Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Letters from the Past

Writers are time-traveling telepaths. They encode their ideas and send them into the future. Readers receive these messages, decode the squiggly symbols on the page or screen, and hear the author's words recited in their heads. It doesn't matter whether the messages were written down weeks, months, or years ago: it always reaches the reader in the present.

This isn't always a one-way street, either. Some literary works provide readers with a window into the author's mind, offering insights into the social and psychological conditions that shaped it. Through such works readers get to experience bygone eras, extinct cultures, and the ideas that populated both, all through the author's eyes.

These works allow readers to be time-traveling telepaths, too!

That's certainly how I feel when I read Seneca's Letters from a Stoic

This excellent book is a collection of letters written by the philosopher Seneca to his friend Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily. In his letters, Seneca offers his friend advice on a wide range of topics pertinent to Romans living in first century CE.


What fascinates me the most about these letters is their relevance today. It appears that the human condition hasn't changed much in the 2,000 years since Seneca put pen to parchment. We traded gladiator games for pro sports, Latin for English, and slaves for the middle class, but our concerns remain the same.

We're anxious about the future. We struggle to make meaningful connections with others. We seek purpose and strive to be happy. We attempt to maintain a work-life balance.

If our concerns are timeless, so too is Seneca's advice on how best to deal with them. But more on that later. First, let's meet Lucius Annaeus Seneca, aka Seneca the Younger.

Living at the very dawn of the Roman Empire (4BCE - 65CE), Seneca wore many hats. He was a dramatist, statesman, and philosopher. He wrote a dozen plays and a number of philosophical essays and letters. He also tutored Nero and served as the emperor's adviser for 15 years.

Fun fact: Seneca's philosophical writings had a profound influence on early Christianity and he was well-loved by early church leaders. Tertullian, the father of Latin Christianity, called him "Our Seneca." In the Middle Ages, he made posthumous appearances in the works of Chaucer and Dante. Some Medieval writers even claimed that Seneca converted to Christianity before his death, though no proof of this exists beyond the accounts themselves.

One need not look far to see how Seneca influenced Christian scripture and theology. He often writes his letters with a scathing moral authority so that his "advice" to poor Lucilius comes off sounding more like preaching. For example, when Lucilius complains that he can't trust some of his friends, Seneca responds:
But if you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means.
Ouch.  Or this:
He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.
Seneca doesn't sugar coat a damn thing!

He also brings a bit of controversy to the table. While preaching self-restraint, discipline, and the insignificance of material wealth, Seneca supposedly had numerous illicit affairs with married women and accumulated a vast fortune under Nero's rule. While in exile, Seneca also wrote pleading letters that contradicted Stoic tenets like accepting one's fate and finding joy in the simple life.

Robin Campbell, one of Seneca's translators, summarizes the above succinctly when he writes that "the stock criticism of Seneca [has been] the apparent contrast between his philosophical teachings and his practice."

There's one final intrigue surrounding Seneca's letters: they are completely one-sided. Even though he often makes reference to something his friend wrote in a previous letter, none of Lucilius' letters have ever been found.

In fact, there isn't a shred of proof that Lucilius existed outside of Seneca's letters. As procurator of Sicily, there ought to be some record of Lucilius out there, but no luck.

This has led some to question Lucilius' existence, and rightfully so. Philosophers in the Hellenic world were fond of writing dialogues between fictional characters in order to advance their points. Add to this the fact that Seneca was a famous playwright and the case for a fictional Lucilius becomes even stronger.

I don't think that Seneca was a hypocrite preaching what he couldn't practice; rather, I believe he was a flawed genius trying to reinforce his Stoicism by writing letters to himself. Interestingly enough, this is exactly what Marcus Aurelius did in his Meditations, which were originally entitled "To Myself."

Through Lucilius, Seneca strengthens his own resolve. He draws on his flaws, weaknesses, and past experiences to outline a path to the good life. There is no contradiction between Seneca's lifestyle and seemingly contradictory message: he is simply reminding himself of the facts, so easily forgotten in the face of wealth, fame, and power.

Seneca is doing what we should all do: honestly examining his past, learning lessons, and improving his future.


When Seneca says that "the acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles," he is speaking from personal experience.

That Seneca might have been incapable of practicing what he preached does not tarnish the wisdom, beauty, and truth of his words. Those who cannot do, teach, and Seneca has proven himself to be a most excellent teacher.

Seneca and the Stoic philosophers of Rome were onto something. They had uncanny insights into the human mind and I'm convinced that their ideas are just as pertinent today as they were 2,000 years ago. I will try to pass some of Seneca's lessons down through a series of Seneca-inspired blog posts in the weeks to come. I hope you will find as much value in them as I have.

Sometimes ancient solutions are needed to solve modern problems.

/rant over
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