Introducing Seneca

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

With our study of Marcus Aurelius having come to an end, we stay in ancient Rome but go back to the first century AD to study the great Stoic, Seneca the Younger.

Seneca’s teachings have received wide reception as of late, his essays and letters serve as a great foundation for the practical application of the Stoic Philosophy. He writes extensively on the need for the acceptance of death, the tempering of our temperament, and what it means to live the life of a philosopher.

Born at some point in the decade preceding Christ’s birth and living until AD 65, Seneca was the tutor and later advisor to the Emperor Nero. Trained in rhetoric and philosophy, Seneca wrote 10 tragedies, several essays, and his most popular work, a collection of 124 letters written to Lucilius, procurator of Sicily during Nero’s Reign.

Though his work is the foundation of much Stoic Philosophy, he is often accused of having lived a life contrary to his teaching. The words of Cassius Dio are surprising to the uninitiated:

“Nor was this the only instance in which his conduct was seen to be diametrically opposed to the teachings of his philosophy. For while denouncing tyranny, he was making himself the teacher of a tyrant; while inveighing against the associates of the powerful, he did not hold aloof from the palace itself; and though he had nothing good to say of flatterers, he himself had constantly fawned upon Messalina and the freedmen of Claudius, to such an extent, in fact, as actually to send them from the island of his exile a book containing their praises—a book that he afterwards suppressed out of shame. Though finding fault with the rich, he himself acquired a fortune of 300,000,000 sesterces; and though he censured the extravagances of others, he had five hundred tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike, and he served banquets on them.”

This seems to be a common trend among the great thinkers of the past. Their works are often contrary to the lives they led, but from my perspective, they are no less valuable for being so. We must not mistake weakness of character for the weakness of their thought.

Their words give us something to aspire toward, serving as sign posts along the way for our own development.

Seneca’s teachings present a lucid and simple approach to life. In his essay On the Shortness of Life, he writes:

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”

This is why we would do well to study the thoughts of great men. Our time is short and our time for study shorter still. When we take the time to digest these ideas, we sharpen our ax in preparation to fell the trees of our lives.

For me, I find that time spent in study gives me the perspective and education to live the rest of my life well. Without it, my soul would go hungry.

The works of Stoicism constantly stress the need to remember one’s own mortality. It is our impending death which ensures that we truly live. This being so, there is no better place to begin our study of Seneca than his first letter to Lucilius, On Saving Time.

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