The great Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca lived and worked two thousand years ago, but his insight and everyday advice still hold resonance for our lives today. As we move further into the new year, past the season of new year’s resolutions and holidays, Seneca’s practical wisdom can help us to step back and take stock of ourselves, our values, and our priorities.
We spoke with Margaret Graver and A. A. Long, who translated and provided commentary for a new book of Seneca’s letters, Seneca: Fifty Letters of a Roman Stoic, to hear more about this philosopher and his letters and to get a peek at some highlights from the book.
Graver and Long: “Our aim in producing Fifty Letters from a Roman Stoic was to capture the essence of Seneca’s major work in a shortened format that could draw in a new generation of readers. Unquestionably the Letters to Lucilius are the Roman author’s most important venture in literature as well as in philosophy. The intimacy of the personal letter is his vehicle for an astonishing range of content, from middle-Platonic metaphysics to social satire to snatches from otherwise unknown poets. Above all, Seneca tries to make sense of the core values of Stoic ethics, pushing back against the crass materialism of his contemporaries. As translators, we were especially moved by those moments when he speaks directly to the human condition—sometimes in just a sentence or two.”
Graver and Long highlight a few snippets of Seneca’s letters that illustrate the range of thoughtful reflections included in the book.
In Letter 3, on friendship: “Take time to consider whether or not to receive a person into your friendship; but once you have decided to do so, receive him with all your heart, and speak with him as candidly as with yourself.”
In Letter 41, on prayer: “You need not raise your hands to heaven; you need not beg the temple keeper for privileged access, as if a near approach to the cult image would give us a better hearing. The god is near you—with you—inside you. I mean it, Lucilius. A sacred spirit dwells within us, and is the observer and guardian of all our goods and ills.”
In Letter 75, on freedom: “What is freedom, you ask? To fear no human being and no god, to want neither what is base nor what is excessive, to have absolute power over oneself. Just being one’s own person is wealth beyond measure.”
In Letter 123, on fashion: “How many things we acquire only because other people have bought them or because they are in other people’s homes! Many of our problems stem from the fact that we live by conforming to other people’s standards, following fashion instead of taking reason as our guide.”
In Letter 124, on human good: “Do not judge yourself to be happy until all your joys arise from yourself, until, after viewing the objects of human competition, covetousness, and possessiveness, you find— I will not say nothing to prefer, but nothing to set your heart on. I will give you a brief rule by which to measure yourself, to gauge when you have achieved perfection: you will possess your own good when you understand that the truly fortunate are those least blessed by fortune.”
Graver and Long: With passages such as these, Seneca memorably states the essence of Stoic ethics: cultivation of reason is the basis of happiness, goodness, and freedom. The internal quality of life, not longevity and consumption, are what we should strive for. That way we can make the best use of our fleeting lifetime and be effective managers of our external circumstances.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BCE-65CE) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, dramatist, and advisor to Emperor Nero. Margaret Graver is the Aaron Lawrence Professor in Classics at Dartmouth College. Her publications include Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4; Stoicism and Emotion; and, in collaboration with A.A. Long, a complete translation of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics. A.A. Long is chancellor’s professor of classics emeritus and affiliated professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Greek Models of Mind and Self and Epictetus: How to be Free.