Thursday, November 16, 2017

Reading classics of Antiquity X: Seneca

Estatua de Séneca en Córdoba, su lugar de nacimiento. Bronce de Amadeo Ruiz Olmos, 1965. Bronze de Amadeo Ruiz Olmos (1913-1993) : statue inaugurée en 1965 de Sénèque (philosophe de l'école stoïcienne, dramaturge et homme d'État romain du Ier siècle de l'ère chrétienne) dans sa ville natale, l'actuelle Cordoue en Andalousie. Wikipedia. La enciclopedia libre.

Seneca the Younger:
2. De constantia sapientis / On the Firmness of the Wise Person, 55 AD, dialogue addressed to Serenus.
De clementia / On Clemency, 56 AD, essay written to Nero on the virtue of the emperor.
7. De vita beata / On the Happy Life, 58 AD, dialogue addressed to his older brother Gallio.
9. De tranquillitate animi / On Tranquillity of Mind, 63 AD, dialogue addressed to Serenus.
12. Ad Helviam matrem, de consolatione / To Mother Helvia, On Consolation, 42 AD, letter to mother on Seneca's absence during exile.
Epistolae morales ad Lucilium / Moral Letters to Lucilius / Moral Epistles. 65 AD, 124 letters addressed to Lucilius Junior.
    Written in Rome (except Ad Helviam in exile in Corsica), the Roman Empire, in Latin. Originally published on papyrus in the scroll format (in tomes / volumines).

    Read in Finnish:
Seneca: Tutkielmia ja kirjeitä.
Five essays (Viisaan ihmisen mielenlujuudesta. Lempeydestä. Onnellisesta elämästä. Mielentyyneydestä. Lohduttautumisesta) and 32 letters (a selection from the 124 letters to Lucilius Junior). Translated into Finnish from Latin by J. A. Hollo. Introduction by Jussi Tenkku. Series: Antiikin klassikot. 341 p. Porvoo / Helsinki. WSOY, 1964.

The great Cordovan Stoic philosopher and "humanist saint" Seneca (4 BC–65 AD) lived during the reign of the first five emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.

When Domitius (the later emperor Nero) was 12 years old, Seneca became his teacher and advisor, and Seneca taught him principles of good governance. According to Trajan the first five years of Nero's reign were the happiest in the history of Rome. After Burrus, Nero's other advisor, died, Nero started to receive other kinds of counsel from Tigellius, Poppea Sabina, and Agrippina, and turned into a monster. Those other advisors could not stand Stoics. When a conspiracy against Nero was exposed, Poppea and Tigellius framed Seneca. Nero, who had respected his teacher so far, condemned Seneca to death, but Seneca was allowed to select his own way of death as a special clemency.

Epicureanism and Stoicism were the reigning philosophical schools in imperial Rome. Epicureanism degraded into shallow hedonism, Stoicism became the philosophy of the most influential men, and Seneca was the first prominent representative of Roman Stoicism. The goal was ataraxia: the peace of mind, equaniminity (a term also used by Epicurus). The proper attitude to matters which are beyond our influence is indifference (adiaphora). The wise man is God-like, with the exception of immortality, and he aims at self-sufficiency (autarkeia). Human happiness needs to be dignified. Virtue (arete) is the only real human good (agathos). Happiness is the possession of goodness. The supreme and only true goal is virtuous action. A virtuous person is likely to receive more dignified pleasure in life without pursuing it than the Epicurean who pursues it as the supreme good.

Epicurus advised to withdraw from the bustle of life. Stoics aimed at an active life. The events in life are guided by an omnipresent divinity, providence. Reality with all its events is fundamentally good.

Seneca was a representative of Silver Latin. He started to use a language which could appeal to the general public.

Seneca believed in equality, insisted on lenient treatment of slaves, opposed gladiator shows, defended women's rights and preferred duty to self-indulgence.

Seneca was not a profound thinker in philosophical theory but he was a great philosopher of ethics, of the good life, and his writings are based on experience gained during the first five emperors of Rome. His teachings are so close to Christianity that there has been a tradition that he was in correspondence with St. Paul. This tradition is spurious but Seneca does, indeed, adhere to the Golden Rule (see the Letter to Lucilius on Philosophy and Friendship, p. 197 in this volume). However, this teaching is not theological, and Seneca was also admired by the Enlightenment philosophers Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau.

This volume could be perfect bedtime reading: the letters are usually only two pages long. Each letter could be a model for today's column writers or bloggers. The letters are addressed to Lucilius but perhaps were never sent; the mere idea of correspondence can give shape to thought.

Regarding the presumed antagonism between Stoicism and Epicureanism it is interesting to observe that Seneca has only good things to say about Epicurus (p. 23–24, 87 in this volume) and Lucretius (p. 118, 313 in this volume). The antagonism was obviously between Stoicism and a degraded form of "Epicureanism".

Words of wisdom abound. De tranquillitate animi seems especially topical today. Seneca discusses the zeal of travelling (p. 117–118 in this volume).

"Aliud ex alio iter suscipitur et spectacula spectaculis mutantur. Ut ait Lucretius:

    Hoc se quisque modo semper fugit.

Sed quid prodest, si non effugit ? Sequitur se ipse et urget gravissimus comes."

Travel, but you cannot escape yourself. You will remain your own heaviest yoke.

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