Seneca: Dialogues and Essays

January 31, 2021

Dialogues and Essays
Seneca
(Oxford World’s Classics, 2007) [c.60]
xxxiv + 263 p.

In a previous episode we looked at Seneca’s tragedies for the stage, in which the Stoic philosophy is presented, as it were, in the negative – this is how the world looks if the wisdom of Stoicism is unheeded – but in this collection we get the positive case, as Seneca draws on his Stoic principles to give counsel to those standing in need of it.

There is a nice variety of texts. There are two “consolations”, one written to a grieving mother whose son has died, and another to his own mother on the occasion of his exile to Corsica. There are several moral reflections, on anger, on peace of mind, and on mercy. And there are several essays of a more philosophical slant in which Seneca reflects on providence, on the causes of human happiness, and on the shortness of life. The final selection, drawn from a scientific work on earthquakes, finds Seneca ruminating on the fear of death.

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The closest point of intersection with the tragedies comes in the essay On Anger, in which he warns against the perils of giving rein to fury:

There is not a single useful quality to be found in this monstrous and dangerous passion, but on the contrary every sort of evil, fire and sword. Trampling shame underfoot, it defiles men’s hands with murder, casts wide the limbs of children, and leaves no place free from crime, disregarding fame and unafraid of disgrace, beyond remedy once it has hardened from anger to hate.

He advises the reader to avoid becoming angry – by keeping in mind the many faults of those who act from anger, by avoiding curiosity about what others think of you – and provides guidance on how to calm anger in yourself and in others. A keen moral insight is that we can be tempted to persist in anger precisely because we recognize how unreasonable it is:

We persist in our anger, so we may not give the impression of having had no reason for our initial loss of temper, and, most unjustly of all, the injustice of our anger makes us stubborn; for we hold on to it and foster it, as if the intensity of our anger were proof of its justice.

*

The basic shape of Stoicism is on good display in the first essay, On Providence. Stoics believed that we live under the dominion of fate, and that all one can profitably do in the face of adversity is to master one’s response to it:

Whatever happens, good men should take it in good part, and turn it to a good end; it is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it.

In a kind of echo of Socrates, he argues that external circumstances, however dire, cannot harm a good man, for the soul is sustained by virtue: “Nothing bad can happen to a good man”. In fact, he argues, providence sends particular adversities to good men in order to strengthen them in virtue, likening fate to a conscientious father training his son to succeed in the world. “A man needs to be put to the test if he is to gain self-knowledge; only by trying does he learn what his capacities are.” Or, again, “Never is the proof of virtue mild.” By sending rain on the just and the unjust, God is also teaching us what is truly valuable and important, for when he ensures that wealth and honour are not granted mainly to the virtuous, God casts doubt on the value of those false gods:

In no way can God better cast doubt on what we desire than by awarding those things to the most disreputable men and denying them to the best.

*

This vein of moral counsel sounds better, I think, when directed at oneself than when given to others. Maybe the “stiff upper lip” attitude really is the best, but when offered to one in mourning or serious affliction, it can sound simply unfeeling, or obtuse. This is easy to parody, but there are times when Seneca himself edges up to justifying the joke:

What greater folly is there than fearing the swaying of the earth or the sudden collapse of mountains or the incursions of the sea as it is cast beyond the shore, when death is present on all sides and rushes upon us from every quarter, and nothing is too insignificant in size to have enough strength to bring destruction on the human race?  (On Earthquakes)

At other times, though, the manly poise of Stoicism is attractive. A counsel that recurs through these essays is that we ought to anticipate what evils might befall us, for by anticipation we reduce their power to harm us: “The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.” (Consolation to Marcia, 9) “Takes away” is too strong, but cultivating a lively sense of the perils that might befall us is, I think, a means by which we can prepare ourselves to suffer them. Even more valuable is the counsel to pursue true happiness by cultivating personal virtue; it is the health of our soul that is of ultimate value. Of the attractions of pleasure, he warns that pursuit of pleasure will lead to the loss of both virtue and pleasure, whereas pursuit of virtue first will yield both virtue and, in a more cultivated sense, pleasure.

Seneca also frequently avers to the importance of making Nature the standard of one’s conduct. “Two most beautiful things will follow us wherever we go, universal Nature and our own virtue.” (Consolation to Helvia, 8) “Nature is the guide I choose; wisdom lies in not wandering from her path and in moulding oneself in accordance with her law and example. (On the Happy Life, 3). However, it is not clear to me from these essays just what is meant. It might be that we have here, in nascent form, the natural law tradition, in which “nature” – that is, the kind of creature that we are – teaches us what we need to truly flourish. But Seneca does not expound.

If we should pursue virtue first, then by implication we should not pursue wealth, or power, or fame first. Seneca has often been accused of hypocrisy on this account, for he, advisor to emperors, was wealthy, powerful, and famous. I recently came across amusing evidence of this bad reputation when I was reading John Marston’s seventeeth-century play The Malcontent, in which one of the characters actually talks about Seneca, saying:

Out upon him! he writ of temperance and fortitude, yet lived like a voluptuous epicure, and died like an effeminate coward. (III.1)

The same or similar charges were laid at his feet in his own lifetime, and in his essay On the Happy Life he offers a defence. First, to a truly virtuous man these advantages are matters of indifference, so that they can be surrendered, or retained, without any fault. But, more than that, he acknowledges that his moral advice is not to be confused with his own habitual way of life:

I speak of virtue, not of myself, and my abuse is directed at vices, especially at my own. (18)

Essentially, he admits the justice of the critique, but without yielding his commitment to pursue virtue as best he can. I, for one, am satisfied.

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The finest of these essays, in my judgment, is On the Shortness of Human Life, a thoughtful reflection on the transience of our affairs that will, I predict, bear re-reading. We believe that life is too short, he argues, because we forget that we are mortal: “You live as though you were going to live forever.” But we will not, and as we busy ourselves with this and that, our life is silently passing away:

No one will restore your years, no one will restore you once more to yourself. Your life will pursue the path it started on, and will no more check than reverse its course; it will create no uproar, give no warning of its speed: silently it will glide on its way. No further will it extend its course at the command of a king, or because of the people’s approval; just as its path was set from your first day, so will it run, nowhere deviating, nowhere delaying. What will the outcome be? You have busied yourself, life hurries on: death meanwhile will arrive, and for it you must find time, whether you wish it or not. (8)

If we cultivate awareness of the brevity of life, we will be motivated to spend our time wisely: “Life is sufficiently long, and has been granted with enough generosity for us to accomplish the greatest things, provided that in its entirety it is well invested.” Of greatest importance is that we not attempt too much, avoid merely being busy, and clear away time for interior recollection:

It is generally agreed that no activity can be properly undertaken by a man who is busy with many things — not eloquence, and not the liberal arts… An untroubled and calm mind can visit all parts of its life: the minds of those who are busy with other things, as if they are under the yoke, cannot turn around, bend, and look back. Therefore their life disappears into an abyss, and as there is no benefit in pouring in any amount of water, if a vessel has no bottom to contain it, so it makes no difference how much time is given, if there is no place for it to lodge, it passes out through the cracks and chinks of the mind. (7, 10)

I have always known this to be true in my own life – that being too busy spells the death-knell for spiritual and intellectual life – and finding it echoed here in Seneca is sobering, considering how just obligations in my life certainly do keep me appallingly busy. But perhaps we are running up, here, against the limitations of Stoicism. Christianity teaches that I find my life not by withdrawal from the press and burly of events, but by pouring myself out in love for those around me. This, I am hoping, is true, as one who is carried forward by a swift current hopes that it goes somewhere good. But, then again, even Jesus withdrew to a quiet place to pray…

*

I’m happy to have read these essays. Seneca must have been a remarkable man. I find much to admire in him: moral seriousness, high achievement, literary range. It is sad to think that, in the end, he committed suicide. (By the way, there is a good deal of hearty exhortation in these essays on the nobility of killing oneself. Another limitation of Stoicism.) But, somewhat to my surprise, I find that, having read this volume, my plans to follow it up by reading a selection of Seneca’s letters is not alluring. I think that I’ll take my leave of Seneca for now, and pick up instead this hefty volume marked ‘Tacitus’.

***

[Know your limits]
Whenever you attempt something, measure yourself  and at the same time what you are attempting, both the thing you intend and that for which you are intended; for if you fail in the task, the regret this causes will make you bitter. It makes a difference whether a man is of a fiery nature or a cold and docile one: defeat will drive a man of spirit to anger, but induce sadness in one whose nature is sluggish and passive. Accordingly let our activities be neither trivial nor bold and overambitious, let us keep our hopes within sensible bounds, and let us attempt nothing to make us wonder later at our success, even should we succeed. (On Anger, 7)

[Examen]
When the lamp has been removed from my sight, and my wife, no stranger now to my habit, has fallen silent, I examine the whole of my day and retrace my actions and words; I hide nothing from myself, pass over nothing. For why should I be afraid of any of my mistakes, when I can say: ‘Beware of doing that again, and this time I pardon you.’ (On Anger, 36)

[Exhortation]
If you are a man, look up with admiration at those who attempt great things, even if they fall. This is the sign of a noble heart — to aim at high things.” (On the Happy Life, 20)

[Being prepared for death]
We occupy a stage decorated with various properties that are on loan and must be restored to their owners; some of these will remain until the final curtain. And so we have no grounds for self-admiration, as though we were surrounded by our own possessions; they have been loaned to us. We may use and enjoy them, but the one who allotted his gift decides how long we are to be tenants; our duty is to keep ready the gifts we have been given for an indefinite time and to return them when called upon, making no complaint: it is a sorry debtor who abuses his creditor. (Consolation to Marcia, 10)

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