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Seneca and the Good Life

Tuesday, 9 April 2013  | Rex Dale

What is the good life? The question has come up regularly in the debate on atheism – “Can we be good without God?”  “Can we be ‘nice’ people without the incentives and consolations of religious belief?”

The term “good life” is such an elastic one and is open to all sorts of interpretations. The concept of the good life is gently mocked in an old TV series that went by that name. One couple decided to escape the pressures of modern life and develop a garden that would make them self-sufficient. The couple next door did not take that road. He held on to his strenuous job in the city so that he and his wife could continue in the style to which they were accustomed. Both couples were childless and did not ever talk about having children. Both couples had their insecurities which played out in different ways. Neither couple had any brushes with the law. 

A definition of a good life is difficult but sometimes some sort of consensus can be arrived at. But there are problems. We take an optimistic view of own righteousness and are inclined to look down upon others. Righteousness can become self-righteousness. And it is often only with time –and reflection that we understand the evasions and subterfuges of our consciences. 

A good starting point in the consideration of the good life and whether or not it can be achieved without God would be to consider the life and philosophy of Seneca (the Younger) a person who pursued the idea of virtue or goodness with an unmatched zeal and whose contact with Christianity was minimal. 

Seneca (4-65 AD) was born in Spain. Seneca the elder was a Roman of the old school—a lover of the past—orderly austere and methodical. His mother was of a family who valued simplicity. Her influence was at least equal to the father’s. It was decided that the younger Seneca would be given a good education which in those days meant a thorough study of Rhetoric without which you could not get anywhere. He delved into Pythagorus who believed in the common nature and intercommunion of all things. Attending the lectures of Attilus was enormously stimulating. He taught Seneca to distinguish between reality and appearances, between the eloquence of truth and that of display. His Stoicism was of an extreme type and he would pour contempt on luxury and avarice. Pupils who attended his lectures just to pass the time and not renew their lives were chastised. 

Seneca began to develop his own style of rhetoric. Rhetoric had become detached from the real business of life . It was about public display and not about whether the hearers were becoming wiser or not. For those who were admirers of the past the new rhetoric was viewed with extreme distaste. But Seneca pressed on. He wanted to develop a philosophy and a style of writing that would help people find themselves. There was to be no abstract speculation or dialectic subtlety. So to those who love to lose themselves in a mystery Seneca had no appeal. Caligula took an extreme dislike to Seneca and gifted as he was with invective called Seneca’s philosophy as “sand without lime” that is there was nothing to give it cohesion. 

To understand Seneca we need to understand Stoicism. Not that all stoics believed exactly the same. And we must remember that vast numbers of Romans did not bother with it at all. Nevertheless it was one of the world’s most influential philosophical movements. It was the leading philosophical movement of the Ancient Greco-Roman world and shaped thought well into the Christian era. Stoics in the Hellenistic era held forth from a porch(Stoa) – hence the name. Like other schools of thought the teachers wanted people’s lives to flourish and be free from distressing thoughts and moral failure which seemed to be everywhere. Latin Stoicism developed along its own lines. It had a threefold system – Logic Physics and Ethics – in order to understand life and all its interconnections. Foundational was the belief in a rationally  ordered universe. From this belief it followed that everything that happened in it is for the best. Rejecting traditional religious beliefs, Stoics gave the name Zeus to the rational providential principal which animates the whole universe so that the most distressing events such as earthquakes were signs of the good order of everything. Stoics held two ideas in tension – the order of the universe was deterministic so that everything happens by necessity. They also believed in the rational capacity of each and every human being to make rational choices. This gave every human a boundless worth. Plato thought that people who did not have mathematical ability were lesser humans. But Stoics said every human is equal because of the precious capacity to rank some ends ahead of others and then to choose and direct their lives. ( Epictetus, a leading Stoic, was a former slave.) 

Stoics were famous for their doctrine of apatheia – literally “free from passions”, so that life was a constant therapy where by meditation the mind is released from unwise attachments. It is not that the Stoic is “against” emotion but that when emotion is in conflict with reason, ultimately reason must prevail. Seneca wrote letters of consolation to people who had lost loved ones but cautioned against all-consuming grief that never stopped. Gentle humanity and joyful tranquillity were Seneca’s goals according to one writer even while engaged in the affairs of this world. It has been debated whether “detachment” gave encouragement and comfort to bad politicians. 

Caligula’s anger towards Seneca increased. A charge was laid against him and the ultimate punishment was about to be delivered when one of the palace women intervened and told Caligula that Seneca was about to die. Seneca did indeed have serious health problems. He suffered badly from asthma and had what appeared to be tuberculosis. On top of that he could become suicidally depressed. So it was decided to exile Seneca to Corsica. He was to leave Rome – the city which offered the greatest prizes to both virtue and vice. With grim humour it was said to be a case of a severe illness prolonging a person’s life. But it was to barren and inhospitable Corsica he had to go. 

Seneca survived but it was for eight miserable years. The summers seemed too hot and the winters too cold. The voices of the few local people seemed strange to his ears. Depression was never far away. His writing continued. Using his mind seemed to quicken his body. He wrote letters to Polybius which were full of sycophancy – anything to get back to Rome. Unworthy though they are he never in later years sought to erase them. According to one writer  there is hardly a sentence worth reproducing. He writes to his mother urging her to return to philosophy so there would no room for grief or anxiety. At another time he writes “My brain is dulled and confused by the rust of long inactivity….how can a man overwhelmed by his own misfortunes give comfort to others?” Somehow Seneca held on. Was it some sense that he had a destiny? 

A palace revolution brought Seneca’s exile to an end. He was recalled to Rome and to be tutor to the 13-year-old Nero. The governance of Rome was in a poor state. He and a friend Burrus were soon managing civil and judicial matters with great success. He married a wealthy woman and gathered considerable wealth in the course of his work. As Nero got older he became more unmanageable and more assertive. Knowing Nero he took no comfort at all when Nero took aside his old tutor and said he had nothing to fear. When Burrus died, Seneca feeling he had already compromised himself in the court too much, decided to retire to one of his country villas. Nero became even more suspicious that Seneca should suddenly excuse himself and descended further into the evil for which he was renowned. Seneca resumed writing and had some of his most fruitful years until ordered by Nero to take his own life. 

So is there any value in me, a 21st century person, studying Seneca and what conclusions have Christians down through the centuries come to? Can I get anything for my rather ordinary life from a prominent politician who lived long ago, who sometimes compromised himself, and gain something that will impart wisdom, guidance and enhance my life? I believe we should at least take notice of Seneca though I admit to coming to him rather late in life. We have a pressing need for wisdom and we should seek for it where ever we can find it. Let us face it – life can be difficult and even sometimes baffling. In the recent film on Abraham Lincoln, the screenwriter puts the following words into Lincoln’s mouth – “…a compass…will point you true north from where you are standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you will encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles and achieve nothing more than to sink into a swamp, what is the use of traveling true north?” (Seneca would have approved of the use of metaphors which he felt clarified the truth and made it stick!) 

What a striking thing it is that a statesman will take it upon himself to address the subject of anger and revenge and to offer strategies to deal with them. We need to pause here. There are increasing levels of anger in our society. We have the recent phenomenon of  ‘road rage.’ People known to us are having their ‘day in court’ as an outlet for their rage, even at great personal and financial cost to themselves. During the preparation of this paper I had the extraordinary experience of an unknown person mistakenly sending me a text message expressing a huge amount of anger and not wanting to speak to me again! Can anyone think of any leader today who would address the subject of anger and its destructiveness and publish a book on it? Seneca recognized that in the end it is the the inner battle which counts. Whether this one is won or lost will to a large extent determine the course of our lives. “No one is good by accident; virtue is a difficult science and must be learnt.” Again he says –”We live in common. No one can live happily who looks to himself alone, who turns everything to his own profit; you must live for another if you would live for yourself”. Here are some lines from De Vita Beata“ …opinion shall never and conscience always, guide my actions…I will be pleasant to my friends, mild and placable to my enemies. I will forgive before forgiveness is asked, I will satisfy all honest petitions.” 

On and off down the centuries Christians have been drawn to Seneca though approval has never been complete. On the whole question of the place of Roman thinking in the life of the church, St Basil had this to say-” We should participate in the great works of Roman literature, but just as in plucking the blooms from the rose bed we avoid the thorns, so also in garnering from such writings whatever is useful, let us guard against what is harmful.” We must not forget the influence of Seneca’s writing style. This was huge. Montaigne was greatly  influenced and drew freely from him but was irritated by constant references to the shortness of life. Calvin followed his style of prose and his first book was on a piece of Seneca. 

Of course there are great gaps in Stoic thinking – at least to us. There is no Sermon on the Mount, no gospel invitation such as Matt11:28,29, no John 1 or Hebrews1or 1Cor13, and so we could go on. Montaigne drew the inference from Blaise Pascal that Stoicism was how to live without depending on God. There is much to appeal to the modern mind in Stoicism  and it is a wonder that Prof Dawkins has not drawn our attention to it. Stoicism has no miracles and no need for a saviour. As a substitute for religion Dawkins offers the cultivation of family and friends, looking at the wonders of leaves and of what can be seen through a telescope. He does not address the needs of our inner nature and probably denies we have one. 

Seneca and the Apostle Paul were in Rome at about the same time. The apostle had to appear before Seneca’s older brother. Someone put together what was said to be some correspondence between Seneca and the Apostle. I do not think anyone would suppose it to be genuine, but it would certainly make for interesting reading. 

Seneca is said to have had a huge influence on the Elizabethan playwrights. It is noted by commentators that in the plays by Seneca, for various reasons, Stoicism fails the characters. 

Does it add an extra dimension to the sage’s advice that he was acquainted with adversity? Some say that whether or not a person has experienced adversity has no bearing on the quality of his thinking or the ability to connect with his readers. (We remind ourselves that Seneca suffered from asthma, what appears to be tuberculosis, and depression.) There has long been a view that adversity  can give people a sharper view of reality. Byron put it this way- Sorrow is Knowledge: they who know the most / Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth. Again he says elsewhere – What is it but the telescope of truth? / Which strips the distances of its fantasies. 

Seneca kept up his friendships with those he disagreed with. He felt little but disdain for the logical and metaphysical puzzles which occupied so much time and thought in the earlier Greek philosophers. But he still kept up his friendship with his Epicurian friend Lucilius who was attracted to these debates. 

Recently a reporter for London’s Daily Telegraph wrote “…(of life) that is unhinged, unmoored, lonely, anxious and delusional. I am sure it was to such people that Seneca addressed his philosophy”.


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