Saturday 12 November 2016

The Consolation of Seneca, by Antonia Senior

Seneca is having a moment. There are two excellent new biographies out about him: Dying every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, by James Romm and Seneca, a Life, by Emily Wilson. The Senecans, by Peter Stothard, my old boss at The Times[1], weaves the tale of a sort of high-brow Senecan fan-club with the politics of Thatcher.

In Glasgow at half-term. I was buying a copy of Seneca’s letters. I already own them, but this was a new edition with such a beautiful binding, I could not resist. The lovely Waterstones bookseller there said: “Seneca’s really big at the moment. He keeps cropping up. I should read him.”

“You should!” I cried in a slightly excessive squeal.


We all should. Seneca is the antidote to our liberal malaise. He gives a hope for living intelligently in a surreal world. His is the intellectual rigour that could give bulk to all the mindfulness crap that is ubiquitous and yet hollow. I started reading him for research; I now read him for consolation, for joy and for pity.

I first came across him a few years ago, when I was doing a MA in Ancient History at Birkbeck under the wonderful Catherine Edwards. I’d been rather turned off the Stoics by the experience of translating Cicero’s advocacy for A-level. Dear Lord.

But Seneca and I got on, pretty quickly. (I also fell in love with his nephew Lucan; but his violent bitterness is a story for another blog.)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was an equestrian of Spanish heritage. He was born around the same time as Christ – or a little earlier. His father was a rhetorician, and Seneca and his three brothers were immersed early in the Rome of letters and politics.

Seneca’s health was dreadful throughout his life – and he spent some time convalescing in Egypt as a young man. He returned to Rome and began to make connections in the court, becoming friends particularly with the Emperor Caligula’s sisters Agrippina and Julia Livilla. On the accession of Claudius, Seneca was charged with and adulterous affair with Julia and exiled to Corsica.

He was recalled by Agrippina on her marriage to Claudius and installed as the tutor to her son, Nero in AD 49. Claudius’ death in AD meant that Seneca’s charge became the most important man in the Western World. Yes, the source of all political power was a fat megalomaniac with bad hair and an attraction to showbiz that terrified the political elite: imagine that if you can people.

NERO: even scarier than The Donald

Seneca essentially believed that the purpose of life is to become a sapiens, or a wise man. The ideal wise Stoic is free, tranquil and happy at all times. This is clearly hard to achieve – and Cicero particularly disagreed with the notion that it is possible to divorce yourself from passions. Emily Wilson argues that Seneca’s insistence that a wise life is possible marks the changing times: “It was more important than ever to hang on to an ideal of tranquillity in a world where it is so difficult to achieve.”

Perhaps this accounts for the surge in Seneca’s popularity. In this post-truth politics world of Brexit and Trump, is it time to look for new mentors? Seneca is a very human sage. He was criticised for hypocrisy in his own life-time; partly for his immense wealth and his stated indifference to it. But Seneca’s central dilemma was also a very modern one. How does a virtuous soul approach the exigencies of politics?

Epicureans, who were the alternative school to the Stoics in Rome, believed that the philosopher is obliged to withdraw from public life. That the compromises demanded by politics are anathema to the philosophical soul. Their beliefs demand silence; at most the benign chatter of one’s like-minded friends.

But not the Stoics. Their creed demanded that they were bound to serve the common good. They were duty-bound to engage with power; unless their lives were endangered by their service. But what if the retreat from that power was where the danger lies? What if confronting tyranny, and fleeing tyranny were both suicidal?

The way Tacitus tells the story, the early part of Nero’s reign was a golden age – because Seneca was effectively running the show. But the 17 year old Emperor grew up, began asserting himself, and side-lined his erstwhile mentor. As Nero grew more difficult, Seneca sought to withdraw from political life. He offered his entire fortune to Nero in return for a retirement. But Nero knew that Seneca was the virtuous figleaf that his reign demanded – and refused the request.

Their relationship became poisonous, until at last Seneca became tainted by a conspiracy against the Emperor. He killed himself. Suicide was the great refuge of the sapiens – it guaranteed freedom in the face of tyranny.

I have paraphrased his life. I haven’t even touched on his remarkable tragedies, which explore the darkness of human passions unleashed. Nor his letters, with their sharp insights into daily life. We have a dozen essays, more than 100 letters, nine tragedies and a satirical piece. A treasure trove which keeps on giving. How to give a flavour in this very short blog? Here are just a few of my favourite quotes from a writer famous for his pithiness and paradoxes.

“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire”
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

Summer has gone, but another year will bring it again; winter lies low, but will be restored by its own proper months; night has overwhelmed the sun, but day will soon rout the night again. The wandering stars retrace their former courses; a part of the sky is rising unceasingly, and a part is sinking. 
Letter 36

What then is good? The knowledge of things. What is evil? The lack of knowledge of things. Your wise man, who is also a craftsman, will reject or choose in each case as it suits the occasion; but he does not fear that which he rejects, nor does he admire that which he chooses, if only he has a stout and unconquerable soul. 
Letter 31

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave…..
…“He is a slave.” His soul, however, may be that of a freeman. “He is a slave.” But shall that stand in his way? Show me a man who is not a slave; one is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear. I will name you an ex-consul who is slave to an old hag, a millionaire who is slave to a serving-maid; I will show you youths of the noblest birth in serfdom to pantomime players! No servitude is more disgraceful than that which is self-imposed.
Letter 47


[1] He does not know he was my boss. I was a junior reporter writing about pensions. He was editor. He was the Sun King; I was an ant. Everything I know about the strange and wonderful world of Court politics comes from working in a newspaper. 


Ms. said...

Having not read Seneca since high school (too young to comprehend the weight and wealth that was being offered), and now in my dotage, and with the new burden of current American politics and ongoing planetary distresses to deal with, I am grateful for this reintroduction. The complexities under which we all labor now deserve, and could profit by, the intelligence and striving of such a soul from the long past. Thank you. I will begin to reacquaint myself via a visit to my local library.

Anonymous said...

Please do! I think I am not a stoic - they have a slightly odd central belief in Providence. I lean to epicureanism. But there is so much in Seneca to admire, and to help us confront fear and anger. Sorely needed, I think?

Joan Lennon said...

Echoing the bookseller, I should read him! Thanks for posting, Toni!