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The Apprentice

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a philosopher who lived during the Julio-Claudian era in Roman history during the first century A.D. His school of philosophical ideology was known as ‘Stoicism’, a manner of living & of perceiving the world which encouraged abstinence from unnecessary excess & a perpetual cultivation of the mind, primarily through a concept the Romans called the ‘summum bonum’, or ‘supreme ideal’. This ideal was comprised of four fundamental qualities : wisdom, courage, self-control & justice. A man whose life was devoted to upholding these core values would be self-sufficient, tolerant of suffering, self-reliant & ‘superior to the wounds & upsets of life’. Stoicism also valued upright conduct & fair, just dealings, simple living habits that abstained from overly indulgent, or luxurious extravagance. It also strongly encouraged obedience to the state, as the school of Stoicism perceived the world as a ‘single great community’.

Seneca was a highly educated man, he was accomplished in rhetoric, grammar & ethics which garnered his work tremendous influence in the ancient Roman world. It also seemed to attract the ire of Roman emperors like moths to the flame. Caligula absolutely detested Seneca & everything about his writing, often publicly mocking him as he did for other writers, such as Titus Livy & the poet Virgil. On one occasion Gaius disparagingly referred to the Stoic philosopher as a “textbook orator”, his rhetoric derisively degraded as “simple school exercises”. Caligula’s own speaking style & rhetoric tended toward being very aggressive & often flagrantly direct, he opted for short, powerful statements & abstained from unnecessary verbiage. As such, he absolutely detested Seneca’s often-flowery prose which often contained lessons or proverbs embedded in the rhetoric itself. Seneca’s style was specifically designed to elicit contemplation after reading it. Caligula bluntly declaimed it as “sand without cement” meaning that Gaius believed the Stoic’s rhetoric to be a collection of loose words without substance holding it together, so much superfluous linguistic regurgitation. After Seneca was alleged to have had an affair with Caligula’s sister Julia Livilla, he was exiled from Rome. Claudius recalled him, then exiled him once more.

Finally, Agrippina the Younger afforded Seneca the opportunity of a lifetime after her son Nero had become emperor after Claudius’ death in the year 54 A.D. She needed someone to tutor her son to the best of his abilities, to provide to him instruction on effective ruling. This was probably one of the most amazing comebacks ever chronicled throughout history, in my opinion. He & Nero’s mother had a symbiotic relationship, she needed his reputation & learning to educate her young & wayward son & he needed her for protection & financial backing. That was it, right there. There were no hidden clauses in their agreement, nor was there deception between them. Obviously, Seneca experienced limited success in his efforts regarding Nero’s moral & governmental edification.

‘Letters from a Stoic’ is actually a selection taken from a more substantial work entitled the ‘Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium’. It means ‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’. Lucilius was Seneca’s dear friend & companion. The complete work contains one hundred & twenty-four letters in total, & Penguin’s ‘Letters from a Stoic’ is a selection of forty of them. So it’s not a lengthy book by any means, nor is the reading challenging. The translation work is done by a fellow named Robin Campbell, whom I decided I liked immediately after reading the short paragraph on the first page of the book. After discovering further along in the closing paragraphs of the excellently-written introduction that Mr. Campbell was a student of the renowned J.P.V.D. Balsdon, my affection for the man increased exponentially, as I’m familiar with some of Balsdon’s work. He’s a fanatic for a high-quality translation, & he speaks on the subject to a fascinating degree I found myself just as interested in learning about as I was in the book itself ! There are also other sections that analyze Seneca’s life & writing style provided by Mr. Campbell which are much, much more effectively-composed than this review, so in the event that you opt to purchase the book I would strongly encourage diving into the introduction without reserve.

So, as far as my personal impressions on Seneca’s writing style, he’s absolutely unique amongst the writers of antiquity whose works I’ve read in my very-limited layman’s experience. Seneca’s style, probably his entire way of looking at the world, is in my opinion something that is practically extinct in our day & age. The letters are so tactfully composed that one literally feels as they’re reading a constant stream of proverbs. And they are immensely well-conceived, to boot. As touched upon earlier, it is believed that Seneca wrote these letters whilst he was in his declining years preceding his very-tragic suicide so if that indeed is accurate, the man assuredly had a tremendous amount of distraction-free time in which to undertake his work with appropriate due diligence. Some of the statements Seneca makes in ‘Letters from a Stoic’ are so beautiful not only because of his language, but also for the resounding, unmistakable dirge of truth practically radiating from them. The values & the ethics they encourage are those of fundamental concepts every human being learns from a young age regardless of nationality or country of origin, such as mere kindness or unselfishness to one’s neighbors. One of my favorite quotes of the entire book is in ‘Letter VI’, early in the book : ‘If wisdom were offered me on the one condition that I should keep it shut away & not divulge it to anyone, I should reject it. There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.’ I think that Robin Campbell’s translation work is one of the predominant reasons next to Seneca’s original work itself as to why these letters read as well as they most certainly do in this book.

I surprisingly stumbled upon perhaps the most humorous part of the book in the end section with the extended notes, of all places. Scholars in the next century after Seneca’s death oftentimes would criticize his work which was obviously done for the usual reasons anyone criticizes the work of another. Another grammarian, Aulus Gellius, levels “criticism” at his rhetoric & education using language I found to be utterly hysterical the way Campbell presents it, Seneca’s learning is categorized as being “of a very ordinary, low-brow character”, his language derisively belittled as being “trite & commonplace”.

So, to sum things up, I couldn’t get enough of ‘Letters from a Stoic’. I thought it was a tremendous read & it easily can be read numerous times because there’s so much wonderful, beneficial wisdom & advice embedded in Seneca’s letters to his brother Lucilius, who probably was a low-browed character himself. The best aspect of this book in my estimation is there’s really no need, at all, to have a prior background on Roman history, because most of the letters involve very introspective discussions on topics that mainly relate to being a worthwhile, upstanding human being of good moral fiber. Everything else you need to know is taken care of by Campbell, so there’s nothing to worry about. And that’s about all.

I very much hope you enjoyed reading this review, & that you perhaps learned a bit about Roman history as well !