The long-awaited film Seneca — On the Creation of Earthquakes has finally been released, directed by Robert Schwentke, starring John Malkovich as Seneca in a fantastic performance.
The film is a fantasy based on actual events. The facts: Seneca tutored the young emperor Nero. At a given moment, the relationship between master and disciple turns sour, and Seneca loses his influence over his pupil. Seneca, then, is forced to withdraw from the court and begins to fear for his life, living what he has left in his village. Nero, however, takes advantage of Piso’s conspiracy to put his former master to death. Among Roman senators, this meant committing suicide by cutting one’s veins. The philosopher’s death, however, was not serene. It was challenging to find his veins, and they were not leaking enough blood to kill him, so he was forced to take a dose of hemlock, which, he soon discovered, was no longer effective. Seneca ended up dying in a hot bath (to facilitate the circulation and draining of blood), surrounded by those close to him. His young wife, Paulina, who had decided to commit suicide with her husband, had her life saved and the veins in her arms stitched.
The film is inspired by these facts, reflecting on existential themes related to the craft of philosophizing and its permanence over the last few millennia. A Stoic philosopher in antiquity had absorbed the speech of the Stoa to such an extent that he became a true spokesman for the doctrine. The Stoic sought to replace the way of seeing the world he had learned from common sense with that of Stoicism. During this exercise, he gradually distanced himself from others regarding worldview and behavior. This distancing ends up producing a double estrangement: that of the philosopher himself, who finds himself gradually distancing himself from the rest of humanity in terms of ideas about the world and the human, and that of those around him, who often end up finding themselves perplexed in front of the philosopher, both because of the proficiency with which he declaims his theories and philosophical convictions that radically depart from common sense and because of his attitudes.
At the film’s beginning, Seneca warns Nero (played by Tom Xander) about the need to be forgiving. At one point, this statement, which went against what the emperor thought, ended up irritating him profoundly, to the point of punching the master. There is no record of such a fact in Seneca’s life. But we know that this happened to Epictetus while he was giving philosophical lectures in the streets of Rome in his youth, and a wealthy former consul punched him (see Epictetus, Discourses, 2.12.17).
This double estrangement explains why the philosopher sees the many as insane and the many see the philosopher as mad. The philosopher considers ordinary people crazy because he realizes they base their opinions on common sense. And ordinary people think the philosopher is crazy because his beliefs defy those of common sense. Epictetus deals with both cases. First, that of the philosophy student who wants to be admired by madmen:
“My wish has always been that those who meet me should admire me, and those who follow me should exclaim O the great philosopher. Who are they by whom you wish to be admired? Are they not those of whom you are used to say, that they are mad? Well then do you wish to be admired by madmen?” (Epictetus, Discourses, 1.21.3-4, George Long’s translation).
Second, faced with a human without philosophical instruction, the philosopher “plays crazy” to avoid the worst: “What shall I say to this slave? If I am silent, he will burst. I must speak in this way: Excuse me, as you would excuse lovers: I am not my own master: I am mad.” (Epictetus, Discourses, 1.22.21, George Long’s translation).
But, although the philosopher should not seek the admiration of many, he needs to pursue those who can understand him to escape the radical solitude he has thrown himself into when differentiating himself from others due to his worldview and his attitudes. The philosopher is human, gregarious, needs friends, and needs, so to speak, to convert as many as he can around him to have someone to discuss and scrutinize his theories with. This conversion must operate through persuasion, and the philosopher seeks to persuade others and himself by repeating the ideas he announces through his words. But here, there is a double obstacle: that of his soul, whose irrationality resists the novelty of correct belief, and that of the listeners, as many come to the philosopher attracted by the persuasive language of the philosopher, by the beauty and enigmatic character of philosophical discourse.
Thus, in the film’s second part, Seneca presents his theatrical play Thyestes to a handful of listeners. After the performance, the Roman soldier charged by Nero with transmitting the order of his condemnation to Seneca arrives. Seneca, at first, is perplexed. Then, he repeats the philosophical maxims that recommend a gentle acceptance of death. Meanwhile, two of his followers retreat while Seneca tries to persuade them that something significant is about to happen.
At this point, the film makes us reflect on philosophy and its societal status. While, for the philosopher, this is the most valuable thing on the face of the Earth, for others, philosophy is either madness or uselessness. So, there is no harm in witnessing the philosopher’s eloquence as long as it does not threaten one’s own life. But then, the harsh materiality of the world imposes itself. It’s one thing to talk about the nobility of dying placidly. Another is to see the veins cut and that the blood does not drain quickly enough for death to occur as smoothly as intended. It’s one thing to read about Socrates’ death from drinking hemlock. Another is to drink a dose of hemlock that has lost its power and remain alive and perplexed. Thus, one by one, Seneca’s listeners and disciples leave until the philosopher finds himself completely alone.
Seneca did not die an easy death in life or in the movie. In the film, he dies while his speech deconstructs, and his soul decomposes into the irrationality of his body, which finally allows the philosopher’s final liberation.
The Roman soldier who announced his condemnation returns to take Seneca’s body. The scene is strong and beautiful: under the scorching desert sun, the soldier on his horse pulls a donkey carrying Seneca’s body behind him. Power transmission towers then appear in the background. The Roman soldier throws Seneca’s body into a mass grave filled with other men’s bodies in a landfill, and an earthmoving machine throws dirt over the corpses — an image with many meanings.
One of these meanings would be the continuity of our time with the first century of Rome, a central theme in the work of Philip K. Dick, which he summarizes in one sentence: “The Empire never ended.” Another would be the place that finally belongs to the philosopher, materially speaking. While he raves about the extreme importance of his job, his activity is perceived externally as a total waste of time, devoid of significance and seriousness. As Epictetus rightly observed, humans have never honored philosophers as they should:
What then does Chrysippus teach us? The reply is, to know that these things are not false, from which happiness comes and tranquillity arises. Take my books, and you will learn how true and conformable to nature are the things which make me free from perturbations. O great good fortune! O the great benefactor who points out the way! To Triptolemus all men have erected temples and altars, because he gave us food by cultivation; but to him who discovered truth and brought it to light and communicated it to all, not the truth which shows us how to live, but how to live well, who of you for this reason has built an altar, or a temple, or has dedicated a statue, or who worships God for this? Because the gods have given the vine, or wheat, we sacrifice to them: but because they have produced in the human mind that fruit by which they designed to show us the truth which relates to happiness, shall we not thank God for this? (Epictetus, Discourses, 1.4.28-32, George Long’s translation)
Aldo Dinucci is Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Federal University of Espirito Santo in Brazil, the Editor in Chief of Προμηθεύς, and has published, among other books, translations from Greek to Portuguese of the Manual of Epictetus and Epictetus Discourses, Book 1 .