The Complexity of Seneca – by Maxwell Lynn

Statesman, Stoic, and millionaire. How can we find virtue in Seneca’s complex and even contradictory lifestyle?

‘This, I say, is the highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom, – that deed and word should be in accord, that a man should be equal to himself under all conditions, and always the same’. – Seneca, Letter XX.2

On my window-sill, as I write this, is a little 3D-printed bust of Seneca. He’s always sort of present, I make an effort to think about Seneca’s works and how they have influenced me each time I make a glance at him, or put him on my desk to prevent him from being knocked over by my blinds if wind were to come in the night. He is always present in my day to day life as he is in the canon of Stoic literature.

Let’s be frank: You can’t avoid him. Epictetus’ works are restricted to just a few books, and of course there is only one for Marcus Aurelius, with which we are all familiar. For the rest, there are but fragments. It is only Seneca’s works that seem to pile high in numbers of primary Stoic sources; On Anger, Natural Questions, Thyestes, The Letters to Lucilius and On The Shortness of Life are some but not all of his works. He is undoubtedly the most prolific and stylistic Stoic, whose literary flair gained him fame in his own day. Yet, with all of this work, he is the most controversial Stoic of them all.

Let us imagine it is first-century Rome. After a while in exile, and a few pieces of rhetoric and philosophy published, the exiled Senator Seneca is recalled by the widow of Claudius and mother of Nero, Agrippina. So he travels from Corsica back to Rome in order to teach the young Emperor in skills of rhetoric, and not philosophy. Years go by, and the little tyke grows to be a merciless little tyrant instead. Seneca’s power decreases over time, his pleads for virtue (as can be read in On Clemency) go unheard by his former pupil, and his allies in court begin to drop dead, until a conspiracy to assassinate him implicates the Stoic philosopher. As a result, the pupil orders his teacher to kill himself by Imperial Decree. So with him went his nephew (who was very much a part of this conspiracy), his brother Gallio, and almost his wife Paulina.

We’ve heard that story, we’ve also probably heard the narrative of his three-act suicide. What people may not have heard of though, in the midst of this tragedy, is just how rich Seneca was. Cassius Dio and Tacitus charged Seneca with amassing a huge fortune, amassing some three hundred million sestertii. 1 sestertius, according to GlobalSecurity.Org is worth around fifty cents in US dollars. That means Seneca would own around one hundred and fifty million dollars between his political salary and his allegedly aggressive lending habits overseas. It’s a rough estimate, something we can never know for sure, but that’s a mindblowing amount of money for a politician, never mind a philosopher. This wealth puts Seneca’s Stoic morals at a point of contention with his lifestyle. Lavish, luxury, far from the simple Stoic life…This philosopher lived a life two thousand years ago that most of us will never see now.

So the often asked question is: How do we reconcile his philosophy with his lifestyle? James Romm took a swing with his magnificent biography Dying Every Day, and presents us with two Senecas: The scrawny, ageing philosopher whose diet was so sparse his blood ran too slow to die, and the plump, hypocritical man preaching to the Roman elite. The likely truth is that neither of these men are likely to exist. Despite the fact that, though many letters to Lucilius detail anecdotes and information of his personal life (his former vegetarian diet, and the fact the was prone to seasickness, for example), Seneca remains a complex topic for Stoics due to the perfect odds that were his life in court and his moral advice. I would like to put forth the argument, though, that this makes him so much better.

 Each lifestyle has within it its antithesis; asceticism and hedonism, Stoicism and Epicureanism, Theism and Anti-Theism, and so on. It is rare, however, that a member of this community is also allegedly indulging in its antithesis. Is this not what Seneca brings us? A simple question with a complex answer.. But with the equivalent of something like a hundred and fifty million dollars…It’s hard not to dip your feet in the water. It might just be as easy to imagine as the former. However, the two are reconcilable. Stoicism is unique in its disavowal of wealth in that it believes the accumulation of wealth itself is fine. It is an external indifferent, and only our choices can make the wealth last or be used for good. So, realistically, a billionaire like Elon Musk could be a Stoic. He could, as Seneca himself prescribed, allot a period of time wherein he lives in poverty as not to be afraid of it. To say that a wealthy man could not be a Stoic is a difficult argument to defend, seeing that what makes him a Stoic or not is his attitude regarding said wealth. What truly matters here is that one could live without wealth; that one could maintain their character and uphold their virtue if instead of lobster they ate stale bread, and if instead of fine wine they drank tap water. None of these things impact the individual if the individual banishes them from their anxieties.

So Seneca’s issue of authenticity requires a nuanced answer. What I have given here is merely a taster of the problem’s solutions though, as some of these Roman sources have their own biases. What we have, though, is a pretty valuable lesson. We should not only learn from Seneca’s wisdom, but also his misgivings. I’m not talking about wealth here, but how he acquired it.

To be the right-hand man of a blood-thirsty tyrant whilst proclaiming to be a man living the simple life is difficult, especially when faced with the ubiquitous moral dilemma of murder. Seneca relinquished his philosophy for the sake of politics in this case, playing a part in the conspiracy to murder Agrippina (whom they attempted to drown on a boat, but slaughtered in her villa when that proved unsuccessful). Seneca had to try and justify this act to the Senate, who he knew could take matters into their own hands, and to the Praetorian Guard who were devoted to Agrippina. He had to watch the popularity of his student decline as he became more fascinated with the arts, affairs with slaves, and became a bit more familiar murdering more of his family and close advisers. It’s no surprise Seneca is alleged to have expected this, as he says in Tacitus’ account of his death: ‘He murdered his mother; he destroyed his brother; and, after those deeds of horror, what remains to fill the measure of his guilt but the death of his guardian and his tutor?’ (Tacitus, Annals, 15;60-64)

Seneca had to stand by and watch Rome burn. He would have to accommodate the whims of a hedonistic tyrant, and live day to day with the knowledge that what he writes and how he lives can be said to be diametrically opposed. Maybe Seneca had the thought of whether his philosophy might be worth anything at all. We can only wonder. We can, however, find a valuable lesson in this and assert this principle into our day to day lives.

We should ultimately learn just as much from Seneca’s mistakes as we should from his wisdom. I am sure that exile was not preferable to a high political status in Rome, and most if not all of us would be lying if we said we would reject that. And whilst Seneca could not imagine the man Nero would become, he still had his obligations. We should learn, then, to be cautious of our opportunities. We can gauge the question of whether it is better to be greatly unpopular and perhaps even hurt for doing the right thing, or whether it is better to disagree in silence and agree in action. Should we risk grave injury to stand up for virtue, even if dreadful events are unavoidable (such as the murder of Nero’s mother, or his wife), or should we let it pass us by whilst lamenting its occurrence? What a large question. We must accept that Seneca would likely be unable to do anything no matter his opinion. We, however, live in different times. Most of us live in free states, with democratic legislations and governments. Where Seneca failed we find a good call to action not to let the travesties of our time pass us by but to rather seek to uphold what is good about our institutions, and ravaging what is negative for our nations. Take what is good about what Seneca wrote, and also learn from his misdeeds to find a way to better ourselves as individuals, which will invariably lead to the bettering of our society.

To take the good of Seneca’s words, and the bad of his deeds, is to get a fully nuanced picture of a philosopher who told us what to do, and shown us not what to do. To apply it in our own lives is to find spirit in questioning the poor functioning of our institutions, and not to be passive in the role of how our countries are then governed. Seneca provides us with a wealth of practical wisdom, and whilst his tale may act as a cautionary one, it also allows us to create in ourselves a way to shun fatalist attitudes and mould an outlook of perseverance, care and rationality towards our political situations. The man himself said that Stoics were not subjects of any monarch, and two thousand years later people must still be wary of the threat of harmful political objectives. Seneca, in all his complexity, still aids us two millennia later in both his wisdom and his failings. We would be fools not to seize upon it all, and find a way to uplift ourselves as individuals.



Maxwell Lynn is a student of Ethics and Philosophy of Religion in the North West of England. After first reading Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic, he became enthralled by the Romans’ moral philosophy, leading to a great interest in how we can take ancient advice into contemporary life.

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