Stoicism seems to be having a little moment right now. It\’s come into fashion with the help of writers like Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss and I see its appeal as ancient wisdom for the secular. Self-proclaimed stoics quote Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca like Christians recite Bible verses. Even being Christian myself, I\’m not immune from the Stoic appeal either; there is a special weight that any two-thousand-year-old words have in their immediacy. And the short lengths of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and On The Shortness of Life made reading them feel risk-free.
Seneca was a politician, philosopher and playwright in Ancient Rome and the reception of his work has fluctuated a lot in the last couple millennia. Early Christians liked him, Montaigne wrote a defense of him, Romantics despised him, and Thomas Macaulay, a nineteenth-century British historian, said that reading Seneca was \”like dining on nothing but anchovy sauce.\” ¹I enjoyed On the Shortness of Life though. Seneca\’s main point is that life is too often wasted by trivial matters, vices, and possessions. I thought Seneca made this point so well that I wanted to stop wasting my time reading the book.
\”On the Shortness of Life\” is the first letter in the book and is written to his friend Paulinus. (I really wonder what existential crisis Paulinus was in to warrant this level of preachiness from a friend) \”Consolation to Helvia\” is the second letter which is addressed to his mom after he got exiled from Rome for allegedly having an affair with Emperor Caligula\’s sister Julia. \”On Tranquility of Mind\” is a letter exchange between Seneca and his pal, Serenus. Each letter is full of pithy quotes that you can tweet or use as Instagram captions if you\’re that corny.
Here are some of these quotes that I thought were memorable.
Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied(distracted) man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn. There are many instructors in the other arts to be found everywhere… But learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.
The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune\’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours.What is the point of having countless books and libraries whose titles the owner could scarcely read through in his whole lifetime? The mass of books burdens the student without instructing him, and it is far better to devote yourself to a few authors than to get lost among many. Forty thousand books were burned in the library at Alexandria. Someone else can praise it as a sumptuous monument to royal wealth, like Titus Livius, who calls it a notable achievement of the good taste and devotion of kings. That was not good taste or devotion but scholarly self indulgence-in fact not even scholarly, since they had collected the books not for scholarship but for display.In the same way you will find that many people who lack even elementary culture keep books not as tools of learning but as decoration for their dining-rooms.We must bear in mind how much lighter is the pain of not having money than of losing it; and we shall realize that the less poverty has to lose the less agony it can cause us.1.) All these details are from this Elizabeth Kolbert New Yorker piece on Seneca