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Topic #G60

Seneca on philosophy: Seneca, Letter 16, 33, 53, 104, 123

1 March 2002

Scribe: Sumeet Khushalani



These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes




Professor Hutchinson started the lecture by making a correction of the minutes that were spoken for February 27th. The correction was in response to the interface between the operating system of a stoic and the situations that individuals encounter. Professor Hutchinson explained that a stoic’s response to outside, external events is not to feel the need to be responsible for actions of others, but to cope with external happenings and to learn from them. Next, a student asked if the idea that nothing external is good was connected to Plato’s false pleasures. The professor replied that the two ideas were not directly related. However, Plato and the idea of Socratic individual development undeniably influenced the Stoics. The idea that people could cut themselves off from external events was quite appealing. The professor spoke of the current war in Afghanistan, a war of mass slaughter. However, the conflict arising in modern day Afghanistan dates back to ancient Greek culture. Such events inevitably arouse a sense of insecurity, but the philosophy of the Stoics and the Epicureans provides a sense of security among such evils. Thus, it is better to think of something as good or bad, and to know it is up to the individual to deal with the external events, but not to feel responsible for them.


Next, the professor spoke about Seneca’s personal life and the period in which he lived. During Seneca’s life, there was an incredible concentration of power intermingled with specific families that were politically involved within the Roman government. Seneca is thought of as a great hypocrite because of his immoral involvement within the political world. He was a private tutor of Nero, who engineered his own mother’s death. As a result, Seneca wrote a letter defending Nero’s actions; it was this decision to defend Nero which has been criticized, for it suggests a radical compromise of integrity. However, this popular distaste for Seneca is rather recent. There is a statue of the faces of both Seneca and Socrates that was constructed in the ancient period (depicted on the front cover of the Penguin Classics edition).


Seneca thought of himself as a Socratic philosopher. Both speak of why one should become involved in a particular act as opposed to how one should fulfill the act. This is seen in Xenophon’s writings of Socrates. Socrates is asked for advise on how to conduct a campaign, and his response is to go to the temple and ask god why is it that one desires to do something rather than how to get something done. Seneca, although known as a stoic, is rather a deviant stoic. He is mainly concerned with only ethics, and believes that the true development of all philosophers is the search for a common good. In the 16th century, the writings of Seneca were translated to the vernacular. Montaigne, a great French Renaissance thinker, read Seneca in Latin and memorized many of his letters. It is only in the last two hundred years that Seneca’s popularity has declined.


Many academics believe Seneca’s writing is too theoretical, and thus it does not provide any new perspectives. His style is also very eclectic; that is Seneca’s writings are derived from a variety of disparate sources; there are also many one-line slogans. Professor Hutchinson remarked that it was a good book to keep by one’s bedside because one can choose what one desires to read about. In addition, Seneca is simply known as a hypocrite. One only has to read the back of the book being read for class, Letters from a Stoic. It states, “Seneca…may well be history’s most notable example of a man who failed to live up to his principles” (Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, trans. by Robin Campbell, Penguin Books: London, 1969). There are more criticisms, one regarding his style of rhetoric, which is thought to be highly wrought and hackneyed. In other words, “it’s all pequancy, but no substance.” However, Professor Hutchinson felt that such criticisms were not taking into account the life of Seneca and the time period in which he lived.


Seneca was born into the middle class, which implies that his ties to the political world were not easy to evade. As mentioned earlier, he was also a tutor of Nero, who had no interest in running the empire. Thus, Seneca was inevitably required to take control. In fact, it was because of Seneca that the Roman Empire had never been run with such organization and orderliness. It is said that throughout the history of great rulers, Seneca did one of the best jobs of running an empire.  However, when Nero took power, he became crazy; Seneca tried to resign, but Nero refused. Finally, Nero allowed Seneca to go on a sabbatical, and it was in this period when Seneca concentrated upon writing philosophy. The fact that he extricated himself from the clutches of Nero, the modern equivalent of freeing oneself from the white house, is quite an accomplishment. However, the freedom that Seneca enjoyed did not last. He was soon blamed for many of the murders that occurred in the empire because of Nero. Seneca was ordered to commit suicide, and thus he took his own life. With this brief historical analysis, to call Seneca a hypocrite is to not understand the stresses of working in harsh, political conditions.


 Following the brief account of Seneca’s life and the responses to his work, Professor Hutchinson spoke more specifically about the content of the letters. There are two major models for Seneca’s view of philosophy. One perspective is that the philosopher is viewed as a spiritual wealth consultant and the other that Philosophy itself is a full time mistress who ravages men into admiration and humility. Concerning the former, there is a therapeutic use of philosophy in Stoicism. In order to illustrate this specific aspect of Stoicism, Professor Hutchinson cited a book in which a captured prisoner of the Vietnam War speaks eloquently about how the writings of Stoics saved his sanity as a POW. There are similar accounts by captured prisoners of World War II. The Epicureans and the skeptics also adopt this idea of philosophy as being therapeutic. All three schools of philosophy sought to reduce and to resolve distress. However, the Epicureans and the Skeptics focused more specifically upon not being troubled. The Greek word is ataraxia, which means the absence of disturbance, not being ruffled. The goal of life, according to the Epicureans and the Skeptics, is to be unruffled when making decisions throughout life. One should reinterpret material objects as outside one’s zone, which thus prevents any emotions from arising. The things that are relevant to one’s life are personal relationships, opportunity, and time, but not material objects. In fact, one should prepare oneself for future disasters. It is important to imagine oneself going through difficult situations in order to know how to deal with them, should they arise. Professor Hutchinson remarked that there are certain books that study this Hellenistic approach to philosophy. Next, a student asked if there is a distinction between a material object and a person. The professor replied that there is indeed a distinction and spoke of a personal example. This particular part of the lecture ended with understanding the classic stoic aggressiveness towards one’s emotions. One should have a stern toughness over one’s emotions and refrain from sharing them, which Seneca thought to be very feminine.


The lecture ended with an analysis of the second model of philosophy adopted by Seneca, that is Philosophy as a woman who enthralls men. The professor referred to short passages in the end of Letter LIII:


“But only philosophy will wake us; only philosophy will shake us out of that heavy sleep. Devote yourself entirely to her. You’re worthy of her, she’s worthy of you-fall into each other’s arms. Say a firm, plain no to every other occupation. There’s no excuse for your pursuing philosophy merely in moments when occasion allows…”


“Philosophy wields an authority of her own; she doesn’t just accept time, she grant on it. She’s not something one takes up in odd moments. She’s an active, full-time mistress, ever present and demanding…”


“Give your whole mind to her. Sit at her side and pay her constant court, and enormous gap will widen between yourself and other men. You’ll end up far in advance of all mankind, and not far behind the gods themselves”(Seneca/Letters from a Stoic, trans. by Robin Campbell, Penguin Books: London, 1969, Letter LII, pp. 102-103).


These short excerpts of Letter LIII show the interesting image of tremendous respect for philosophy. However, they also show that Seneca treated Philosophy as a sex object, lustful for the great pleasure it provides. This duality of respect and lust implies that Seneca saw that one’s desire for philosophy exemplified the whole person, that is one has both an ethereal higher desire for wisdom and a lower desire for sex.