Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Essential Thinkers #8 Seneca, a Simple Life Devoted to Virtue and Reason

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much...
The life we receive is not short but we make it so;
we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”

Son of Seneca the Elder, the younger Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC – AD65) was born in Cordoba, Spain. He was educated in philosophy from an early age in Rome, where he would flirt with death at the hands of thee emperors during his lifetime. Caligula would have had him killed but was dissuaded on the grounds that he was destined to live a short life. Claudius exiled him and finally, after falsely being accused of plotting against Nero, whom he had tutored as a small boy, Seneca took his own life in AD 65. Nevertheless, he had a successful career as a lawyer and amassed a personal fortune. He wrote many works, which can be categorized into broadly three main kinds.

First, there are his essays on Stoic philosophy, then the sermonising Epistles, and finally his plays, often depicting graphic violence. His many plays include The Trojan Women, Oedipus, Medea, The Mad Hercules, The Phoenician Women, Phaedra, Agamemnon and Thyestes.

Seneca was a Stoic philosopher but with a somewhat pragmatic bent. Unlike the other Stoics who often aspired to lofty goals few if any could ever reach, Seneca moderated his philosophy with a more practical approach. As with the other Stoics, the heart of his philosophy was the belief in a simple life devoted to virtue and reason. However, his extant works, particularly the one hundred and twenty-four essays of his Epistles, but also to a degree his essays, contain the same tone, being often persuasive entreaties rather than expositions of technical philosophy. He is constantly trying to administer advice to his reader rather than impart philosophical wisdom. It is said that Boethius was consoled by reading Seneca whilst in prison. One particular passage to Seneca’s grieving mother is illustrative of his sermonising style:

You never polluted yourself with make-up, and you never wore a dress that covered about as much on as it did off. Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that time does not tarnish, is the great honour of modesty. So you cannot use your sex to justify your sorrow when with your virtue you have transcended it. Keep as far away from women’s tears as from their faults.”

This sermonising is typical of Seneca’s work and becomes more frequent as he matures. His Stoicism is tinged with a kind of pseudo-religious flavour but importantly reflects a concern with ethical and moral principles at the expense of metaphysics. Seneca’s stoicism is less a theoretical philosophy than a guide to living. Like the Epicureans, the Stoics did not pursue a hedonistic lifestyle. Rather, Seneca insists that the only good is virtue. Doing the right thing is of paramount importance and one should show an attitude of indifference to all else. Each and every one of us, professes Seneca, has a god within him guiding us along the path set for us by Providence. We can attain happiness only by acting in accord with our own true nature, as revealed by our inner guide, and by being content with one’s lot in life. Altruism and simple living are essential to Seneca’s idea of correct living.

The important of Seneca places on doing the right thing in his philosophy appears to be sincere, given the manner of his death as reported by the Roman historian, Tacitus. Upon hearing Nero’s sentence, Seneca slashed his arms and legs and gave an erudite speech to his wife and a gathered audience. His wife Paulina, in despair, attempted to take her own life at the same time, to which Seneca said, “I have shown you ways of smoothing life; you prefer the glory of dying. I will not grudge you such a noble example.” However, the Emperor’s soldiers prevented Paulina from carrying out the dead by tying her up. Despite his wounds, Seneca lingered on. Tacitus reports that Seneca “begged Statius Annaeus… to produce a poison with which he had some time before provided himself, the same drug which extinguished the life of those who were condemned by a public sentence of the people of Athens [i.e. the hemlock of Socrates]. It was brought to him and he drank it in vain, chilled as he was throughout his limbs, and his frame closed against the efficacy of the poison… He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without funeral rites. So he had directed in his will, when even in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of his life’s close.”

[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.
Also watch Stoicism: On the shortness of Life by Seneca https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNP5kVffUes]

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