Quotes from “Letters From a Stoic” by 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.

So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.

Each day, too, acquire something which will help you to face poverty, or death, and other ills as well. After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day.

You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.

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

…refrain from following the example of those whose craving is for attention, not their own improvement, by doing certain things which are calculated to give rise to comment on your appearance or way of living generally.

…misguided means to self-advertisement.

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

The first thing philosophy promises us is the feeling of fellowship, of belonging to mankind and being members of a community; being different will mean the abandoning of that manifesto.

Our motto, as everyone knows, is to live in conformity with nature:

Philosophy calls for simple living, not for doing penance, and the simple way of life need not be a crude one.

The standard which I accept is this: one’s life should be a compromise between the ideal and the popular morality.

Anyone entering our homes should admire us rather than our furnishings

Limiting one’s desires actually helps to cure one of fear.

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

What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a person will never be alone, and you may be sure he is a friend of all.

YOU ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd

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 they are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you. Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving

When a mind is impressionable and has none too firm a hold on what is right, it must be rescued from the crowd: it is so easy for it to go over to the majority.

I am writing this,’ he says, ‘not for the eyes of the many, but for yours alone: for each of us is audience enough for the other.

I have withdrawn from affairs as well as from society, and from my own affairs in particular: I am acting on behalf of later generations. I am writing down a few things that may be of use to them; I am committing to writing some helpful recommendations, which might be compared to the formulae of successful medications, the effectiveness of which I have experienced in the case of my own sores, which may not have been completely cured but have at least ceased to spread

Avoid,’ I cry, ‘whatever is approved of by the mob, and things that are the gift of chance. Whenever circumstance brings some welcome thing your way, stop in suspicion and alarm: wild animals and fish alike are taken in by this or that inviting prospect. Do you look on them as presents given you by fortune? They are snares.

I have only buried myself away behind closed doors in order to be able to be of use to more people.

Cling, therefore, to this sound and wholesome plan of life: indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health.

…what you have to understand is that thatch makes a person just as good a roof as gold does.

Reflect that nothing merits admiration except the spirit, the impressiveness of which prevents it from being impressed by anything.’

What fortune has made yours is not your own.

The boon that could be given can be withdrawn.

And this is what we mean when we say the wise man is self-content; he is so in the sense that he is able to do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.

‘I shall show you,’ said Hecato, ‘a love philtre compounded without drug or herb or witch’s spell. It is this: if you wish to be loved, love.’

The philosopher Attalus used to say that it was more of a pleasure to make a friend than to have one, ‘in the same way as an artist derives more pleasure from painting than from having completed a picture’. When his whole attention is absorbed in concentration on the work he is engaged on, a tremendous sense of satisfaction is created in him by his very absorption. There is never quite the same gratification after he has lifted his hand from the finished work. From then on what he is enjoying is the art’s end product, whereas it was the art itself that he enjoyed while he was actually painting.

To procure friendship only for better and not for worse is to rob it of all its dignity.

The supreme ideal does not call for any external aids. It is homegrown, wholly self-developed. Once it starts looking outside itself for any part of itself it is on the way to being dominated by fortune.

All my possessions,’ he said, ‘are with me’, meaning by this the qualities of a just, a good and an enlightened character, and indeed the very fact of not regarding as valuable anything that is capable of being taken away

Any man,’ he says, ‘who does not think that what he has is more than ample, is an unhappy man, even if he is the master of the whole world.’

It does not make any difference what a man says; what matters is how he feels, and not how he feels on one particular day but how he feels at all times.

Well, we should cherish old age and enjoy it. It is full of pleasure if you know how to use it.

Whoever has said ‘I have lived’ receives a windfall every day he gets up in the morning.

‘To live under constraint is a misfortune, but there is no constraint to live under constraint.’

I trust this finds you as it leaves me, in good health.’ We have good reason to say: ‘I trust this finds you in pursuit of wisdom.’ For this is precisely what is meant by good health. Without wisdom the mind is sick, and the body itself, however physically powerful, can only have the kind of strength that is found in persons in a demented or delirious state. So this is the sort of healthiness you must make your principal concern.

For it is silly, my dear Lucilius, and no way for an educated man to behave, to spend one’s time exercising the biceps, broadening the neck and shoulders and developing the lungs. Even when the extra feeding has produced gratifying results and you’ve put on a lot of muscle, you’ll never match the strength or the weight of a prize ox. The greater load, moreover, on the body is crushing to the spirit and renders it less active. So keep the body within bounds as much as you can and make room for the spirit. Devotees of physical culture have to put up with a lot of nuisances

Cultivate an asset which the passing of time itself improves

…how pleasant it is to ask for nothing, how splendid it is to be complete and be independent of fortune

When you look at all the people out in front of you, think of all the ones behind you

IT is clear to you, I know, Lucilius, that no one can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom, and that the perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life, although even the beginnings of wisdom make life bearable.

Consider above all else whether you’ve advanced in philosophy or just in actual years.

Philosophy is not an occupation of a popular nature, nor is it pursued for the sake of self-advertisement. Its concern is not with words, but with facts. It is not carried on with the object of passing the day in an entertaining sort of way and taking the boredom out of leisure. It moulds and builds the personality, orders one’s life, regulates one’s conduct, shows one what one should do and what one should leave undone, sits at the helm, and keeps one on the correct course as one is tossed about in perilous seas. Without it no one can lead a life free of fear or worry

Whether we are caught in the grasp of an inexorable law of fate, whether it is God who as lord of the universe has ordered all things, or whether the affairs of mankind are tossed and buffeted haphazardly by chance, it is philosophy that has the duty of protecting us

…falsity has no point of termination. When a person is following a track, there is an eventual end to it somewhere, but with wandering at large there is no limit.

Nature’s wants are small, while those of opinion are limitless

So give up pointless, empty journeys, and whenever you want to know whether the desire aroused in you by something you are pursuing is natural or quite unseeing, ask yourself whether it is capable of coming to rest at any point; if after going a long way there is always something remaining farther away, be sure it is not something natural.

If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes. This was the aim of the men* who once every month pretended they were poor, bringing themselves face to face with want, to prevent their ever being terrified by a situation which they had frequently rehearsed.

Start cultivating a relationship with poverty.

It tells me to start thinking and examine how far I owe this serenity and sobriety to philosophy,

Away with the world’s opinion of you – it’s always unsettled and divided. Away with the pursuits that have occupied the whole of your life – death is going to deliver the verdict in your case. Yes, all your debates and learned conferences, your scholarly talk and collection of maxims from the teachings of philosophers, are in no way indicative of genuine spiritual strength

‘Rehearse death.’ To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. He is above, or at any rate beyond the reach of, all political powers. What are prisons, warders, bars to him? He has an open door. There is but one chain holding us in fetters, and that is our love of life.

Of this one thing make sure against your dying day – that your faults die before you do.

Here is what Socrates said to someone who was making the same complaint: ‘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.’

So – to the best of your ability – demonstrate your own guilt, conduct inquiries of your own into all the evidence against yourself. Play the part first of prosecutor, then of judge and finally of pleader in mitigation. Be harsh with yourself at times.

‘A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.’

That’s why we don’t go in for that business of window-dressing

Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources.

But no new findings will ever be made if we rest content with the findings of the past

…a man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking.

Language, moreover, which devotes its attention to truth ought to be plain and unadorned.

Good material often lies idle for want of someone to make use of it; just give it a trial.

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.

For that is what philosophy has promised me – that she will make me God’s equal

Straightforwardness and simplicity are in keeping with goodness.

The man, though, whom you should admire and imitate is the one who finds it a joy to live and in spite of that is not reluctant to die.

The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.

…the soul is in captivity unless philosophy comes to its rescue, bidding it breathe more freely in the contemplation of nature, releasing it from earthly into heavenly surroundings. This to the soul means freedom, the ability to wander far and free; it steals away for a while from the prison in which it is confined and has its strength renewed in the world above

An ordinary journey will be incomplete if you come to a stop in the middle of it, or anywhere short of your destination, but life is never incomplete if it is an honourable one.

At present, you unhappy creature, slave you are, slave to your fellow-men, slave to circumstance and slave to life (for life itself is slavery if the courage to die be absent).

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.

refuse to let the thought of death bother you: nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear

So there is the comforting thing about extremities of pain: if you feel it too much you are bound to stop feeling it.

A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is

Let us too overcome all things, with our reward consisting not in any wreath or garland, not in trumpet-calls for silence for the ceremonial proclamation of our name, but in moral worth, in strength of spirit, in a peace that is won for ever once in any contest fortune has been utterly defeated.

Be your own spectator anyway, your own applauding audience

And so we shall as soon as we have learnt to distinguish the good things and the bad things in this world. Then and then only shall we stop being weary of living as well as scared of dying. For a life spent viewing all the variety, the majesty, the sublimity in things around us can never succumb to ennui: the feeling that one is tired of being, of existing, is usually the result of an idle and inactive leisure.

…time adds nothing to the finer things in life

In the meantime cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do.

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.

Drunkenness inflames and lays bare every vice, removing the reserve that acts as a check on impulses to wrong behaviour. For people abstain from forbidden things far more often through feelings of inhibition when it comes to doing what is wrong than through any will to good…

But there is really only one liberal study that deserves the name – because it makes a person free – and that is the pursuit of wisdom. Its high ideals, its steadfastness and spirit make all other studies puerile and puny in comparison.

The geometrician teaches me how I may avoid losing any fraction of my estates, but what I really want to learn is how to lose the lot and still keep smiling.

…the ideal limit with things you desire is not the amount you would like to but the amount you ought to take.

Humanity is the quality which stops one being arrogant towards one’s fellows, or being acrimonious.

For wisdom does not lie in books.

To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance

It costs a person an enormous amount of time (and other people’s ears an enormous amount of boredom) before he earns such compliments as ‘What a learned person!’ Let’s be content with the much less fashionable label, ‘What a good man!’…*

Measure your life: it just does not have room for so much.

…there is about wisdom a nobility and magnificence in the fact that she doesn’t just fall to a person’s lot, that each man owes her to his own efforts, that one doesn’t go to anyone other than oneself to find her.

…life is the gift of the immortal gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy?

The wise man then followed a simple way of life – which is hardly surprising when you consider how even in this modern age he seeks to be as little encumbered as he possibly can.

The things that are essential are acquired with little bother; it is the luxuries that call for toil and effort

We were born into a world in which things were ready to our hands; it is we who have made everything difficult to come by through our own disdain for what is easily come by.

Luxury has turned her back on nature, daily urging herself on and growing through all the centuries, pressing men’s intelligence into the development of the vices. First she began to hanker after things that were inessential, and then after things that were injurious, and finally she handed the mind over to the body and commanded it to be the out and out slave of the body’s whim and pleasure.

Philosophy is far above all this; she does not train men’s hands: she is the instructress of men’s minds.

Philosophy, however, takes as her aim the state of happiness. That is the direction in which she opens routes and guides us. She shows us what are real and what are only apparent evils. She strips men’s minds of empty thinking, bestows a greatness that is solid and administers a check to greatness where it is puffed up and all an empty show; she sees that we are left in no doubt about the difference between what is great and what is bloated.

We are born for it, but not with it. And even in the best of people, until you cultivate it there is only the material for virtue, not virtue itself.

…the process of becoming a good man is an art.

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.

Misfortune has a way of choosing some unprecedented means or other of impressing its power on those who might be said to have forgotten it

All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes; we should be anticipating not merely all that commonly happens but all that is conceivably capable of happening, if we do not want to be overwhelmed and struck numb by rare events as if they were unprecedented ones; fortune needs envisaging in a thoroughly comprehensive way

One thing I know: all the works of mortal man lie under sentence of mortality; we live among things that are destined to perish

It must come to see that there is nothing fortune will shrink from, that she wields the same authority over emperor and empire alike and the same power over cities as over men. There’s no ground for resentment in all this. We’ve entered into a world in which these are the terms life is lived on – if you’re satisfied with that, submit to them, if you’re not, get out, whatever way you please

…for who can be ‘Great’ in an area of minute dimensions

You must needs experience pain and hunger and thirst, and grow old (assuming that you are vouchsafed a relatively long stay among men) and be ill, and suffer loss, and finally perish. But you needn’t believe the chatter of the people around you: there’s nothing in all this that’s evil, insupportable or even hard. Those people are afraid of these things by a kind of general consent

We shouldn’t even let it prejudice us against death, which itself has an evil reputation. Yet none of the people who malign it has put it to the test. Until one does it’s rather rash to condemn a thing one knows nothing about. And yet one thing you do know and that is this, how many people it’s a blessing to, how many people it frees from torture, want, maladies, suffering, weariness. And no one has power over us when death is within our own power.

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?’ What a blessing it would be for some people if they could only lose themselves !

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.

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.

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. What you must do, then, is mend your ways and get rid of the burden you’re carrying. Keep

…never hope without an element of despair, never despair without an element of hope.

…travel won’t make a better or saner man of you

The miser, the swindler, the bully, the cheat, who would do you a lot of harm by simply being near you, are actually inside you

For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us

It’s not because they’re hard that we lose confidence; they’re hard because we lack the confidence.

After that came the prison and the poison. And so little effect did all this have on Socrates’ spirit, it did not even affect the expression on his face. What a rare and wonderful story of achievement! To the very last no one ever saw Socrates in any particular mood of gaiety or depression. Through all the ups and downs of fortune his was a level temperament.

But 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 else must be valued at little.

Now think of the things which goad man into destroying man: you’ll find that they are hope, envy, hatred, fear and contempt. Contempt is the least important of the lot, so much so that a number of men have actually taken shelter behind it for protection’s sake. For if a person feels contempt for someone, he tramples on him, doubtless, but he passes on. No one pursues an unremitting and persistent policy of injury to a man for whom he feels nothing but contempt

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 insidious something that elicits secrets from us just like love or liquor

Life’s no soft affair. It’s a long road you’ve started on: you can’t but expect to have slips and knocks and falls, and get tired, and openly wish – a lie – for death

Let’s not be taken aback by any of the things we’re born to, things no one need complain at for the simple reason that they’re the same for everybody.

Let’s get this sense of justice firmly into our heads and pay up without grumbling the taxes arising from our mortal state

don’t we all know certain people who have sat at a philosopher’s feet year after year without acquiring even a semblance of wisdom?’ Of course I do – persevering, conscientious people, too. I prefer to call them a philosopher’s squatters, not students. Some come not to learn but just to hear him, in the same way as we’re drawn to a theatre, for the sake of entertainment, to treat our ears to a play, or music, or an address. You’ll find that a large proportion of the philosopher’s audience is made up of this element

Things tend, in fact, to go wrong; part of the blame lies on the teachers of philosophy, who today teach us how to argue instead of how to live, part on their students, who come to the teachers in the first place with a view to developing not their character but their intellect.

My advice is really this: what we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life.

learn them so well that words become works

No one to my mind lets humanity down quite so much as those who study philosophy as if it were a sort of commercial skill and then proceed to live in a quite different manner from the way they tell other people to live.

It is a fault which is sometimes that of the man and sometimes that of the age. Where prosperity has spread luxury over a wide area of society, people start by paying closer attention to their personal turnout. The next thing that engages people’s energies is furniture.

Let us expand our life: action is its theme and duty.

It is in no man’s power to have 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

One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guided by the example of others; instead of being set to rights by reason we’re seduced by convention.

there are two classes of things attracting or repelling us. We are attracted by wealth, pleasures, good looks, political advancement and various other welcoming and enticing prospects: we are repelled by exertion, death, pain, 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

The path that leads to pleasures is the downward one: the upward climb is the one that takes us to rugged and difficult ground

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