Leaning into Stoicism can be a challenge. This is especially true without college level training in philosophy. One high level entry point is Dirk Baltzy’s article on Stoicism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Dirk is a fine contemporary philosopher who completed a second Ph.D. in classics, giving him solid credibility to write an unbiased article on the Stoics. He did a good job on the general theory of Stoicism. Although, it does not provide a suitable introduction for putting this most practical way of living into practice.
The Ancient Roman Philosopher and Statesman Seneca wrote an introductory philosophy course in 124 letters. Written almost 2,000 years ago, they remain a suitable guide to living for those of us coping with the tragedy of the commons in the 2020s. Seneca did not write in the style of academic philosophy in the 21st century. However, it is still a daunting work of 600,000 words that walks us through a range of sophisticated philosophical issues. Seneca’s moral epistles lay squarely in the tradition of philosophy as a way of life. He explores the central philosophical topics and writes in a way that conveys the wisdom of someone whose philosophy has been at the heart of their life for decades.
Born in Spain and educated in Rome and Athens, Seneca was a renowned writer of his day. Many of his philosophical treatises, his tragedies, and the excellent collection of letters to Lucilius have survived. This is very different to most of the Stoics. The arguments and positions of many survive only as fodder in the writings of their critics.
Despite his high status in the Roman Empire, his life threw up many opportunities to demonstrate he lived his philosophy as a way of life. Ill health plagued him all his life. As a boy his parents sent him to Egypt, the climate deemed to be better for his health. Some time after he returned to Rome, he came close to death due to illness. In his 30s, it is thought he was spared execution because he a grave illness would kill him soon anyway. In his late 30s Seneca’s life changed course dramatically when exiled to Corsica, on what may have been trumped up charges. Probably at the behest of an autocratic leader who did not like the independence of Seneca’s thinking. After 7 or 8 years, the emperor recalled him to Rome and soon started tutoring the boy who became the emperor Nero. Although the boy’s mother forbid him to teach philosophy.
The prose in the Letters is not an easy path for the general reader to walk in pursuit of Stoic knowledge. Although, being a talented writer, Seneca makes it easier to work with his Letters than other more theoretical books. The audience he had in mind were the upper-classes of Roman society. However, they are conceived as open to philosophy rather than advanced practitioners. The effect is we have to work for it when we study the Letters, but it is far less demanding than conventional philosophical writing.
Finally, Seneca lived in a time of autocratic leaders. The life of upper-class Romans was conducive to anxiety and anger. These conditions exist in many of the organizations we have to work in today. He may have lived 2,000 years ago, but Seneca was writing for people who lived in a world as rich and unstable as the one we face as the ecological catastrophe unfolds on our planet.
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