Profile: Seneca

Robin Wood on the philosopher accused of fiddling while Nero fiddled while Rome burned

Seneca by Gareth Southwell

Seneca by Gareth Southwell

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4 BCE – 65 AD) was the second son of Seneca the Elder, born at Córdoba in Spain but brought up as a child in Rome by an aunt and educated there in rhetoric and philosophy. He was particularly drawn to philosophy and deeply influenced by the stoic doctrine, which he himself later developed. He became quaestor (chief revenue officer) and a senator and, under Claudius, he occupied a position at court. He was accused of an intrigue with Julia, the daughter of Germanicus, and banished to Corsica in 41. He was recalled eight years later in 49 by Agrippina to be the tutor of her son Nero because of his literary reputation, which he had achieved during his exile. When Nero became Emperor in 54 AD the influence of Seneca and Burrus (prefect of the guard) kept the young emperor temporarily under control. Later, after the death of Burrus, Nero’s conduct worsened and Seneca asked permission to withdraw from court and lived in retirement devoting himself to literature. But in 65, on a charge of complicity in Piso’s conspiracy, he was ordered to take his own life. Tacitus records the calm and dignity with which he did this.

Seneca was one of the most important and prolific writers of his day, both in prose and in verse. Ten books of ethical essays (miscalled Dialogi) survive on subjects such as anger, the constancy of the stoic sage, and tranquillity of mind. Three of them are ‘consolations’ to the bereaved. He presented to Nero, early in his reign, a treatise called De Clementia (On Clemency) in which he commended this quality to the autocrat. It is possible that Shakespeare had it in mind when composing Portia’s great speech on the quality of mercy. He also wrote the De Beneficiis (On Benefits) in seven books. His Naturales Quaestiones (Studies into Nature), eight books on physical science, achieved great popularity. The Epistolae Morales (Moral Epistles), of which 124 survive, give philosophical and ethical advice to a friend. He is almost certainly the author of the Apocolocyntosis (The Pumpkinification of the Emporer Claudius), a bitter satire on the deification of Claudius. Seneca also wrote nine tragedies on Greek mythological subjects, more designed to be recited or read than acted. They are somewhat melodramatic and violent and had an influence on Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy in England out of all proportion to their merits.

Seneca’s moral writings greatly influenced or at least gained the respect of later Christian writers, to the extent that before AD 400 a forged correspondence between him and St. Paul had been composed. This was possible because of his broad humanitarian outlook. He was a stoic and shared the stoic cosmopolitan view of life and in many ways, in theory at least, he was in advance of his contemporaries. He condemned false values engendered by wealth, he denounced the cruelty of the Games and the stupidity of much in the official religion. He showed compassion to slaves and in principle rejected the concept of slavery. However, in practice, he did not really do anything towards its abolition. He believed that some portion of the divine spirit dwelt in each and every person.

The problem remains, however, that there seems to be a serious discrepancy between his ethical ideals and his actual life (such as we do not find, for example, in Socrates). To some, he appears as unduly morally complacent, and to others as a loathsome hypocrite. He had wide financial interests and was very rich. So how could, as one modern historian of Rome has put it, ‘the millionaire who flattered Polybius and showed such spite to the dead Claudius and drafted Nero’s justification for the murder of his mother, at the same time preach virtue and the simple life’?

Maybe the circumstances of his life proved too burdensome and he did what he could but has been harshly judged by some. Perhaps, as Nero’s tutor, he hoped to turn the young aspiring emperor to true virtue. In De Clementia he urged the ruler to limit his autocratic powers by self-regulation. But, as Nero became more callous, Seneca’s influence over him began to decline and he weakly condoned one excess after another, perhaps hoping to prevent worse.

Like Cicero, in retirement he devoted himself to philosophical writing, particularly the Moral Epistles, seeking inner freedom of spirit and the virtue that leads to it. Although a notable expounder of stoic doctrine and a significant Latin writer he cannot be said to rank with the great philosophers of ancient Greece.

Robin Wood is a Methodist minister and lecturer in ethics

Suggested reading
Cooper, J. M. & Procope, J. F. 1995. (eds.) Seneca: Moral and Political Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Griffin, M. 1992. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Seneca. 1969. Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

  1. A terrific sketch. This caught my eye.

    Seneca also wrote nine tragedies on Greek mythological subjects, more designed to be recited or read than acted. They are somewhat melodramatic and violent and had an influence on Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy in England out of all proportion to their merits.

    Indeed so.

  2. You bring about what to me is an interesting point. Must a philosophers be exemplar of their philosophy for it or s(he) to be taken seriously? Dealing with the likes of Nero I imagine can cause considerable laxity in one’s principles.

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