184. The Dialogues and Letters of Seneca (40-64 AD)


A selection of essays on the various virtues from Seneca’s Stoic viewpoint.  My version is the Oxford World’s Classics edition translated by John Davie (ISBN 9780199552405) (Oddly featuring a painting entitled Archimedes on the cover, see above)

My thoughts :

Between writing tragedies and scientific papers, Seneca survived the madness and jealousy of the Emperor Caligula, and the exile imposed by Claudius, to return to Rome and become tutor, advisor and speechwriter to the young Nero.  Much later, Seneca was implicated (probably falsely) in a conspiracy against Nero, and ordered to kill himself, which he did by poison in imitation of Socrates.

The first letter On Providence, discusses why bad things happen to good people, a question that has been tackled by philosophers and students of religion for centuries. Seneca’s answer is that God/Providence loves good people and wants them to grow stronger and more virtuous by overcoming adversity – misfortunes are opportunities to strive and be recognised in greatness, and cannot lessen the soul, only our earthly belongings. Even suicide is honourable if is the only way to overcome great adversity and remain virtuous.

On Anger provides advice on dealing with anger, the universal vice, in oneself and others.

Firstly, avoid succumbing to anger yourself, and the resulting urge to seek revenge of some sort. “The man who has done {you} injury is either stronger than you or weaker; if he is weaker, spare him, if stronger, spare yourself.”  (Shades of the Desiderata!)

Secondly, surround yourself with those who are peaceful, “amenable, kind and charming”, adopting their habits through association. Avoid hard tasks which are likely to be beyond one’s ability, but “be given over to pleasurable arts … be calmed by reading poetry and charmed by the tales of history”,  and avoid hunger, thirst and exhaustion.

Recognise your own weakness, and what leads you as an individual to anger.

“What matters is not how an offence is delivered, but how it is endured.”  p.27

The Consolation of Marcia is written to encourage a mother to lay aside her excessive grief over the loss of her son three years earlier, and rejoice in his accomplishments, and the nearness of her grandchildren; all life is fleeting and we must take pleasure in our loved ones while we can. Seneca also writes a consolation to his own mother Helvia from his exile on Corsica.

On the Shortness of Life teaches us to treasure every moment and not give away our time to people or pursuits unworthy of this precious gift.

I quite like Seneca’s views on life. At times he sounds lofty, but shouldn’t we all be aiming for our very best? He himself admits he strives more than he succeeds.

“… will not discourage me from engaging with what is best … continuing to praise the life, not that I lead, but that I should lead, or from revering virtue and following her, though haltingly and at a great distance behind”    On the Happy Life, para. 18 (page 100)

Seneca also wrote a treatise directed to the emperor Nero on the quality of mercy, perhaps because he was instructed not to formally teach Nero philosophy as it was deemed “unsuitable for a future emperor”. According to contemporary reports of Nero’s time as Emperor, he obviously didn’t pay a lot of notice, being suspected of giving the orders to kill his mother, wife, senators and rivals, as well as deliberately ordering the lighting of the Great Fire to clear land for his new palace, as well as ordering Seneca to commit suicide.

Tacked on at the end of the book is a chapter by Seneca discussing earthquakes, written when quakes affected Pompeii (but several years before the cataclysmic destruction). He gives a summary of the current theories believing air, water, fire and/or earth causing subterranean pressures or failures. He ends in true Stoic fashion, waving away the fear of death imminent in their unpredictability

“What is the difference whether I put the earth on top of me, or the Earth puts itself on top? ”   Earthquakes, para. 2 (page 223)

Favourite lines/passages:

“Wherever there is a human being, there exists the opportunity for an act of kindness” 

On the Happy Life, para. 24 (page 106)

“No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity” 

Consolation to Helvia, para. 5 (page 166)

 “Things that are necessary even places of exile will supply, those that are superfluous not even kingdoms. It is the mind that makes us rich; this is what accompanies us into exile.” 

Consolation to Helvia, para. 11 (page 176)

Personal rating: I feel I should give it higher than a 6, maybe a 7. Many of his arguments may be repetitive and  although it could do with an edit, I still think much of it is very good advice. It is better to read each slowly and thoughtfully, and pause to reflect.

Other reading:   Finished Isaac Asimov’s robot short story collection, The Complete Robot (combining I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots). Asimov devised the Three Laws of Robotics, then set about writing stories on how they could be interpreted and circumvented. To remind you, they are

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

I find it fascinating when real life science often mirrors or catches up to fiction. I wonder if we will ever develop true artificial intelligence capable of action, and if we go back to Asimov’s Three Laws as a basis for guiding its development.

Next :  Back to Ancient Rome and Seneca’s tragedies, with Oedipus

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