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Topic #G61

Seneca on Death

4 March 2002

Scribe: Nina Novo



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


Professor Hutchinson began Monday’s lecture with a ‘flashback’ to a discussion in the previous lecture on Stoicism’s resemblance to the Epicurean theory.  He said that, along with similarities on philosophy and ethics, the Stoics and the Epicureans also shared similar views on the notion of Death.  The Stoics held that the soul is immortal and therefore, at death it will carry on in an immaterial existence.  However, one should not invest too much hope in this conviction, for the body does not enjoy the pleasures of the afterlife; we do not actually take pleasure in the existence of the soul once we suffer our physical deaths.  Professor Hutchinson explained that there is a ‘cosmic recycling’ of our spirits, and that, in this sense, we are all one, even though we obviously prefer to be individuals.  This Stoic idea of the ‘mingling into the whole’, as Professor Hutchinson called it, is, in effect, the same as the Epicurean theory.  Seneca, consequently, weaved together the ideas and styles of both the Stoics and the Epicureans to form his own perceptions on the notion of death.


A second point the Professor brought up is what he called the ‘tipping of the hat’.  He noted that the first thirty letters written by Seneca all had similar structures and that they all concluded with a sort of bonus.  For example, in Letter 27 Seneca ends with an Epicurean quote as a substantial reason for offering to pay for the advice given to him (pp.75).  Also, in Letter 16 Seneca asks his reader (Lucilius) to search for his letter to teach him about the natural life, and once again he quotes Epicurus (pp.65).  The last example Professor Hutchinson brought to light is the ending of Letter 12 in which Seneca demonstrates, once again by using an Epicurean position: “‘To live under constraint is a misfortune, but there is no constraint to live under constraint’” (Seneca, Letter 12; Penguin Ed. pp.59) that if there be wisdom which is true and absolute, then it is ‘common property’; true knowledge belongs to everyone, not merely the discipline of philosophy, such as Stoicism or Epicureanism.  Seneca taught that wisdom is an asset that increases by sharing it, thus it is not wrong to ‘copy’ and extract it from the theories of other doctrines.  


Before plunging into the assigned readings for Monday’s class, Professor Hutchinson also pointed out that Seneca liked to play on the relationship between a patron (padrone) and his client(s).  This example goes all the way back to the time of Socrates and Plato, but Seneca was the first to turn it into a philosophic model and he was the only one since that actually was a Roman padrone; his audience were his clients.


Professor Hutchinson then outlined the major issues discussed in Seneca’s letters XXVI, LXIII and LXXVII.  Letter 26 is a reflection on the philosopher’s own death and coming to terms with it; Letter 63 is about dealing with the death of a loved one and the limitations of grief; and finally, Letter 77 depicts Seneca’s views on the idea of suicide.


The Professor was not overly concerned about Letter 26, and thus, did not spend too much time on it.


Letter 63, on the other hand, was a crucial part of discussion in Monday’s lecture.  Professor Hutchinson noted that there are two main elements in this work: 1. Seneca shares the pain of his friend for the death of another loved one, and 2. He wants to teach that it is best to minimize the grief during these experiences.  The philosopher recognizes that the act of grieving is natural and normal, however it is always irrational.  He argues that there is no particular reason to minimize grief, but there is a reason to maximize the good/pleasant and minimize the bad/unpleasant; therefore, it is best to make grief ‘sweeter’, as Professor Hutchinson stated, and manage it.  The best way to describe this idea was used by an analogy, which the Professor explained: When a cow loses her calf, she goes mad; On the second day, she is hysteric; but on the third day she goes back to her normal state.  In other words: it is natural to subside into expressions of grief for a deceased loved-one; nevertheless, there is a limitation to this grief period that one will/should adhere to.  The best thing is to keep the memories of the deceased one, as Seneca describes: “Thinking of departed friends is to me something sweet and mellow.  For when I had them with me it was with the feeling that I was going to lose them, and now that I have lost them I keep the feeling that I have them with me still” (Seneca, Letter LXIII; Penguin Ed. pp.115).


Professor Hutchinson considered it necessary to separate the Epicurean and the Stoic views.  The Epicureans thought it was a normal exercise to manage grief so that it comes to a natural and stable conclusion.  The Stoics argued that grief is irrational and that it is only possible by the ‘collection or syndrome’ of irrationality; if we were completely rational beings we would never enter into the state of grief.


The lecture then led into a discussion on Letter 77.  In explaining the notion of suicide and advising others about it, Seneca separates fear of death into its component parts:

1. Fear of getting sick; 2. Fear of what is unknown; 3. Fear of leaving things undone on Earth;  4. Fear of how one will leave loved-ones behind; and, 5. Fear of pain.  Where these components coincide, the Professor noted, there is a combination of so many experiences and emotions that it is difficult to deal with so much all at once because it all happens at once. Hence, the task is to do ‘emotional push-ups’, as Professor Hutchinson stated, to deal with death, and Seneca advises that the best way to do this is the way we regularly prepare ourselves to deal with emotional problems: practice.  The only problem, however, is dealing with one’s own death because, well, how do you rehearse your own death?  One cannot prepare oneself for one’s own passing away by means of a full dress rehearsal or preview.


After a few digressions from the topic at hand, Professor Hutchinson returned to an examination of Seneca with a closer look at the philosopher’s own death.  He noted an important parallel between the death of Petronius, a nobleman and master of patrons, and the story of Seneca’s death.  Firstly, the story of Petronius is found in Tacitus, Book 16, and Seneca’s story is also in Tacitus, Book 15.  Furthermore, both figures did not reveal any fear of death, and quite the contrary, embraced it. 


Professor Hutchinson quoted Seneca’s words before he died: “‘ Being forbidden’, he said, ‘ to show gratitude for your services, I leave you my one remaining possession, and my best: the pattern of my life.  If you remember it, your devoted friendship will be rewarded by a name for virtuous accomplishments’”(Seneca, Appendix: Tacitus’ account of Seneca’s death [Annals, XV: 60-64]; Penguin Ed. pp.243).   The philosopher spoke these words just before him and his wife both slit their arms, although she did not die and continued to live in misery.  Professor Hutchinson pointed out, as a last remark that Seneca died comfortably because a high degree of warmth is a good and comfortable way of dying.