the real world.
Of interest to anyone examining the classical world of ancient Rome will discover, the intellectuals of the time possessed both a religion and a philosophy to guide their lives. Religion was merely the outward exoteric public display of sentiment (much like our calendar holidays today) and then there was your philosophy, the inner esoteric moral compass that guided deep seated morality and ethical choices. Which can result in a well lived life of fullfillment & happiness. Qualities all too often absent from modern life. Especially for those still trying to juggle and make sense of repressive monotheisms. Read Seneca & celebrate life's rich offerings.

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Sometimes, yes...sometimes, no...

That title perhaps sounds like "hot" and "cold" running
Seneca -- but it is rather a personal guide to how I believe
one should approach Seneca and his advice in these "Moral
My own interest in wanting to know more about him and to
read about him came from two sources -- one of them was
the several mentions of him by Herman Melville in his
works -- and the other was the suggestion in the Oxford
World's Classics edition of Petronius' SATYRICON that
Trimalchio and those of his sort as depicted by Petronius
might be based on the types of individuals pointed out
by Seneca in his letters (p. xxix).
In the first chapter of MOBY-DICK, Ishmael (the narrator)
talks about how he goes to sea -- and how he is able to
bear it. He says: "No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple
sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the fore-
castle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. True, they
rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to
spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And, at first
this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one's
sense of honor.... The transition is a keen one, I assure
you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong
decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin
and bear it. But even this wears off in time."
According to the Introduction in this edition by Penguin
Classics (translated and with an Introduction by Robin
Campbell), there were 124 letters written to Lucilius
Junior, "a native of Pompeii, a hard-working higher civil
servant (procurator in Sicily at the time) who appears to
have dabbled in literature and philosophy." (p. 12)
There appear to be 42 of the letters included in this
edition. The negative, here, is that the letters are
numbered with Roman numerals, and there is no subtitle or
parenthetical information before the letters to tell what
the subject matter is. One has to "know" the letters by
tradition and familiarity in order to know which number to
go to in order to find Seneca's views and advice on certain
The translator (Robin Campbell) gives his justification
for the selection of the particular letters in his
"Introduction." He says, "It may be asked what criteria
have been applied in deciding which letters should be
included or omitted. The first has been their interest --
as they set out a philosophy and contribute to a picture
of a man and of his time. The second has been the avoidance
of undue repetition of particular themes or topics of a
moralist who tends towards repetitiveness." (p.28)
The exasperation with Seneca comes with his dual
nature -- he is both "social man," and "thinking (principled)
man." And occasionally he recognizes that those two things
may be in conflict, and may be cause for making choices --
but he also tries to be "practical" in his view of man's
being also a social being, and thus having to have contact
and social interaction with others of his species. Sometimes
his advice on this latter course seems temporizing, tedious,
and questionable. Here is the Seneca who is the temporizer,
the go-along-to-get-along dissembler. He quite rightly tells
his reader not to merely ape the outward disdain of
conventional dress and manners simply to get attention, trying
to convince others of his "better" nature. Perhaps he should
have stopped here, and told his reader that reform of the
self was what he should aim at -- but there seemed to be
the tutor or teacher in Seneca, so he seemed prone to think
he had a mission to reform others as well. "The very name
of philosophy, however modest the manner in which it is
pursued, is unpopular enough as it is: imagine what the
reaction would be if we started dissociating ourselves
from the conventions of society. Inwardly everything
should be different, but our outward face should conform
with the crowd [unh-hunh; strangely this does not synch
with what he says later about how one's individual
attitudes and values can be warped and worsened by
mere association of time with the crowd and its
amusements!]. * * * Let our aim be a way of life not
diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the
mob. Otherwise we shall repel and alienate the very
people whose reform we desire; we shall make them,
moreover, reluctant to imitate us in anything for fear
they may have to imitate us in everything. The first
thing philosophy promises us is the feeling of fellow-
ship, of belonging to mankind and being members of a
community; being different will mean the abandoning of
that manifesto." [Letter V, p. 37.] It is no wonder
that Melville moved away from Seneca after MOBY-DICK,
especially after the crowd (the reading public and the
critics) had rejected him. There was too much of
the alienated, wounded, grieving loner in Melville,
anyway, to feel totally comfortable with someone like
Seneca and his moral/worldly dichotomy.
The letters that appealed the most to me were the
ones concerning "reading" and "the effect of crowds."
Here is some of Seneca's advice on reading: "You should
be extending your stay among writers whose genius is
unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them
if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will
find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is
to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life travelling
abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find
hospitality but no real friendships. The same must needs
be the case with people who never set about acquiring
an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer,
but skip from one to another, paying flying visits to
them all." [Letter II, p. 33]
And here is his observation about the effect of
"going along with the crowd." "Associating with people in
large numbers is actually harmful: there is not one of
them that will not make some vice or other attractive
to us, or leave us carrying the imprint of it or bedaubed
all unawares with it. * * * But nothing is as ruinous
to the character as sitting away one's time at a show --
for it is then, through the medium of entertainment, that
vices creep into one with more than usual ease. What do
you take me to mean? That I go home more selfish, more
self-seeking, and more self-indulgent? Yes, and what is
more, a person crueller and less humane through having
been in contanct with human beings. * * * When a mind is
impressionalbe and has none too firm a hold on what is
right, it must be rescued from the crowd: it is so easy
for it to go over to the majority. * * * such is the
measure of the inability of any of us, even as we perfect
our personality's adjustment, to withstand the onset of
vices when they come with such a mighty following."
[Letter VII, pp. 41-42.]
Read for yourself -- decide for youself how large or
small a "decoction of Seneca" is salutary for the soul --
or not.

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