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Seneca: Selected philosophical letters

A striking thing about Seneca's letters is that Seneca constantly criticizes lengthy abstract philosophical analysis and yet frequently indulges in just that. This means that some of the letters, paradoxically, are quite challenging to read even for someone with formal training in philosophy. Brad Inwood is a towering pioneer in the Seneca-research and in this volume he has selected some of the most complex and interesting letters and added careful commentaries to each of them. On top of that there's a great introduction with lots of useful information about the letters and interesting thoughts on why Seneca wrote them in the first place. An indispensable book if you are up for a for a firmer grasp of Seneca's special brand of Stoicism.


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Aristotle on happiness and external goods

According to popular opinion both in ancient Greece and today, happiness requires things such as wealth, good health, good looks, friends, family and good reputation. In Plato's dialogue Euthydemus Socrates challenges those beliefs by claiming that none of those things are good, if they are not used wisely. In fact, Socrates claims that a person who has wisdom doesn't need any of those things at all since he or she can turn any situation into something beneficial for him- or herself.

"If wisdom is present, the one for whom it is present has no need of good fortune".

- Socrates in Euthydemus, 279E

In other words, Socrates claims that wisdom is a sufficient requirement for happiness (and a necessary requirement too, of course). Aristotle famously challenges that claim. But what exactly does he say? Let's have a look.

"we suppose happiness is enduring and definitely not prone to fluctuate, but the same person’s fortunes often turn to and fro. For clearly, if we t…

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This article claims that a Stoic has no reason to get depressed by bad political conditions since an evil government is not really a bad thing for a Stoic - since nothing can be bad for a Stoic except his own bad choices. Even so, the article claims, a Stoic acknowledges that an evil government is capable of doing "terrible things" to people.

To make this line of thinking work we have to think of ourselves as Stoics who can't be harmed by an evil government - since nothing can be bad for us as Stoics except our own bad choices - and other people as non-Stoics who will suffer terribly if they are oppressed by the evil government.
In my opinion, this interpretation of Stoicism is flat out wrong.
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Now, let's imagine that person A is completely wise. This would mean that he or she is completely indifferent to things like bodily harm, poverty, sickness, reputation, insults, abuse and whatever else life or other human beings can throw at us. Obviously, it would still be possible to commit an injury in relation to a person like that - since this would simply require having the intention to harm that person. However, it would be impossible to …