Seneca’s Letters with Translations

Seneca is potentially my favorite Roman Stoic, I am especially fond of his Letters to Lucilius. Some of you might be interested in reading Seneca’s letters, but are not sure which translation to get.

Personally I own two different translations of Seneca’s letter, they are Letters from a Stoic translated by Robin Campbell and Letters on Ethics translated by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long. There is also the public domain translation by Richard Mott Gummere which is included in the Loeb Classic edition.

I thought it would be interesting to compare translations so that people might have a better idea as to which translation suites their preferences the most. My personal favorite is Letters on Ethics, as the language is slightly more modern,  it includes all of Seneca’s Letters instead of a few hand picked ones, and contains extensive footnotes.

An additional comment about the Letters from a Stoic edition, it lists the letters in Roman numeral format, so if I am looking for letter 88, hoping that it is in there (since the book only contains certain hand picked letters), I need to figure out what 88 is in Roman numerals (it is LXXXVIII), and the letters are not indexed in the book’s table of contents, so that is a slight annoyance. Hopefully these snippets will help you figure out which translation you might like more!

Letter 2

Letters from a Stoic

But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. What difference does it make how much there is laid away in a man’s safe or in his barns, how many head of stock he grazes or how much capital he puts out at interest, if he is always after what is another’s and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already. You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First , having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.

Letters on Ethics

Indeed, it is not poverty if it is cheerful: the pauper is not the person who has too little but the one who desires more. What does it matter how much is stashed away in his strongbox or his warehouses, how much he has in livestock or in the interest income, if he hands on another’s possessions, computing not what has been gained but what there is yet to gain? Do you ask what is the limit of wealth? Having what one needs, first of all; then, having enough. Farewell.

Loeb Classic

Indeed, if it be contented, it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbour’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough. Farewell.

Letter 16

Letters from a Stoic

It is clear to you, I know, Lucilius, that no none can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom, and that the perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life, although even t he beginnings of wisdom make life bearable. Yet this conviction, clear as it is, needs to be strengthened, and given deeper roots through daily reflection; making noble resolutions is not as important as keeping the resolutions you have made already. You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good become a disposition to good.

Letters on Ethics

I’m sure you realize, Lucilius, that no one can live a truly happy life, or even a bearable life, without philosophy; also, that while it is complete wisdom that render a life happy, even to  begin that study makes life bearable. But this realization must be confirmed and fixed more deeply through daily rehearsal. It is a more work to follow through on honorable aims than it is to conceive of them. One must persevere and add strength by constant study, until excellent intentions become excellence of mind.

Loeb Classic

It is clear to you, I am sure, Lucilius, that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom; you know also that a happy life is reached when our wisdom is brought to completion, but that life is at least endurable even when our wisdom is only begun. This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection; it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones. You must persevere, must develop new strength by continuous study, until that which is only a good inclination becomes a good settled purpose.

Letter 12

Letters from a Stoic

‘It was Epicurus who said that,” you protest. “What business have you got with someone else’s property?’ Whatever is true is m y property. And I Shall persist in inflicting Epicurus on you, in order to bring it home to the people who take an oath of allegiance to someone and never afterwards consider what is being said but only who said it, that the things of greatest merit are common property.

Letters on Ethics

“Epicurus said that,” you say. “What business have you with another’s property?” Whatever is true is my own. I shall persist in showering you with Epicurus, for the benefit of those people who repeat their oaths verbatim and regard not what is being said but who says it. By this they may know that the best sayings are held in common. Farewell.

Loeb Classic

“Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. And I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property. Farewell.

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