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.
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.