A Thinker for Our Times

Seneca Statue

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The Life of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. - A.D. 65)

Seneca was an important Latin writer for the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and beyond. His themes and philosophy should even appeal to us today, or so says Brian Arkins in "Heavy Seneca: his Influence on Shakespeare's Tragedies," Classics Ireland 2 (1995) 1-8. ISSN 0791-9417. While James Romm, in Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, questions whether the man was as principled as his philosophy.

Seneca the Elder was a rhetorician from an equestrian family in Cordoba, Spain, where his son, our thinker, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, was born in about 4 B.C. His aunt or someone took the young boy to be educated in Rome where he studied a philosophy that blended Stoicism with neo-Pythagoreanism.

Seneca began his career in law and politics in about A.D. 31, serving as consul in 57. He fell afoul of the first of 3 emperors, Caligula. Caligula's sister suffered exile under Claudius on a charge of adultery with Seneca who was sent to Corsica for his punishment. Helped by Claudius' last wife Agrippina the Younger, he overcame Corsican exile to serve as advisor of the last of the Julio-Claudians, from 54-62 A.D. whom he had earlier served as tutor.

  • Seneca and the Julio-Claudian Emperors: The Suicide of Seneca

Seneca wrote tragedies that have raised the question of whether they were intended for performance; they may have been meant strictly for recitation. They are not on original topics, but treat familiar themes, often with gruesome detail.

Works of Seneca

Works by Seneca Available at the Latin Library:
Epistulae morales ad Lucilium
Quaestiones naturales
de Consolatione ad Polybium, ad Marciam,
and ad Helviam
de Ira
Dialogi: de Providentia, de Constantia, de Otio, de Brevitate Vitae, de Tranquillitate Animi, de Vita Beata,
and de Clementia
Fabulae: Medea, Phaedra, Hercules [Oetaeus], Agamemnon, Oedipus, Thyestes,
and Octavia?
and Proverbs.

Practical Philosophy

Virtue, Reason, the Good Life

Seneca's philosophy is best known from his letters to Lucilius and his dialogues.

In accordance with the philosophy of the Stoics, Virtue (virtus) and Reason are the basis of a good life, and a good life should be lived simply and in accordance with Nature, which, incidentally, didn't mean you should eschew wealth. But whereas the philosophical treatises of an Epictetus might inspire you to lofty goals you know you'll never meet, Seneca's philosophy is more practical. [See Stoic-Based resolutions.] Seneca's philosophy is not strictly Stoic, but contains ideas thrown in from other philosophies. He even coaxes and cajoles, as in the case of his advice to his mother to cease her grieving. "You are beautiful," he says (paraphrased) "with an age-defying appeal that needs no make-up, so stop acting like the worst kind of vain woman."

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.
( 261. Seneca to his mother. Corsica, A.D. 41/9.

Another famous example of his pragmatic philosophy comes from a line in Hercules Furens: "Successful and fortunate crime is called virtue."

He did receive criticism. He suffered exile for a supposed liaison with Livilla, mockery for his pursuit of wealth, and the scorn heaped on hypocrites for condemning tyranny, yet being a tyrannodidaskalos - tyrant teacher, according to Romm.

Parody and Burlesque in the Writing of SenecaMenippean Satire

The Apocolocyntosis (The Pumpkinification of Claudius), a Menippean Satire, is a parody of the fashion of deifying emperors and a burlesque of the buffoonish emperor Claudius. Classical scholar Michael Coffey says the term "apocolocyntosis" is meant to suggest the conventional term "apotheosis" whereby a man, usually someone at the head of government, like a Roman emperor, was turned into a god (by order of the Roman Senate). Apocolocyntosis contains a word for some type of gourd -- probably not a pumpkin, but "Pumpkinification" caught on. The much ridiculed Emperor Claudius was not going to be made into a normal god, who would be expected to be better and brighter than mere mortals.

Seneca's Social Consciousness

On the serious side, because Seneca compared man's being enslaved by emotions and vices with physical enslavement, many have thought he held a forward-looking view on the oppressive institution of enslavement, even though his attitude toward women (see quotation above) was less enlightened.

Legacy of Seneca and the Christian Church

Seneca and the Christian Church

Although currently doubted, it was thought that Seneca was in correspondence with St. Paul. Because of this correspondence, Seneca was acceptable to the leaders of the Christian Church. Dante placed him in Limbo in his Divine Comedy.

During the Middle Ages much of the writing of Classical Antiquity was lost, but because of the correspondence with St. Paul, Seneca was considered important enough that monks preserved and copied his material.

Seneca and the Renaissance

Having survived the Middle Ages, a period that saw the loss of many classical writings, Seneca continued to fare well in the Renaissance. As Brian Arkins writes, in the article mentioned at the beginning of this article, on p.1:

"For the dramatists of the Renaissance in France, in Italy, and in England, Classical tragedy means the ten Latin plays of Seneca, not Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides...."

Not only was Seneca suited to Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers, but what we know of him he fits our mindset today. Arkins' article predates 9/11, but that only means another incident can be added to the list of horrors:

"[T]he appeal of Seneca's plays for the Elizabethan age and for the modern age is not far to seek: Seneca studies evil with great diligence and, in particular, evil in the prince, and both those ages are very well versed in evil.... In Seneca and in Shakespeare, we encounter first a Cloud of Evil, then the defeat of Reason by Evil, and, finally, the triumph of Evil.
All this is caviar to the age of Dachau and Auschwitz, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of Kampuchea, Northern Ireland, Bosnia. Horror does not turn us off, as it turned off the Victorians, who could not handle Seneca. Nor did horror turn off the Elizabethans...."

Main Ancient Sources on Seneca

Dio Cassius
Octavia, a play sometimes attributed to Seneca

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Gill, N.S. "Seneca." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Seneca. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Seneca." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).