Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Book Notes: Letters From a Stoic by Seneca

Rating (9 / 10)


Letters from a Stoic is a series of short letters written by Seneca to his friend, Lucilius. This particular edition comes with an introduction by Donald Robertson (well worth the read) and is translated by Richard Mott Gummere.

When people ask for a recommendation to get into philosophy, particularly the Stoic school, I often recommend this book. It’s easy to digest, full of applicable wisdom, and will give you a great foundation for Stoicism.

Seneca, a wealthy aristocrat and tutor to the Roman Emperor Nero, often found himself in challenging situations. Nero was the picture-perfect example of evil, murdering anyone that crossed him including family members. Nero showered Seneca with money and real estate because Seneca was considered a leading scholar of the time, and an endorsement from the scholar went a long way in the eyes of the public. Seneca struggled with this relationship, and was even convicted in a plot to try and take Nero’s life.

Many judge Seneca for taking money and associating with the devil. Keep in mind that Nero could kill everyone you love, take all you have, and not lose sleep over it. As a philosopher, Seneca had to navigate these challenging waters, all while trying to “live well” as the stoics teach.

Despite his shortcomings, I love Seneca. He’s a foundational voice for the Stoic school, and these letters will help you learn and apply the wisdom that supported some of histories greatest thinkers.

Direct Quotes:

Page 7 – What It Means to Be Poor

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” – Seneca

Page 41 – Love

“If you would be loved, love.” – Seneca

Page 56 – Be a Man of Integrity

“Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts!” – Seneca

Page 64 – Challenge

“For manliness gains much strength by being challenged.” – Seneca

Page 70 – The Fool Getting Ready to Live

“The fool, with all his other faults, has this also – he is always getting ready to live.” -Epicurus

Page 95 – The Problem of Wealth

“The acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles.” – Epicurus

Page 99 – Be Prepared

“If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”

Page 119 – You Are Your Own Stumbling Block

“Your greatest difficulty is with yourself; for you are your own stumbling block. You do not know what you want.”

Page 120 – Your Education Matters

“It is your own studies that will make you shine and will render you eminent.”

Page 130 – We are never prepared for death

“Everyone goes out of life just as if he had but lately entered it.’ Take anyone off his guard – young, old, or middle-aged; you will find that all are equally afraid of death, and equally ignorant of life. No one has anything finished, because we have kept putting off into the future all our undertakings.” – Epicurus

Page 131 – Quality vs Quantity of Life

“Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long.”

Page 137 – Always Beginning to Live

“They live ill who are always beginning to live. – Epicurus”

Page 195 – Be Remarkable

“A single tree is not remarkable if the whole forest rises to the same height.”

Page 215 – The Lost Mind

“It is disgraceful, instead of proceeding ahead, to be carried along, and then suddenly, amid the whirlpool of events, to ask in a dazed way: ‘How did I get into this condition?’”

Page 280 – We are Diseased

“Why do we deceive ourselves? The evil that afflicts us is not external, it is within us, situated in our very vitals; for that reason we attain soundness with all the more difficulty, because we do not know that we are diseased.”

Page 286 – The Definition of Freedom

“I have set freedom before my eyes; and I am striving for that reward. And what is freedom, you ask? It means not being a slave to any circumstance, to any constraint, to any chance.”

Page 292 – How to Choose a Mentor

“Choose as a guide one whom you will admire more when you see him act than when you hear him speak.”

Page 315 – Emotions

“For of what benefit is a quiet neighborhood, if our emotions are in an uproar?”

Page 338 – Being Alone

“There is a pleasure in being in one’s own company as long as possible, when a man has made himself worth enjoying.”

Analysis of Key Passages:


Page 64 – Memento Mori

“Pacuvius, who by long occupancy made Syria his own, used to hold a regular burial sacrifice in his own honor, with wine and the usual funeral feasting, and then would have himself carried from the dining room to his chamber, while eunuchs applauded and sang in Greek to a musical accompaniment: ‘He has lived his life, he has lived his life!’

Thus Pacuvius had himself carried out to burial every day. Let us, however, do from a good motive what he used to do from a debased motive; let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say:

I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me p Is finished.

And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: ‘I have lived!’, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.”

Analysis: The story of Pacuvius is reminiscent of the Stoic belief to remember death each day. Memento Mori (remember death) is to dwell on the idea that life can end at anytime and you should live it well while you have it.

Page 360 – Enjoy Your Loved Ones While You Have Them

“Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours. Let us think how often we shall leave them when we go upon distant journeys, and how often we shall fail to see them when we tarry together in the same place; we shall thus understand that we have lost too much of their time while they were alive.”

Analysis: Seneca knew death. He was aware of it at all times and lived life knowing how fragile he and his loved ones were. Here, he teaches that we must do all we can to greedily spend more time with the people we love. Soon they will be gone.


Page 113 – The Purpose of Philosophy

“Philosophy teaches us to act, not to speak; it exacts of every man that he should live according to his own standards, that his life should not be out of harmony with his words, and that, further, his inner life should be of one hue and not out of harmony with all his activities.
This, I say, is the highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom – that deed and word should be in accord, that a man should be equal to himself under all conditions, and always the same.”

Analysis: The purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to live well. Seneca suggests that its aim is to help us live with integrity – that we do as we say even when nobody is watching.

Page 204 – Stay on Course

“And when you would find out whether you have accomplished anything, consider whether you desire the same things today that you desired yesterday. A shifting of the will indicates that the mind is at sea, heading in various directions, according to the course of the wind. But that which is settled and solid does not wander from its place.”

Analysis: Scope creep and navigational problems can ruin any goal. Take time each day to lift your head up from the work to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. The best way to do this is to ask critical questions like, “Is this still what I want?” or “Have I lost sight of the original goal?”

Page 279 – Improve Yourself Daily

“But I hope by this time you are living in such a way that I can be sure what it is you are busied with, no matter where you may be. For what else are you busied with except improving yourself every day, laying aside some error, and coming to understand that the faults which you attribute to circumstances are in yourself?”

Analysis: The most important work you can do is inward. Stop trying to change other people, and instead work on yourself. It’s hard work that only you can do, and when done, will be the best possible route to improving your circumstances.

Page 281 – You are Not a Lost Cause

“No, we must work. To tell the truth, even the work is not great, if only, as I said, we begin to mould and reconstruct our souls before they are hardened by sin. But I do not despair even of a hardened sinner.

There is nothing that will not surrender to persistent treatment, to concentrated and careful attention; however much the timber may be bent, you can make it straight again.”

Analysis: It doesn’t matter how far you have fallen. Bad habits can be reversed. Mistakes can be fixed. You must have the courage to get started in the process of working on yourself. The only way to get better, is to get started.

Page 317 – Busy Hands

“Great generals, when they see that their men are mutinous, check them by some sort of labour or keep them busy with small forays. The much occupied man has no time for wantonness, and it is an obvious commonplace that the evils of leisure can be shaken off by hard work.”

Analysis: The best way to stay disciplined is to keep your hands moving. If you feel lazy, tired, or tempted – get to work. By picking up the metaphorical shovel and digging, you distract your mind from the temptations of life and you make progress which feels good in the end.


Page 99 – Overcome Your Fear of Poverty

“I shall give you also a lesson: set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?”

Analysis: Stoics believed it was necessary to overcome your fear of poverty. They did this by choosing to live in rags as an experiment, and then to wander the streets suffering people’s judgement. They found that when they did this, it wasn’t as bad as they imagined. Overcoming this fear of poverty helped them to stop coveting wealth so much.

Page 221 – Uncontrolled Prosperity

“Too rich a soil makes the grain fall flat, branches break down under too heavy a load, excessive productiveness does not bring fruit to ripeness. This is the case with the soul also; for it is ruined by uncontrolled prosperity, which is used not only to the detriment of others, but also to the detriment of itself.”

Analysis: It’s detrimental to have everything you want at all times. Hardship is good for the soul, the quality of your work, and the strength of your character. The Stoics accepted fate and worked with it rather than cry about it.

Page 239 – The True Cost of Your Decisions

“Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that ‘buying’ refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves. These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.”

Analysis: Every decision comes with a cost. We are wired to only consider the financial cost, but in reality, there are emotional, time, and mental costs to weigh. Unfortunately, it’s often hard to see the intangible costs of a decision until you have to live with them.


Page 30 – Choose Your Friends Wisely

“Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it? You must either imitate or loathe the world.
But both courses are to be avoided; you should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.”

Analysis: Here again, Seneca warns us of the influence others will have on us. He suggests that we learn to support ourselves and to only associate with people that will improve us.


Page 126 – Be Present in Work

“You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity. Accordingly, look about you for the opportunity; if you see it, grasp it, and with all your energy and with all your strength devote yourself to this task.”

Analysis: Stoicism puts a lot of stock in not worrying about the things you can’t control, and instead to be present in the moment because it’s the only thing you have. Here, it’s pointed out that by being present, you’ll notice opportunities that you would have otherwise glossed over. By being mindful, you have a much better chance of moving your life forward. This concept is starting to connect with Eastern Philosophy, Buddhism, and other ideas related to presence.


Page 25 – Love Yourself

“Meanwhile, I owe you my little daily contribution; you shall be told what pleased me today in the writings of Hecato; it is these words: ‘What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.’ That was indeed a great benefit; such a person can never be alone. You may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind.”

Analysis: Seneca quotes Hecato and suggests that we need to love ourselves. If we can do that, we will never feel alone in life. As an only child, this has been important for me. Learning to be alone, to entertain myself, has been a great benefit.

Page 27 – The Negative Influence of the Herd

“To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.

But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure.

What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman – because I have been among human beings.”

Analysis: Seneca was cynical of crowds. He knew that group dynamics would influence you, and usually the mob or herd failed to improve your psychology.

Page 64 – We Suffer in Mind

“There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. I am not speaking with you in the Stoic strain but in my milder style. For it is our Stoic fashion to speak of all those things, which provoke cries and groans, as unimportant and beneath notice; but you and I must drop such great-sounding words, although, Heaven knows, they are true enough. What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.

Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”

Analysis: Most of our suffering in life is mental. We worry about things that haven’t happened yet, and likely will not happen. We cause most of our own grief, and Seneca encourages us to see this for what it is and to let it go. There’s no point in unnecessary dread.

Page 167 – You are the Problem

“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, and though, as our Virgil remarks:

Lands and cities are left astern, your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.

Socrates made the same remark to one who complained; he said: ‘Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.’

What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.”

Analysis: We look for ways to create happiness, and are let down when we achieve the goal and still feel despondent. Even though it’s exciting to travel to new places, we still worry about our affairs, insufficiencies, and problems. You cannot hide from yourself. If you want to be happy, do the work of self improvement rather than trying to avoid the problems in your life.

Page 234 – The Lion with the Gilded Mane

“The lion with gilded mane, in process of being trained and forced by weariness to endure the decoration, is sent into the arena in quite a different way from the wild lion whose spirit is unbroken; the latter, indeed, bold in his attack, as nature wished him to be, impressive because of his wild appearance – and it is his glory that none can look upon him without fear – is favoured in preference to the other lion, that languid and gilded brute.”

Analysis: There’s value in being yourself rather than always submitting to the will of the group. Learn to think critically and stand on your own two feet.

Page 234 – Live According to Your Nature

“For man is a reasoning animal. Therefore, man’s highest good is attained, if he has fulfilled the good for which nature designed him at birth.

And what is it which this reason demands of him? The easiest thing in the world – to live in accordance with his own nature.”

Analysis: The one characteristic that makes us uniquely human is our ability to reason. Ancient philosophers felt that the path to eudaimonia (happiness in the form of flourishing) was to do your sole purpose as well as possible. Therefore, as a human, if you can live with reason, you will flourish.

Time Management

Page 1 – Do Not Waste Time

“Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius – set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words – that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach.
The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that as due to carelessness.”

Analysis: Seneca acknowledges that time is slipping away, and while there are many reasons for this, if you stop paying attention and let life get away from you, then you are living disgracefully.

Page 136 – Most People Live without a Vision

“There are only a few who control themselves and their affairs by a guiding purpose; the rest do not proceed; they are merely swept along, like objects afloat in a river. And of these objects, some are held back by sluggish waters and are transported gently; others are torn along by a more violent current; some, which are nearest the bank, are left there as the current slackens; and others are carried out to sea by the onrush of the stream. Therefore, we should decide what we wish, and abide by the decision.”

Analysis: Very few people have taken the time to consider what they want in life. Most wake up, follow a rhythm, and get swept along until one day, they’re on their deathbed wondering what happened. As a stoic, you treat each day as your last and you live it according to the four cardinal values: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.


Page 5 – Read Fewer Books and Read Them Well

“Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.”

Analysis: Seneca understood the difference between reading hundreds of books quickly and reading a few well. He believed it was far more valuable to spend time with only the best books, returning to them again and again in order to actually learn and apply their teachings.

Page 19 – Educate Yourself

“I commend you and rejoice in the fact that you are persistent in your studies, and that, putting all else aside, you make it each day your endeavor to become a better man. I do not merely exhort you to keep at it; I actually beg you to do so.”

Analysis: Your education is your responsibility and it’s the best possible way to improve yourself.

Page 24 – Share Your Wisdom

“And when you say: ‘Give me also a share in these gifts which you have found so helpful,’ I reply that I am anxious to heap all these privileges upon you, and that I am glad to learn in order that I may teach.
Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.”

Analysis: If you don’t share what you learn, it benefits no one.

Page 92 – Establish a Life of Study

“If you wish to have leisure for your mind, either be a poor man, or resemble a poor man. Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply, and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: ‘I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy.”

Analysis: Wisdom was considered a valuable good and should be sought after. The only way to do that is to organize your life so that you can spend more time in books which means reducing hours at work, simplifying the home life, etc.

Page 94 – Be a Philosopher

“After you have come to possess all other things, shall you then wish to possess wisdom also? Is philosophy to be the last requisite in life – a sort of supplement? Nay, your plan should be this: be a philosopher now, whether you have anything or not – for if you have anything, how do you know that you have not too much already? – but if you have nothing, seek understanding first, before anything else.”

Analysis: Philosophy means The Love of Wisdom. Seneca encourages us to give up our love for trivial things and to become philosophers. Remember that back then, philosophy included science and other forms of knowledge.

Page 247 – Read for Quality, Not for Quantity

“You complain that in your part of the world there is a scant supply of books. But it is quality, rather than quantity, that matters; a limited list of reading benefits; a varied assortment serves only for delight.”

Analysis: Seneca knew that reading a book well took time and mental energy. To Read hundreds of them only spreads the reader’s attention thin. It’s better to be selective about what you read, and dive deeper into the material. Choose your teachers well.

Page 300 – Study Philosophy

“Let us, therefore, rouse ourselves, that we may be able to correct our mistakes. Philosophy, however, is the only power that can stir us, the only power that can shake off our deep slumber. Devote yourself wholly to philosophy. You are worthy of her; she is worthy of you; greet one another with a loving embrace. Say farewell to all other interests with al courage and frankness. Do not study philosophy merely during your spare time.”

Analysis: Philosophy is the love of wisdom. To spend your time in pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and applied intelligence is worthwhile to any life.


Letters from a Stoic is a life manual for making today matter. It’s about loving your family, working with purpose, and not complaining when bad things happen. That’s why this book, along with other volumes in the Stoic tradition, are so resonant today. The principles are human and speak to the fears we’ve always had when facing the question of what our lives really mean.

Seneca offers a lot for both first time philosophy readers and returning scholars. This book is written in a way that my nine-year-old could understand and my grandfather would benefit from. The best philosophers have a knack for turning complicated ideas into seemingly simple aphorisms. And Seneca accomplishes this well.

Read Letters from a Stoic, mark it up with your notes, and return to it often. The ideas in this book will act like the bumper rails in a bowling alley, keeping the ball continually headed in the right direction.