August 28, 2021 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Seneca ||

Stay Focussed in Your Learning (Seneca's Letters – 2)

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. Restlessness is a sign of a mind that is ill at ease. Do not read at random. Choose a few well-established authors.
  2. Expose yourself to many ideas, but choose one to concentrate on.
  3. Read each day something that will strengthen you against poverty, death, and other misfortunes.
  4. Have what you need and be contented with what you have.
Restlessness is a sign of a poor mind

From what you write me and what I hear, I am becoming very hopeful about your future. You are not running from place to place, making yourself restless.  Such restlessness is a sign of a mind in poor health. I believe that the ability to remain in one place and spend time with itself is the primary sign of a well-ordered mind.

But be careful about reading several different types of books by different authors. They may make you unsteady and unstable. Stay with a limited number of master thinkers and digest their works, if you mean to absorb ideas that will be firmly established in your mind.

Read established authors

Everywhere means nowhere. If you spend your time traveling abroad all the time, you end up having many acquaintances, but no friends. The same thing should be true of people who read many authors hastily and hurriedly without getting fully acquainted with no single author. Food does no good and is not absorbed by the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten. Healing is delayed when you frequently change medicines. Wounds will not heal if you keep changing their dressings. A plant that is moved often can never grow strong. In fact, nothing is so effective that it will benefit us while we are moving it.

Reading a large number of books distracts you.  Since you cannot read everything you have, it is enough to have only what you can read.

“But,” you say, “I wish to dip first into one book, then into another.”

Let me tell you that it is a sign of delicate appetite to nibble at many dishes. When the dishes are many and varied, they don’t nourish but upset the stomach. So, you should always read established authors. If you desire a change, go afterward to someone you have read before.

Read many, choose one to digest

Read each day something that will strengthen you against poverty, death, and other misfortunes. After reviewing many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested for that day. This is what I do as well: Read many things but seize one idea.

Wealth and its limits

Today, I found this idea of Epicurus. (It is my habit to cross even to the other camp. I am not a deserter, just a spy.):

Cheerful poverty is an honourable thing.

You are not poor if you are cheerful.  It is not the person who has too little that is poor, but the one who craves more. What does it matter how much you have in your safe, in your warehouse, in your farm, or in your investments, if you desire your neighbour’s property? Or ignore your past gains but only think of future gains?

Do you ask what the proper limit is to wealth? First, it’s having what one needs and second, having enough.