Seneca: Letters from a Stoic

Having recently completed Seneca, I find it reasonable to write a brief review on the topic of his philisophical meanderings to either entice, or perhaps dissuade, others from also studying his material.

Seneca was a roman Philosopher of nearly 2000 years past. His writings are broken down into conversational letters with a friend of him written, as I understand it, over the course of several years. While the exact events of that friendship can only be inferred from the letters which provide some context to the discussion, I am first taken with how Seneca approaches friendship itself as a concept. The modern reader is immediately confronted by how much humanity truly has not changed all that much. Just as Seneca was in the autumn of his civilization modern twenty-first century readers will experience the sense of this time, and this place, but remove by such distance across space and time. It makes me ponder that era when Seneca lived, with the edge of his great and prosperous civilization on the horizon. It makes me appreciate how nobility can be preserved for millennia, and how his nobility is not entirely different from what we require now.

Seneca respects friends and family in a way that is foreign to the modern materialist, but understood among traditionalist cultures and holdouts in our otherwise broken civilization. He does quite well to put into words what many of us feel is true, but which we, having not yet achieved an aged wisdom, have trouble articulating ourselves. Reading Seneca’s letters allowed me personally to articulate thoughts I’ve long held, but have not been able to accurately describe. Seneca understands that family and friendship is not a transaction, it’s the individual being a part of a larger whole. A social animus, or the unified spirit of a bloodline or of a people. In this way, Seneca can be described as something of a Roman-Confucian.

There is a fair quantity of discussions of class, and the treatment of, in his time, slaves. About seeing them not as employees, but as members of the expanded family constructed about the self. There exist even now silly social taboos that prevent us from gaining the benefits of a strong community or a strong household. Taboos that exist only because of self-centered fears about the behavior of others. Just as in the modern era, loving your own people is seen as dangerous and taboo (if you’re white), so too was it seen as strange to recognize your ‘lessers’ as humans fit to dine at your own table. While some of Senecas discussions are repetitive, it is necessary. He grinds his points home several times with variations in verbiage that might penetrate even the most recalcitrant of skulls for those willing to listen.

Similarly, on the topic of the self, Seneca spends a great deal of time identifying the self as transitory. A part of a larger whole, and a general perspective to look forward to both life and death. To live in such a way that those around you can respect you, and more importantly that you can respect yourself. In that way one could say that Seneca might also be described as a Roman-Buddhist. So many people live burdensome lives because they carry those burdens on their back with them. There is no escaping the self, and Seneca does quite well in defining exactly what it is that means.

I recommend Seneca to those in the current era who understand that tradition is not the worship of ashes, rather the preservation of fire. His teaching is particularly useful for those who know the nature of tradition, but have difficulty in articulating how and why they know such truths. It is the old-mans wisdom, written so skillfully, and in such a friendly conversational tone, that it’s easy for me to imagine having such discussions with my own grandfather. Indeed, had he not passed several decades prior, I likely would be having such discussions with him.

Seneca is a book for a man between the age of 26 and 32. Though I can imagine the occasional extremely-mature 22 year old might be able to handle it. The modern materialism of the West has broken down these ideas so thoroughly that only those ready to seek them out with an open mind can understand them. Lastly, women will have difficulty with these ideas, I find it likely only few and far between females can understand them, much less appreciate them. It’s a book for the legacy of western world, on keeping the self.

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