The Stoical Life:
Our sons we restrain by severest discipline, while we encourage our servants in every sauciness. You can be assured the stratagem of Providence is the same. Gods do not treat the good man like a toy, but try him, harden him, readying him for himself. ~ Seneca, On Providence, §1. p. 29.
Like most of the Latin writers who have come down to us, Seneca was neither a Roman nor Italian by birth. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was the second born son ( b. 2 AD, d. 68 AD) of a rhetorician of the same name, a native of Córdoba, Spain, which at the time was a colony for the settlement of provincial veterans. The family, though, had a more literary bent (Seneca`s nephew, for example, was Lucan). Sickly from youth onwards, an aunt took Lucius as a boy to consult and treat with the doctors of Rome; in the end, he stayed, training as an orator and educated in philosophy. He studied, in particular, the Epicurean and Stoical texts of his Greek progenitors, which had grown in popularity with the elite and military classes of cosmopolite Rome; visitors and thinkers from the turbulent political environments of Greece, Anatolia and Persia only fanned the Roman appetite. Posidonius
(ca. 135 BC) and Panaetius
of Rome (the Middle Stoics) made up the principal exposure which Seneca received, along with Epicurus
(closer to a cynic
), to these ideas before he undertook his own elaborations and interpretations of the Stoical maxims and creeds. 1
He also showed a talent for rhetorical studies, quickly gaining recognition as an eloquent and knowledgeable advocate. However, Seneca's health suffered and he took a long sojourn in Alexandria
to recuperate. As political tensions in Egypt and Judea mounted, he returned to Rome about the year 31 AD to begin a career in politics and law.
It will make no bustle, it will not call attention to its speed. Its movement is silent. You are preoccupied; life clamours onward. Meanwhile, death draws nearer and for it, either way, you will have to find time. ~ Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, §8. p. 57.
However, the corrupt Caligula
early on threatened his life over a legal case (Caligula was only swayed from killing him when an advisor swore Seneca`s life was sure to be short). His reputation fared even worse under Claudius
and his political career stalled when Seneca was rumoured to have indulged in an adulterous scandal with the daughter of a proconsul. He was immediately banished to Corsica in 41AD and spent the next eight years reading and writing in exile. "The dirtiest death is preferable to the daintiest slavery", he wrote later on his feeling at the time. With little regard for his worldly fame or physical surroundings, Seneca actually professed to enjoy his exile, and many of his dramas and longer epistles date from this period. One of the most emotional pieces, a Consolation written for his mother, asserts a small circle of friends and family were all he missed from the mainland; that, in fact, the deserted island suited his mode of living exceedingly well. 2
It was from the wealth of material arising from his time relagatus
, that he influenced greatly a whole age of latter writers, most notably impacting upon Marcus Aurelius
(the last avowed Stoic), Augustine
(who adapted elements into early Christian theology), William Shakespeare
and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
. It was primarily Seneca which consoled Boethius
in prison and over a millennium later, Petrarch
. Finally, his moral treatises were edited by Erasmus
; the first complete English translation appeared in 1614
Burying one`s self is not saving one`s self. ~ Seneca, On Tranquility, §4. p. 87.
He did not remain non grata forever though, as his publishing continued until much impressed, the new empress, Agrippina, recalled him and entrusted the education of her son, Nero
, to the returned Stoic. He became praetor in AD 50, married Pompeia Paulina, a wealthy woman, built up a powerful group of friends.
Seneca became Agrippina
`s principal adviser, while Nero's political accession only magnified his influence. He was made consul by 57 AD, sharing the actual administration of affairs with Sextus Afranius Burrus, the praetorian prefect. It was the careful tutelage and guidance by Seneca which is attributed by historians with keeping the more outlandish and tyrannical aspects of Nero`s power in check. He especially advised the emperor on the virtue and utility of mercy and clemency
We are all chained to Fortune. Some chains are golden and loose, some tight and iron; but what difference does it make? All of us are in custody, the binders as well as the bound...some are chained by office, some by wealth, some are weighed down by high birth, some by low; some are subject to another`s tyranny, so their own. All life is bondage, but apply good sense to your problems and the hard can be softened, the narrow widened and the heavy made light. ~ Seneca, On Tranquillity, §10. p. 94.
However, Nero eventually came to despise his mentor, and after the death of Burrus, in 62 AD, Seneca seemed again in ill-favour. He asked repeatedly for permission to retire, offering his enormous fortune to the Roman State as tribute, but even age and weakening health could not avert his troubles. "Arm your self to scorn pain, and your health will continue safe and sound...
teach yourself to bear the loss of loved ones bravely, and all of them will happily survive you," he wrote in a letter, but trouble haunted him. His enemies charged him in Piso's conspiracy to replace the new emperor, and Seneca was soon under the scrutiny of the Praetorian Guard
. His last drama, the Octavia
, had contained plain references to Nero's death and the overflowing corruption of his court, which ignited the full wrath of that once good emperor. 3
This prompted Seneca (along with his wife and several of his supporters) to the Stoic solution -- suicide, in A.D. 65, first by slashed wrists, then legs, then finally poison, which is rather gorily described in the fifteenth book of the Annals of Tacitus (http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html)
The Mind of A Stoic:
A. The Basics.
The life of many people is a fiction, polished up for exhibition; they are forever on guard for being caught out of an assumed character. It is important to withdraw into the self, for solitude will give us an appetite for company, society for seclusion, and the one is the cure for the other. ~ Seneca, On Tranquility, §17. p. 104.
Certain truths were shared by many Roman schools of thought - and are entwined in the work of Seneca: a) perception
of the true, if it exists, can only be immediate; b) a wise man is self-sufficient
; and c) political constructs
are indifferent (i.e. law & justice
are rarely the same). From this proceeded the entire moral attitude of the Stoic. Achieving a close, comfortable familiarity (uniformity
) to oneself and nature, cultivating indifference
to external things, taking on a more comprehensive concept of nature (borrowed from Heraclitus
) but inspired by the capability of an undaunted human spirit. Fate regulated the course of events (Heimarmene
); just as providence
adapted all things to our basic needs.4
This view of nature is a basis for the realist, stripped-down optimism
of the Stoic moral system; confidence in intrinsic instinct, which, in the absence of perfect knowledge and contrasted with distracting & dulling luxuriance, ought to guide man's actions: "My body I oppose to Fortune; upon it she may spend her force, but I will allow no wound to penetrate...never shall this flesh drive me to fear...contempt of body is unqualified freedom
B. The Context of the Stoa.
I have never believed that true Good inhered in the things men too commonly pray for; I have found them empty and daubed with specious and cheating colours, with no inner content to match their outward glimmer. ~ Seneca, Consolation to Helvia, §5. p. 112.
Seneca was the star Latin writer of the Silver age
, with his chief weapon: the epigram, summing up in terse, incisive antithesis the gist of a whole period. "Seneca is a man of real genius," wrote one admirer, "for he understood the art of making something even of what was most absurd." A true philosopher, in other words. He wrote carefully elaborated essays and letters which are essentially Stoic sermons; for the later Stoic creed had transformed itself from a philosophical system into a religion, especially in Rome, where all manner of moral doctrines: Christian
, etc. attracted lively interest and spurred much debate. A central Stoic tenet - that one must forgive
injuries and overcome evil with good since all men are brethren - was particularly intriguing (especially with the number of emigres, colonials and refugees being absorbed into the Empire).
C. The Corpus.
One case of luxury or avarice works great mischief. A neighbour who is rich pricks up our covetousness; a companion who is malicious rubs some of his rust upon us. Inevitably you either imitate or loathe. But both alternatives must be avoided. Neither become like the bad, because they are many; nor hostile to the many because they are different. Retire into yourself, associate with people who may improve you, say to yourself: what I have learned today I shall not keep to myself, but share with you. This is not for the many, said Epicurius, but for you. We are sufficient audience for each other . ~ Seneca, Letters, §7. p. 174.
Seneca actually wrote far more than has come down to us - his output during his Alexandrine period and later years of exile was prodigious, as was his personal correspondence. Several of his treatises we know of only through the references of St. Jerome or Tertullian
, but the writings which survive break down as follows:
- Dialogues. Ten treatises in twelve books:
- On Anger, in three books, written to his brother Novatus Gallio, counselling him on maintaining cool
- On The Happy Life, outlines how to live according to nature, maintain virtue and remain detached
- On the Constancy of the Sage, a sermon on self-sufficiency
- On Tranquility, how to cure vacillation of the spirit, how to drop the tiresome insect drone of acquisitiveness and luxury (if you read one essay from him, this is the one)
- On Leisure, self-improvement should focus on the mind, not the body, Seneca asserts
- On the Shortness of Life, addressed to Paulinus, about eliminating distraction & focussing on what truly matters
- On Providence, which discusses the questions of fate, suffering and woe in the world,
- Of these, it should be added, four are formalized Consolations, a literary sub-genre in antiquity in which the writer comforts a friend over some trouble while elaborating up on the issue (Plutarch was later big on the form). These are usually broken out into:
- To Marcia, writing to a grieving mother on the death of her son, extolling the virtue of youth, while counselling control of grief,
- To Helvia, written to his mother from exile in Corsica, hoping to ease her worry and purporting his cool indifference to his plight and his newfound leisure,
- To Polybius, full of sensible Stoic advise,
- Treatises. There were two major works written for specific purpose. The first was On Clemency (only the first of three books in the piece survive) which was addressed to Nero on his 18th birthday, and encourages him to be a merciful and humane ruler, and that forgiveness “becomes the throned monarch better than his crown” (Shakespeare borrowed long chunks of it for Portia`s speech in The Merchant of Venice). The other major essay was On Benefits, in seven books, which elaborates a theory of Roman gratitude.
- Letters to Lucullus. 124 letters which are the most widely read material by Seneca, because they are informal, short and colourfully anecdotal, the topics range from seaside trips, to bouts with illness, from visits to the gladiatorial games to the ancient libraries of Rome.
- Natural Questions. In seven books, dealing with thunder, lightening, snow, comets, earthquakes and all manner of worldly and astrological phenomena
- Apocolocyntosis, or “Pumpkin-making” of Claudius, a sort of The Emperor`s New Clothes satire on status and power. Very funny, and needless to say, got Seneca into trouble
- Tragedies. The nine dramas: Hercules Mad, Trojan Women, Phoenician Women, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Theyestes, Hercules on Oetaea and Octavia - all dealing with the temptations of a corrupting world, the dangers of passionate desires and the difficulty of virtuous choice.
1 Ancient Stoicism actually had its real doctrine rooted in the Phoenician logicians of the Near East, and was essentially imported into Athens and reconfigured for urbane morality by Zeno of Citium (d. 280 BC), who was himself a disciple of Crates (an early Cynic), Stilpo and Polemon (both academicians). The head of the school (Stoa Poikile, or Painted Porch) then passed to Cleanthes of Assium (d. 232 BC) and Chrysippus of Soli until his death in 204 BC. The early years of Stoicism seemed preoccupied with cosmology, mathematics and the formalization of pure logic. However, certain Stoical precepts do make early appearances: namely, that unruly emotions lead to false judgements and that divine agency was effect by the spirit (pneuma) as well as mortal responsibility. However, practical ethical & political questions emerged only later, under the Roman resurgence, when the issues of practical governance took precedent over abstracted metaphysics.
2 One of the recurrent themes of Late Stoicism is that physical surroundings should impact little upon the state of mind, and that travel is neither a remedy nor an affliction, for, if you can excuse the simplification: Wherever you go, there you are. After all, every fault or virtue you have is bound up within, irrespective of the stylishness of your neighbourhood, where you spend your weekends, how the weather is, or if your car needs washing. Comforts and luxuries do little but make the man more vulnerable to the shock of misfortune. Indeed, along along a Schopenhauerian line, "without sacrifice, we would have nothing", or as the Aeneid nicely puts it, “Venture, friend, to scorn wealth / make yourself worthy a god” (VIII. 362. f.) Seneca here is contrasting the eudaemonic principle of the neoplatonist (live to your potential) with the oikeiosis principle of the Stoic (live to your nature). The Stoical thinker saw the whole notion of potential, striving and attainment as the ultimate vanity; and a materialist treadmill, one in which the greedy demands inflicted by the weak body age the face, grey the hair, shorten the life and wither the soul. "You must lay down the weights and wants of your soul; until you do, no place will satisfy." A true stoic knows an archer is at his best when he couldn't care less about actually hitting the target.
3 Incidentally, if the bloody tragedies of the Jacobean and Elizabethan playwrights were directly and deeply influenced by the corruption, vice, murder and intrigue portrayed by Seneca. What is strange is that the Stoics, in particular Seneca, continued to underscore the importance of kindness, propriety (kathekonta) and universal brotherhood, despite the violence which surrounded Roman life everyday. He truly asserted if you want peace, you must work for justice. Most of his nine plays were Roman revisions of extant Greek drama or myth, but he abandons much of the formalism and austerity of Greek tragedy. Exaggerated rhetoric, dwelling on bloodthirsty details and constant appearances by ghosts, magic and other supernatural beings. Senecan drama was quite familiar to both Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, at a time when Greek tragedies were scarcely known; all Seneca`s nine plays were translated (1559-1581), studied and imitated until The French Revolution.
4 Eimarmene (or logos) was an underlying order presupposed by most people, from philosophers to proles, in the Hellenic world. The ancient Greeks and the Romans after them had little time for grand notions of randomness, contingency or dumb luck. They preferred to throw their lives at the feet of more benign forces. Tyche, for example, was the goddess to whom the Athenians prayed after being wrecked on the shores of Sicily (Thucydides, VII, 65-70). She was no deity of battle or sea, and you'd not sacrifice to her for luck. Rather, she represented that "order of affairs which men could not comprehend...the cause which must be there." (R.M. Haywood, Studies on Scipio Africanus, 1933, p. 12) Now philosophers as early as Zeno and as late as Marcus Aurelius preferred to favor this notion of reasoned order to transform negative connotations of chance and labeled it something closer to what we might call Necessity. Seneca himself wrote in his "On Providence" (sec. 5): "Cause is linked with cause, and a long chain of events governs all matters public and private. Everything must therefore be borne with fortitude, because events do not, as we suppose, happen but arrive by appointment." This sense of cosmic meaning was in turn extracted from the Stoics and bled into Persian/Islamic notions of qismet, then the predestination of Calvinism once the Greeks were resuscitated by the Renaissance. Finally, it reached a secular articulation in the determinist concept of progress or evolution outlined by Hegel, Marx and Darwin.
Seneca, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, trans. M. Hadas (NY: Anchor, 1958) - all page references above from this translation
The Hellenistic Philosophers, ed. A. A. Long, and D. N. Sedley (Cambridge, 1987).
T. S. Eliot 'Seneca in Elizabethan Translation' and 'Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca' in Essays on Elizabethan drama (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956)
M. Drabble, “Seneca” from The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Oxford University Press, 1995)
Breehier, Emile. “Stoics and Stoic Philosophy.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV, © 1912 by Robert Appleton Company.
The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 2. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 134-137.
Diogenes Laertes. “Overview of Stoic Ethics” from Lives of the Eminent Philosophers trans. R.D. Hicks (1925), p. 84-129, from the Sophia Project site: http://www.molloy.edu/academic/philosophy/sophia/Seneca/DL_stoicism.htm. Accessed July 5, 2002.