The twenty-first letter of Seneca is a very peculiar one. While Stoics don’t seek fame, Seneca promises Lucilius in this letter to keep his name known after his death. He even seems to boast about the reach and importance of his own writings. This makes it a rather ‘un-Stoic’ letter, in my opinion.
I shall find favour among later generations; I can take with me names that will endure as long as mine.
Interestingly enough, what I find the most valuable lesson from this letter is not taught directly by the Stoic Seneca, but repeated after Epicurus: if you seek happiness, do not try to increase it, but try to lessen your desire. And it is the same with everything that you strife for: don’t chase after it, but temper your desire.
If you wish (…) to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires. (…) If you wish to make Pythocles honourable, do not add to his honours, but subtract from his desires (…) if you wish Pythocles to have pleasure for ever, do not add to his pleasures, but subtract from his desires (…) if you wish to make Pythocles an old man, filling his life to the full, do not add to his years, but subtract from his desires.
While the Epicurean school and the Stoic school are at odds at many points, there is also a large common ground. We often think of Stoics as unemotional, rational beings and of Epicureans as hedonistic pleasure seekers. The truth is, as always, far more nuanced. Epicureans were not hedonists, and Stoics were not without feelings. Maybe that is what can be learned from this letter. Still, it is a very strange one…