The Greatest Advice Book of All Time:
Letters From A Stoic
"Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words
and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like
a blast of triumph Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul."
Today we complete the books of our Advice Bible, adding
the last of The Five Greatest Advice Books of All Time. Here
is the completed countdown: (5) the Japanese book of Samurai
wisdom, Bushido (4) How to Win Friends and Influence
People by Dale Carnegie, (3) The Letters of Emerson
(2) Climbing the Blue Mountain by Eknath Easwaran,
and now, our Number One, Letters From A Stoic by Seneca,
translated by Robin Campbell.
For those of you who are wondering about books left off,
I excluded religious books, biographies and fiction.
What does a long-dead stoic have to say to us? Given the
popular notion of stoics as those who suffer in silence, it
would seem that they would be the ones easiest to ignore --
the wheels that do not squeak. But Seneca's life tells us
otherwise. Far from being ignored, he was sentenced to death
by three emperors -- Caligua, Claudius and Nero.
The last one stuck, and he was condemned to death via suicide.
He carried out the sentence, dying wealthy and wise, and spending
his last hours cheering up his friends, urging them to replace
their grief with thoughts of his well-lived life. (His wife
was so devoted to him that she tried to join him in suicide,
and had to be bandaged and carried away.)
Seneca's stoicism draws its strength from bringing oneself
into conformity with Fate and divine will. The result is focusing
on wisdom and virtue rather than the material. Seneca wrote,
"It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the
one who hankers after more." It was the "hankering" that offended
him. He understood a concept almost lost to us: enough.
Modern life leaves us stretched between "what else?" and
"what now?" Seneca offers in opposition this example of a
Roman dramatist: "[Pacuvius} was in the habit of conducting
a memorial ceremony for himself with wine and funeral feasting
of the kind we are familiar with, and then being carried on
a bier from the dinner table to his bed, while a chanting
to music went on of the words 'He has lived, he has lived'
in Greek, amid the applause of the young libertines present.
Never a day passed but he celebrated his own funeral. What
he from discreditable motives we should do from honorable
ones, saying in all joyfulness and cheerfulness as we retire
to our beds [the words of Virgil], 'I have lived; I have completed
now the course That fortune long ago allotted me.'"
One could certainly say of Seneca that he lived
. He accepted his frequent tradegies by reminding himself
that he would look back on them with pleasure, having survived.
Though he was plagued with a number of medical maladies, he
refused to suffer, starting one letter with, "I shared yesterday
with a bout of illness. It claimed the morning but let me
have the afternoon." He also made a malady of ambition and
desire, quoting Hecato: "Cease to hope and you cease to fear."
This stoicism is useful antidote to the self-indulgence and
anxiety of modern life, but so far it is merely a negation.
How is it that Seneca can say of himself, again quoting Hecato,
"What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend?"
How did Seneca befriend himself? He writes, "I proclaim to
my own self: "Count your years and you'll be ashamed of wanting
and working for exactly the same things as you wanted when
you were a boy. …Look around for some enduring good instead.
And nothing answers this description except what the spirit
discovers for itself within itself. A good character is the
only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness. Even if
some obstacle to this comes on the scene, its appearance is
only to be compared to that of clouds which drift in front
of the sun without ever defeating its light."
In Seneca, as in the other four monumental advice books,
we have captured the sunlight of character. Those who keep
and study these books and can bring them into their lives
will be ones about which we can say, They lived.
© 2005 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.
"The Five Greatest Advice Books of All Time" Series
- Letters From A Stoic
- Climbing the Blue Mountain
- The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson
- How to Win Friends and Influence
- Bushido: The Way of the Samurai
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