September 11, 2021 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Stoicism ||

Share Your Knowledge

Chuck Chakrapani

Seneca wrote a series of letters to his young friend Lucilius on various topics. Taken together these letters can be considered as an exposition of Stoicism and how to apply it to our daily lives. This plain English version of the Letters closely follows the original. However, I have deleted some superfluous references, summarized Key Ideas and added subheadings to make it easy for the modern reader to follow.

Key ideas
  1. Many people have friends, but no friendship.
  2. Knowledge that is not shared is no good.
  3. We learn more by watching how great people behave than by what they say

I feel, my dear Lucilius, I am not only being reformed but transformed. I don’t yet say or expect that there is nothing left in me that needs changing. Of course, I have many traits that need amplification or toning down. Actually, this is proof that my mind is in a better place: it can see its own faults, which it couldn’t see before. Some patients are congratulated for realizing that they are not well.

Friends vs. friendship

If I could, I would like to transmit this transformation to you. And, as a result, I would have greater confidence in our friendship. It would then be a true friendship that no hope, fear, and self-interest can break – a friendship to live and die for.

I can show you many people who have friends, but no friendship. But this is not so when minds are drawn into friendship willingly and with honourable intentions. Why not? Because in such cases they know they have everything in common, especially their troubles.

Knowledge that cannot be shared is no good

You cannot imagine how much progress I see myself making every day. When you say, “Give me also a share of these gifts which you have found so helpful,” I say I am anxious to shower you with all of them. I am glad to learn so I may teach. Nothing will please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I keep the knowledge to myself. If I am offered wisdom under the condition that I should keep it to myself, I would refuse it. No good thing is enjoyable if we cannot share it with friends.

So, I will send you the books themselves. I will also mark the important passages, so you don’t waste time searching for them. You can get to the passages I am impressed with and recommend right away.

We learn more by examples than by words

Of course, formal discourse will not help you as much as speaking with a living person in intimate settings. You must go to the scene of action. First, people put more faith in their eyes than their ears. Second, learning the precepts is the long way around but learning by example is short and helpful.

Cleanthes couldn’t have been the express image of Zeno, if he had simply listened to his lectures: He shared his life, understood his innermost thoughts, and watched him to see if he lived according to his own rules.

Plato, Aristotle, and the whole group of philosophers who would later go their separate ways derived more benefit from Socrates’ conduct than from his words. 

It is not the words of Epicurus but living together with him under the same roof that made Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus great.

Nor do I invite you just for your benefit. It is for my benefit too. We can help each other a lot.

Meanwhile, I owe you my daily contribution. This is what pleased me today in the writings of Hecaton:

Do you want to know what progress I have made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.

That’s valuable progress. Such a person is never alone. Trust me, such a person is a friend to everyone.


Think about this

Do you want to know what progress I have made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.