Letters from a Stoic – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

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.

It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.

Certainly you should discuss everything with a friend; but before you do so, discuss in your mind the man himself. After friendship is formed you must trust, but before that you must judge.

Inwardly everything should be different but our outward face should conform with the crowd.

Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.

There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.

You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world. But the right thing is to shun both courses: you should neither become like the bad because there are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you. Retire yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving.

The many speak highly of you, but have you really any grounds for satisfaction with yourself if you are the kind of person the many understand? Your merits should not be outward facing.

Continually remind yourself of the many things you have achieved. When you look at all the people out in front of you, think of all the ones behind you. If you want to feel appreciative where the gods and your life are concerned, just think how many people you have outdone. Why be concerned about others, come to that, when you’ve outdone your own self? Set yourself a limit which you couldn’t even exceed if you wanted to, and say good-bye at last to those deceptive prizes more precious to those who hope for them than to those who have won them. If there where anything substantial in them they would sooner or later bring a sense of fullness; as it is they simply aggravate the thirst of those who swallow them. Away with pomp and show; as for the uncertain lot that the future has in store for me, why should I demand from fortune that she could give me this and that rather than demand from myself that I should not ask for them?

Without it no one can lead a life free of fear or worry. Every hour of the day countless situations arise that call for advice, and for that advice we have to look to philosophy.

Nature’s wants are small, while those of opinions are limitless.

Count your years and you’ll be ashamed to be wanting and working for the same things as you wanted when you were a boy. Of this one thing make sure against your dying day – that your faults die before you do.

How can you wonder your travels do you no good, when you carry yourself around with you? You are saddled with the very thing that drove you away.

Let’s have some difference between you and the books! How much longer are you going to be a pupil? From now on do some teaching as well. Why, after all, should I listen to what I can read for myself?

Truth lies open to everyone. There has yet to be a monopoly of truth. And there is plenty of it left for future generations too.

When the object is not to make him want to learn but to get him learning, one must have recourse to these lower tones, which enter the mind more easily and stick in it. What is required is not a lot of words but effectual ones.

I should rather have the words issued forth than flowing forth.
You can only acquire it successfully if you cease to feel any sense of shame. You really need to give the skin of your face a good rub and then not listen to yourself! For that unguarded pace will give rise to a lot of expressions of which you would otherwise be critical. You cannot, I repeat, succesfully acquire it and preserve your modesty at the same time.

I am telling you to be a slow-speaking person.

No one should feel pride in anything that is not his own.
In a man praise is due only to what is his very own. Suppose he has a beautiful home and a handsome collection of servants, a lot of land under cultivation and a lot of money out at interest; not one of these things can be said to be IN him – they are just things AROUND him. Praise in hun what can be neither given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly a man’s.

Only an absolute fool values a man according to his clothes, or according to his social position, which after all is only something that we wear like clothing.

Show me a man who isn’t a slave; one is a slave to sex, another to money, another to ambition; all are slaves to hope or fear. I could show you a man who has been a Consul who is a slave to his ‘little old woman’, a millionaire who is the slave of a little girl in domestic service. […] And there’s no state of slavery more disgraceful than one which is self-imposed.

What is the good of having silence throughout the neighborhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil?

There’s no thing as ‘peaceful stillness’ except where reason has lulled it to rest.

The fact that the body is lying down is no reason for supposing that the mind is at peace. Rest is sometimes far from restful. Hence our need to be stimulated into general activity and kept occupied and busy with pursuits of the right nature whenever we are victims of the sort of idleness that wearies of itself. When great military commanders notice indiscipline among their men they suppress it by giving them some work to do, mounting expeditions to keep them actively employed. People who are really busy never have enough time to become skittish. And there is nothing so certain as the fact that the harmful consequences of inactivity are dissipated by activity.

I should prefer to see you abandoning grief than it abandoning you. Much as you may wish to, you will not be able to keep it up for very long, so give it up as early as possible.

Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.

Refusal to be influenced by one’s body assures one’s freedom.

A man is unhappy as he has convinced himself he is. And complaining away about one’s sufferings after they are over is something I think should be banned. Even if all this is true, it is past history. What’s the good of dragging up sufferings which are overm of being unhappy now just because you were then?

If pain has been conquered by as smile will it not be conquered by reason?

What really ruins our characters is the fact that none of us looks back over his life. We think about what we are going to do, and only rarely of that, and fail to think about what we have done, yet any plans for the future are dependent on the past.

[…] so called pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments.

Look for the best and be prepared for the opposite.

The things that are essential are acquired with little bother; it is the luxuries that call for toil and effort. Follow nature and you will feel no need of craftsmen.

We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events.

We should be anticipating not merely all that commonly happens but all that is conceivably capable of happening.

All the works of mortal man lie under sentence of mortality; we live among things that are destined to perish.

What could be more foolish than a man’s being afraid of people’s words?

The story is told that someone complained to Socrates that travelling abroad had never done him any good and received the reply: ‘What else can you expect, seeing that you always take yourself along with you when you go abroad?’
[…]
If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place, but to be a different person.
[…]
What difference does the character of the place make? You’ll be importing your own with you.

Preserve a sense of proportion in your attitude to everything that pleases you, and make the most of them while they are at their best.

Travel won’t make a better or saner man of you. For this we must spend time in study and in the writings of wise men, to learn the truths that have emerged from their researches, and carry on the search ourselves for the answers that have not yet been discovered. This is the way to liberate the spirit that still needs to be rescued from its miserable state of slavery.
So long, in fact, as you remain in ignorance of what to aim at and what to avoid, what is essential and what is superfluous, what is upright or honourable conduct and what is not, it will not be travelling but drifting. All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re travelling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way.

Does it surprise you that running away doesn’t do you any good? The things you’re running away from are with you all the time.
[…]
If you wish to be stripped of your vices you must get right away from the examples others set of them.

MOVE TO BETTER COMPANY (AKA read books of wise men)

First we have to reject the life of pleasures; they make us soft and womanish; they are insistent in their demands, and what is more, require us to make insistent demands on fortune. And then we need to look down on wealth, which is the wage of slavery. Gold and silver and everything else that clutters our prosperous homes should be discarded. Freedom cannot be won without sacrifice. If you set a high value on her, everything must be valued at little.

But nothing will help quite so much as just keeping quiet, talking with other people as little as possible, with yourself as much as possible. For conversation has a kind of charm about it, an insinuating and insiduous something that elicits secrets from us just like love or liquor. Nobody will keep the things he hears to himself, and nobody will repeat just what he hears and no more. Neither will anyone who has failed to keep a story to himself keep the name of his informant to himself. Every person without exception has someone to whom he confides everything that is confided to himself. Even supposing he puts some guard in his garrulous tongue and is content with a single pair of ears, he will still be the creator of a host of later listeners – such is the way in which what was but a little while before a secret becomes common rumour.

Everyone faces up more bravely to a thing for which he has long prepared himself, sufferings, even; being withstood if they have been trained for in advance. Those who are unprepared, on the other hand, are panic-stricken by the most insignificant happenings. We must see to it that nothing takes us by surprise. And since it is invariably unfamiliarity that makes a thing more formidable than it really is, this habit of continual reflection will ensure that no form of adversity finds you a complete beginner.

What we hear philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching, and the spirited and the noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application […] and learn them so well that words become works.

Let me indicate here how men can prove that their words are their own: let them put their preaching into practice.

So wherever you notice that a corrupt style is in general favour, you may be certain that in that society people’s characters as well have deviated from the true path. In the same way as extravagance in dress and entertaining are indications of a diseased community, so an aberrant literary stylem provided it is widespread, shows that the spirit (from which people’s words derive) has also come to grief. And in fact you need feel no surprise at the way corrupt work finds popularity not merely with the common bystander but with your relatively cultivated audience: the distinction between these two classes of critic is more one of dress than of discernment. What you might find more surprising is the fact that they do not confine themselves to admiring passages that contain defects, but admire the actual defects themselves as well. The former thing has been the case all through history – no genius that ever won acclaim did so without a measure of indulgence.

Let us expand our life: action is its theme and duty. The night should be kept within bounds, and a proportion of it transferred to the day.

No need to do as the crowd does: to follow the common, well-worn path in life is a sordid way to behave. Let’s leave the daytime to the generality of people. Let’s have early hours that are exclusively our own.

[…] the man who lives extravagantly wants his manner of living to be on everybody’s lips as long as he is alive. He thinks he is wasting his time if he is not being talked about. So every now and then he does something calculated to set people talking. Plenty of people squander fortunes, plenty of people keep mistresses. To win any reputation in this sort of company you need to go in for something not just extravagantbut really out of the ordinary. In a society as this one it takes more than common profligacy to get oneself talked about.

It is in no man’s power to wish for whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.

Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve  been using them not because we needed them but because we had them. Look at the number of things we buy because others have bought them or because they’re in most people’s houses. One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guided by examples of others; instead of being set to rights by reason we’re seduced by convention. There are things that we shouldn’t wish to imitate if they were done by only a few, but when a lot of people have started doing them we follow along, as though a practice became more respectable by becoming more common.

We are attracted by wealth, pleasures, good looks, political advancement and various other welcoming and enticing prospects: we are repelled by exertion, death, disgrace and limited means. It follows that we need to train ourselves not to crave for the former and not to be afraid of the latter. Let us fight the battle the other way round – retreat from the things that attract us and rouse ourselves to meet the things that actually attack us.

No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing. No value should be set on it: it’s something we share with dumb animals – the minutest, most insignificant creatures scutter after it. Glory’s an empty, changeable thing, as fickle as the weather. Poverty’s no evil to anyone unless he kicks against it. Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination. Superstition is an idiotic heresy: it fears those it should love: dishonours those it worships. For what difference does is make wether you deny the gods or bring them into disrepute’s.

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