Above all else, for Seneca and Jean-Paul Sartre the study of philosophy liberates the mind. It is an activity that exercises human freedom. When we chose Seneca’s Letters as resilience resource for our life, we join legions of people who have done the same thing for nearly two millennia. Theses exercises are a necessary complement to the study.
The Stoics were deeply committed to books as a tool for learning philosophy. Although not only books, exercises too are necessary. In their philosophy of freedom, the authority of the sages was to be respected. However, in letter 33 Seneca asks “How long will you march under another’s command? Take charge: say something memorable on your own account.” Like Wittgenstein’s ladder in his first book, the sages and the tradition provide a foundation. It is tempting to follow Jean Paul-Sartre and think, in the end we are all alone. Even if that were true, the fact is most of our life is not ‘lived in the end.’
We are not alone
We live in families and communities. We live on a planet with a myriad of other species. We are most certainly not alone. And in Seneca’s mind, and Wittgenstein’s too, we were mostly not free in part because we are not alone. They believed most vehemently that with diligent application we can bring about more freedom in our life.
Reading Seneca’s philosophical books, essays and his plays has been a time-honored way of refining and exercising our facility for practical reason. The Stoic school of philosophy Seneca identified with, operated for 600 years in Ancient Greece and Rome. For Seneca and the Stoics, philosophy had two essential components. The first was to study philosophical doctrines or ideas, aka study books and attend lectures. That type of study is the ancestor of philosophy as we currently understand it, and how universities across the Western world teach it.
Equally important for a Stoic model of philosophy is to engage in exercises. The function of these exercises is to deepen our understanding of philosophical ideas and doctrines. A wider aim is to use the exercises to transform our self with philosophy. The transformation being attempted through the exercises, is the transformation of philosophical ideas into our actions. To the Stoics philosophy was a way of life that transformed every aspect of your behavior.
Many people have forgotten that for the Stoics the subject of philosophy was your life. They developed it as a way of tending to your soul. This is a very different idea of philosophy from what they teach in universities – in Australia at any rate. The waves of students inspired by Harry Potter to take philosophy courses at a university in the 21st century must have been, in the main, disappointed.
Reading Seneca’s moral letters
When we start Seneca’s Moral Letters, we should aim to do three things. First and foremost, we must read them. Second, we work through the arguments and ideas in each letter and each book of letters. Third, we also need to start the exercises that will promote the transformation of our life.
Simply reading philosophical texts like Seneca’s Letters is a powerfully effective way to get it. He was a master writer and much like the many tactics Kierkegaard used in his writing, Seneca writes in a way that educates regardless of analytic intent on the readers behalf. Reading is a skill of many levels and functions. A skillful reading of Seneca might be the best way to absorb his lessons in a way that empowers you to take command as your progress.
The Moral Letters are a work of philosophy if not exactly a treatise. We can read them with the analytic precision of a contemporary philosopher. I would say we must read some letters in this way as part of the development of the intellect so necessary for moral development in the eyes of the Stoics. Yet even those letters should be just read from time to time, to provide an important perspective that fosters the development of your practical reason.
Practical reason is vastly important to Seneca. This means philosophy to have had any effect at all upon you, must be observable in your actions, not just your words. It transforms actions through exercise. Such is the importance of the exercises to his philosophy that Seneca starts discussing them in the second letter. The contemporary American philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes in her book The Therapy of Desire, that Seneca’s Moral Letters are the best course of moral development we can find in the philosophical corpus. This may be true, although only if complimented by exercises.
These are letters from a place far, far away
When we read Seneca’s 124 letters we need to be cognizant that he was writing almost 2,000 years ago. Equally, from time to time we need to remember that he was in his early sixties when he set out this philosophical program. Meaning he was probably more concerned with his legacy than even he was ten or twenty years earlier. There is so much we can learn from him still, just not everything in the practical philosophy of his 475 pages of letters remains accurate. This actually makes the process of refining our practical reason easier. Seneca never aimed for his readers to become parrots of his ideas. He wanted his readers to develop their own independent understanding of their life, and how to live it in a good way.
The first letter of the book articulates his philosophy as a doctrine for the enjoyment of freedom. Its subjects are time and life, and their relationship with freedom. To most of us alive today it also sows a disruptive seed – that to confuse life with time is an unhelpful mistake. It is an important topic to be regularly examined in future posts here at beautiful rich sages.
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 Nussbaum 1994 The Therapy of Desire: Theory and practice in Hellenistic ethics p 347.
 Ep 33.7 in Seneca Letters on Ethics, 2015. Margaret Graver & A.A. Long (translators) p111.
 Sellars 2009 The Art of Living: the Stoics on the nature and function of philosophy. P17.
 Sellars 2009 The Arty of Living: the Stoics on the nature and function of philosophy. P59.