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Letters from a Stoic

Learn about the good life from a true Roman statesman

By Seneca
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Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Written around 65 CE and addressed to a Roman official stationed in Sicily by the name of Lucilius, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic are an exploration of the good life. Drawing on the rich tradition of stoic philosophical thought, Seneca advocates simple living in harmony with nature, avoidance of temptations and vice and the continuous honing of the mind through the study of philosophy. That, Seneca argued, was the path to true happiness.

Key idea 1 of 9

True wisdom is knowing how to live a simple life in accordance with nature.

Imagine wandering through a forest beneath a high canopy of towering trees blotting out every last ray of light, or climbing into a jagged cave that no human hand could have carved. The feeling of awe we experience in moments like these reflects our appreciation of the work of the divine.

But divinity isn’t just something out there in the world – it’s also something that’s within every one of us. The divine resides in our souls. It’s part of us, but it isn’t truly ours. Like the rays of sun that touch the earth but belong to a star in the sky, our souls belong to divinity itself.

Because they’re not ours, we can’t work on our souls or take credit when they’re praised. But there is something we can work on: the mind.

Our minds are unique. They differentiate us from one another. They also set us apart from the animal world, since what defines man is that he can think rationally.

Rational thought is a product of the mind. That means we can, and should, devote ourselves to honing and perfecting it. The more effort we make to perfect our minds, the more unique we become. Unlike the trappings of everyday life like houses, furniture and artwork, which are simply backgrounds to our lives, the mind is a true one-off. That’s why it deserves our attention and labor.

The fruit of working on our minds is wisdom, and attaining wisdom is the primary aim of our lives.

So what does it mean to be wise? Wisdom is knowing how to live as nature intended us to and constantly striving to stay true to that intention.

As the author sees it, Nature’s plan for us is to live simply, to abstain from worldly pleasures and the desires that drive us to accumulate vast fortunes, gorge ourselves on food and desperately seek fame and fortune. Wisdom allows us to see that. Living in accordance with nature also means confronting the fears that emerge when we look upon the natural cycle of life, in which loss and death are inevitable.   

But that doesn’t mean we need to lock ourselves away in a library and devour as many books as we can lay our hands on. All it takes is a little work every day. After all, the royal road to wisdom is study.

The payoff of that effort is insight. We achieve wisdom and come to see that living in harmony with nature is the only truly rational decision.

But that begs the question: what exactly is it that we’re supposed to be studying? In the following blinks, we’ll take a look at the topics you’ll need to study to attain wisdom.

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