Seneca’s consolation letters, part II: to his mother Helvia

Landscape in Corsica

Landscape in Corsica

Seneca wrote three famous letters of consolation to friends and relatives, which were a vehicle for articulating some of the fundamental points of Stoic philosophy. Last week I have examined the letter to Marcia, who had lost her son and was still grieving after three years. This week I will discuss the letter to Seneca’s mother, Helvia, and we will wrap up this series next week with the letter to Polybius.

The letter to Helvia, composed of 20 sections, was written in 42 CE, when Seneca was 46 years old and had just been sent in exile to Corsica by the emperor Claudius, after having be condemned to death and then pardoned by the previous emperor, the madman Caligula. The charge was to have engaged in an extramarital affair with Julia Livilla, Caligula’s sister. The accusation was likely trumped up for a personal vendetta: Julia had provoked the jealousy of the empress Messalina, Claudius’ wife. Julia also was exiled, but she wasn’t as lucky as Seneca, since her uncle Claudius ordered her death, probably by starvation.

As he did with Marcia, Seneca does allow for an initial, natural phase of grief in her mother: “I knew that I must not oppose your grief during its first transports, lest my very attempts at consolation might irritate it, and add fuel to it: for in diseases, also, there is nothing more hurtful than medicine applied too soon.” He then goes on to say that it is now time for him to attempt to console her, hoping that the effort will succeed since it is her own son — who is, after all, the one experiencing the exile — that is trying to persuade her.

At II Seneca reminds his mother that she has been through worse, and that her past experiences have forged the temper of her character: “Let those whose feeble minds have been enervated by a long period of happiness, weep and lament for many days, and faint away on receiving the slightest blow: but those whose years have all been passed amid catastrophes should bear the severest losses with brave and unyielding patience.” Apparently, some of these previous experiences, which Seneca recounts in some detail, had been quite recent: “less than twenty days after you had buried my child, who perished in your arms and amid your kisses, you heard that I had been exiled.”

At III he reminds Helvia that “you have gained nothing by so many misfortunes, if you have not learned how to suffer,” but at IV Seneca begins to reassure his mother: “I will make it clear to you that the events by which you think that I am overwhelmed, are not unendurable. … I will add, for your greater comfort, that it is not possible for me to be made miserable.”

At V Seneca begins to explain Stoicism to his mother: “External circumstances have very little importance either for good or for evil: the wise man is neither elated by prosperity nor depressed by adversity; for he has always endeavoured to depend chiefly upon himself and to derive all his joys from himself. Do I, then, call myself a wise man? far from it.” But he is, nonetheless, capable of applying Stoic doctrines to his current predicament.

We need “always to stand as it were on guard, and to mark the attacks and charges of Fortune long before she delivers them; she is only terrible to those whom she catches unawares; he who is always looking out for her assault, easily sustains it … No man loses anything by the frowns of Fortune unless he has been deceived by her smiles.” (V)

In section VI Seneca engages in a discussion of what, exactly, his current predicament is: “let us consider what is meant by exile: clearly a changing from one place to another. That I may not seem to be narrowing its force, and taking away its worst parts, I must add, that this changing of place is accompanied by poverty, disgrace, and contempt.” He then engages in a version of the view from above, to help him put things in perspective for his distraught mother: “‘It is unbearable,’ men say, ‘to lose one’s native land.’ Look, I pray you, on these vast crowds, for whom all the countless roofs of Rome can scarcely find shelter: the greater part of those crowds have lost their native land: they have flocked hither from their country towns and colonies, and in fine from all parts of the world.” (VI) Indeed, he even turns things around on his own position: “examine wildernesses and the most rugged islands, Sciathus and Seriphus, Gyarus and Corsica: you will find no place of exile where someone does not dwell for his own pleasure.” (Gyarus, incidentally, is where Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, will later be exiled by Nero, the same emperor, of course, who got Seneca killed.)

That line of thought is continued at VII, broadening the perspective even more: “you will see that whole tribes and nations have changed their abodes. What is the meaning of Greek cities in the midst of barbarous districts? Or of the Macedonian language existing among the Indians and the Persians? … In all cases it is clear that nothing remains in the same place in which it was born: the movement of the human race is perpetual: in this vast world some changes take place daily.” Seneca then zoomed back onto Corsica itself, telling his mother that “the Ligurians came over into this same island, and also the Spaniards, which is proved by the resemblance of their customs: for they wear the same head-coverings and the same sort of shoes as the Cantabrians, and some of their words are the same: for by association with Greeks and Ligurians they have entirely lost their native speech.”

VIII presents us with an interesting list of metaphysical possibilities regarding who or what is responsible for the happenings of the universe: “Believe me, this is the work of whoever was the Creator of the universe, whether he be an all-powerful deity, an incorporeal mind which effects vast works, a divine spirit by which all things from the greatest to the smallest are equally pervaded, or fate and an unalterable connected sequence of events,” the latter being a direct reference to the Stoic notion of a cosmic web of cause-effect. Whoever or whatever the cause, “no place of banishment can be found in the whole world in which man cannot find a home.”

At IX he tells Helvia that “no place can be narrow, if it contains such a company of the greatest virtues ; no exile can be irksome in which one can be attended by these companions,” which is a statement of the sufficiency of virtue for a eudaimonic (if not necessarily pleasant) life.

True, says Seneca at X, Corsica doesn’t offer all the luxuries and delicacies of Rome. But “how unhappy are they whose appetite can only be aroused by costly food! And the costliness of food depends not upon its delightful flavor and sweetness of taste, but upon its rarity and the difficulty of procuring it … Food is to be found everywhere, and has been placed by Nature in every part the world, but they pass it by as though they were blind, and wander through all countries, cross the seas, and excite at a great cost the hunger which they might allay at a small one … Why do you amass fortune after fortune? Are you unwilling to remember how small our bodies are? Is it not frenzy and the wildest insanity to wish for so much when you can contain so little?”

XI has one of the nicest summaries of the Stoic take on the subject at hand: “Even a place of exile suffices to provide one with necessaries; whole kingdoms do not suffice to provide one with superfluities.” Remember that, the next time you think your life is ruined because you couldn’t get the latest iPhone model yet…

At XV Seneca uses the well known Stoic metaphor of our lives being a battle with Fortuna, later put to use also by both Epictetus and Marcus: “the harder these things are to bear, the more virtue you must summon to your aid, and the more bravely you must struggle as it were with an enemy whom you know well, and whom you have already often conquered.”

I find XVI particularly interesting because it is yet another textual disconfirmation that the Stoics counseled the suppression of emotions: “while it is a foolish weakness to give way to endless grief when you lose one of those dearest to you, yet it shows an unnatural hardness of heart to express no grief at all: the best middle course between affection and hard common sense is both to feel regret and to restrain it.” To feel regret, but to restrain it seems both very human and very sensible.

At XVII he tells his mother that it is to no avail to simply try to get distracted from grief: “a grief which has been deceived and driven away either by pleasure or by business rises again, and its period of rest does but give it strength for a more terrible attack; but a grief which has been conquered by reason is appeased forever.”

Finally, at XX, he tells Helvia that there is no cause for distress, because he is more than well, given the circumstances: “I am as joyous and cheerful as in my best days: indeed these days are my best, because my mind is relieved from all pressure of business and is at leisure to attend to its own affairs, and at one time amuses itself with lighter studies, at another eagerly presses its inquiries into its own nature and that of the universe.” Intriguing that Seneca should try to turn around his misfortune and use it to his advantage (reminiscent of Marcus’ “the obstacle is the way” approach): being exiled, he doesn’t have to deal with the usual annoyances and social niceties of life in Rome. He can focus on what matters most to him: his philosophy and the cultivation of his virtue.