On Being

Lesson 22 Chapter 4 Module 3

I'm a big fan of Seneca's Letters from a Stoic, and not just because it is the ancient philosophy du jour for the current hipster intellectual movement.

Aside from the pertinent wisdom and life advice doled out by Seneca the Younger to his friend/student Lucilius Junior, the writing and structure has served as a good model for a couple millennia.

That’s some serious staying power.

Plus, it is a great book to read over a few months whenever you get a chance, as Jenny Colgan suggested back on Day 5 in A Message to Readers. Since the book is full of stand-alone letters and essays, you can knock one out whenever you have some spare time.

In today’s lesson, we’re looking at the struggles that Seneca had trying to write to to his student, because of the limitations of the Latin language. Also the limitations of translating Ancient Greek to Ancient Latin, where the same exact phrases and words might not even exist.

So if a term existed so beautifully in Greek that no longer exists in Latin as one comprehensively beautiful word (in the correct tense and part of speech), he would use a word or phrase that almost meant the same. It obviously frustrated him, and it can be inferred that his student had noted some frustration not understanding his teacher because of this.

Still, Seneca loved using words and language as he saw fit in his writings and orations. It didn’t matter if it is was the “correct’ use of the word; if it relayed the message he wanted to relay, he used it.

Consider his writing and speaking the original “If I Fits, I Sits” meme, in literary form.

While there are some Latin terms and phrases used here, knowing their exact meaning isn’t specifically necessary to understanding what Seneca was trying to teach his student.

But I know how frustrating it can be trying to copy and read a vocabulary you don’t know. So I’ve included those terms here, and bolded them in the lesson.

  • Greek “oestrus” = Latin “asilus” (a bug)
  • Latin “cernere ferro inter se” = English “among them the sword” (translated here as “mutually with the sword”)
  • Latin “decernere” = English “settling matters” (but the ancients used the words “iusso” and “iussero”, which were rendered obsolete)
  • Latin “essentia” = Greek “οὐσία“ = English “something that is indispensable”
  • Latin “quod est” = Greek “ὄν“ = English “That is...”
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