Philosophical Treatises and Moral Reflections of Seneca

by Lucius Annaeus Seneca
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1595

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...

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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 cannot be damaged. He also cannot be injured because righteousness is stronger than wickedness and the weaker cannot injure the stronger. Seneca offers several similar arguments. The wise man cannot be insulted because he does not care what fools say.

DE VITA BEATA (ON THE HAPPY LIFE) is Seneca’s defense of his own life, at least in part. The way to be happy is to live according to nature. To do this one studies philosophy. Riches are no impediment to this and having them is better than not. In DE BREVITATE VITAE (ON THE BRIEFNESS OF LIFE) he again insists that true living is the study of philosophy. Thus we have access to the wisdom of all ages and transcend temporal limits. In Chapter 13, Seneca makes it plain that he refers to true philosophy rather than scholarly minutiae at which he scoffs. In DE TRANQUILLITATE ANIMI (ON TRANQUILLITY OF MIND) Seneca gives practical rules for avoiding restlessness and boredom and for achieving inner peace. He says that we must judge ourselves and our undertakings truly, that we must measure things by their usefulness, etc. For various reasons, ON ANGER, DE CLEMENTIA (ON CLEMENCY), DE OTIO (ON LEISURE), and DE BENEFICILIS (ON BENEFITS) are of less interest.

Lucilius was a Roman knight, not by birth but industry, and was procurator in Sicily when Seneca wrote the EPISTULAE MORALES. Lucilius seems to have been an Epicurean and Seneca makes gentle efforts to win him to Stoicism. Numbering 124, the epistles are not literally letters but more a series of essays than communications between friends. However, Seneca tries to keep up the fiction that they are part of a lengthy correspondence by mentioning answers to them. They cover an enormous range of topics, but they are always directed toward explaining Stoic virtue and advocating its adoption. Letter 75, “On the Diseases of the Soul,” is a good example. Here Seneca distinguishes three levels of attainment to virtue: (1) those who are beyond some, but not all, vices and passions; (2) those who still feel objectionable impulses but have no diseases of the soul, i.e., vices; and (3) those who are rid of all passion and vice and have wisdom but are not yet sure of it. This work is surely designed to get people to act virtuously rather than to present an analysis of the nature of virtue.

Others of the letters are filled with advice on how to advance through the three steps. One of the more famous is 88, “On Liberal and Vocational Studies.” All studies which lead to money-making are scorned as are those which provide only facts and do not deal with virtue. The man who wishes to be good will not study the liberal arts to be so, but only philosophy. Fifty-seven, “On the Trials of Travel,” is an admirable example of both the form and function of the letters. Seneca starts by describing an inconvenience encountered in traveling to Naples and uses it to point a moral of what is to be feared and why. An event taken as the occasion for practical moral advice is typical of most of the letters. Despite theoretical adherence to Stoic principles, which are deterministic, Seneca insists, in 116, “On Self-Control,” and elsewhere, that lack of virtue stems from unwillingness not inability. This makes it possible to act on advice. In 94, “On the Value of Advice,” Seneca says it has great value. Men need precepts and a preceptor to help them pursue virtue and to remind them of their duty. Clearly this is his justification for the letters as a body. Throughout the letters there are references to traditional Stoic doctrines, e.g., the equality of all men in 47, 70 and 94, and materialism in 57, 66 and 117.

In letter 79, “On the Rewards of Scientific Discovery,” Seneca asks Lucilius to send him the facts about Charybdis. Whether or not he drew upon information thus obtained, NATURAL QUESTIONS, written in epistolary form and dedicated to Lucilius, deals with many natural phenomena, primarily those of astronomy and meteorology. It was put in its final form in A.D. 63 or 64 although parts may have been written earlier. Insofar as all knowledge was one in the time of Seneca, this is as much a part of his philosophy as are his other prose works. To the modern reader, this unity is strikingly presented by his using natural phenomena as matter for moral discourse. In Section 32 of Book 6 he uses a description of earthquakes in Campania to lead into a question of why we ought not to fear death or adversity. At one point, Section 59 of Book 2, he specifically states that every study must have a moral attached. Philosophically, Seneca is always a moralist.

Scientifically, NATURAL QUESTIONS is descriptive rather than theoretical, although Seneca always asks after the cause of things. It is presented piecemeal and might well not yield a consistent overall system. It combines odd facts—lightning will melt the sword but not the sheath (Sec. 31, Bk. 2); bizarre theories—thunder is caused by the breaking up of clouds (Sec. 28, Bk. 2), and ancient errors—the world is composed of earth, air, fire and water (Sec. 10, Bk. 3) and the heavens revolve about the earth. A great respect for observation is displayed throughout as is an awareness of how much more future ages will know (Sec. 25, Bk. 7).

Throughout his work Seneca remains a Roman with all the practical consciousness and insight for which Romans were noted. Yet he is a Stoic and the theoretical views of that very sophisticated position constantly elevate his practical concerns while themselves providing material for the rules by which a man should lead his life.

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