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.
Our most detailed account of Seneca, in the end, is ambivalent and sometimes ambiguous.
“It seems that Nature produced him as an experiment, to show what absolute vice could accomplish when paired with absolute power,” Seneca said of Caligula’s madness.
Marcia’s grief, for Seneca, exemplifies a universal human blindness. We assume that we own things—family, wealth, position—whereas we have only borrowed them from Fortune. We take for granted that they will be with us forever, and we grieve at their loss; but loss is the more normal event—it is what we should have expected all along. Our condition, could we see it alright, is that of an army assaulting a well-defended town: every moment might bring the bite of a barbed arrow.
Charges of low-life, adulterous, or incestuous sex were a highly effective tactic in Roman politics. Such charges had been brought against every imperial wife and daughter; they had already been flung at Agrippina for most of her life and would continue up to her death. Judging their truth content is almost impossible today. (Imagine assessing tabloid accounts of modern celebrity sex lives from a distance of two millennia.) All we know for certain is that such charges were guaranteed to stick and to leave a nasty smear.
With an unerring eye for detail, De Ira caricatures the self-regard and self-importance of the Roman nobility. The work even explains these traits in a way that might look familiar to a modern psychologist. The wealthy and powerful indulge their children and give them no training in overcoming indignities. “The one to whom nothing was refused,” Seneca writes, “whose tears were always wiped away by an anxious mother, will not abide being offended.” The ability to laugh, he suggests, is an antidote to the petulance that comes with privilege.
Was a moral principate, an administration compatible with Stoic precepts, going to be possible? Seneca had based his vision of hood governance on the regime of Augustus; but the regime to which he belonged, dominated by an insecure, spoiled teenager and his unstable mother, seemed a long way off from that shining ideal. He stood closer to the moral universe of his tragedies, works like Medea and Phaedra, than n to De Ira and his other prose works.
Both essays take the position that all humankind is prone to err and therefore all deserve mercy. But De Clementia is more emphatic on this point. “We have all of us done wrong,” Seneca intones here, in words that would not be out of place in a modern Christian sermon, “some seriously, some lightly, some intentionally, some pushed into it by accident or carried away by the wrongdoing of others; some have stood by our good designs not firmly enough and have lost our guiltlessness, unwillingly, while trying to keep our grasp on it.” That last case sounds strikingly like Seneca’s own.
Seneca had made the bargain that many good men have made when agreeing to aid bad regimes. On the one hand, their presence strengthens the regime and helps it endure. But their moral influence may also improve the regime’s behavior or save the lives of its enemies. For many, this has been a bargain worth making, even if it has cost them–as it may have cost Seneca–their immortal soul.
Here is the greatest measure of how little, in the end, we understand Seneca, the man who tried his whole life to reveal his soul yet left so much opaque. After all his discussions of how and why to withdraw from political life, we cannot declare that the rumor Tacitus reported was groundless. We cannot know that Seneca, if Rome had acclaimed him, would have declined to rule.
Imago is a multilayered word. Like its English derivative image, it can mean simply “shape” or “form.” But it can also mean “illusion,” “phantom,” or “false seeming,” something “imagined.” Tacitus, a superb ironist and verbal artist, chose this word with care. Seneca, too, as Tacitus was aware, was a consummate ironist–an author who had painted his self-portrait in a half a million words yet had never, in all his treatises, plays, and epistles, addressed the truths of his life in power. He had created an imago of himself since the day he began writing. He was shaping it still in his last hours, hastily revising an incomplete work and taking steps to ensure its survival.