Seneca was a Roman philosopher born in 1 BC in Cordoba, Spain. He was active in the turbulent politics of Rome, which would influence his philosophy. He followed Stoicism, believing that one should live a life of virtue and try to use reason rather than emotions. Seneca believed the world was run by divine reason, and that by using our own reason humans can act in accordance with the laws of nature. He explains that “we are born into a world of things which are all destined to die,” and that it is through understanding the laws of nature and that death is natural that we are able to overcome the fear of death. Seneca’s philosophical writings, including his Consultations, provided a path for the individual to follow in order to attain peace of mind, virtue and happiness.
Seneca grew up in Rome and was trained in philosophy and rhetoric (public speaking). He was engaged in politics until being exiled by the emperor Claudius on charges of having an affair with the previous emperor, Caligula’s, sister. He understood his own exile as similar to the feeling of exile which occurs throughout one’s lifetime in different ways. He wrote Consolations, one to his mother for having been separated from him, and another to a woman named Marcia whose son had recently died. He tells her that death is a natural part of life, and that she must overcome her grief in order to move on with her own life. Seneca was eventually allowed to come back to Rome, where he became a tutor and advisor of Nero, until ultimately Nero ordered him to kill himself when he was accused of being apart of a conspiracy on the emperor’s life.
Seneca worked within the Stoic tradition of philosophy, which originated in ancient Greece. The philosopher Cicero introduced Greek philosophy to the Romans, and created a Latin philosophical vocabulary. His philosophy was rooted in the original Greek terms. Seneca, on the other hand, wrote his philosophy in Latin, and wrote for a Roman audience not necessarily knowledgeable in Greek philosophy. Seneca believed that philosophy is therapeutic, and he sought to engage his readers by addressing them personally. Rather than offering a step-by-step system of abstract thought, he encourages the reader to reflect on certain things and engage in a process of self-cultivation.
As a Stoic, Seneca believed that human should follow reason rather than emotions. Emotions are irrational, and are not the basis of virtuous action. For example, the virtuous person would avenge the death of their brother out of duty rather than anger. When we are disappointed by the flaws of others, Seneca recommends that we replace our negative emotions with the rational principle of mercy. Likewise, the fear of death must be replaced by the understanding that death is merely the natural end of the cycle of life, in the same way as the night replaces the day. There are no surprises in life, everyone and everything has it’s beginning and it’s end. With this awareness, we can live our lives in preparation for our death.
Aristotle had distinguished between the life of theory and the life of politics, and along with Plato, they discussed what should be the goal of life: pleasure, honor, or wisdom. Seneca, seeing virtue as the goal of life, also distinguishes between the life of politics and the life of philosophy. He sees the two as being in balance with each other. One needs time for reflection in order to make sure they act properly. For Seneca, both politics and philosophy benefit others. Politics involves helping those around us, while philosophy is for the betterment of everyone. The view that one is a member of the community of humanity, known as cosmopolitans, allows Seneca to find a place for the individual to make a difference when he isn’t politically effective, as was the case when he was in exile. He writes, “What is required, you see, of any man is that he should be of use to other men—if possible, to many; failing that, to a few; failing that, to those nearest him; failing that, to himself.”
The most important thing for Seneca is the cultivation of one’s soul. He believes in the freedom of the will, which allows us as humans to choose our actions, and to live according to reason. He believes in the importance of looking inwards, by reflecting on ourselves, but also in looking outwards and recognizing that we are all part of a much larger universe. By understanding the laws of nature, as well as the nature of God, we can become Godlike ourselves, and live in harmony with others and the world. St. Augustine, likewise, will come to embrace this process of both turning inward as well as turning to God.
Seneca’s writings were embraced by the early Christians as well as Medieval writers who considered him a humanist saint. Dante would place him in the First Circle of Hell, which is a good thing, for it is here that virtuous non-Christians enjoy eternal happiness. He would be admired by Chaucer, Erasmus, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in the 16th century the philosopher Montaigne was called a “French Seneca.” Although considered hypocritical for his illicit affairs and association with Nero, his writings were influential in spreading Greek philosophical ideas throughout Rome. His Stoicism provided a path for attaining tranquility in a time fueled by political ambitions and violent emotions.