Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius


Book cover

I love Seneca, one of my favorite philosophical authors to read. I read this recent translation (Graver & Long, 2015), but if you don’t mind an older translation, the whole thing is out of copyright and available for free online: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_...

I probably read this “the wrong way” by reading it cover-to-cover like I would with any other book. The epistolary format, as well as Seneca’s casual and sometimes discursive style, is probably better suited to a more intermittent reading practice–maybe a letter per day, or just whenever one feels like it. I liked the book enough that I usually wanted to keep reading the next letter, but because of the format, the ideas don’t exactly build on each other, so the result was probably that I retained less of the content rather than more.

That said, there is plenty of great content that I remember. I’ve remarked before that I think I’m naturally inclined to Stoicism. The letters cover all the key elements of Stoic moral doctrines, such as the identity of goodness and virtue or the importance of accepting and aligning ourselves with nature. But Seneca also puts his own slant on things, making it a different experience to read him compared with Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. For example, he includes several interesting letters on the meta-topic of what is worthwhile or valuable in philosophy. He is very critical of syllogisms and “mere logic”, arguing that they rarely would convince or motivate someone to change their life for the better. Rather, he favors a distinctly pragmatic approach, including practical advice and examples from everyday life along with principled argument. He is very clear that “How should we live?” is the only question that really interests him, the core of wisdom, and most other pursuits strike him as a waste of time.

Some people are critical of Seneca for serving as an advisor to Nero, a terrible ruler. That doesn’t so much bother me, but my main sticking point with him is that he lived in a society based on slave labor, and often mentions slaves in his practical examples, but didn’t have the wisdom to criticize it as the injustice that it obviously is (or only to do so very mildly, in the vein of “be nice to your slaves”). More broadly, the Roman Stoics tend to be very inwardly focused. At most, as in Marcus Aurelius and to a lesser extent Seneca, they recognize public life as an acceptable pursuit. But there is no sense of social justice or solidarity.

I think in part they were hampered by the Stoic tenet that the universe is ordered based on a rational providential plan; in this sense the status quo was always “worthy of acceptance” in some sense. I believe that most of Stoic ethics could stand without this belief, and that it would be worthwhile to reconstruct Stoicism from an atheistic starting point. Among other things, I think this would provide more grounds for valuing social justice and solidarity. (As a brief sketch, if the goal of the Stoic student is wisdom and right understanding of nature, the Stoic should rationally will that society be organized in such a way that provides everyone with an equal opportunity to pursue and achieve this goal.) I also think that Stoicism could very profitably build upon the modern insights of genetics, evolution, psychology, and neuroscience regarding our nature. I love Seneca and the other Roman Stoics, but I also think we do ourselves a disservice if we allow Stoic philosophy to stop with them. (In writing this and doing some searching, it seems like it might be worthwhile for me to read “A New Stoicism” by Becker (1997).)

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars