The aim of Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius is for readers to work their way through the 124 letters, creating a Stoic freedom, bringing an experience of joy and well-being in their life, regardless of circumstances. The totality of Seneca’s ambition is not something we can aspire to after developments in philosophy across the last 300 – 500 years. Even so, working with Seneca’s Stoic creed can still facilitate a sense of freedom for us; it can still heal what is amiss in our life; and it can still provide a framework of belief and values to guide us through the insecurities of living with short contracts, casualisation and the ongoing expansion of the gig economy.
Life was decidedly more uncertain in Seneca’s Rome than it is for us. Work could be very fickle, and very few lived to celebrate a 50th birthday. That uncertainty informs a good deal of the beliefs in a Stoic creed, and it can help us, as our income becomes more vulnerable through short-term contracts or freelance pathways, increasing the intensity of the struggle to survive as autonomous adults, much less thrive in contemporary English-speaking nations.
The uncertainty of Roman life in the 50s and 60s of the first millennium informs Seneca’s focus on death, poverty and calamity as something to bolster ourselves against through philosophical reading. In the second letter he tells us what to do to become a philosophical practitioner — read for a purpose. He instructs us to not just read his letters but to take something from them everyday. This is a foundational exercise in becoming a philosophy practitioner who enjoys the Stoic freedom available by being a part of this tradition. It is the difference between reading to pass the time or for infotainment, and reading to transform our self and our life.
Pondering is important
There are two ways of reading Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius. First, we can read immersively. We can spend months or years reading within the 475 pages of this masterpiece, pondering particular sentences or letters. Along this way we would do thought experiments to test out the beliefs Seneca communicates are valuable elements of a good life.
The second way is to lean in over several years. We can read the letters, think about them in a general and specific sense, and perhaps put them down from time to time to let what we have absorbed maturate. We can trawl through the secondary literature written by the incredible scholars writing today in England and the USA. Margaret Graver, Brad Inwood, John Sellars, and Christine Richardson-Hay have all made mighty contributions that can inform what we learn from Seneca’s Letters.
Both ways have advantages. After 10 years of University education in the Humanities, and Philosophy in particular, the latter course is realistically the only one available to me now. Synoptic reading in Philosophy is to my mind, the most effective self improvement technique available – and believe me I have tried a few, and dabbled in more. Leaning in and having those other voices to compare and learn from is an invaluable part of my life in just about every knowledge field for me now, and especially anything philosophical.
The first way is a powerful technique too. If you are at a stage in your life and are drawn into the work, this can be a very effective way of transforming the way you think and act. Which way appeals to you at this time of your life?
To finish up, Seneca tells us what exercises to do to become philosophy practitioners. We must read purposely, taking something from each day’s reading. And every day we should ponder something from what we have read. Interestingly, the great Tai Chi master Cheng Man-ching also teaches that to become a master practitioner of the Tai Chi form, it is necessary to ponder each move until you have a deep understanding of it. So in two completely different frameworks for health and well-being, separated by millennia and cultural orientation, we find the very same thought exercise to encourage our progress.