Friday, January 22, 2016

Book: Letters from a Stoic by Seneca


 

Toward the end of this book's excellent introduction, a portion of my anticipation for reading Seneca's letters was replaced with dread when I read that a critic noted of the philosopher's hard-hitting style, that 'to read him straightforward is like dining on nothing but anchovy sauce.' I like my anchovy sauce as much as the next man but this filled me with caution.

Having just read the first letter, which is printed below, I'm happy to report that any fears were unfounded and the translation is highly readable. In fact, I'm already sensing that Letters from a Stoic will be a keeper.
LETTER II (with a few lines taken out)

Judging from what you tell me and from what I hear, I feel that you show great promise. You do not tear from place to place and unsettle yourself with one move after another. Restlessness of that sort is symptomatic of a sick mind. Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

....You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life traveling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships. The same must needs be the case with people who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, playing flying visits to them all.... nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent changes of treatment; a wound will not heal over it if it being made the subject of experiments with different ointments; a plant which is frequently moved never grows strong. Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in the mere passing. A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read. And if you say, ‘But I feel like opening different books at different times’, my answer will be this: tasting one dish after another is the sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they lead to contamination of the system, not nutrition. So always read well-tried authors, and if at any moment you find yourself wanting a change from a particular author, go back to ones you have read before.

Each day, too, acquire something which will help you to face poverty, or death, and other ills as well. After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day. This is what I do myself; out of the many bits I have been reading I lay hold of one. My thought for today is something which I found in Epicurus (yes, I actually make a practice of going over to the enemy’s camp – by way of reconnaissance, not as a deserter!). ‘A cheerful poverty,’ he says, ‘is an honourable state.’ But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. What difference does it make how much there is laid away in a man’s safe or in his barns, how many head of stock he grazes or how much capital he puts out at interest, if he is always after what is another’s and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already. You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.

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