Seneca was a man, not a Sage

Seneca (left) vs Pseudo-Seneca (right)

I spend a significant amount of time discussing all aspects of Stoicism over at the wonderful Facebook Stoicism Group, currently counting over 17,000 people, and one of those exceptional places on the Internet where there is little trolling and a lot of emphasis on civil and constructive discussion. (Of course the fact that Don Robertson is such a dedicated moderator surely helps…) One of the topics that never fails to come up is whether one should really read Seneca, considering his, shall we say mixed reputation as a politician and businessman. Seneca was indubitably sexist, unarguably failed to rein in Nero, and possibly triggered the bloody Boudica rebellion by suddenly calling in a vast amount of loans he had made to the Britannic aristocracy. How does that square with being a Stoic, let alone with someone at least aspiring to be a Sage?

Even what Seneca looked like has been a matter of dispute for quite some time, as I detailed previously. For centuries he was portrayed as the emaciated man you see in the right image, which I took at the National Roman Museum in Rome. But in fact, we now know that he looked more like the plump personage on the left (from the double herm preserved at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, which represents him, interestingly, opposite Socrates). The version known as Pseudo-Seneca, now suspected to actually represent either the playwright Aristophanes or the poet Hesiod, was more appealing because it simply fit much better with the idea of the philosopher-sage lost in thought and unconcerned with worldly goods, while the Pergamon version smacks of a well fed patrician who may have been talking the talk but not walking the walk.

Seneca’s figure is so fascinating that in the past few years two full fledged biographies of him have been published, both well worth reading: The Greatest Empire, by Emily Wilson (who was the keynote speaker at STOICON ’16 in London), and Dying Every Day, by James Romm (see my review here). And that’s without counting the 1920 classic The Stoic, by Francis Caldwell Holland, now freely available for Kindle. Clearly, there is a wealth of material to dig into for people interested in Seneca the historical figure. And you can read all of his works (plays, letters of consolation, philosophical essays, and letters to his friend Lucilius) either freely or in economic but well curated editions.

This post is not (much) about Seneca the writer and philosopher, as a number of other entries on this blog are dedicated to that purpose (and several more are in the workings). And of course I will refer the reader to the available biographies for in-depth knowledge about the facts of his life and time, as much as they can be known. The question here is more narrowly whether a modern Stoic should read Seneca for insight and inspiration, the way nobody questions both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius should be. Or whether, on the contrary, he should be expelled from the canon on account of the alleged massive inconsistency between his principles and the way he lived his life. Epictetus himself, after all, reminds us that Stoicism is about practice, not just theory: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35).

So let us focus with that subset of the bare facts that is of direct relevance to our project. To begin with, it is true that Seneca was very wealthy, indeed one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Rome. That in and of itself, however, does not constitute a contradiction with Stoic philosophy. It is true that Epictetus’ version of Stoicism leaned toward the rather minimalist and anti-materialist approach of the Cynics, but wealth does fall squarely under the “preferred indifferents,” i.e., the sort of externals that it is okay to pursue so long as they don’t get in the way of the only thing that truly matters for a Stoic, the practice of virtue.

Then again, Seneca repeatedly warns about the many temptations induced by wealth, almost as a reminder to himself: “He who craves riches feels fear on their account. No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. He collects his accounts, he wears out the pavement in the forum, he turns over his ledger — in short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward.” (Letter XIII, On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World, 17)

Let us not forget, of course, that Seneca had lost a great deal when he was exiled in 41 CE by the Senate, on likely trumped up charges of committing adultery with Julia Livilla, the sister of former emperor Calligula. The new emperor, Claudius (whose own record his rather mixed), commuted the original death penalty into exile, and the historian Cassius Dio suggests that Seneca was a victim of an attempt by Messalina, Claudius’ wife, to get rid of Julia. Seneca remained in exile on the island of Corsica (at the time not at all the resort destination that it is today) for eight years.

After Claudius’ death Seneca penned the shameful essay known as On the Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius, where he mocks an emperor that, after all, spared his life (and whom he had flattered in order to obtain pardon), all the while attempting to ingratiate the new kid on the block, Nero, whose mother, Agrippina, had managed to recall Seneca from exile. Definitely not the behavior of a good Stoic. Then again, even on this episode, there is a variety of opinions. Here, for instance, is Allan Presley Ball, who translated the Pumpkinification essay: “Seneca appears also to have been concerned with what he saw as an overuse of apotheosis writing as a political tool. [Apotheosis was the process by which dead Roman emperors were recognized as gods.] If an Emperor as flawed as Claudius could receive such treatment, he argued elsewhere, then people would cease to believe in the gods at all.”

Concerning the above mentioned calling in of loans that allegedly caused the rebellion in the British provinces, it is actually far from clear whether Seneca’s actions were a contributing factor at all, and even more doubtful that he was aware of the risk when he made the decision on financial grounds.

Also, in terms of his wealth, Seneca did try to use it as a way to buy himself retirement (and dedicate his time to philosophy) once things began to go south with Nero, an attempt that succeeded only partially (he got to spend more time in one of his country estates), and only temporarily, since Nero eventually ordered Seneca’s suicide because of the latter (again, alleged) involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy.

Seneca’s use of wealth, however, may have been most important — and also most difficult to disentangle from his political intentions and actions — during the first five years of Nero’s reign. In that period the philosopher advised the young emperor in cooperation with the Praetorian Prefect, Sextus Afrianus Burrus. Those years, according to most historians, were actually prosperous for Rome, so it is legitimate to infer that Seneca and Burrus did a good job under very precarious and difficult circumstances.

Nero, however, became more and more paranoid (or not: there actually were plots against his life), and eventually murdered his own mother, Agrippina in 59 CE. It is doubtful that either Seneca or Burrus had anything to do with it, since their influence on Nero was by then on the wane. It is, however, definitely the case that Seneca wrote a speech for the Senate essentially excusing the murder. While this is obviously not in line with Stoic principles, and in fact simply highly objectionable on general moral grounds, it is hard to know exactly what was going on in Seneca’s mind. He may, for instance, have calculated that by way of this move he was going to be able to rein in Nero some more, thus saving Rome from another bloody civil war. If that was his plan, it failed miserably. Three years later Burrus died, which further escalated the situation, leading to the Pisonian conspiracy in 65 CE and consequently to Seneca’s own commanded suicide. Whatever his political mistakes, he paid for them with his life.

Regarding his death, people sometimes comment that he staged things in order to appear as a Roman Socrates, though things didn’t go smoothly and it took several attempts to finally achieve the objective. Such accusation seems more than a bit uncharitable: surely Seneca did have Socrates, a role model for Stoics, in mind; and, likely, he was trying to do the best while performing the last act of his life. But he was going to die unjustly nonetheless, so cut the guy some slack.

When considering Seneca’s political influence and his behavior with Nero, we need to remember a few things. First, that we only have a few accounts of what happened, mostly from people who clearly and openly disliked Seneca. Second, that to control a sociopathic tyrant is a task not many would even attempt, let alone succeed at. And lastly, consider Thomas Nagel’s concept of “moral luck“: if we feel so smugly superior to Seneca (or anyone else who acted badly under extreme circumstances), that’s just because we got lucky enough not to be seriously morally tested ourselves.

What about Seneca’s sexism? There is no question at all that the charge clearly sticks. This modern reader cringes every time that Seneca refers to an unbecoming or unvirtuous behavior as “womanly,” for instance when he writes: “Anger, therefore, is a vice which for the most part affects women and children. ‘Yet it affects men also.’ Because many men, too, have womanish or childish intellects.” (On Anger, I.20) Aarrghh!

Then again, sometimes he did rise above such talk, sounding surprisingly modern: “I know what you will say, ‘You quote men as examples: you forget that it is a woman that you are trying to console.’ Yet who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honourable and generous action.” (To Marcia on Consolation, XV)

Other Stoics were definitely more progressive than Seneca about women. Zeno, in his Republic, wrote that men and women should live as equal in the ideal Stoic city; and Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, wrote that “women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men … a desire for virtue and an affinity for it belong by nature not only to men but also to women: no less than men are they disposed by nature to be pleased by noble and just deeds and to censure things opposite these … why would it be appropriate for men but not women to seek to live honorably and consider how to do so, which is what studying philosophy is?” (Lectures, III.1)

So sexism is definitely an area where Seneca mostly behaved as a regular Roman of the I century, failing to raise above the herd, as he should have. Again, though, to insist too much on this point is to engage in presentism, the attitude of uncompromisingly projecting our own values on different times (and cultures). We are allowed to do that, but be careful what you wish for, someone may do the same to us a couple of millennia down the road…

Seneca’s reputation has always experienced rather dramatic ups and downs, from his own time until now. The Roman historian Tacitus claims in The Annals that accusations against Seneca did not hold up to scrutiny and were likely the result of envy or political antagonism. The early Christian Fathers thought highly of Seneca, with Tertullian referring to him as “our Seneca.” Dante, in the Divine Comedy, puts him in Limbo, that is not quite into the depths of Hell, a high honor for a pagan. (Though the Italian poet gives a higher honor to another Stoic, Cato the Younger, whom he places at the entrance of Purgatory: “What man on earth was more worthy to signify God than Cato? Surely none.”) Several Renaissance authors celebrated Seneca the writer and philosopher, including Chaucer, Petrarch, Erasmus, John of Salisbury, and Montaigne.

In modern times, Anna Lydia Motto challenged the common negative portrait of Seneca, which she points out is based almost entirely on the account of Publius Suillius Rufus, a senatorial lieutenant under Claudius:

“We are therefore left with no contemporary record of Seneca’s life, save for the desperate opinion of Publius Suillius. Think of the barren image we should have of Socrates, had the works of Plato and Xenophon not come down to us and were we wholly dependent upon Aristophanes’ description of this Athenian philosopher. To be sure, we should have a highly distorted, misconstrued view. Such is the view left to us of Seneca, if we were to rely upon Suillius alone” (Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic. The Classic Journal 61, 257, 1966).

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum maintains that Seneca’s intellectual contributions are significantly more original than previously thought, on topics ranging from the role played by emotions in our lives (The Therapy of Desire, Princeton University Press, 1996) to political philosophy, to his concept of cosmopolitanism (Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, Harvard University Press, 1999).

Another contemporary scholar, Robert Wagoner, wrote this about the complex question of the relationship between Seneca’s life and his philosophy: “A number of views can be taken here. Perhaps Seneca simply fails to live the philosophical life he aspires to live. Perhaps his philosophical ambitions were really secondary to his political ambitions. While many scholars have noted the inconsistencies and many have rejected Seneca’s work on the grounds of hypocrisy, some scholars (notably Emily Wilson) have challenged this view. Wilson notes that, ‘The most interesting question is not why Seneca failed to practice what he preached, but why he preached what he did, so adamantly and so effectively, given the life he found himself leading.'”

Let me conclude by giving the last word to the man himself, who very clearly not only denied that he was wise, but also told his friend Lucilius that it was not a good idea to seek advice from him:

“What, then, am I myself doing with my leisure? I am trying to cure my own sores. If I were to show you a swollen foot, or an inflamed hand, or some shrivelled sinews in a withered leg, you would permit me to lie quiet in one place and to apply lotions to the diseased member. But my trouble is greater than any of these, and I cannot show it to you. The abscess, or ulcer, is deep within my breast. Pray, pray, do not commend me, do not say: ‘What a great man! He has learned to despise all things; condemning the madnesses of man’s life, he has made his escape!’ I have condemned nothing except myself. There is no reason why you should desire to come to me for the sake of making progress. You are mistaken if you think that you will get any assistance from this quarter; it is not a physician that dwells here, but a sick man. I would rather have you say, on leaving my presence: ‘I used to think him a happy man and a learned one, and I had pricked up my ears to hear him; but I have been defrauded. I have seen nothing, heard nothing which I craved and which I came back to hear.’ If you feel thus, and speak thus, some progress has been made. I prefer you to pardon rather than envy my retirement.” (Letters to Lucilius, CXVIII, 8-9)



44 thoughts on “Seneca was a man, not a Sage

  1. labnut

    Interesting observation, but are you trying to make a point that is relevant to the post or discussion?

    In the interests of greater clarity please explain, since it is not at all clear what argument you are trying to make!


  2. synred

    Bellarmin seems to fit with the discussion of who should be taken as ‘role models’ and Paul;s post about witchcraft, etc.


  3. labnut

    please make a clear argument. What really are you trying to say? These vague observations seem quite pointless. I can’t read between the lines of your mind.


  4. labnut

    More than 1500 people were executed for witchcraft in post-reformation Scotland, the most recent in 1706

    Please explain the relevance of that to Scottish school boards in 2016. Are they planning to identify and execute witches? Can you share those plans?

    I had no idea Scottish schools were such radical places. But we can certainly use your experience to eradicate the several thousand practising sangomas in our country. Your Scottish churches sound like just the people for the job. Please send missionaries.


  5. labnut

    Really, I am quite gobsmacked by how superstition can infect modern, rational minds. The past can somehow mysteriously float several hundred years forward into the present to affect the present? I politely called that ‘reverse presentism‘ but it is pure, unalloyed superstitious belief in ghosts.

    What is even stranger is that modern, rational minds will present this as a firm belief with no justificatory facts or argument. It is a denial of being modern and rational. But I suppose it is inevitable. How can one give justificatory facts and arguments for belief in ghosts?


  6. Paul Braterman

    The church of Scotland refers to “Christian values” when making its case for its unelected representative on education committees (US equivalent, school boards). But its own Christian values have included, not only “love thy neighbour” but “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. So, if we can agree that the latter is a morally defective policy, it follows that appealing to Christian values, as defined by the Church of Scotland, is not a reliable way of telling right from wrong.

    If, on the other hand, the present-day Church of Scotland were to appeal to a humanitarian consensus in order to show that since, say, 1800 its recommendations have been morally worthy, then we could have reached the same conclusion more directly, by appealing to the humanitarian consensus, without asking the church.

    So my argument has two strands. One is, that the Church’s method of discovering what is good has been defective in the past, undermining its authority. The other one (and here I am reminded of Euthyphro’s dilemma) is that if, nowadays, the Church advocates what is good because it is good, then it is using some method not peculiar to the Church to find out what the good is.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. labnut

    But its own Christian values have included, not only “love thy neighbour” but “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.

    First we are not dealing with the Scottish church of 300 years ago. And I do not believe in ghosts. So please drop that line, it is not worthy of rational argument.

    Second, we are dealing with today’s Scottish church. We are not dealing in ghosts. So let’s keep our mind focused on today’s church.

    Third, we need to ask the question – what does today’s church teach or advocate? Do you know or are you criticising out of ignorance?(I suspect that is the case). Clearly the ghosts of the past lack to power to teach or advocate(outside of Hogwarts Castle), so let’s leave them out of the argument.

    Fourth, I defy you to show me any evidence of teaching, policies or procedures similar to “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” in today’s church.

    So, give me the evidence or retract this plainly unsound line of reasoning. Really, it is not worthy of rational discussion.

    If you think the Christian values of the Scottish church are unsound then you should list the unsound ones and make a rational case for them being unsound.

    You haven’t done this. Instead you have made a quite bizarre argument based on the behaviour of some people more than 300 years ago. I have made fun of the matter because I find it impossible to take your arguments seriously.


  8. labnut

    as near as I can tell, school boards are intended to give different segments of the local community a voice in the operation of their schools. That is an eminently sound policy. The church and the people it represents are part of that community. You however wish to exclude the Christian voice. Do you really think that is a decent, tolerant, liberal thing to do? Appealing to events of 300 years ago is a most bizarre argument(is that the best you can do?). Now it is well known that militant atheism is doing its best in all areas of society to exclude and shut down the Christian voice. It is an ugly, mean spirited policy, better suited to fascism and is a denial of the best of liberalism. And it is a foolish policy because no one has been able to strangle Christianity. The Communists tried this with great brutality in Russia and China and they failed. Christianity is rebounding with strength in those countries.

    So please embrace the core values of liberalism, those of decency, tolerance and respect for each other’s values.


  9. Paul Braterman

    1) The historic crimes of the Church in the name of “Christian values” do, in my opinion, undermine the claim that being that custodian of such values confers authority

    2) The modern Church of Scotland has lagged behind the general population in acceptance of women’s rights and gay rights, although not as badly as many other churches. Especially in the North of Scotland, it sends seminarists to Highland Theological College, which teaches creationist theology. And both theologically conservative and theologically liberal branches of the Church of Scotland teach that faith, provided it is faith in the particular doctrines promulgated by the Church, is a virtue, whereas I think the opposite. In all these areas, to the extent that the Church has a distinctive position, I find that position morally inferior tto that of the nonbelievers who now make up a majority of Scottish society.

    3) I do think that I am decent, tolerant, and respectful of other’s values, and would be horrified by any suggestion that religious believers be debarred from standing for office, and exerting influence in open debate, like everybody else. However, since I am confident that you, too, are decent, tolerant, and respectful of other’s values, I must conclude that you have not grasped the actual situation. This is, that whether the electorate and their chosen representatives like it or not, three Church representatives are imposed by law on every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland. This in addition to the influence that Christians exert, and should exert, both as voters and as candidates.

    You argue that segments deserve representation, but the only segments to be represented, over and above their voice in elections, are the Churches. They appoint to positions of political power, held with no mandate from or responsibility to the electorate, with influence over the spending of public money and the education of the entire populace. Non-believers, of coirse, are ineligible for these positions. All attempts at reform of this grossly discriminatory situation are condemned as attempts by “militant atheism” to “exclude and shut down the Christian voice”. I do not see it that way.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Massimo Post author

    Paul, labnut,

    As interesting as your discussion on the Scottish church is, I think it is both largely irrelevant to Stoicism, and in danger of getting ugly (“fascism,”? Really?)

    For what is worth, I see both of your points, to a degree, but I suggest you drop it at this point. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Gabriel Broski

    Enjoyed the write up! Here’s a quote that I find appropriate for this:

    “I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.” – Seneca.

    Questionable life he lived, but he definitely had some powerful messages for others to live by. His messages have the same weight and meaning whether he followed them himself or not.

    Liked by 1 person

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