Sunday, July 20, 2008

Seneca's Letters From A Stoic

Letters From A Stoic
By Seneca, Selected and Translated by Robin Campbell
Penguin Books, $13.00 paper
ISBN 0-140-44210-3

“A person who goes to a philosopher should carry away with him something or other of value every day; he should return home a sounder man or at least more capable of becoming one.”

As teachers we hope to create in our students life long learners. Therefore, teaching is not just about the subject being taught. The skills of analysis and critical thinking my students learn in my class can be applied to any life situation. Certainly, I hope they remember some of the novels and poetry we cover, but more than this, I hope they learn in my class a system of thinking, a way to consider things critically, analytically, and creatively.

So to that end, our lives as teachers are about modeling how to live. That is the most important thing we teach. The most important thing our students can become is a life long learner, someone who is forever interested, intrigued even, by her world, and anxious to learn all she can about it and the inhabitants of it.

In our third and final book on Stoicism, we find advice for teachers and students in the form of the epistle, the letter. Seneca, living in a town in Spain controlled by Rome during the time of Christ, is an authority on the art of rhetoric, public speaking and debate, says his translator, Robin Campbell in the Introduction to Letters From A Stoic.

Stoicism has a long history predating Seneca. It is a philosophy founded by Zeno around 336 B.C. “The Stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers,” Campbell writes, “ruled by a supreme providence which could be spoken of, almost according to choice or context, under a variety of names or descriptions including the divine reason, creative reason, nature, the spirit or purpose of the universe, destiny, a personal god, even…’the gods.’ It is man’s duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, bringing his life into line with ‘nature’s laws’, and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him.” Campbell goes on to say that Stoics “discipline the pleasures and the passions, and generally subordinate the body and emotions to the mind and soul.”

As with most of these books, the Introduction—Seneca’s Life, Seneca and Philosophy, Seneca and Literature—Notes, Further Reading, and an Appendix, take up almost as much space as the letters themselves. Campbell does a thorough job of describing the philosophy, Seneca’s role as teacher and secular saint, and bringing together a variety of resources for further study. The text of the letters themselves is also rendered clearly and concisely, with some of the “brevity and sparkle” of the philosopher’s language.

Seneca’s view of philosophy is particularly interesting. In his time, philosophers functioned as counselors as well as teachers. They believed that it was a philosopher’s job to impart some knowledge of how to live. In short, philosophy was part of the mainstream, a requisite subject to become an educated person.

Seneca models a passion for learning. References to this life long learning are sprinkled throughout his letters. “I remember a piece of advice which Attalus gave me in the days when I practically laid siege to his lecture hall,” he writes, “always first to arrive and last to go, and would draw him into a discussion of some point or other even when he was out taking a walk, for he was always readily available to his students, not just accessible.” There are many such instances where he shares memories and reflections of his student years.

Seneca is clear about how a teacher must also be a student: “part of my joy in learning is that it puts me in a position to teach.” Yes, a teacher’s role is, first and foremost, to be the educational leader of students, the philosopher who models what it means to approach life as a learner, for Seneca believes “men learn as they teach.”

Seneca’s focus is on the common man, advising people how to live, focusing on matters both physical and intellectual. He writes, “…shame on him who lies in bed dozing when the sun is high in the sky, whose waking hours commence in the middle of the day…” In another letter, he remarks that “In a single day there lies open to men of learning more than there ever does to the unenlightened in the longest of lifetimes.”

His take on death is sober as well as comforting. “No one is so ignorant as not to know that some day he must die,” he writes. “Nevertheless when death draws near he turns, wailing and trembling, looking for a way out. Wouldn’t you think a man an utter fool if he burst into tears because he didn’t live a thousand years ago? A man is as much a fool for shedding tears because he isn’t going to be alive a thousand years from now.” Seneca considers death, “Either a transition or an end.” But the law of everything is that “Every journey has its end,” he assures us.

Echoes of later writers influenced by Seneca abound. Shakespeare’s numerous references to the living as actors on a stage appears in Seneca’s letters. “As it is with a play, so it is with life—what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will—only make sure that you round it off with a good ending.”

Henry David Thoreau obviously read Seneca. His quote, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all,” finds a root in the letters. “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.”

Lest one thinks that Seneca only focused on learning and thinking, he did not neglect the body. He has entries in the letters about fatigue, diet, and of course, exercise. He also addresses how one can give time off to the mind. “I’m not telling you to be always bent over book or writing tablets. The mind has to be given some time off, but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed till it goes to pieces.”

Stoicism addresses how to live. In our society, we need to return to such ideals. Many people today are lazy, unmotivated, reluctant to work hard or pay their dues for something better in the future, or take action that might challenge themselves physically and mentally. There is a culture of cheating and a focus on avoiding difficult challenges in our schools, and there is very little modeling of good behavior and intellectual integrity by adults—parents, teachers, principals, business leaders, political leaders. Really, what kinds of lessons do our children learn from us and from our actions?

It is time to return to the wisdom of the Stoics, and consider how we live. The lessons of these ancients will bring us closer to actualizing our ideal lives, to peace, intellectual growth, and a startling vision of what the world, and its people, can be.


  1. This is a nice review from a teacher's perspective. You might also note Seneca's emphasis on role models: a bad role model rubs off on us like rust; linger instead with a person who embodies the qualities you would like to cultivate in yourself. How special that person is whose good example is followed not only when he is nearby, but even when he is only in the thoughts of others. How lucky we would be to meet this kind of person in the shape of a teacher!

    You suggested that Stoics believe that the hand of fate directs our lives. Seneca would strongly disagree. He urged that whether our lives are guided by providence (divine purpose) or by fortune (a random universe), our objective should be self control and balance with nature

    Rather than saying Stoics rely on divine purpose, it might be more accurate to say that we teach total personal responsibility. Someone may offer you a bribe; a teacher may inadvertently leave a test on her desk; a criminal might kill a loved one; an employer might offer a good paying job. Fortune forever throws us gifts and surprises. How will we choose to react to them? The choice at that moment is yours alone. How you choose will largely depend on how well you have prepared yourself to practice the Stoic virtue of equanimity: "My eyes will be overcome no more by the glitter of gold than by the glitter of a sword, and I will overcome with unwavering purpose of will the things all other men hope for and the things all other men fear."

  2. Very enlightening comment. I appreciate the insights. Somehow, these works need to be taught more often in high school. What passes for character education in schools today is woefully inadequate when compared to these works and others where morality and ethics are examined and debated.

    Thanks for reading,
    Paul L. Martin

  3. Suggestion: There is an interesting parallel between the world of the Stoics and our world, insofar as the relationship between the individual and society is problematic. The integration of the two in ancient Athens, for instance, while it was still an independent city-state is lost. Society becomes a somewhat difficult factor that we must keep at arms length in order to preserve our fragile serenity.



I would love to know who is commenting. Therefore, please use the selections below to identify yourself. Anonymous is so impersonal. If you do not have a blog or Google account, use the Name/URL selection. Thanks.