Translating Girolamo Cardano’s Neronis Encomium, in English (first published in 1562) as Nero: An exemplary Life, Inkstone, 2012, I formed an alternative view of Seneca that had forever changed my perception on him.
While banished to Corsica, Seneca wrote pleas for his restoration rather incompatible with his advocacy of a simple life and the acceptance of our own fate.
I believe that Nero was not a clown and a murderer but a good Emperor who tried his best, failing mid way. Nero’s modern biographers agree on this point, then why Seneca’s biographers cannot agree on the point that he had not been the victim of a tyrant but he had been rather a willing executioner himself? Or, perhaps, even worst than that, he had been the darkest influence over the young Nero, while siding with the corrupted senatorial class just to enrich himself.
March 14, 2014 2:06 p.m. ET
Before the modern-day journal and blog, before Michel de Montaigne’s “Essays,” before even Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” came the work that, directly or not, set the template for them all: the “Letters to Lucilius” of the Roman sage Seneca the Younger (c. 4 B.C.-A.D. 65). This pathbreaking record of one man’s self-exploration, framed as a batch of letters sent to an intimate friend, holds many pleasures for modern readers—as well as some intricate puzzles. For Seneca was not only a Stoic philosopher, seeking the good life through cultivation of reason, but a powerful senior staffer in the regime of Emperor Nero. He not only tolerated the autocracy begun by Julius Caesar—the system that the “Ides of March” conspirators, as recalled every year on March 15, had tried to stop—but signed on as one of its leading enablers.
Seneca’s political brief did not sort easily with his ethical principles, and the strange dissonance of his life is partly what makes the “Letters to Lucilius” so fascinating a document. Seneca composed the “Letters” in 63 and 64, after working closely with Nero for nearly 15 years. He had helped cover up many dirty deeds as Nero’s paranoia had increased, including the murder of Nero’s mother in 59, a crime that shocked all Rome. Aware that Nero’s assassins might soon come for him as well, Seneca undertook the “Letters” in part to clear his conscience and rescue his reputation, as well as to leave behind a final meditation on virtue, nature and mortality.
There was much that a man in Seneca’s position could not say. Unlike a modern White House insider, who need only wait a presidential cycle to publish a tell-all book, Seneca had to presume that Nero, who came to power at age 16, would reign for decades. And Seneca could not withdraw into private life, for when he tried, in 62, Nero refused permission, claiming that such a high-level defection would give his regime a black eye. Seneca thus wrote the “Letters to Lucilius” from a kind of gilded house arrest, still free to publish but not to tell anything like the whole truth.
Lucilius, the addressee of the “Letters,” was a man of Seneca’s own stamp, a 60-something Stoic thinker who had forsaken the contemplative life to serve in Nero’s vast (and well-paid) bureaucracy. Seneca addresses him as an old and trusted friend, a fellow sojourner nearing the end of life’s road. He replies to questions Lucilius had purportedly asked in his own missives, though whether the two men actually corresponded is unclear; the exchange may have been an elaborate fiction on Seneca’s part. If so, it was an ingenious gambit. The tone of intimate conversation, of shared confidences we readers can overhear, lends warmth and humanity to the whole work, and the looseness of epistolary style allows Seneca to wander wherever his thoughts take him.
Seneca starts many letters by relating some minor incident that has just taken place, then proceeds to meditate on its larger meaning. Perhaps he had gotten seasick in a sudden storm, or raced a young slave boy to a tie, or arrived late and hungry to his country house to find only stale bread in the larder. Seneca finds ethical lessons in even the most banal event, many of them strikingly forward-looking. A chance visit to an arena, at a time when a gladiatorial fight to the death was in progress, prompts Seneca to wonder how such inhuman spectacles can be put on for mere entertainment—the only instance, to our knowledge, that this question was raised by a pre-Christian writer. A chat with a well-treated slave sparks a diatribe, similarly ahead of its time, against the cruelty and arrogance of Roman slave-owners.
Not every letter of the 124 that survive will captivate a modern reader. Some contain long disquisitions on ethical theory—the shop talk, as it were, of the Stoic sect. But the variety of the whole collection, its many shifts of topic and timbre and its apparent lack of serial development, encourages us to sample at will. Montaigne read Seneca in just this way in the 16th century, claiming to always enjoy “taking off a wing or a leg”—as though picking at choice parts of a roast turkey. Indeed, most modern editions of the work, such as Penguin’s “Letters From a Stoic,” contain only substantial excerpts, though a new translation of the whole is scheduled to appear next year.
In counterpoint to the tonal swings of the “Letters to Lucilius” are its continuities of theme, above all the theme of mortality. Seneca’s preoccupation with death, especially suicide, gives the work a somber and profound leitmotif. “We are dying every day,” Seneca asserts in one letter, as though equating human life with a journey toward the grave. Like many great philosophers, Seneca was wrestling with the inevitability of death, while also preparing to meet his own, a crisis he felt to be not far off. But his fascination with suicide also has a particular historical context. Roman emperors, like the one Seneca served, often forced suicide on those whom they perceived as threats, and indeed Seneca himself was to meet his end in this way, only a year or two after the “Letters,” when Nero found a pretext to rid himself of the minister he had come to hate.
For historical sleuths, Seneca’s rapidly deteriorating political position provides a fascinating subtext to the “Letters to Lucilius,” as Seneca himself intended. Aware that the work might well be his last, he sought to atone for misdeeds and distance himself from Nero, yet also to avoid provoking his powerful antagonist. His innuendoes are cleverly couched, as when he tells Lucilius he has found the true path of philosophy only late in life, “after wearing myself out with straying from it,” or compares his moral condition to that of a man suffering from incurable illness. Though he cannot cure himself, he claims, he can at least provide a medicine for those who come after—the “Letters” themselves.
In such passages we hear the plaint of a deeply disillusioned man, a sage who had spent 10 years serving a detested tyrant, but who still hoped to gain redemption through the loftiness of his thoughts and the power of his pen. In the eyes of the many great thinkers the “Letters” have since inspired, he succeeded.
—Mr. Romm, a professor of classics at Bard College, is the author of “Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero.”