If we chose Seneca’s Letters as resilience resource for our professional life, we join a tradition that legions of people have subscribed over nearly two millennia. Reading his philosophical books, essays and his plays is been a time honoured 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. However, since the 1800’s, many of the people who read Seneca did so without an accurate grasp of how the Stoic model of philosophy he employed differed from contemporary understandings of what is meant by Philosophy.
For Seneca and the Stoics, philosophy had two essential components. The first was to study philosophical doctrines or ideas. That was a type of study that is the ancestor of philosophy as we currently understand it, and how it is taught in universities across the Western world.
The second part of the Stoic model of philosophy is a series of exercises. The function of those exercises is to deepen our understanding of the philosophical ideas and doctrines. The wider aim was that by using the exercises, we are able to transform our self with philosophy. The exercises aim to transform philosophical ideas into our actions.
This strikes many thinkers in the twenty-first century as unusual. Many people have forgotten that for the Stoics the object 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 is taught in universities – in Australia at any rate. Although, I think those of us who turn to philosophy have just such an understanding of what it can do, and we find contemporary analytic philosophy doesn’t provide the benefit we seek.
Approaching Seneca’s moral letters
When we approach Seneca’s books of Moral Letters – the Letters to Lucilius – as a life coaching tool, we should aim not only to work through the arguments and ideas in each letter and book of letters, but also to initiate exercises to assist the transformation of our life. 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.
As we start reading Seneca’s 124 letters we need to remind ourselves from time to time that he was writing almost 2,000 years ago, and that he was in his early sixties when he set out this philosophical program. Much of what he has written is still of great value to us today, 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.
In first letter of the collection he clearly spells out how his philosophy is a doctrine for the enjoyment of freedom. It deals with time and life and how they relate to freedom. It also gives us a hint that confusing life with time might be a big and very unhelpful mistake. This is the topic I will examined next time.