On Seneca

This post is currently being actively written, as it is rather long. Last update: 28/12/20

Preamble

Recently, in early December, I had a week-long internship at Seamless Capital, an algorithmic trading company. The timing of that should already raise some eyebrows, but I feel like I have derived significantly more value from the experience than the short timespan would suggest.

If the idea of reading and discussing Seneca, Ray Dalio’s Principles, and the Christian Bible as part of a typical day’s workflow interests you - give the company a look.

I was exposed to these works, while proved (in hindsight) to have a relatively significant impact on my world view. One usually becomes aware of this fact after everyone around them already realised it long ago - one is usually told, with some frustration, that they quoted or tried to make reference to Seneca more times in the past few hours that would be appropriate in a civil household.

My thoughts will be broken down by (collections of) letters, with a short summary of what I (not without influence of Thomas R, who helped me along at Seamless) consider the main points of interest to be, and what lessons could be derived for use in everyday life. If the quotes pique your interest, I implore you to first go and read the letter yourself and then return for my own analysis. Doing so will bias your reading less.

This post is primarily a way of organising and summarising my own thoughts.

I understand that not everyone is able to purchase a physical copy, hence here is a link to the near-complete letters in PDF form. This file is hosted off-site and can be found on the front page of Google following a simple relevant search.

On Self

Letter II

yes, I actually make a practice of going over to the enemy’s camp – by way of reconnaissance, not as a deserter!

You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough

While the letter is short and its main focus is seemingly on the importance of sticking to tried-and-tested authors and that to fully appreciate a piece of work one needs to give it rightful uninterrupted thought, I find the above two quotes telling.

I enjoy having my fingers in a lot of pies, and knowing a lot about different topics for the sake of knowing. As discussed later in Letter LXXXVIII, this is analogous to gluttony. I am not a Stoic.

Ironically, this is the first letter I read and quickly dismissed. The main takeaway from me was to be humble. Something that has endured the test of time (as these letters undoubtedly have) does not deserve such quick dismissal from a 20-something year-old. Mulling over this and other works proved infinitely more valuable than I could have fathomed during the initial reading.

Letter V

This letter has too many good quotes, but here are some of my favourites:

Inwardly everything should be different but our outward face should conform with the crowd.

… one’s life should be a compromise between the ideal and the popular morality.

Anyone entering our homes should admire us rather than our furnishings. It is a great man that can treat his earthenware as if it was silver, and a man who treats his silver as if it was earthenware is no less great. Finding wealth an intolerable burden is the mark of an unstable mind.

The letter shuns doing things for the sake of the attention they might bring as opposed to any real value to oneself. It calls for treating oneself with respect, whilst still respecting societal norms.

One should not try and alienate the ‘mob’. If one comes in with the intention to change the world for the better through self-improvement, there is no point to scaring people away from your way of thought through improper and exotic dress. Your words and philosophy should be doing more talking than your appearance at all times.

It does not follow that one should act like the ‘mob’. This brings us nicely to Letter VII.

Letter VII

You ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd.

When a mind is impressionable and has none too firm a hold on what is right, it must be rescued from the crowd: it is so easy for it to go over to the majority.

Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.

The letter alludes to mental soundness and sound personal principles being similar to being free of illness. Mingling in the crowd increases your chances of catching a poor or radical thought, much like it increases your chances of catching some disease.

This analogy does not hold all the way through - there are also helpful diseases here, the form of people who are able to contribute to your self-development or ones which you can reasonably contribute to.

Letter VIII continues exploring a similar vein, adding that one should be wary of things that are the ‘gift of chance’, for they bring instability and inertia to an otherwise sound plan of life.

Both of these letters once again talk about the importance of temperance - items and events should satisfy your needs and not a step above that. Excess is an easy habit to pick up.

Reflect that nothing merits admiration except the spirit, the impressiveness of which prevents it from being impressed by anything.

Letter IX

This letter is double-loaded, in my opinion. It can be broken down into two main parts, which are explored here and intertwined in the letter. Both deserve equal attention.

Friendship

“I shall show you,” said Hecato, “a love philtre compounded without drug or herb or witch’s spell. It is this: if you wish to be loved, love.”

If there is anything in a particular friendship that attracts a man other than the friendship itself, the attraction of some reward or other will counterbalance that of the friendship.

A true friendship is based on nothing but the drive and want to maintain a friendship. A companionship of this sort has no inherent advantage or requirements. It is a natural want.

A friendship is no different to falling in love. Both, in their pure unsullied forms, do not presume any material (or even spiritual) reward for the act and both hope that the “affection will be mutual”.

Importance of Self

… our wise man feels his troubles but overcomes them …

The wise man, he said, lacked nothing but needed a great number of things, whereas „the fool, on the other hand, needs nothing (for he does not know how to use anything) but lacks everything.

I have all my valuables with me.

A wise man (or woman) is self-content. This does not make friendships unnecessary however, for there is a “natural pleasantness of friendship”.

Being self-content is two fold. It is the recognition that the most valuable things that one possesses are all internal - experiences, memories, skills. This is taken to an extreme here, but it rings true. Valuables cannot be taken away from one self.

The second part to being self-content is recognition of the fact that one needs to be at peace with oneself before they are at peace with the world.

Not happy he who thinks himself not so.

An individual’s perception of self and one’s own situation is the single chokepoint to leading a happy and fulfilling life.

The letter in its entirety is a work of art and deserves an independent read. While I may come back and plump up this section, I do not think I fully appreciate this letter yet and hence need more time to mull and then have original thoughts about it.

On Society

blank, for now

On Nature and God

blank, for now