Letters from a Stoic

By Lucius Seneca
Image of the cover of Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. Wesley Donehue's book reviews and recommendations.

Aside from The Bible and Mere Christianity, I have no book as dog-eared or as marked up with highlights, lines, and my own thoughts. I also have no book that I re-read as much or go back to for reference as, like the Bible, it has become vital to the core of who I am, or at least who I want to be.

It is tough to explain this book, written as a series of letters from 63 – 65 AD, to you without going into a full analysis of stoic philosophy, as this book is one of its foundations. This is a book about human nature and the best way to live life each day, which I find especially important at a time when none of us relax or enjoy individual moments, constantly interrupted by social media, twenty-four-hour news networks, and our phones. We are never disconnected. We are never at true peace.

Instead of giving you a full breakdown of this book, which I find as impossible as the Bible, I will simply give you some of my favorite quotes:

Happy the man who improves other people not merely when he is in their presence but even when he is in their thoughts.

For the only safe harbor in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.

One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guided by the example of others; instead of being set to rights by reason we’re seduced by convention.

True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.

A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.

But when you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship.

Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor strengthens the body.

Why be concerned about others, come to that, when you’ve outdone your own self? Set yourself a limit which you couldn’t even exceed if you wanted to, and say good-bye at last to those deceptive prizes more precious to those who hope for them than to those who have won them. If there were anything substantial in them they would sooner or later bring a sense of fullness; as it is they simply aggravate the thirst of those who swallow them.

Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping…But whatever you do, come back quickly from body to mind.

It is not the man who has too little that is poor, but the one who hankers after more.

Supposing they say they are happy, will their own opinions to this effect make them happy? It does not make any difference what a man says; what matters is how he feels, and not how he feels on one particular day but how he feels at all times…Only the wise man is content with what is his. All foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself.

I could go on and on and perhaps just quote this entire book. As I re-read it for about the fifth time I underlined new passages that I didn’t catch before. And thus the beauty of stoicism. It hits you where you are today. I recommend this book to every single person reading this.

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