Report from STOICON 2015 — part IV

Wilson-life of SenecaI recently returned from STOICON 2015, a gathering of people interested in learning about, as well as practicing, Stoicism. This is the third such event in as many years, the last two organized by the delightful Jules Evans. (It turns out, incidentally, that STOICON 2016 will be hosted by yours truly, in New York, on 15 October. Mark your calendars!)

The event featured a number of talks in the morning, followed by two series of parallel workshop sessions for smaller groups of people, concluding with a plenary keynote lecture. In the first installment I shared my notes and thoughts about the morning session, in the second one I recapped the first workshop I attended, and in the third one I tackled the second workshop. I now end the series with a recap and some comments concerning the keynote talk.

The talk last was given by historian Emily Wilson, author of one of two recent biographies on Seneca (the other one is by James Romm). Seneca was an imperfect person, as he himself repeatedly admitted. But was he not enough of a Stoic, too much of one? Does it matter? And what does his story tell us about Stoicism and the idea of a personal philosophy in general?

Seneca wrote about a number of themes of general concern, such as the balance between external pursuits and one’s own betterment, how to deal with anger, how to face death. However, Wilson pointed out that Seneca was no typical Roman: he became very rich and influential, and he was “obsessed” with the philosophy of Stoicism. (This is the first of a series of slightly biased or uncharitable comments Wilson made throughout the talk, in my opinion, though it was a good reminder of the fact that regardless of how good a writer he was, Seneca certainly did not rise to the level of a Stoic role model.)

Seneca came to Rome from Córdoba (Spain) as a young man and studied under the Stoic philosopher Attalus. He was a dedicated pupil, finding Attalus’ call for asceticism highly inspiring. Later on Seneca was famous for passing on the oysters even at palace, and for sleeping on a hard pillow — not asceticism, to be sure, but moderation was central to his image as a philosopher.

Seneca’s other tutor was Sotion the Sextian, who was not a Stoic, and — unlike the Stoics — counseled to stay away from politics. Sotion too, however, was an ascetic.

Seneca suffered from serious lung problems all his life, and even contemplated suicide. He decided against it, as he tells us, in deference to his aged father and because he wanted to be of service to philosophy: “my studies were my salvation,” as he wrote.

While he was immediately successful in politics and as a literary figure, he came in disfavor of the emperor Caligula, who allegedly spared him because he thought Seneca was going to die soon anyway. (Instead, it was Caligula who was eventually assassinated.)

Wilson mentioned Seneca’s famous letter of consolation to Marcia, but seemed a bit dismissive of the writer’s approach, suggesting that he was consoling his friend of the death of her son by changing the subject — shifting to broad considerations about the nature of life and the universe. This, however, was the way Stoics in general approached personal tragedy, by encouraging who will listen to step back and take a broader perspective on things.

After Caligula’s death Seneca got in trouble with the new emperor, Claudius, allegedly because of a love affair with his niece Julia Livilla. He was sent in exile in Corsica as a result.

Again, Wilson made light of Seneca’s alleged hardship in Corsica, given that the place is rather pleasant, “not far from Rome,” and with a vibrant Roman exile community. This is not quite accurate: Corsica at the time was definitely an underdeveloped, backward, and rather wild place, especially by comparison with the capital of the empire, and traveling there was no small hop across the Mediterranean.

Seneca there wrote his treatise on anger, which Wilson interprets as either a way of dealing with his own anger during the exile (nothing wrong with that!), or even as an indirect appeal to the emperor to show the latter that anger is not a good emotion (though that would seem a rather dangerous thing to do).

He was finally recalled from exile and got married, though apparently his wife Pompeia Paulina was actually worried about “too much Stoicism” in her husband’s life.

Seneca helped Agrippina the Younger (Nero’s mother) make sure that Nero became emperor, at the young age of 17, after which the philosopher became the emperor’s main speech writer (Wilson called him “spin doctor”).

When it came to the episode of Nero poisoning his rival Britannicus, Seneca wrote On Mercy, which can be read either as an insincere praise of the new emperor, or as a savvy invocation to him to restrain himself now that he was in power.

Seneca became an influential man within the new regime, and an increasingly wealthy one as well (though Nero eventually got hold of much of Seneca’s riches). Is this reconcilable with the ideals of Stoicism? He himself responded in On the Happy Life, reminding his readers not only that he was an imperfect man, but that nothing in Stoicism argues against having external goods, so long as one doesn’t become attached to them. (To be fair, here I agree with Wilson: it is one thing to welcome wealth as a preferred indifferent, but one is then supposed to use such wealth virtuously, for the greater good, and Seneca definitely had a mixed record in that department.)

Seneca was also involved in helping out Nero after the latter famously murdered his mother. He again explains himself in writing, in On Benefits, which Williams reads as a rather cynical defense of his material wealth. Romm, the author of the other recent biography of Seneca, however, suggests that the philosopher am have been trying to keep things from spiraling out of control (which they soon did anyway), and that in fact the first five years of Nero’s reign — during which Seneca’s influence was at its height — were prosperous for Rome and the empire.

As Nero was becoming more and more unhinged, Seneca distanced himself from politics and attempted to retire, which the emperor did not allow him to do. He was eventually accused of being part of a conspiracy to kill Nero and was forced to commit suicide.

We could call Seneca a hypocrite, but that wouldn’t teach us much, concluded Wilson. Or we could look at him as someone who failed to live up to his own ideals (and paid for it with his life, I would add as a not entirely secondary detail). Or yet again, Stoicism might have provided him with a convenient psychological excuse for his actual behavior. Or further, we could focus on appreciating his literary output, quite regardless of his failures as a human being.