Seneca on the pleasures of receiving a letter from a friend.


“They’re doing WHAT to the Royal Mail?!” Not even that old stoic Seneca can hide his concern.

Thank you for writing so often. By doing so you give me a glimpse of yourself in the only way you can. I never get a letter from you without instantly feeling we’re together. If pictures of absent friends are a source of pleasure to us, refreshing the memory and relieving the sense of void with a solace however insubstantial and unreal, how much more so are letters, which carry marks and signs of an absent friend that are real. For the handwriting of a friend affords us what is so delightful about seeing him again, the sense of recognition. 

Seneca, 40th letter to Lucilus, written in the first century CE.


There is a great deal of food for thought in Seneca’s letters to his young friend, but it was this passage that leapt out at me when I read it the other day. With the Government planning the sale of the Royal Mail into private hands, I for one can only see this as hastening the decline of the personal letter. Such is the way of British privatisations that consumers often ending up paying more to get less. It won’t be long before we’re paying £1 to send a letter. Once we’re through that barrier expect price rise upon rise, as the Royal Mail concentrates on the real cash generator of parcel delivery.

That said, I will always set great store by a personal letter. I can’t add anything of value to the great man’s words, apart from to add that with all the different ways of communicating now available to us, I see a personal letter as being even more valuable than the other forms. If you’re anything like me, writing a letter takes the most effort: setting aside the required amount of time, thinking of the right words, making sure your handwriting is consistently neat, having to go to the post office if you haven’t already got the stamps, and paying to send it off. If anything comes near it for bridging the gap between you and a loved one or a friend, then it’s a video call via Skype or something similar. But even then once it’s finished that’s it. At least with a letter it’s a physical object in your hand. That, together with the knowledge that someone’s gone to that extra effort to get in touch, will always mean a lot to me.

Whatever price the cynics may make me pay to send a letter in the future, at least I’ll have the old stoic Seneca to remind me of its true value.