Seneca Was a Man, Not a Sage

Should we trust Seneca as a serious source for Stoic insight and inspiration, despite his questionable reputation?

The following is a guest post by our friend and advisor Massimo Pigliucci. Massimo is Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College, and author of the upcoming book How to Be Stoic. He also operates a popular blog under the same name.

For centuries, the Stoic philosopher Seneca was portrayed as the emaciated statue at the National Roman Museum in Rome. But in fact, we now know that he looked more like the plump personage preserved at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The version known as Pseudo-Seneca, now suspected to actually represent either the playwright Aristophanes or the poet Hesiod, was more appealing because it simply fit much better with the idea of the philosopher-sage lost in thought and unconcerned with worldly goods. Meanwhile, the Pergamon version smacks of a well-fed patrician who may have been talking the talk but not walking the walk.

For centuries, the Stoic philosopher Seneca was portrayed as the emaciated man you see in the right image. But in fact, we now know that he looked more like the plump personage on the left. Photos by Massimo Pigliucci

The question here is — should we consider Seneca as a source for insight and inspiration, as we do with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius? Or should he be expelled from the canon on account of the alleged massive inconsistency between his principles and the way he lived his life?

Epictetus himself, after all, reminds us that Stoicism is about practice, not just theory:

If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35).

So let us focus with that subset of the bare facts that is of direct relevance to our project.

He was one of the most wealthy and powerful men in Rome

It is true that Seneca was very wealthy, indeed one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Rome. That in and of itself, however, does not constitute a contradiction with Stoic philosophy. It is true that Epictetus’ version of Stoicism leaned toward the rather minimalist and anti-materialist approach of the Cynics, but wealth does fall squarely under the “preferred indifferents,” i.e., the sort of externals that it is okay to pursue so long as they don’t get in the way of the only thing that truly matters for a Stoic, the practice of virtue.

Then again, Seneca repeatedly warns about the many temptations induced by wealth, almost as a reminder to himself:

“He who craves riches feels fear on their account. No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. He collects his accounts, he wears out the pavement in the forum, he turns over his ledger — in short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward.” (Letter XIII, On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World, 17)

Let us not forget, of course, that Seneca had lost a great deal when he was exiled in 41 CE by the Senate, on likely trumped up charges of committing adultery with Julia Livilla, the sister of former emperor Calligula. The new emperor, Claudius (whose own record his rather mixed), commuted the original death penalty into exile, and the historian Cassius Dio suggests that Seneca was a victim of an attempt by Messalina, Claudius’ wife, to get rid of Julia. Seneca remained in exile on the island of Corsica (at the time not at all the resort destination that it is today) for eight years.

He was less progressive on gender equality than fellow Stoics

What about Seneca’s sexism? There is no question at all that the charge clearly sticks. This modern reader cringes every time that Seneca refers to an unbecoming or unvirtuous behavior as “womanly,” for instance when he writes:

“Anger, therefore, is a vice which for the most part affects women and children. ‘Yet it affects men also.’ Because many men, too, have womanish or childish intellects.” (On Anger, I.20)

Aarrghh!

Then again, sometimes he did rise above such talk, sounding surprisingly modern:

“I know what you will say, ‘You quote men as examples: you forget that it is a woman that you are trying to console.’ Yet who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honourable and generous action.” (To Marcia on Consolation, XV)

Zeno, in his Republic, wrote that men and women should live as equal in the ideal Stoic city; and Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, wrote that

“Women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men … a desire for virtue and an affinity for it belong by nature not only to men but also to women: no less than men are they disposed by nature to be pleased by noble and just deeds and to censure things opposite these … why would it be appropriate for men but not women to seek to live honorably and consider how to do so, which is what studying philosophy is?” (Lectures, III.1)

So sexism is definitely an area where Seneca mostly behaved as a regular Roman of the I century, failing to raise above the herd, as he should have. Again, though, to insist too much on this point is to engage in presentism, the attitude of uncompromisingly projecting our own values on different times (and cultures). We are allowed to do that, but be careful what you wish for, someone may do the same to us a couple of millennia down the road…

He played the Roman establishment for personal and political gain

After Claudius’ death Seneca penned the shameful essay known as On the Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius, where he mocks an emperor that, after all, spared his life (and whom he had flattered in order to obtain pardon), all the while attempting to ingratiate the new kid on the block, Nero, whose mother, Agrippina, had managed to recall Seneca from exile. Definitely not the behavior of a good Stoic. Then again, even on this episode, there is a variety of opinions. Here, for instance, is Allan Presley Ball, who translated the Pumpkinification essay:

“Seneca appears also to have been concerned with what he saw as an overuse of apotheosis writing as a political tool. [Apotheosis was the process by which dead Roman emperors were recognized as gods.] If an Emperor as flawed as Claudius could receive such treatment, he argued elsewhere, then people would cease to believe in the gods at all.”

Concerning the above mentioned calling in of loans that allegedly caused the rebellion in the British provinces, it is actually far from clear whether Seneca’s actions were a contributing factor at all, and even more doubtful that he was aware of the risk when he made the decision on financial grounds.

Also, in terms of his wealth, Seneca did try to use it as a way to buy himself retirement (and dedicate his time to philosophy) once things began to go south with Nero, an attempt that succeeded only partially (he got to spend more time in one of his country estates), and only temporarily, since Nero eventually ordered Seneca’s suicide because of the latter (again, alleged) involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy.

Whatever his political mistakes, he paid for them with his life.

Seneca’s use of wealth, however, may have been most important — and also most difficult to disentangle from his political intentions and actions — during the first five years of Nero’s reign. In that period the philosopher advised the young emperor in cooperation with the Praetorian Prefect, Sextus Afrianus Burrus. Those years, according to most historians, were actually prosperous for Rome, so it is legitimate to infer that Seneca and Burrus did a good job under very precarious and difficult circumstances.

Nero (left) became more and more paranoid (or not: there actually were plots against his life), and eventually murdered his own mother, Agrippina in 59 CE. It is doubtful that either Seneca or Burrus had anything to do with it.

Nero, however, became more and more paranoid (or not: there actually were plots against his life), and eventually murdered his own mother, Agrippina in 59 CE. It is doubtful that either Seneca or Burrus had anything to do with it, since their influence on Nero was by then on the wane. It is, however, definitely the case that Seneca wrote a speech for the Senate essentially excusing the murder. While this is obviously not in line with Stoic principles, and in fact simply highly objectionable on general moral grounds, it is hard to know exactly what was going on in Seneca’s mind. He may, for instance, have calculated that by way of this move he was going to be able to rein in Nero some more, thus saving Rome from another bloody civil war. If that was his plan, it failed miserably. Three years later Burrus died, which further escalated the situation, leading to the Pisonian conspiracy in 65 CE and consequently to Seneca’s own commanded suicide. Whatever his political mistakes, he paid for them with his life.

He may have tried to stage his death to appear as a Roman Socrates

Regarding his death, people sometimes comment that he staged things in order to appear as a Roman Socrates, though things didn’t go smoothly and it took several attempts to finally achieve the objective. Such accusation seems more than a bit uncharitable: surely Seneca did have Socrates, a role model for Stoics, in mind; and, likely, he was trying to do the best while performing the last act of his life. But he was going to die unjustly nonetheless, so cut the guy some slack.

When considering Seneca’s political influence and his behavior with Nero, we need to remember a few things. First, that we only have a few accounts of what happened, mostly from people who clearly and openly disliked Seneca. Second, that to control a sociopathic tyrant is a task not many would even attempt, let alone succeed at. And lastly, consider Thomas Nagel’s concept of “moral luck“: if we feel so smugly superior to Seneca (or anyone else who acted badly under extreme circumstances), that’s just because we got lucky enough not to be seriously morally tested ourselves.

So how should we regard Seneca today?

Seneca’s reputation has always experienced rather dramatic ups and downs, from his own time until now. The Roman historian Tacitus claims in The Annals that accusations against Seneca did not hold up to scrutiny and were likely the result of envy or political antagonism. The early Christian Fathers thought highly of Seneca, with Tertullian referring to him as “our Seneca.” Dante, in the Divine Comedy, puts him in Limbo, that is not quite into the depths of Hell, a high honor for a pagan. (Though the Italian poet gives a higher honor to another Stoic, Cato the Younger, whom he places at the entrance of Purgatory: “What man on earth was more worthy to signify God than Cato? Surely none.”) Several Renaissance authors celebrated Seneca the writer and philosopher, including Chaucer, Petrarch, Erasmus, John of Salisbury, and Montaigne.

In modern times, Anna Lydia Motto challenged the common negative portrait of Seneca, which she points out is based almost entirely on the account of Publius Suillius Rufus, a senatorial lieutenant under Claudius:

“We are therefore left with no contemporary record of Seneca’s life, save for the desperate opinion of Publius Suillius. Think of the barren image we should have of Socrates, had the works of Plato and Xenophon not come down to us and were we wholly dependent upon Aristophanes’ description of this Athenian philosopher. To be sure, we should have a highly distorted, misconstrued view. Such is the view left to us of Seneca, if we were to rely upon Suillius alone” (Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic. The Classic Journal 61, 257, 1966).

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum maintains that Seneca’s intellectual contributions are significantly more original than previously thought, on topics ranging from the role played by emotions in our lives (The Therapy of Desire, Princeton University Press, 1996) to political philosophy, to his concept of cosmopolitanism (Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, Harvard University Press, 1999).

Another contemporary scholar, Robert Wagoner, wrote this about the complex question of the relationship between Seneca’s life and his philosophy:

“A number of views can be taken here. Perhaps Seneca simply fails to live the philosophical life he aspires to live. Perhaps his philosophical ambitions were really secondary to his political ambitions. While many scholars have noted the inconsistencies and many have rejected Seneca’s work on the grounds of hypocrisy, some scholars (notably Emily Wilson) have challenged this view. Wilson notes that, ‘The most interesting question is not why Seneca failed to practice what he preached, but why he preached what he did, so adamantly and so effectively, given the life he found himself leading.’”

Let me conclude by giving the last word to the man himself, who very clearly not only denied that he was wise, but also told his friend Lucilius that it was not a good idea to seek advice from him:

“What, then, am I myself doing with my leisure? I am trying to cure my own sores. If I were to show you a swollen foot, or an inflamed hand, or some shrivelled sinews in a withered leg, you would permit me to lie quiet in one place and to apply lotions to the diseased member. But my trouble is greater than any of these, and I cannot show it to you. The abscess, or ulcer, is deep within my breast. Pray, pray, do not commend me, do not say: ‘What a great man! He has learned to despise all things; condemning the madnesses of man’s life, he has made his escape!’ I have condemned nothing except myself. There is no reason why you should desire to come to me for the sake of making progress. You are mistaken if you think that you will get any assistance from this quarter; it is not a physician that dwells here, but a sick man. I would rather have you say, on leaving my presence: ‘I used to think him a happy man and a learned one, and I had pricked up my ears to hear him; but I have been defrauded. I have seen nothing, heard nothing which I craved and which I came back to hear.’ If you feel thus, and speak thus, some progress has been made. I prefer you to pardon rather than envy my retirement.” (Letters to Lucilius, CXVIII, 8–9)