Dale Dauten: Speaker, Author, Innovation Consultant

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."
-- Emerson

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

  1. Letters From A Stoic
  2. Climbing the Blue Mountain
  3. The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson
  4. How to Win Friends and Influence People
  5. Bushido: The Way of the Samurai

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