From our own correspondent

“For all that they purport to be intimate, on-the-hoof overflows of feeling and scatterings of snatched apercus, letters are usually just as artificial, laboured, and rehashed as essays, articles, or anything else that is written for public consumption”

“Portrait of Germaine de Stael” (1812) by Vladimir Borovikovsky (Tretyakov Gallery)

“Farewell, Madame, can one speak to you otherwise than from the depths of the heart?” The answer to this question (which ends Germaine de Stael’s letter to Madame de Tessé) is “Yes, of course one can, and indeed obviously does (in de Stael’s own case)”. For all that they purport to be intimate, on-the-hoof overflows of feeling and scatterings of snatched apercus, letters are usually just as artificial, laboured, and rehashed as essays, articles, or anything else that is written for public consumption.

The Enlightenment thinker Pierre Bayle spoke of “the Republic of Letters”, his name for a notional community of free-thinkers and the epistolary networks they established. But he was only identifying an immemorial phenomenon in which letter-writers, if already famous, or hoping to become so, look over their shoulders as they write, directing their emotional and intellectual effusions as much at posterity as at their correspondent. In all epochs, too, instruction has been sought in how to write letters, even, or above all, letters of love, so as to present the right sort of spontaneity. Each era has its own conventions as to what is sincere–conventions that have helped to form the purportedly authentic feelings, opinions and character of the letter-writer, and that only become apparent once other conventions have supplanted them. What the letter-reader of a later era wants is to savour a quaintness and otherness of expression and outlook that ground the letter in its own time and place, yet, also, to discern perennial emotions and problems that gleam through the inevitable artifice. Later readers might further expect, if the letter’s writer has earned immortality, to be offered signs of the genesis and development of then-original insights and ideas, and, ideally, timeless, still-pertinent wisdom.

Dear Friend, You Must Change Your Life presents 20 letters spanning 22 centuries, starting with the Greek philosopher Epicurus in the third century BC and ending, in December 2000, with the Senegalese choreographer Maurice Béjart. The writers are “intellectuals and artists”, says the editor Ada Bronowski in the introduction, and, though few of them are accredited philosophers, they “make up a parallel philosophical tradition in the margins of the canon”.  Indeed, she claims, “the letters are philosophical in the sense that Plato first gave to the word, that is, that they follow paths to truth or a truth and indicate to the correspondent directions for how to follow that path . . . . Each letter is thus a doorway through which to enter the worlds of some of humanity’s greatest thinkers”.

The first three letters are in fact by canonical philosophers: Epicurus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius (Bronowski has written extensively on classical philosophy). Epicurus’s is one of the three letters which, 600 years after his death, were copied out by Diogenes Laertius. Given that only fragments remain of the author’s treatises, they serve as the chief source for the doctrine of Epicureanism, and this letter to Menoeceus is (pace Bronowski’s disclaimer in the introduction) tantamount to a philosophical text, not that this detracts from either its power, or, oddly, its intimacy. Epicurus declares that “death is nothing to us”. We should not count it an evil since “all good things, as all bad things, come from sensation”, and sensation ceases when we die. Therefore the only pain of death is the expectation of it.

“Pleasure is the goal of life”, asserts Epicurus: the sort of statement that has led to the term “Epicurean” designating someone devoted to (usually swinish) sensual enjoyment, but unjustifiably. Epicurus is, he insists, using the term “pleasure” in a sense different to the way “ignorant people” understand it. Rather than “profligate” pleasure—“wallowing in drinking parties” and “the enjoyment of young boys and women”—real pleasure is “for the body, not feeling any pain, and for the soul, being unburdened from any trouble”. A simple lifestyle is conducive to health, and, whether rich or poor, we should be “self-sufficient”, so as to face “unflinchingly” whatever fate has in store. Hence prudence is “even more precious than philosophy” (which he has been urging Menoeceus to study) and is in fact the progenitor of all the other virtues.

The philosophy of Stoicism urges a level of self-sufficiency far deeper than Epicurus’s—it denies that misfortune even exists, asserting that only what we see and feel to be troublesome can actually trouble us. The true Stoic treats all of life’s benefits as ephemeral, gratuitous loans, and thus refuses to suffer when they are taken away. He cannot, whatever happens to him, be harmed. Thinkers such as Augustine and Erasmus would later question the feasibility of living in this way, and mock it as uncompassionate and self-congratulatory, but the second letter in this collection (dated 63-64 AD), although written by one of the major Stoics, offers advice that is applicable to stoic and non-stoic alike. “Lucilius”, writes Seneca to his friend, “nothing belongs to us, only time is ours”. Whereas other things can be replaced, and debts can be repaid, time is the only thing we really own, and it is “fleeting as it is slippery”, yet we squander it. Timely advice, though unfortunately Seneca then proceeds, rather priggishly, to aver that he himself keeps “an accurate balance sheet” of his own temporal expenses. He is, he admits, occasionally guilty of wasting time, but at least he knows how much time he has wasted, why and in what way.

If only the remaining 18 letters were as well-chosen as the first two. Another Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, grumpily disparages a rival, apologises to his tutor for not having done his homework, and expatiates on the agonies of procrastination. “I punish myself, I get angry, I am gloomy. . . and become jealous of everyone and everything, I go without eating.” This may “reach out” (for once our current hyperbolic cliché is apposite) across the centuries, and be refreshingly familiar to fellow-procastinators, but it could have been written by any articulate student in any era. It hardly counts as one of the promised “doorways” to the thought of a great thinker.

Worse, each of these “doorways” has a vast, cluttered antechamber—every letter is preceded by an unnecessarily lengthy preamble, in several cases as much as six times longer than the letter itself, and usually studded with quotations that act as spoilers. The selection is patchy. Why include a letter written by Anne Conway in 1651 arguing against Descartes’s theory on colour perception—apart, of course, from the fact that she is a woman? A five-page preface to the two-page letter triumphantly informs us that the Cambridge philosopher Henry More (Conway’s addressee) praised her discourse on the nature of the vacuum for its “strength and subtlety”. But since the letter containing this discourse is not included (has in fact been lost), that information is more tantalising than impressive. What we actually get is rambling, elliptical and confusing. Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, also woefully excluded by her sex from active participation in intellectual life, conducted a fascinating correspondence with Descartes. But why, out of her clever, spirited letters, select one that is rather servile and commonplace?

Sometimes the “doorway” is more like a window inadvertently opened onto an airless closet. The 1763 letter from Winckelmann to Usteri mentions Anton Mengs and Heinrich Fussli. They are duly explained in the preamble, but, to the modern reader, are likely to seem as pointless and random as the letter itself. Another mystifying choice is Schiller’s letter to Goethe. It leaves the reader wondering why “rational empiricism” should be “the perfect term” for Goethe’s methodology, what it means, and in what way it is, or ever was, significant. The missive from Francois Truffaut to his erstwhile friend and fellow-film-maker Jean-Luc Godard (in 1973) would be a wonderful example of an angry letter, except that, being (unavoidably) in translation, the anger has been deprived of its proper sound and cadence, and that the footnotes do not adequately explain the people and events that have caused it. Reading it is like fruitlessly eavesdropping on a coded conversation about strangers.

Walter Benjamin’s letter offers a shrewd analysis of Kafka, Catherine the Great’s is characterful and funny, Gandhi’s excoriates the pointless modern evils of railways and of the postal service in a letter that will have reached its addressee precisely (as the preamble notes) by the means he condemns. But little links the letters or explains their inclusion, even if Rilke’s letter to Lotte Hepner does reprise the theme of death and its terrors broached by Epicurus 21 centuries earlier. It ends with the notion of a man for whom fear of death had become “a tower of fear with passages and stairways and unprotected ledges and drops on every side—only that the very strength required to experience and acknowledge his fear at the last moment, who knows how, veered into unapproachable reality, suddenly became this tower’s firm ground, its landscape and sky and the wind and a flight of birds around it.” The meaning of this passage may be mysterious or seem somewhat contrived; but it, at least, is impeccably worthwhile for its beauty.

Dear Friend, You Must Change Your Life: The Letters of Great Thinkers
Edited by Ada Bronowski
Bloomsbury Academic, 256pp, £65