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Customer Review

on 22 April 2011
There must be something about the way Latin is structured that causes it to be easy and straightforward when written down. Seneca's Letters From a Stoic are a case in point and these missives to a young follower are a model of simplicity, clarity and good writing; they are also a master lesson in political and ideological trimming.

Seneca was a follower of the cult of stoicism first put forward by Zeno in 300 BC (Seneca was living nearly 300 years later between 4 BC and 65 AD). Roman stoicism was a three bladed philosophy. The first part was logic, which here essentially means looking at the universe and paying attention to what you see and taking conclusions from it. The second leg was physics, which has nothing to do with our modern concept but was more like the idea of the force in Star Wars - in other words that there is a real force of nature that human beings can make use of in their daily lives. Thirdly, there was ethics, which to the Stoics meant that the prime aim of human life was happiness and that the way of achieving this objective was to live in accordance with nature or the ethical force.

To many Stoics these threefold principles meant living a simple, almost monastic, life. But Seneca was one of the richest men in Rome and, from his position as tutor to the emperor Nero, effectively ran the Roman Empire for a period of some five years. He was thus a real-world politician and there are certainly records of him being complicit in acts and foul deeds that would be difficult to reconcile with a traditional view of the stoic philosophy.

What comes across in these letters is precisely this ambiguity in Seneca's make-up. He is an intelligent man able to reduce complex ideas to simple themes but is also vain it is clear that he intends these letters to be published and that only his side will matter. There is never any mention of the name or any other personal details of his co- respondent.

Seneca knows how to spin an argument his way and he finds it entirely justifiable, for example, that someone should be both rich and stoic, provided that they are not showy about their wealth. But ultimately his spinning is rather too transparent - for example he becomes a vegetarian for many years as a matter of principle but instantly surrenders this when his father warns him that the emperor believes vegetarianism is an act of rebellion against the Empire.

Whilst perhaps Seneca's philosophy is somewhat wonky, the reader is left with a fascinating insight into the Roman way of life, sometimes in minute detail, for example what happens at the Roman baths, and also into the thinking process of a master politician.

Ultimately Seneca's trimming did him no good and Nero ordered him to commit suicide, which he willingly did.
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