Time to take a look at the third and last letter of consolation written by Seneca, to his friend Polybius. (For my commentary on his letter to Marcia see here, and on the one to his mother Helvia here.) The letter was written in the year 44 CE, during Seneca’s exile in Corsica, to console his friend of the death of his brother. In this commentary I will not cover the part, near the end, where Seneca writes in a flattering manner of the emperor Claudius. As translator Aubrey Stewart put it: “This switch of tone is sudden and unsuited to Seneca’s stoic philosophy, causing some scholars to ascribe the text to another author, though others argue that the tonal switch in De Consolatione ad Polybium was nothing more than Seneca’s desperate attempt to escape exile and return from Corsica.” On Seneca’s shall we say complex legacy as a man and a Stoic, see this essay of mine.
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 consolation letter was a popular literary genre in antiquity, essentially being a vehicle for presenting crucial aspects of one’s philosophy while giving actual advice to friends or relatives on how to deal with loss and grief. Perhaps the most famous consolation letters were written by Seneca, to his friend Marcia, to his mother Helvia (while he was in exile), and to his friend Polybius. In this series of three essays I will highlight some of the most interesting passages from the letters, so that we may form a better idea of the genre itself, of Seneca’s approach to it, and of Stoicism more broadly.
On a number of times I have commented on the differences and similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism (insofar I understand the latter, I’m certainly no expert). But there are some interesting parallels between Stoicism and Christianity as well, parallels that were famously highlighted by Justus Lipsius, the founder of Neo-Stoicism, in the 16th century. The occasion to revisit the topic is being afforded by the fact that I’ve been reading with much interest a recent book by C. Kavin Rowe entitled One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions.
Seneca wrote his 20-sections On the Shortness of Life in 49 CE, the year he returned to Rome from his exile in Corsica, as a moral essay addressed to his friend Paulinus.
It begins: “The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.” Seneca immediately goes on to argue that it isn’t really the case that human life is short, but rather that most people waste of a lot of it.
A few months ago I went to the wonderful Brooklyn Academic of Music to see a modern rendition (actually, multiple versions) of the story of Phaedra. It was, as is often the case with BAM’s “Next Wave” festival, a strange play, and not necessarily an improvement on the original, by the Greek dramatist Euripides. Interestingly, Seneca too wrote a version of Phaedra, one that directly influenced Shakespeare. Seneca’s Phaedra, however, is a more subtle study than Euripides’ in the character of the protagonist, and it is written so to convey some basic Stoic ideas. It may, therefore, be instructive to take a closer look.
The Stoics were big on both real life (Socrates) and fictional (Heracles) role models. That’s because virtue ethics is focused on the improvement of the individual character, something that can be achieved only by practice after other people’s examples. For the Stoics (unlike for Aristotle) virtue is both technē (i.e., craftsmanship) and epistēmē (i.e., knowledge), which is why John Sellars famously suggested that Stoic virtue is a kind of “performative art of living.” (For more on the specific Stoic version of virtue ethics see here and here.) For Seneca (not a role model himself), the most recurrent example of someone to emulate was Cato the Younger, the famous arch-enemy of Julius Caesar. (See here for my multi-part series on Cato.) So this post is an homage to both Seneca and especially Cato, listing the best quotes from all the works of Seneca (Delphi complete edition) that I could find in which the Roman statesman mentions his fellow Stoic. Enjoy.