Is life on a battlefield, or on death row, worth living? Seneca seems to be of two minds. At one point, he extols the beauty of the world, the joys that outweigh all suffering. At another, he reckons up the pains of mortal life and claims that, were we offered it as a gift instead of being thrust into it, we would decline. In either case, life, properly regarded, is only a journey toward death. We wrongly say that the old and sick are ‘dying,’ when infants and youths are doing so just as certainly.
James Romm’s book ‘Dying Every Day’ brings to life the turbulent times of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who lived from 4 BC to AD 65. He was tutor and close confidant of Emperor Nero, probably the most incompetent and vain ruler in annals of Roman history. Strangely, Seneca’s lofty moral writing makes no mention of the turmoil of the age. Seneca the writer embraces Stoicism and a quiet, well-examined life, while his city literally burned to the ground under his pupil’s impotent rule.
The question that burns at the heart of this book is how should Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic be read? Was he a man who cherished sobriety, reason, and moral virtue who, when he found himself at the center of Roman politics, did his best to temper the whims of a deluded despot? Or was he a clever manipulator who connived his way into power for power’s sake, and his moral treatises are merely a distraction from his true intentions. There is no clear answer to that, but his ideas are nonetheless still relevant.
School of Life’s YouTube video on Stoicism
What the professionals are saying: The New York Times review
Quotes and Anecdotes: Seneca–Man, Sage, and Politician
Buy on Amazon: Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero ; Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic
abstemious–not self-indulgent, especially when eating and drinking.
cursus honorum–the “sequence of offices” in the career of a Roman politician.
modus vivendi–an arrangement or agreement allowing conflicting parties to coexist peacefully, either indefinitely or until a final settlement is reached.
cri di coeur— a passionate outcry (as of appeal or protest)
ex nihilo–Latin for “out of nothing.”
maladroit–ineffective or bungling; clumsy.
sinecure–a position requiring little or no work but giving the holder status or financial benefit.
troika–a committee consisting of three members.
concomitant–naturally accompanying or associated.
plangent–loud, reverberating, and often melancholy.
apotheosis–the highest point in the development of something; culmination or climax.
nonpareil–French for “without equal.”
victuals–food or provisions, typically as prepared for consumption.
diptych–is any object with two flat plates attached at a hinge.
noisome–disagreeable; unpleasant. Especially having an extremely offensive smell.