“What an advantage it will be to retire into the society of the best of men, and to choose some example by which we may guide our lives! This cannot be done without leisure: with leisure we can carry out that which we have once for all decided to be best, when there is no one to interfere with us and with the help of the mob pervert our as yet feeble judgment.” (I) So says Seneca near the beginning of his essay on the topic of leisure, one that may seem rather frivolous for a philosopher, but which is instead crucial. It is, after all, because of the ample leisure offered me by my academic position that you are now reading essay n. 266 on this blog…
Seneca is controversial even within Stoic circles, because of his association with the emperor Nero, which has been marred by alleged complicity in some of Nero’s most egregious crimes, chiefly the murder of his mother, Agrippina. As I have written in the past, Seneca was no Sage, and indeed he himself pointed that out several times, but that shouldn’t diminish his stature as a Stoic writer. Indeed, he is by far the ancient Stoic from whom we have most extant writings, which constitute an invaluable resource for Stoic practitioners and anyone else interested in Roman culture and philosophy. Still, it is also important to inquire as much as the historical record makes it possible into what roles Seneca played during Nero’s reign, something that is explored in two recent biographies of the philosopher (Dying Every Day, by James Romm; and The Greatest Empire, by Emily Wilson. Check out also the earlier, and more sympathetic, The Stoic, by Francis Caldwell Holland.)
I’m going to wrap up my extended commentary of Seneca’s pivotal essay, On Anger, which is one of the most important Stoic texts you’ll ever read. Not to mention one of the most useful. (Part I is here; part II here.)
Book III opens up with Seneca telling his friend Novatus that it is now time to turn to the practical issue of how to drive anger away: “This may sometimes be done openly and without concealment, when we are only suffering from a slight attack of this mischief, and at other times it must be done secretly, when our anger is excessively hot, and when every obstacle thrown in its way increases it and makes it blaze higher.”
Let us continue our three-part examination of Seneca’s essay On Anger with what he writes in book II (my commentary on book I is here). Seneca addresses again his friend Novatus, who apparently has what we today would call anger management issues, by saying: “There is no doubt that anger is roused by the appearance of an injury being done: but the question before us is, whether anger straightway follows the appearance, and springs up without assistance from the mind, or whether it is roused with the sympathy of the mind … anger can venture upon nothing by itself, without the approval of mind.” (II.1) This is Seneca’s version of Epictetus’ famous warning concerning “impressions,” and his discipline of assent: we should always examine our first impression of a given situation, gain what modern psychologists call cognitive distance, and then decide whether our initial assessment was correct or not — most of the time, according to the Stoics, the answer will be in the negative.
Anger is a major concern for Stoics, and their attitude about it is often misunderstood, just like more broadly their take on emotions in general is. The contrast here is with the Aristotelians, who claimed that virtue lies in navigating the middle course between extremes. Concerning anger, they thought that the virtuous compromise is good temper, which lies between the unvirtuous poles of irascibility (too much anger) and lack of spirit (too little anger). As we shall see, for the Stoics there is no such thing as a good degree of anger, but it doesn’t mean that one has to be passive in the face of injustice. I will present three posts on this topic, corresponding to books I, II and III by Seneca.
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.