Seneca the Younger

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the son of Seneca the Elder, was born in Corduba in Hspania in about 2 BC. His father was an imperial procurator, who became an authority on rhetoric, the art of public speaking. Seneca suffered severely from ill health, including asthma and tuberculosis. On one occasion he wrote that the only thing which held him back from committing suicide was his "father's inability to bear the loss." (1)

Seneca was sent to Rome to be educated. According to his biographer, Tobias Reinhardt: "Seneca had a series of teachers in philosophy whom he later credited with having a formative influence on him, notably, they exposed him not just to Stoic moral doctrine, but to a wide range of other intellectual influences, and this breadth of outlook is reflected in Seneca's works." (2)

Seneca's teachers included Stoics such as Attalus, Sotion and Papirius Fabianus. Stoicism is predominantly a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world, and was greatly influenced by the teachings of Socrates. For example, Socrates said: "I spend all my time going about trying to persuade you, young and old, to make your first and chief concern not for your bodies nor for your possessions, but for the highest welfare of your souls, proclaiming as I go, wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state." He added that Athenians should be "ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honour, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul". (3)

According to Robin Campbell: "The Stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers, ruled by a supreme providence which could be spoken of, almost according to choice or context, under a variety of names or descriptions including the divine reason, creative reason, nature, the spirit or purpose of the universe, destiny, a personal god, even (by way of concession to traditional religion) 'the gods'. It is man's duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, bringing his life into line with 'nature's laws', and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him. Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true, unshakeable peace and contentment to which ambition, luxury and above all avarice are among the greatest obstacles." (4)

Cynics and Stoics

The other important philosophical group at the time was the Cynics. Like the Stoics they believed that true happiness is not found in external advantages such as material luxury, political power, or good health. True happiness lies in not being dependent on such random and fleeting things. It was argued that because happiness does not consist in benefits of this kind it is within everyone's reach. Moreover, having once been attained, it can never be lost. Seneca agreed and wrote: "I deny that riches are a good, for if they were, they would make men good. As it is, since that which is found in the hands of the wicked cannot be called a good, I refuse to apply the term to riches." (5)

The Cynics also believed that they should not be tormented by concern for other people's problems. This was different from the Stoics who did care what happened to fellow human beings and were often preoccupied with politics. (6) Seneca believed that the one and only good thing in life, the "supreme ideal" is virtue. This is usually summarized in ancient philosophy as a combination of four qualities: wisdom (or moral insight), courage, self-control and justice. It enables a man to be "self-sufficient" and therefore immune to suffering. It has been pointed out the "target" Stoicism set was far too high for ordinary men and helped to explain "its failure to influence the masses". (7)

At the heart of Stoicism is the notion that the only thing in life that actually matters and is worth caring about is the soul. In order to have a good life we need wisdom, that is, a certain kind of knowledge of what is good and bad. To be virtuous means to be perfectly rational and to know both how to act in private life and with respect to one's friends, business associates or indeed other members of the human race. "While it is preferable to be healthy, not in material need, and to enjoy social prestige, all of these things are external to the good life, in that they do not affect the soul, so that not obtaining them does not make a life bad; likewise, suffering great pain or misfortune, or having one's life cut short in the bloom of youth, while not to be preferred, do nothing to make a life bad." (8)

Seneca's writings were often concerned with the plight of people in difficult circumstances. For example, he wrote about the morality of slavery: "It is creditable to a man to keep within reasonable bounds in his treatment of his slaves. Even in the case of a human chattel one ought to consider, not how much one can torture him with impunity, but how far such treatment is permitted by natural goodness and justice, which prompts us to act kindly towards even prisoners of war and slaves bought for a price (how much more towards free-born, respectable gentlemen?), and not to treat them with scornful brutality as human chattels, but as persons somewhat below ourselves in station, who have been placed under our protection rather than assigned to us as servants." (9)

Seneca was particularly interested in Stoic logic and ethical assertions. According to Socrates, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly. Stoics thought the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said, but how a person behaved. (10)

Stoicism was by far the most important ethical schools, which formed the outlook of educated people for more than half a millennium before Christianity officially became the outlook of the Roman world. "Stoicism's main doctrine was that one should cultivate indifference (in the strict sense of this term) to what one cannot alter or influence in the vicissitudes of life, and self-command in respect of all those things over which one has control - such as one's fears and appetites, desires and hopes. By this means one will courageously and serenely, exercising self-mastery and otherwise accepting the inevitable." (11)

Politician in Rome

Under the influence of his Stoics teachers, Seneca attempted to live the life of a Stoic. He wrote about his plain diet and life-long teetotalism, his hard bed, cold baths and daily runs. Seneca became a vegetarian but his father eventually persuaded him to abandon the practice because it was associated with "some foreign rites". He was sent to Egypt to live with his aunt, whose husband Gaius Galerius had become Prefect of Egypt and the viceroy of Emperor Tiberius. Seneca studied the geography and ethnology of Egypt and India and developed a lasting interest in natural science and speculated over issues such as evolution and the rings around the sun. (12)

In 31 AD Seneca returned to Rome with his aunt and with her help he was elected quaestor, a high-ranking financial clerk, which gave him the right to sit in the Roman Senate. (13) Over the next few years he wrote scientific treatises on stones, fish and earthquakes. (14) During this period he also wrote several plays and essays. According to one historian "the range is clearly prodigious... that included expositions of Stoic dogma and a survey of meteorology, seismology and hydrography... tragedies written not for the stage but for recitation." (15)

Emperor Caligula

Seneca developed a reputation as a fine orator. However, he was an outspoken politician and gained the displeasure of Emperor Caligula, who described his writings as "sand without lime" and "nothing but a a text-book orator". (16) The Roman historian, Cassius Dio, claims that Caligula was so angry with his speeches in the Senate that he ordered him to commit suicide. Seneca only survived because he was seriously ill and Caligula was told that he would soon die anyway. (17) Seneca explains his own survival as down to his patience and his devotion to his friends: "I wanted to avoid the impression that all I could do for loyalty was die." (18)

In 41 A.D. Claudius succeeded Caligula as emperor. Soon afterwards Claudius banished Seneca to Corsica on a charge of adultery with Caligula's sister, Julia Livilla. It is believed that it was Claudius's wife, Messalina, who insisted that he should be expelled from Rome. It has been argued that there is evidence that the "real reason for his exile was that he favoured and promoted a less autocratic style of government than Augustus' successors had adopted." (19)

While in exile he wrote Of Consolation. It included the following passage: "Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born. If anyone pities the dead, he ought also to pity those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor a bad thing, for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing: but that which is nothing, and reduces all things to nothing, does not hand us over to either fortune, because good and bad require some material to work upon. Fortune cannot take ahold of that which Nature has let go, nor can a man be unhappy if he is nothing." (20)

Seneca, like many Stoics, thought that if one could not live a rational life, then one ought as a final resort to kill oneself; that way virtue need never be compromised. A philosopher called Hegesias of Cyrene, earned himself the nickname "the orator of death" for arguing that the only one sure way to avoid the inevitable unpleasantness of life, was to commit suicide. It has been claimed that Seneca was obsessed with death, and believed that suicide was the ultimate assertion of human liberty. What is the highway to freedom, he asked? Any vein in your body, came the answer. (21)

Emperor Nero

Seneca was recalled to Rome in 49 A.D. after the execution of Messalina. Claudius' new wife Agrippina decided she wanted him to tutor her 12 year old son, Nero. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus, Agrippina's motives, apart from the instruction of her son, were a confidence that because of his "literary fame" the move would gain them popularity, and a belief that he would prove a reliable ally and a useful adviser to herself and Nero in their plans for future power. (22)

However, philosophy was excluded from the curriculum, since Agrippina deemed it unsuitable for a future emperor. (23) Despite this, Nero came under the strong influence of Seneca. In 54 AD, Nero, aged 16, became emperor. and because of his youth he relied heavily on Seneca's political advice. Seneca wrote Nero's first speech before the Senate. He claimed he would be a reforming Emperor and was dedicated to "eliminating the ills of the previous regime". He promised to end all secret trials and to respect the privileges of the Senate and individual Senators. (24)

This included changes in the tax system that shifted the burden of paying for the cost of the administration and the Roman Army from the poorer to the propertied classes. It has been claimed that with the help of Seneca "Nero was content to live as a constitutional monarch." However, Seneca's influence was limited and as Allan Massie has pointed out: "In Nero's history, in particular, one can discern the outstanding weakness of the hereditary or quasi-hereditary system: that men with neither character nor experience to recommend them can come to positions of supreme power." (25)

Nero's first five years were later spoken of as a period of unequalled good government, the Emperor Trajan even calling them the finest period in the history of Imperial Rome. Seneca and an army officer named Burrus appeared to really hold power during this period. One Roman historian claimed that these two were "the most influential as well as the most enlightened of the men who surrounded Nero". (26) Tacitus suggested that Seneca and Burrus prevented this hot-headed young man from carrying out a lot of murders on his accession and helped to channel some of his energies into permissible pleasures". (27)

Eduardo Barrón, Nero and Seneca (1904)
Eduardo Barrón, Nero and Seneca (1904)

Although, as a Stoic, Seneca officially despised riches, he amassed a huge fortune, amounting, it was said, to three hundred million sesterces (about three million pounds). Much of this he acquired by lending money in Britain, according to Cassius Dio, the excessive rates of interest that he exacted were among the causes of the revolt led by Queen Boadicea. In the words of Bertrand Russell: "The heroic Queen Boadicea, if this is true, was heading a rebellion against capitalism as represented by the philosophic apostle of austerity." (28)

Seneca came under attack from Publius Suillius Rufus, a leading senator. His accusations included sleeping with the emperor's mother and the introduction of the emperor to pederasty (the love of another man). The main campaign against him concerned the contrast between his philosophical teachings and his practice. "Instances of this hypocrisy, according to Suillius, were the philosopher's denunciations of tyranny, which did not stop him from being tutor to a tyrant; of flattery, ill according with the attitude he had adopted, especially from exile, towards ex-slaves who headed departments in Claudius' administration; of extravagance, in spite of (allegedly) giving banquets served at five hundred identical tables of citrus wood with ivory legs; and, above all, of wealth." (29)

In his essay On the Happy Life, he attempted to defend himself against the charge of hypocrisy and claimed he did good with his wealth: "Who can doubt, however, that the wise man, if he is rich, has a wider field for the development of his powers than if he is poor, seeing that in the latter case the only virtue which he can display is that of neither being perverted nor crushed by his poverty, whereas if he has riches, he will have a wide field for the exhibition of temperance, generosity, laboriousness, methodical arrangement, and grandeur... Riches encourage and brighten up such a man just as a sailor is delighted at a favourable wind that bears him on his way, or as people feel pleasure at a fine day or at a sunny spot in the cold weather." (30)

Seneca admitted his failings but continued to believe it was his duty to be kind and forgiving towards others, indeed to "live for the other person". (31) In his way of living he should avoid being ostentatiously different from those he tries to win from moral ignorance. He wrote about the long and painful progress towards perfection in which he got "help from above" or from the examples of others. As he told his friend, Lucilius, he was "a long way from being a tolerable, let alone a perfect human being". (32)

Seneca: On Anger

While working for Emperor Nero he wrote an essay entitled On Anger (c. 52 AD). Seneca argues that anger is the result of weakness and must be avoided and we should to exercise a calming influence on others. "Some of the wisest of men have in consequence of this called anger a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes. That you may know that they whom anger possesses are not sane, look at their appearance; for as there are distinct symptoms which mark madmen, such as a bold and menacing air, a gloomy brow, a stern face, a hurried walk, restless hands, changed colour, quick and strongly-drawn breathing; the signs of angry men, too, are the same: their eyes blaze and sparkle, their whole face is a deep red with the blood which boils up from the bottom of their heart, their lips quiver, their teeth are set, their hair bristles and stands on end, their breath is laboured and hissing, their joints crack as they twist them about, they groan, bellow, and burst into scarcely intelligible talk, they often clap their hands together and stamp on the ground with their feet, and their whole body is highly-strung and plays those tricks which mark a distraught mind, so as to furnish an ugly and shocking picture of self-perversion and excitement." (33)

Seneca discusses the fact that in his writings Aristotle defended the emotion of anger. "As I stated in my former books, Aristotle stands forth in defence of anger, and forbids it to be uprooted, saying that it is the spur of virtue, and that when it is taken away, our minds become weaponless, and slow to attempt great exploits. It is therefore essential to prove its unseemliness and ferocity, and to place distinctly before our eyes how monstrous a thing it is that one man should rage against another, with what frantic violence he rushes to destroy alike himself and his foe, and overthrows those very things whose fall he himself must share. What, then? can anyone call this man sane, who, as though caught up by a hurricane, does not go but is driven, and is the slave of a senseless disorder? He does not commit to another the duty of revenging him, but himself exacts it, raging alike in thought and deed, butchering those who are dearest to him, and for whose loss he himself will ere long weep. Will any one give this passion as an assistant and companion to virtue, although it disturbs calm reason, without which virtue can do nothing?" (34)

Reference is also made to the wise words of Plato. "If you want to find out the truth about anything, commit the task to time: nothing can be accurately discerned at a time of disturbance. Plato, when angry with his slave, could not prevail upon himself to wait, but straightway ordered him to take off his shirt and present his shoulders to the blows which he meant to give him with his own hand: then, when he perceived that he was angry, he stopped the hand which he had raised in the air, and stood like one in act to strike. Being asked by a friend who happened to come in, what he was doing, he answered: 'I am making an angry man expiate his crime.' He retained the posture of one about to give way to passion, as if struck with astonishment at its being so degrading to a philosopher, forgetting the slave, because he had found another still more deserving of punishment. He therefore denied himself the exercise of authority over his own household, and once, being rather angry at some fault, said, 'Speusippus, will you please to correct that slave with stripes; for I am in a rage.' He would not strike him, for the very reason for which another man would have struck him.... Can anyone wish to grant the power of revenge to an angry man, when Plato himself gave up his own right to exercise it? While you are angry, you ought not to be allowed to do anything. 'Why?' do you ask? Because when you are angry there is nothing that you do not wish to be allowed to do." (35)

Seneca suggests that we should consider the subject when choosing friends and lovers: "Since we know not how to endure an injury, let us take care not to receive one: we should live with the quietest and easiest-tempered persons, not with anxious or with sullen ones: for our own habits are copied from those with whom we associate, and just as some bodily diseases are communicated by touch, so also the mind transfers its vices to its neighbours. A drunkard leads even those who reproach him to grow fond of wine: profligate society will, if permitted, impair the morals even of robust-minded men: avarice infects those nearest it with its poison. Virtues do the same thing in the opposite direction, and improve all those with whom they are brought in contact: it is as good for one of unsettled principles to associate with better men than himself as for an invalid to live in a warm country with a healthy climate. You will understand how much may be effected this way, if you observe how even wild beasts grow tame by dwelling among us, and how no animal, however ferocious, continues to be wild, if it has long been accustomed to human companionship: all its savageness becomes softened, and amid peaceful scenes is gradually forgotten. We must add to this, that the man who lives with quiet people is not only improved by their example, but also by the fact that he finds no reason for anger and does not practise his vice: it will, therefore, be his duty to avoid all those who he knows will excite his anger." (36)

In the essay Seneca compares the anger of humans with animals: "No wild beast, neither when tortured by hunger, or with a weapon struck through its vitals, not even when it gathers its last breath to bite its slayer, looks so shocking as a man raging with anger. Listen, if you have leisure, to his words and threats: how dreadful is the language of his agonized mind! Would not every man wish to lay aside anger when he sees that it begins by injuring himself? When men employ anger as the most powerful of agents, consider it to be a proof of power, and reckon a speedy revenge among the greatest blessings of great prosperity, would you not wish me to warn them that he who is the slave of his own anger is not powerful, nor even free? Would you not wish me to warn all the more industrious and circumspect of men, that while other evil passions assail the base, anger gradually obtains dominion over the minds even of learned and in other respects sensible men? So true is that, that some declare anger to be a proof of straight-forwardness, and it is commonly believed that the best-natured people are prone to it." (37)

Seneca adds: "As it is a consolation to a humble man in trouble that the greatest are subject to reverses of fortune, and a man weeps more calmly over his dead son in the corner of his hovel if he sees a piteous funeral proceed out of the palace as well; so one bears injury or insult more calmly if one remembers that no power is so great as to be above the reach of harm. Indeed, if even the wisest do wrong, who cannot plead a good excuse for his faults? Let us look back upon our own youth, and think how often we then were too slothful in our duty, too impudent in our speech, too intemperate in our cups. Is anyone angry then let us give him enough time to reflect upon what he has done, and he will correct his own self. But suppose he ought to pay the penalty of his deeds: well, that is no reason why we should act as he does. It cannot be doubted that he who regards his tormentor with contempt raises himself above the common herd and looks down upon them from a loftier position: it is the property of true magnanimity not to feel the blows which it may receive." (38)

Men who cannot control the emotion of anger are compared to animals. "Bulls are excited by red colour, the asp raises its head at a shadow, bears or lions are irritated at the shaking of a rag, and all creatures who are naturally fierce and wild are alarmed at trifles. The same thing befalls men both of restless and of sluggish disposition; they are seized by suspicions, sometimes to such an extent that they call slight benefits injuries: and these form the most common and certainly the most bitter subject for anger: for we become angry with our dearest friends for having bestowed less upon us than we expected, and less than others have received from them: yet there is a remedy at hand for both these grievances. Has he favoured our rival more than ourselves? Then let us enjoy what we have without making any comparisons. A man will never be well off to whom it is a torture to see any one better off than himself. Have I less than I hoped for? well, perhaps I hoped for more than I ought. This it is against which we ought to be especially on our guard: from hence arises the most destructive anger, sparing nothing, not even the holiest." (39)

The problem is one of envy. "No man is satisfied with his own lot if he fixes his attention on that of another: and this leads to our being angry even with the gods, because somebody precedes us, though we forget of how many we take precedence, and that when a man envies few people, he must be followed in the background by a huge crowd of people who envy him. Yet so churlish is human nature, that, however much men may have received, they think themselves wronged if they are able to receive still more. 'He gave me the praetorship. Yes, but I had hoped for the consulship. He bestowed the twelve axes upon me: true, but he did not make me a regular consul. He allowed me to give my name to the year, but he did not help me to the priesthood. I have been elected a member of the college: but why only of one? He has bestowed upon me every honour that the state affords: yes, but he has added nothing to my private fortune. What he gave me he was obliged to give to somebody: he brought out nothing from his own pocket.' Rather than speak thus, thank him for what you have received: wait for the rest, and be thankful that you are not yet too full to contain more: there is a pleasure in having something left to hope for. Are you preferred to everyone? then rejoice at holding the first place in the thoughts of your friend. Or are many others preferred before you? then think how many more are below you than there are above you. Do you ask, what is your greatest fault? It is, that you keep your accounts wrongly: you set a high value upon what you give, and a low one upon what you receive." (40)

Seneca's main concern is about the impact anger has on society: "Finally, the other passions seize upon individuals anger is the only one which sometimes possesses a whole state. No entire people ever fell madly in love with a woman, nor did any nation ever set its affections altogether upon gain and profit. Ambition attacks single individuals; ungovernable rage is the only passion that affects nations. People often fly into a passion by troops; men and women, old men and boys, princes and populace all act alike, and the whole multitude, after being excited by a very few words, outdoes even its exciter: men betake themselves straight-way to fire and sword, and proclaim a war against their neighbours or wage one against their countrymen. Whole houses are burned with the entire families which they contain, and he who but lately was honoured for his popular eloquence now finds that his speech moves people to rage. Legions aim their darts at their commander; the whole populace quarrels with the nobles; the senate, without waiting for troops to be levied or appointing a general, hastily chooses leaders, for its anger chases well-born men through the houses of Rome, and puts them to death with its own hand. Ambassadors are outraged, the law of nations violated, and an unnatural madness seizes the state. Without allowing time for the general excitement to subside, fleets are straightway launched and laden with a hastily enrolled soldiery. Without organization, without taking any auspices, the populace rushes into the field guided only by its own anger, snatches up whatever comes first to hand by way of arms, and then atones by a great defeat for the reckless audacity of its anger. This is usually the fate of savage nations when they plunge into war: as soon as their easily excited minds are roused by the appearance of wrong having been done them, they straightway hasten forth, and, guided only by their wounded feelings, fall like an avalanche upon our legions, without either discipline, fear, or precaution, and willfully seeking for danger. They delight in being struck, in pressing forward to meet the blow, writhing their bodies along the weapon, and perishing by a wound which they themselves make." (41)

Seneca: On Clemency

Seneca's views on the way that the The Roman Empire should be ruled, appeared in his famous essay, On Clemency (c. A.D. 56), where he urged Nero to be a tolerant ruler: "That clemency, which is the most humane of virtues, is that which best befits a man, is necessarily an axiom, not only among our own sect, which regards man as a social animal, born for the good of the whole community, but even among those philosophers who give him up entirely to pleasure, and whose words and actions have no other aim than their own personal advantage. If man, as they argue, seeks for quiet and repose, what virtue is there which is more agreeable to his nature than clemency, which loves peace and restrains him from violence? Now clemency becomes no one more than a king or a prince; for great power is glorious and admirable only when it is beneficent; since to be powerful only for mischief is the power of a pestilence. That man's greatness alone rests upon a secure foundation, whom all men know to be as much on their side as he is above them, of whose watchful care for the safety of each and all of them they receive daily proofs, at whose approach they do not fly in terror, as though some evil and dangerous animal had sprung out from its den, but flock to him as they would to the bright and health-giving sunshine." (42)

Seneca also called on citizens to treat their slaves well: "A proposal was once made in the Senate to distinguish slaves from free men by their dress: it was then discovered how dangerous it would be for our slaves to be able to count our numbers. Be assured that the same thing would be the case if no one's offence is pardoned: it will quickly be discovered how far the number of bad men exceeds that of the good. Many executions are as disgraceful to a sovereign as many funerals are to a physician: one who governs less strictly is better obeyed. The human mind is naturally self-willed, kicks against the goad, and sets its face against authority; it will follow more readily than it can be led. As well-bred and high-spirited horses are best managed with a loose rein, so mercy gives men's minds a spontaneous bias towards innocence, and the public think that it is worth observing. Mercy, therefore, does more good than severity." (43)

During this period he wrote a series of letters to Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily, where he expressed his opinions on a wide variety of different topics. For example, this is what he had to say about the Roman Games: "In the morning men are matched with lions and bears, at noon with their spectators... death is the fighters' only exit. The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain... There is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death....The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty." (44)

Emperor Nero's behaviour became increasingly immoral. In 59 AD he had his mother put to death. Seneca drafted a letter sent to the Senate "explaining" how her death was the result of the exposure of a dangerous plot of hers against the emperor's life. According to Cassius Dio Seneca averted a general massacre by saying to Nero that: "However many people you slaughter you cannot kill your successor." (45) Burrus died in 62 AD. Seneca, believed he had been murdered and decided to retire from politics to concentrate on his writing. (46)

Seneca wrote about the history of philosophy: "For it is disgraceful even for an old man, or one who has sighted old age, to have a note-book knowledge.... How long shall you march under another man's orders? Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember. Put forth something from your own stock.... Besides, he who follows another not only discovers nothing but is not even investigating... What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover." (47)

Seneca also wrote about the morality of war: "We are mad, not only individually, but nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders; but what of war and the much-vaunted crime of slaughtering whole peoples? There are no limits to our greed, none to our cruelty. And as long as such crimes are committed by stealth and by individuals, they are less harmful and less portentous; but cruelties are practised in accordance with acts of senate and popular assembly, and the public is bidden to do that which is forbidden to the individual. Deeds that would be punished by loss of life when committed in secret, are praised by us because uniformed generals have carried them out. Man, naturally the gentlest class of being, is not ashamed to revel in the blood of others, to wage war, and to entrust the waging of war to his sons, when even dumb beasts and wild beasts keep the peace with one another. Against this overmastering and widespread madness philosophy has become a matter of greater effort, and has taken on strength in proportion to the strength which is gained by the opposition forces." (48)

Seneca: On Providence

In about 64 AD Seneca produced On Providence, a short essay in the form of a dialogue with his great friend, Lucilius. Seneca attempts to argue for the existence of providence (the foreseeing care and guidance of God or nature over the creatures of the earth) and explains that trials are imposed on those whom God loves. "Consequently evils are beneficial as steps on the path to true happiness; thus, fate is to be embraced." (49)

Seneca chose the dialogue form to deal with the problem of the co-existence of the Stoic design of providence with the evil in the world. "You have asked me, Lucilius, why, if the world be ruled by providence, so many evils befall good men? The answer to this would be more conveniently given in the course of this work, after we have proved that providence governs the universe, and that God is amongst us: but, since you wish me to deal with one point apart from the whole, and to answer one replication before the main action has been decided, I will do what is not difficult, and plead the cause of the gods." (50)

Seneca explains that what looks like adversity, is in fact a means by which the man exerts his virtues. As such, he can come out of the ordeal stronger than before. "Prosperity comes to the mob, and to low-minded men as well as to great ones; but it is the privilege of great men alone to send under the yoke the disasters and terrors of mortal life: whereas to be always prosperous, and to pass through life without a twinge of mental distress, is to remain ignorant of one half of nature. You are a great man; but how am I to know it, if fortune gives you no opportunity of showing your virtue? God, I say, favours those whom He wishes to enjoy the greatest honours, whenever He affords them the means of performing some exploit with spirit and courage, something which is not easily to be accomplished: you can judge of a pilot in a storm, of a soldier in a battle. How can I know with how great a spirit you could endure poverty, if you overflow with riches? How can I tell with how great firmness you could bear up against disgrace, dishonour, and public hatred, if you grow old to the sound of applause, if popular favour cannot be alienated from you, and seems to flow to you by the natural bent of men's minds?" (51)

Seneca provides advice on how to live a good life: "Avoid luxury, avoid effeminate enjoyment, by which men's minds are softened, and in which, unless something occurs to remind them of the common lot of humanity, they lie unconscious, as though plunged in continual drunkenness... Look at all the nations that dwell beyond the Roman Empire: I mean the Germans and all the nomad tribes that war against us along the Danube. They suffer from eternal winter, and a dismal climate, the barren soil grudges them sustenance, they keep off the rain with leaves or thatch, they bound across frozen marshes, and hunt wild beasts for food. Do you think them unhappy? There is no unhappiness in what use has made part of one's nature: by degrees men find pleasure in doing what they were first driven to do by necessity. They have no homes and no resting-places save those which weariness appoints them for the day; their food, though coarse, yet must be sought with their own hands; the harshness of the climate is terrible, and their bodies are unclothed. This, which you think a hardship, is the mode of life of all these races: how then can you wonder at good men being shaken, in order that they may be strengthened? No tree which the wind does not often blow against is firm and strong; for it is stiffened by the very act of being shaken, and plants its roots more securely: those which grow in a sheltered valley are brittle: and so it is to the advantage of good men, and causes them to be undismayed, that they should live much amidst alarms, and learn to bear with patience what is not evil save to him who endures it ill." (52)

Lucilius asked Seneca: "Why does God permit evil to happen to good men?" Seneca replies that it is a difficult question: "Good men, you say, lose their children: why should they not, since sometimes they even put them to death? They are banished: why should they not be, since sometimes they leave their country of their own free will, never to return? They are slain: why not, since sometimes they choose to lay violent hands on themselves? Why do they suffer certain miseries? It is that they may teach others how to do so.... Those men whom you regard as fortunate, if you could see, not their outward show, but their hidden life, are really unhappy, mean, and base, ornamented on the outside like the walls of their houses: that good fortune of theirs is not sound and genuine: it is only a veneer, and that a thin one. As long, therefore, as they can stand upright and display themselves as they choose, they shine and impose upon one; when something occurs to shake and unmask them, we see how deep and real a rottenness was hidden by that factitious magnificence." (53)

It has been argued that some of Seneca's writings bordered on the religious. Robin Campbell has argued: "Christian writers have not been slow to recognize the remarkable close parallels between isolated sentences in Seneca's writings and verses of the Bible... In statements of man's kinship with a beneficent, even loving god and of a belief in conscience as the divinely inspired 'inner light of the spirit', his attitudes are religious beyond anything in Roman state religion, in his day little more than a withered survival of formal worship paid to a host of ancient gods and goddesses... On the other hand the word 'God' or 'the gods' was used by the philosophers more as a time-honoured and convenient expression than as standing for any indispensable or even surely identifiable component of the Stoic system." (54)

In 65 A.D. Gaius Calpurnius Piso, a powerful senator, led a plot to replace Emperor Nero that became known as the Pisonian Conspiracy. The plot was betrayed and its members were arrested and executed. Nero became convinced that Seneca was involved in the conspiracy. Seneca denied the charge but agreed to commit suicide. When he was told that he had no time to make a will he told his grieving family: Never mind, I leave you what is of far more value than earthly riches, the example of a virtuous life." (55)

Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, The Death of Seneca (1871)
Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, The Death of Seneca (1871)

Seneca then opened his veins and asked his secretary to take down his dying words. The historian Tacitus described the event and pointed out that he modelled his suicide on that of Socrates. As a result of his age and diet, there was a slow loss of blood and extended pain rather than a quick death. He also took poison and according to Tacitus: "He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without any of the usual funeral rites. So he had directed in a codicil of his will, even when in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of life's close." (56)

Primary Sources

(1) Seneca, Of Consolation (c. 43 AD) XIX

Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born. If anyone pities the dead, he ought also to pity those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor a bad thing, for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing: but that which is nothing, and reduces all things to nothing, does not hand us over to either fortune, because good and bad require some material to work upon. Fortune cannot take ahold of that which Nature has let go, nor can a man be unhappy if he is nothing.

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(1) Robin Campbell, Letters from a Stoic (2004) page 7

(2) Tobias Reinhardt, Seneca: Dialogues and Essays (2008) page viii

(3) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)

(4) Robin Campbell, Letters from a Stoic (2004) page 15

(5) Anthony Gottlieb, The Great Philosophers: Socrates (1997) page 314

(6) Jostein Gaarder, Sophie's World (1995) pages 109-111

(7) Robin Campbell, Letters from a Stoic (2004) pages 16-17

(8) Tobias Reinhardt, Seneca: Dialogues and Essays (2008) pages xi-xii

(9) Seneca, On Clemency (c. A.D. 56) chapter XVIII

(10) John Sellars. Stoicism (2006) page 32

(11) Anthony Grayling, Ideas that Matter (2009) pages 181-182

(12) Robin Campbell, Letters from a Stoic (2004) page 7

(13) Emily Wilson, The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (2014) page 62

(14) Tobias Reinhardt, Seneca: Dialogues and Essays (2008) page viii

(15) Diana Bowder, Who Was Who in the Roman World (1980) page 193

(16) Allan Massie, The Caesars (1983) page 127

(17) Susanna Braund, The Cambridge Companion to Seneca (2015) page 24

(18) Emily Wilson, The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (2014) page 67

(19) Tobias Reinhardt, Seneca: Dialogues and Essays (2008) page viii

(20) Seneca, Of Consolation (c. 43 AD) XIX

(21) Anthony Gottlieb, The Great Philosophers: Socrates (1997) page 314

(22) Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome (c. 110 AD) XIII:VIII

(23) Suetonius, Life of Nero (c. AD 110) 52

(24) Jurgen Malitz, Nero (2005) page 3

(25) Allan Massie, The Caesars (1983) pages 1963-164

(26) Cassius Dio, Roman History (c. 220 AD) LXI:IV

(27) Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome (c. 110 AD) XIII:6

(28) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 267

(29) Robin Campbell, Letters from a Stoic (2004) page 11

(30) Seneca, On the Happy Life (c. 60 AD) Book XXIII

(31) Seneca, letter to Lucilius (c. 64 AD)

(32) Seneca, letter to Lucilius (c. 63 AD)

(33) Seneca, On Anger (c. 52 AD) Book I: Chapter I

(34) Seneca, On Anger (c. 52 AD) Book III: Chapter III

(35) Seneca, On Anger (c. 52 AD) Book III: Chapter XII

(36) Seneca, On Anger (c. 52 AD) Book III: Chapter VIII

(37) Seneca, On Anger (c. 52 AD) Book III: Chapter IV

(38) Seneca, On Anger (c. 52 AD) Book III: Chapter XXV

(39) Seneca, On Anger (c. 52 AD) Book III: Chapter XXX

(40) Seneca, On Anger (c. 52 AD) Book III: Chapter XXXI

(41) Seneca, On Anger (c. 52 AD) Book III: Chapter II

(42) Seneca, On Clemency (c. A.D. 56) chapter III

(43) Seneca, On Clemency (c. A.D. 56) chapter XXIV

(44) Seneca, letter to Lucilius (c. 60 AD)

(45) Cassius Dio, Roman History (c. 220 AD) LXI:XVIII

(46) Robin Campbell, Letters from a Stoic (2004) page 12

(47) Seneca, letter to Lucilius (c. 63 AD)

(48) Seneca, letter to Lucilius (c. 64 AD)

(49) Tobias Reinhardt, Seneca: Dialogues and Essays (2008) page xxi

(50) Seneca, On Providence (c. AD 64) I

(51) Seneca, On Providence (c. AD 64) IV

(52) Seneca, On Providence (c. AD 64) IV

(53) Seneca, On Providence (c. AD 64) VI

(54) Robin Campbell, Letters from a Stoic (2004) page 7

(55) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 267

(56) Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome (c. 110 AD) XV:60-3