The Tao of Seneca

Just a few days before my 65th anniversary, I started reading the 3 volumes of “The Tao of Seneca“. They are based on the “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca, translated by Richard Mott Gummere. The compilation is by Tim Ferris and added are comments of modern stoics.

Ferris in his foreword: “I’m giving away The Tao of Seneca in the hopes that it changes your life, and I promise you that it can.

Here I will make notes, while reading the letters in the order they are presented in the book.

But first some notes about the letters themselves:

Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium

The Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Latin for “Moral Letters to Lucilius”), also known as the Moral Epistles and Letters from a Stoic. It is a collection of 124 letters that Seneca the Younger wrote in the last three years of his life. Before that he had worked for the Emperor Nero for more than ten years. Seneca addresses his letters to Lucilius Junior, the then procurator of Sicily, who is known only through Seneca’s writings. Regardless of how Seneca and Lucilius actually corresponded, it is clear that Seneca crafted the letters with a broad readership in mind.


He often begins with an observation on daily life, and then proceeds to an issue or principle abstracted from that observation. The result is like a diary, or handbook of philosophical meditations.

All letters start with the phrase “Seneca Lucilio suo salutem” (“Seneca greets his Lucilius”) and end with the word “Vale” (“Farewell”). In these letters, Seneca gives Lucilius advice on how to become a more devoted Stoic.
Although they deal with Seneca’s personal style of Stoic philosophy, they also give us valuable insights into daily life in ancient Rome.

Volume 1 of the Tao of Senaca holds his first 65 letters. So let’s start!

On saving time

  • While we are postponing, life speeds by.
  • Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time.
  • I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him.

On Discursiveness in Reading

  • The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company. Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady.
  • Everywhere means nowhere.
  • Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you may possess, it is enough to possess only as many books as you can read.
  • Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.

On True and False Friendship

  • If you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means.
  • It is equally faulty to trust everyone as it is to trust no one.
  • You should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections. Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal.

On the Terrors of Death

  • No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it, or believes that living through many consulships is a great blessing.
  • Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die.
  • No good thing renders its possessor happy, unless his mind is reconciled to the possibility of loss; nothing, however, is lost with less discomfort than that which, when lost, cannot be missed.
  • Take my word for it: since the day you were born you are being led thither (ed: to your death). We must ponder this thought, and thoughts of the like nature, if we desire to be calm as we await that last hour, the fear of which makes all previous hours uneasy.

On the Philosopher’s Mean

  • He is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware.
  • It is the sign of an unstable mind not to be able to endure riches.
  • Just as the same chain fastens the prisoner and the soldier who guards him, so hope and fear, dissimilar as they are, keep step together; fear follows hope.
  • It is as Hecato says that the limiting of desires helps also to cure fears: “Cease to hope,” he says, “and you will cease to fear.”

Hecato was a native of Rhodes, and a disciple of Panaetius, but nothing else is known of his life. It is clear that he was eminent amongst the Stoics of the period (about 100 BC). He was a voluminous writer, but nothing remains.

  • We do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead.
  • Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves over that which is to come as well as over that which is past.
  • The present alone can make no man wretched.

On sharing knowledge

  • And indeed this very fact (ed: that there are no elements left in me which need to be changed) is proof that my spirit is altered into something better; that it can see its own faults, of which it was previously ignorant.
  • 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.
  • However, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word.
  • Men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears.
  • The way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns.
  • Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates.
  • 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.”

On Crowds

  • Do you ask me what you should regard as especially to be avoided? I say, crowds; for as yet you cannot trust yourself to them with safety.
  • 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.

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