Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living

Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living

David Fideler
New York: W.W. Norton, 2021. 265 pp., hardcover, $26.95.

Teachings are endless; we vow to learn them all.
—Zen promise

Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.

One never knows when and where and under what situations we come across teachings that transform our lives. David Fideler had a crisis of unspeakable grief, and his help came from the writings of the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4 BC‒AD 65). Seneca’s Stoicism presented to him “a steady stream of reliable and practical advice about the human condition, human psychology, and how to live a happy flourishing life.”

Later in Fideler’s life, a perfect morning was having breakfast with Seneca—a cup of fresh coffee, an e-reader with Seneca’s complete letters, and an omelette to go with it. I am indeed tempted to adopt the same routine, be it with ancient teachings like Seneca’s, or even a Zen koan.        

Fideler discovered that “nothing significant has changed in human nature over the last two thousand years.” What Seneca said through his letters is still very much alive for us in today’s world (the journey is not taken alone). Overcome stress, live a life with purpose and cultivated excellence, overcome grief, and contribute to society with our actions—how can one go wrong following these teachings?

Fideler’s book fills a void. It explains Seneca’s teachings to a general reader through various chapters addressing specific topics. One can be inspired to host one’s own breakfasts with Seneca, Fideler hopes.

The popular meaning of being a stoic has to do with keeping a stiff upper lip or holding your emotions in check. But Seneca’s stoicism comes with a capital S. The ancient Stoics never taught the repression of emotions. Their goal was to transform them through understanding. The fundamental question was, “What is needed to live the best possible life?” They believed that one could indeed do that regardless of the obstacles and turmoil of the world. Philosophy was the true art of living, not an abstract pursuit. Seneca called his own teachings “medical remedies.”

Fideler’s book delves deeper into the eight main ideas of Stoic thought using Seneca’s letters. They are:

Live in agreement with nature to find happiness.

Virtue or excellence of one’s inner character is the only true good.

Some things are up to us or entirely under our control, while other things are not.

While we can’t control what happens to us in the external world, we can control our inner judgment and how we respond to life’s events.

When something negative happens, or when we are struck by adversity, we shouldn’t be surprised by it, but see it as an opportunity to create a better situation.

Virtue, or possessing an excellent character, is its own reward. But it also results in eudaimonia or happiness—a state of mental tranquility and inner joy.

Real philosophy involves “making progress.” It’s essential that we as individuals should contribute to society.

Fideler gives us also an insight into Seneca’s life of adversity. He lived under the horribly corrupt reigns of the emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The adversity did not deter Seneca. He transformed it into something profoundly positive. Seneca used his own death (he was forced to commit suicide by Nero) to give a final talk to his friends.

Fideler’s book is a treasure. It gives the readers gems from Seneca’s letters on various topics and provides commentaries to help put them in practice.

Discussing why you should never complain, Seneca wrote, “Nothing needs to annoy you if you don’t add your annoyance to it.” We all know about the glass half full and the glass half empty. A complainer would worry about a smudge on the glass that could be carrying a virus. A Stoic would view it with gratitude, as a gift from the universe, and would be grateful for its life-giving properties.

I was drawn to the chapter on “Give Grief Its Due.” Seneca wrote, “Tears fall, no matter how we try to hold them back, and shedding them relieves the mind.” Seneca took grief seriously. He wrote five separate works consoling friends and family members. He gave advice on how to grieve well. Yes, we feel the loss, but we must acknowledge the happy memories of those we have lost. He knew that everything given to us is but on a loan.

It has been said about the Bhagavad-Gita that it would be enough even to experience only one verse. I am tempted to say the same thing about Seneca’s teaching. Just take one, and incorporate it in your life.

One never knows which saying a reader would take to. My wife, reading this book, looked at “Value your time: Don’t postpone living” and encouraged me to finish the pending house projects!

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He reviews regularly for Quest and works as a volunteer in the archives department of the TSA.