Selections from Seneca’s “Moral Letters”

seneca

trans. Robin Campbell

To be everywhere is to be nowhere. (Letter 2)

The spirit and the intellect cannot be of different hues. If the spirit is sound, if it is properly adjusted and has dignity and self-control, the intellect will be sober and sensible too, and if the former is tainted the latter will be infected as well. (Letter 114)

If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person. (Letter 94)

‘No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing. No value should be set on it: it’s something we share with dumb animals – the minutest, most insignificance creatures scutter after it. Glory’s an empty changeable thing, as fickle as the weather. Poverty’s no evil to anyone unless he kicks against it. Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination. Superstition is an idiotic heresy: it fears those it should love: it dishonours those it worships. For what difference does it make whether you deny the gods or bring them into disrepute? These are things which should be learnt and not just learnt but learnt by heart.(Letter 123)

I do not agree with those recommend a stormy life and plunge straight into the breakers, waging a spirited struggle against worldly obstacles every day of their lives. The wise man will put up with these things, not go out of his way to meet them; he will prefer a state of peace to a state of war. It does not profit a man much to have managed to discard his own failings if he must ever be at loggerheads with other people’s. (Letter 28)

Give your whole mind to [philosophy]. Sit at her side and pay her constant court, and an enormous gap will widen between yourself and other men. You’ll end up far in advance of all mankind, and not far behind the gods themselves. Would you like to know what the actual difference between yourself and the gods be? They will exist for longer. (Letter 53)

I’m suffering severe pain you may say. Well, does it stop you suffering it if you endure it in a womanish fashion? In the same way as the enemy can do far more damage to your army if it is in full retreat, every trouble that may come our way presses harder on the one who has turned tail and is giving ground. (Letter 78)

We mustn’t take on more than we can manage. You shouldn’t attempt to absorb all you want to – just what you’ve got room for; simply adopt the right approach and you will end up with room for all you want. The more the mind takes in the more it expands. (Letter 108)

The many speak highly of you, but have you really any grounds for satisfaction with yourself if you are the kind of person the many understand? Your merits should not be outward facing. (Letter 7)

An ordinary journey will be incomplete if you come to a stop in the middle of it, or anywhere short of your destination, but life is never incomplete if it is an honourable one. At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is whole. (Letter 77)

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