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Latin Book Club — Seneca | Don’t read too many books!

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Read­ing togeth­er is a great way to social­ize and a great way to learn Latin. It is an enjoy­ment shared through­out the ages. But some­times it is dif­fi­cult to gath­er togeth­er. So, we thought we would gath­er digitally.

Sug­gest­ed read­ing and watch­ing: All Latin book club posts

Can you read too many books? This is the sub­ject of Seneca’s let­ter to his dear Lucil­ius and one that we will read in today’s video.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, or Seneca the Younger, is also known as Seneca Minor or Seneca Philoso­phus. All these dif­fer­ent names dis­tin­guish him from his father, who was also called Lucius Annaeus Seneca, usu­al­ly referred to as Seneca the Elder or Seneca Maior.

Seneca the Younger was born in Cór­do­ba, Spain, in 4 B.C. but came to Rome as a young boy to be edu­cat­ed. He took an ear­ly inter­est in phi­los­o­phy and became famous for his devo­tion to Sto­icism which per­me­ates his let­ters. Seneca also took an inter­est in pol­i­tics and became a senator. 

In 41 A.D., he was exiled from Rome after accu­sa­tions of adul­tery and spent eight years on Cor­si­ca. He was called back to Rome to tutor future emper­or Nero. He became Nero’s advi­sor for some time but then retired from polit­i­cal life alto­geth­er. His life end­ed, quite famous­ly, after Nero had ordered him to com­mit suicide. 

Seneca was very dili­gent with his pen, and thanks to his pas­sion for Sto­icism, quite many of his works have been saved; The rea­son is that the Sto­ic phi­los­o­phy shares traits with Chris­tian­i­ty, which gave the Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church a rea­son to pre­serve and copy his works. 

His most pop­u­lar work is the col­lec­tion of 124  let­ters writ­ten to Lucil­ius, Epis­tu­lae morales ad Lucil­i­um, in which he wrote about moral and eth­i­cal ques­tions. The 124 let­ters span over 20 books, though Aulus Gel­lius (c.130–170 A.D.) quotes a 22nd book which indi­cat­ed that the orig­i­nal col­lec­tion was even larger. 

Today we will read the sec­ond of these let­ters, and learn what Seneca’s stance is on read­ing voraciously.

Video in Latin

Lis­ten and watch the read­ing of the text.

You can down­load a PDF and the Audio here: Get a down­load­able audiofile of this episode and a print-friend­ly PDF of the text and trans­la­tion: Latin Book Club: Seneca the Younger, Let­ter 1.2.

Audio only

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Latin Text (Seneca, Ep. 1.2)


[1] Ex iis quae mihi scribis et ex iis quae audio bonam spem de te con­ci­pio: non dis­cur­ris nec loco­rum muta­tion­ibus inqui­etaris. Aegri ani­mi ista iac­ta­tio est: pri­mum argu­men­tum com­posi­tae men­tis exis­ti­mo posse con­sis­tere et secum morari.

[2] Illud autem vide, ne ista lec­tio auc­to­rum mul­to­rum et omnis gener­is volu­minum habeat aliq­uid vagum et insta­bile. Cer­tis ingeni­is immorari et innu­triri oportet, si velis aliq­uid tra­here quod in ani­mo fideliter sedeat. Nusquam est qui ubique est. Vitam in pere­gri­na­tione exi­gen­tibus hoc evenit, ut mul­ta hos­pi­tia habeant, nul­las amici­tias; idem acci­dat necesse est iis qui nul­lius se inge­nio famil­iarit­er appli­cant sed omnia cur­sim et prop­er­antes transmittunt.

[3] Non prodest cibus nec cor­pori acced­it qui sta­tim sump­tus emit­ti­tur; nihil aeque san­i­tatem imped­it quam reme­dio­rum cre­bra muta­tio; non ven­it vul­nus ad cica­tricem in quo medica­men­ta temp­tan­tur; non con­va­lesc­it plan­ta quae saepe trans­fer­tur; nihil tam utile est ut in tran­si­tu prosit. Dis­trin­git libro­rum mul­ti­tu­do; itaque cum leg­ere non pos­sis quan­tum habueris, satis est habere quan­tum legas.

[4] ‘Sed modo’ inquis ‘hunc librum evol­vere volo, modo illum.’ Fas­ti­di­en­tis stom­achi est mul­ta degustare; quae ubi varia sunt et diver­sa, inquinant non alunt. Pro­batos itaque sem­per lege, et si quan­do ad alios dev­er­ti libuer­it, ad pri­ores redi. Aliq­uid coti­die adver­sus pau­per­tatem, aliq­uid adver­sus mortem aux­ili com­para, nec minus adver­sus ceteras pestes; et cum mul­ta per­cur­reris, unum excerpe quod illo die concoquas.

[5] Hoc ipse quoque facio; ex pluribus quae legi aliq­uid appre­hen­do. Hodier­num hoc est quod apud Epi­cu­rum nanc­tus sum — soleo enim et in aliena cas­tra tran­sire, non tamquam transfu­ga, sed tamquam explorator -: ‘hon­es­ta’ inquit ‘res est lae­ta paupertas’.

[6] Illa vero non est pau­per­tas, si lae­ta est; non qui parum habet, sed qui plus cupit, pau­per est. Quid enim refert quan­tum illi in arca, quan­tum in hor­reis iaceat, quan­tum pas­cat aut feneret, si alieno imminet, si non acquisi­ta sed acquiren­da com­pu­tat? Quis sit divi­tiarum modus quaeris? primus habere quod necesse est, prox­imus quod sat est. Vale.Join our Newslet­ter because we send out tips, updates and learn­ing material.

English Translation

Greet­ings from Seneca to his friend Lucilius.

1. Judg­ing by what you write me, and by what I hear, I am form­ing a good opin­ion regard­ing your future. You do not run hith­er and thith­er and dis­tract your­self by chang­ing your abode; for such rest­less­ness is the sign of a dis­or­dered spir­it. The pri­ma­ry indi­ca­tion, to my think­ing, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s abil­i­ty to remain in one place and linger in his own company.

2. Be care­ful, how­ev­er, lest this read­ing of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you dis­cur­sive and unsteady. You must linger among a lim­it­ed num­ber of mas­ter-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Every­where means nowhere. When a per­son spends all his time in for­eign trav­el, he ends by hav­ing many acquain­tances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek inti­mate acquain­tance with no sin­gle author, but vis­it them all in a hasty and hur­ried manner.

3. Food does no good and is not assim­i­lat­ed into the body if it leaves the stom­ach as soon as it is eat­en; noth­ing hin­ders a cure so much as fre­quent change of med­i­cine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after anoth­er; a plant which is often moved can nev­er grow strong. There is noth­ing so effi­ca­cious that it can be help­ful while it is being shift­ed about. And in read­ing of many books is distraction.

Accord­ing­ly, since you can­not read all the books which you may pos­sess, it is enough to pos­sess only as many books as you can read. 4. “But,” you reply, “I wish to dip first into one book and then into anoth­er.” I tell you that it is the sign of an over­nice appetite to toy with many dish­es; for when they are man­i­fold and var­ied, they cloy but do not nour­ish. So you should always read stan­dard authors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before. Each day acquire some­thing that will for­ti­fy you against pover­ty, against death, indeed against oth­er mis­for­tunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thor­ough­ly digest­ed that day.  5. This is my own cus­tom; from the many things which I have read, I claim some one part for myself.

The thought for to-day is one which I dis­cov­ered in Epi­cu­rus; for I am wont to cross over even into the ene­my’s camp, – not as a desert­er, but as a scout.  6. He says: “Con­tent­ed pover­ty is an hon­ourable estate.” 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.

Trans­la­tion by Richard M. Gum­mere, 1917

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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