Letters from a Stoic is one of the best books I have read. It’s a unique book that takes a series of letters by the Roman philosopher Seneca, who sent them to his friend Lucilius.
In them, we find a variety of lessons that are as relevant as they were when Seneca. The easy thing to do when you encounter a book this old is to sneer and question its practicality.
“How can a book that was written two thousand years ago benefit me today?”
Someone said this to me when I was discussing stoicism and philosophy with them, they missed the point spectacularly.
You see, there is no time limit on the usefulness of knowledge. If it was useful two thousand years ago it will remain so today. Yes, the world immeasurably since then, but a lot of the problems we face today, were the same back then.
Anxiety, morality, health and ethics, these were all concerns to those in ancient times as they are today. Nothing has changed in that regard.
In times that were simpler, it’s reassuring to know that they faced the same issues that we do today. These are not modern ailments, they have affected humans for as long as we have resided on this planet.
We don’t know if the words found inside this book were intended as letters or meant to be published as essays. Given the passage of time, we will likely never find out.
Either way, Seneca’s writing is an essential guide to how to live a better and more fulfilling life.
Letters From a Stoic summary
Takeaway 1 – You should be content with having enough
We are living in the age of consumerism. Every day we are bombarded with adverts that show us the latest shiny gadget. We are confronted with articles that tell us our life will not be complete until we upgrade our phone or buy a new laptop.
It’s hard to keep pace with all the noise flying around and it can become overwhelming. It’s easy to give in and purchase a new phone, or keep up to date with the latest fashion trends.
But, does it make us happy? Does it fulfil us?
Most of the time, the answer is no.
Look around you and see a lot of items. Some of them are useful, some of them are merely decoration, but how many are essential to your survival?
Not many. Food, water, shelter, clothes and a strong mind, these are essentials things that you need to survive. Everything else is supplementary.
Seneca was of the belief that we should practice living with enough from time to time. Eat only what you need to sustain you. Take a break from your phone.
One of the interesting concepts he suggests is to become comfortable with poverty. He doesn’t mean give away all your possessions and become one with nature. Although if you want to do that, that’s fine!
What he’s saying is to become living without the things you think you can’t live without. Your phone, the internet, your car. Spend some time without time, put them to one side. Soon you will realise that your dependence on them is superficial. You can adapt, life goes on.
Once you know you can live without them, your life will feel much easier.
Takeaway 2 – Don’t follow the crowd
One of the easiest things to do in life is to become part of the crowd. Whether it’s joining in with the latest trends, or going along with the in vogue political debate of the day, it’s all to easy to get swept up in what everyone else is doing.
But, is it such a good thing to follow the crowd?
An old maxim comes to mind when I think of this question. If everyone else was jumping off a cliff would you follow? Most of us, I hope, would be able to give a quick answer to this!
The same must apply to anything in life. Just because everyone seems to be doing something, doesn’t mean it’s right.
In fact, there is a strong argument that says when everyone else is going one way, you should deviate and go another way. To be contrarian when everyone else is following the script.
The issue with following the crowd is that it’s easy to end up doing something that you may not want to do.
Seneca was aware of this. On the subject he had this to say:
“Associating with people in large numbers is actually harmful: there is not one of them that will not make some vice or other attractive to us carrying the imprint of it or bedaubed all unawares with it.”
Be wary of following the crowd. You make think there is wisdom in the crowd, but it can be an unruly force of nature that drags you place you may not want to go.
Takeaway 3 – Judge people on their character, not their status
One of the easiest mistakes we make in life is to judge people based on exterior factors. Whether they are someone’s appearance or their standing in society, we tend to make our judgements accordingly.
You’re much more likely to look down on a homeless person than you are an entrepreneur. While you are more likely to be in awe of an aristocrat than someone with little money to their time.
This may seem intuitive, but it is anything but. A person’s standing in society is down to multiple factors and does not reflect on their character.
All the money in the world does make you a moral being. The same is true of power, you only need to look through history to see this. Nero, Hitler and Stalin were not better people because of it.
The same was true in Seneca’s day. Back then, it was common for rich families to own a slave. As you can imagine they were not viewed in favourable times.
They were viewed as lesser by those who deemed themselves to be above the slaves. However, Seneca tells us that just because someone is a slave, does not mean they are of a lesser character than anyone else.
“Only an absolute fool values a man according to his clothes, or according to his social position, which after all is only something that we wear like clothing.”
We are all born equal, we all come into this world naked and vulnerable. It is only circumstance and luck that divines whether we are born into poverty or not.
Character is the trait we must judge people on. It is not the commodity of the rich and powerful, it’s a trait found throughout all spectrums of society.
A person is no less or more of a person because of their social standing or riches, they remain a person. A flawed human, like the rest of us.
Remember this, whenever you feel yourself in awe or looking down on someone. Judge them on their character, not their outward appearance or social standing.
As the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover.
Letters From a Stoic review
This Letters from a Stoic summary has taken a brief look at an important work of philosophy. Seneca was one of the foremost Stoic philosophers and this book along with, On The Shortness of Life, should be read by anyone looking for further insight into the philosophy.
The beauty of Seneca’s writing is that it’s still easily accessible today, despite being written two thousand years ago.
Reading the text the problems that he discusses could relate to anyone of us today.
What this shows is that despite the passage of time, the human condition has not changed that much since Seneca’s time.
We are still plagued by the same doubts, worries and troubles. This book is an excellent introduction to Stoic philosophy, arguably a better one than Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
It distils the ethos of the philosophy and the responses that we should show in the face of adversity and life’s problems.
I can’t recommend Letters From a Stoic highly enough. It’s a piece of writing that has had a big impact on my life and I’m sure it will on yours too!
Who should read Letters From a Stoic?
Anybody who is interested in learning more about the Stoic branch philosophy should give this book a read.
It’s a fantastic introduction and will provide you with lots of value too. Anyone that is suffering from anxiety, depression or any other worries, will get a lot from reading Letters From a Stoic too.
It’s an excellent book and one that can help you no matter where you are in life.