Philosophical Treatises and Moral Reflections of Seneca Critical Essays

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca achieved distinction in three pursuits. He was a noted man of affairs, the adviser of emperors, and tutor of Nero. Although modeled on Greek prototypes, his ten tragedies and some verse make him an important literary figure. Lastly, he was a prime example of Roman Stoicism, well deserving of a place with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Seneca’s philosophical writings are of three sorts: (1) twelve long essays such as DE PROVIDENTIA (ON PROVIDENCE), DE IRA (ON ANGER) and CONSOLATIONS to Marcia, Polybius and Helvia; (2) 124 letters on moral topics, addressed to Lucilius; and (3) NATURALES QUAESTIONES (NATURAL QUESTIONS), a treatise on natural phenomena.

The three CONSOLATIONS, regarded by some as a distinct category of Seneca’s works, are a definite genre, the first Roman examples being by Cicero. DE CONSOLATIONE AD MARCIAM (CONSOLATION ADDRESSED TO MARCIA) was written between A.D. 37 and 41, while DE CONSOLATIONE AD POLYBIUM (CONSOLATION ADDRESSED TO POLYBIUS) and DE CONSOLATIONE AD HELVIAM (CONSOLATION ADDRESSED TO HELVIA) were written while Seneca was in exile between 41 and 49. Marcia was a Roman lady who grieved greatly for three years over the death of her son. For her Seneca invokes a classic Stoic theme, that the best life is in harmony with nature. It is futile and not nature’s way to grieve endlessly, but only in moderation. Seneca gives many examples of famous men and women who lost children and grieved but continued a normal life. Death is portrayed as an end to mortal suffering and as possibly a blessing. One cannot suffer the misfortunes the future may bring if one is dead. Marcia is told that she had her son for a few years and should be thankful. She should not wish for more time, for even the longest life is insignificantly short compared to nature. Lastly, Seneca presents a picture of the blissful existence of the dead. They are with the great men of the past and have all the knowledge they wish. The terrors of Hades are dismissed as poetical fancies.

A brother’s death was the occasion of the grief of Polybius, a freedman who had risen to wealth and importance. Seneca says little to Polybius beyond that said to Marcia, with a few exceptions. Polybius is reminded that he is a public figure in whom immoderate grief is unseemly and that he owes his energies to Caesar. Seneca argues that grief on Polybius’ own account can quickly become selfish and that grief on his brother’s account is futile. It is futile if his brother can now feel nothing and inappropriate if he can, for then he is in a blessed state.

It was the grief of his mother, Helvia, over his own exile in Corsica which prompted Seneca’s third CONSOLATION. It thus differs from the other two in not being concerned with death, but is much like them in content. Seneca assures his mother that he is happy and has all a man needs. He emphasizes two Stoic doctrines, harmony with nature and cosmopolitanism. It is natural for men to leave the place of their birth; the man who is at home in the world needs few possessions to be happy and he is equally at home in all places. Seneca closes on another typical theme: to alleviate grief, study philosophy and rejoice in what you have.

Of the remaining nine essays, five deserve particular mention as of philosophic interest. DE PROVIDENTIA (ON PROVIDENCE) deals with one of the major questions of the ages—that of why providence permits evil to befall good men. His answer is that adversity is a boon, a chance to test one’s virtue. Only the best men are selected for such testing. DE CONSTANTIA (ON FIRMNESS) continues much the same line in a discussion of the paradox that the wise man can receive neither injury nor insult. Since injury is damaging to its object, no wise man can be injured, for his possessions are inward and...

(The entire section is 1595 words.)