The Stoic: A biography of Seneca by Francis Caldwell Holland
Notes Created: 2018-10-04
It must always be remembered that his was no abstract philosophy of the study. It was addressed by a former man of action to men living under a reign of terror, whose lives were in daily peril; and its object was to free them from anxiety and brace their minds to meet their fate with indifference and dignity. Consequently it is in dangerous times that he has found the greatest favour.
An enjoyable book for fans of Seneca. While I am familiar with the overall history of the period he lived in, and know a little of his life from reading his writing, it was useful to learn more of the world he lived in: his family background, the contrast with writers and orators that came before him, the concrete moral dilemnas that he struggled with (luckily, few of us will have lives as interesting as Seneca’s was), his naturalism. For people who are not already familiar with the stoics, I would suggest reading them first.
Page: 7 But after the fall of the republic, when the orators who had numbered kings and nations among their clients, or had impeached proconsuls for the oppression of provinces, were succeeded by the delatores, who earned fame, indeed, and vast sums of money, but also the detestation of all honest men by bringing accusations against great senators whom the emperors wished to destroy, the rhetorical exercises of the schools became ever more and more remote from reality. The object of teachers and pupils alike was not to bring conviction to the minds of their hearers, but to win applause for their own cleverness. Rhetoric ceased to have an object outside itself — it became an art for art’s sake. The triumph of the controversialists in these fantastic contests was the invention of the effective aphorisms, antitheses, or epigrams called sententiae, which were applauded for their pithiness or ingenuity,
Page: 9 Like most mothers of distinguished men she was, if we may accept the description left of her by her son the philosopher, a woman of remarkable character and intelligence. Her husband, to whom any departure from old Roman customs and ideas was distasteful, was opposed to what we now call the higher education of women, and would not suffer her to devote much time to study, a circumstance regretted by her son, in whose judgment there were few on whom such opportunities would have been less likely to be wasted, or who in the little time actually allowed could have acquired so much.
Page: 10 The Senecas appear to have been a most united family. But whereas the father held the view common to old men in every age that the era of great men was over, and that in the new generation there was an unexampled dearth of talent and ability in every kind, the sons were believers in progress, with scant respect for authority, tradition, or national feeling.
Page: 11 The positions of the various controversialists in the ‘battle of the books,’ fought in the second half of the first century between the upholders of the classical tradition in writing and speaking and the new school, between ancient and modern ideas and standards, are admirably given in the dialogue De Oratoribus, generally ascribed to Tacitus. The dialogue is for all time a model of urbane controversy, in which the most complete difference of opinion is effectively expressed without a trace of acerbity or sarcasm.
Page: 11 Original minds may not force their ideas into an ancient mould on pain of illustrating the couplet of Boileau: ‘Voulant se redresser soi-meme on s’estropie, Et d’un original devient une copie.’ When, however, we compare the graceful, easy flowing style of Livy, Cicero, and Virgil, their avoidance of over-emphasis or abrupt transitions, the rise and fall of their periods, and the even texture of their narrative, comparable to a good mountain road, which is never irksome to a traveller whatever the height to which it rises — when we compare this with the bold realism, the disregard for convention and tradition, the cosmopolitanism, and the striking but often isolated thoughts and aphorisms of Lucan and Tacitus and Juvenal, we can understand the extreme dislike which such admirers of antiquity in later generations as Quintilian or Aulus Gellius or Pronto felt for the younger Seneca, whom they rightly regarded as the chief author of this revolution in taste.
Page: 14 Another of Seneca’s habits, dating probably from this time, which ought to win him some sympathy from Englishmen, was the daily cold bath all the year round,
Page: 18 Seneca was married and the father of a boy, whom he thus described to his mother: Marcus, the most winning of children, in whose presence sadness cannot endure. What breast so heavy-laden that his embrace cannot lighten? What wound so fresh that his kisses cannot soothe? What tears can resist his gaiety? What mind so oppressed by care that his nonsense cannot relax? Who can help laughing at his pranks? What brooding meditation so concentrated and absorbed that his delightful chatter cannot interrupt and turn the brooder himself into a fellow chatterbox? I pray the gods that he may survive me. [Cons., ad Helv. xvi.].
Page: 19 The ornamental manner of Seneca, studded with detached epigrams, contrasted strongly with the torrential eloquence of the emperor and on one occasion nearly cost him his life. He had spoken in the Senate in the emperor’s presence with such eloquence and success that Caligula’s jealousy was aroused, and the orator would have paid the extreme penalty for his triumph had not one of the imperial mistresses persuaded her lover that Seneca was in a rapid consumption and must shortly die in any case.
Page: 19 Through his quaestorship he was a member of the Senate, where he must have been present at the remarkable scenes which followed the assassination of Caligula and may have shared in the brief dream of a restoration of their old supremacy from which the senators were so rudely awakened by the soldiers and the populace.
Page: 25 Seneca gives an interesting account of the Rome of his day: Consider Rome. How few of the inhabitants of that vast city are Romans! They come from colonies and municipalities; they flow together from the whole world. Some are brought by ambition; some by their public duties; others have been entrusted with missions; luxury in search of opportunities, and industry seeking a larger field for action, entice others. Many come in search of pleasure; many others to improve their minds by liberal studies; while some bring their beauty and others their eloquence to market. Every race of man hastens to the city which offers the greatest prizes both to virtue and to vice.
Page: 27 All the serious works of Seneca abound with lofty and striking thoughts so happily expressed that they stamp themselves upon the mind. Scarce any writer has been more often quoted with or without acknowledgment, or more deserves quotation, than he of whose treatises it has been said by one of the best of English critics that in their combination of high thought with deep feeling they have rarely, if ever, been surpassed.
Page: 31 But Agrippina [adds Tacitus], that she might not become known through evil deeds alone, obtained for Annaeus Seneca his recall from exile, and at the same time the praetorship. She thought that this would be a popular step, because of his high reputation for learning and eloquence, and she was, moreover, desirous to entrust to him the education of her son Nero, whose succession to the Empire he might be expected to further by his counsels, bound to Agrippina, as he would be, through gratitude, and hostile to the house of Claudius out of resentment of his exile.
Page: 34 Of all the arts eloquence possessed the least attraction for Nero, and those speeches, which excited great admiration, were the compositions of Seneca.
Page: 37 The idleness, dissipation, and hatred of business which distinguished the young emperor combined with his vanity and love of popularity to throw the whole administration of affairs in the early part of his reign into the hands of Seneca and Burrhus. The single object of these two statesmen appears to have been the public good, and as a consequence of this singleness of aim no shadow of misunderstanding from first to last marred the harmony of their mutual relations — a rare circumstance, as Tacitus remarks, in the history of public men. The virtues of the one supplemented those of the other. Burrhus was known for the austerity of his life, the bluntness of his speech, and the severity of his military discipline; Seneca, notwithstanding his stoicism, was a courtier and a wit, he knew how to charm others without loss of personal dignity, and was a master of eloquence.
Page: 39 Seneca has been charged with ingratitude to Agrippina, to whom he owed his return from exile and the appointment as Nero’s tutor on which were founded his wealth and greatness. But he had to choose between resistance to the power of the empress and the abandonment of his projects of reform, and it is by no means clear that he ought to have chosen the latter. In his treatise De Beneficiis he says that if a man has received favours from a tyrant he ought to repay him with what benefits he can, so long as he can do so without injury to others. To have supported the cruel and corrupt influence of Agrippina would have been signally to have violated this condition; while if he had retired from public life, deserted Burrhus, and surrendered his opportunities of serving the State, he would none the less have been accused of ingratitude by Agrippina, who had counted on his active support. > I feel Seneca did well in his life choices, where Marcus made that one famous error
Page: 39 Even the malicious historian Dion Cassius, enemy though he was to Seneca’s reputation, writes that these statesmen, once the full control of affairs had fallen into their hands, exercised it with a justice and an ability which won for them universal applause. It was something when in the strange course of human destiny supreme power over the civilised world had fallen into the hands of a vicious and worthless youth, not only to have saved five years from the wreck, but even to have made them memorable for their excellence. That this feat was accomplished by Seneca cannot be denied, though the means he employed to retain and confirm his power unquestionably need defence.
Page: 42 In this picture of the innocent autocrat who, making his choice between the two great rival forces by which men are governed, finds his strength in their love rather than in their fear, Seneca anticipated, as he often does, the teaching of Christianity.
Page: 45 The provincial cities in Italy and elsewhere in the Empire enjoyed at this time an almost complete system of self-government. Their institutions had been modelled on those of republican Rome, and unlike those of Rome had endured in reality as well as in name. Of municipal magistrates the duumviri, answering to the consuls, presided over the municipal senate and exercised judicial powers; the aediles were in charge of works and buildings and of the police; while the quaestors administered the revenue. These magistrates were all elected by the people, and were expected by public opinion to show their sense of the honour conferred upon them by a gift to their city. Aqueducts, roads, temples, theatres were habitually presented to their fellow-citizens by magistrates during their term of office. Thus the labour of the community was directed to public and not to private uses by those to whom the possession of money had given the power of choosing its direction, and great prosperity was the result.
Page: 45 In Rome itself all was not so well. The administration was, it is true, well conducted by Seneca and Burrhus, to whom the emperor left the whole business of government. But the detestable character of the degenerate aesthete on the throne began so early as the year 56 to make itself felt. The public atrocities which followed his personal assumption of the government were foreshadowed by the crimes and extravagances by which his private life was already stained.
Page: 46 His nephew Lucan, son of the prudent Mela, was the most brilliant of the poets of the new school. After other more conventional essays in poetry he published, while still under twenty-five years of age, the first part of an epic poem on the civil wars, written on a completely new plan. Boldly discarding the whole of the supernatural machinery of Olympus, considered ever since the days of Homer an indispensable adjunct to an epic, he described events and characters with what historical accuracy his researches could supply. He had no respect for remote antiquity — the stirring scenes of the century which preceded his own offered material enough for his rushing, impetuous rhetoric. Why blunt its force and lose all the interest attaching to the connection between character and events by invoking the interposition of shadowy beings in whom his readers had ceased to believe? Keenly interested in the world as it appeared to him amid the strife of men, and a violent partisan, he was, like Byron, of too passionate a nature, and lived too much in the present to find time for subjective musings, for the wonder and pathos of Virgil, or the wide surmise of Lucretius. He had, as Quintilian observed, the temperament rather of an orator than of a poet. The romance of reality, the picture of a rudderless world and of the interaction of events and character, for the first time challenged the ruling idea of every previous epic — the idea that men were but irresponsible puppets moved by divine agencies which the seer’s eyes were alone strong enough to detect. The Senecas were a daring race of innovators who held Olympus in scanty respect.
Page: 55 After the death of Agrippina, Seneca and Burrhus found it impossible longer to resist the prince’s inclinations. In the hope, therefore, that by a compromise they might satisfy his vanity while averting a public scandal, they caused a space of level ground at the foot of the Palatine hill to be enclosed on which Nero might exhibit his skill as a charioteer to a selected audience. But vanity, like jealousy, is a passion that makes the meat it feeds on; and the only effect on Nero of the applause of his friends was to make him hunger for a larger circle of spectators. Barriers were cast aside and the Roman people invited to the spectacle. The populace, delighted to see their emperor personally contributing to their favourite amusement, were loud in their plaudits; while the ministers found to their distress that in endeavouring to direct and control they had only fanned the flame of Nero’s folly. To cover his shame he persuaded the noblest youth of Rome to follow his example, and rewarded with large sums of money those of them whose poverty if not their will consented.
Page: 57 The chief event at Rome of the year 60 was the solemn institution by Nero of quinquennial games, consisting of gymnastic and musical contests, and also of chariot racing — destined to be continued at intervals of five years for centuries. A festival of this kind, copied from a Greek model, was a novelty to the Romans, who had been accustomed to profess a singular contempt for the athletic and artistic achievements held in such honour by the Greeks.
Page: 57 The following year (61) was rendered memorable by the disaster in Britain, where 70,000 Romans are said to have been massacred in a sudden rising of the inhabitants under their warrior queen, Boadicea.
Page: 60 The death of Burrhus, which soon followed, dealt a shattering blow to Seneca’s power and influence for good. It is to the credit of both men that the friendship and union between them had remained throughout unbroken by any sentiment of rivalry or jealousy; and, while the military force was under the command of Burrhus, Nero did not venture to rid himself of Seneca. Burrhus was succeeded in the command of the Praetorians by Tigellinus, the most profligate and corrupt of Nero’s associates, with whom as a concession to public opinion was joined as a colleague Fenius Rufus — an honest man, liked by the soldiers and respected by the people on account of the integrity with which he had administered the distribution of corn. But Rufus was given no real power, while Tigellinus, on the other hand, who had cultivated a good understanding with Poppaea, acquired a predominant influence over the emperor, whose worst impulses he encouraged. > Rotten and corrupt
Page: 64 His book of Naturales Quaestiones, written in the last year of his life, was the result of these researches in which, says Quintilian, he was sometimes misled by those whom he employed to make investigations. This book, though without scientific value, assumes the existence of natural causes for all phenomena however unusual, and rejects the notion that they were special indications of the divine purpose, or bore any but accidental relation to human destiny.
Page: 65 The practical character of Seneca’s philosophy, his love of tangible results, his constant desire to penetrate through appearances to realities, render comprehensible his taste for agriculture.
Page: 71 Among the many great sayings of my friend Demetrius [Seneca writes elsewhere], here is one that I have just heard and that still rings in my ears, The man who has never known adversity seems to be unhappiest of all, for he has never been able to test himself. [De Benef. vii. I]. Demetrius concealed neither his thoughts nor his dwelling-place, yet he contrived to live without serious molestation under tyrant after tyrant, and died at last in extreme old age in the principate of Domitian. Caligula endeavoured to propitiate him by an enormous present of money, but the philosopher laughingly rejected it, observing afterwards that if the emperor wished to corrupt him he should at least have offered him his whole empire.
Page: 73 But the most interesting of Seneca’s friends was the Epicurean, Lucilius Junior, to whom the famous letters were addressed, as well as the Naturales Quaestiones and the treatise De Providentia. Lucilius was an administrator, a philosopher, and a poet. He had known Seneca when they were both young at Pompeii, where he had a house, and where perhaps he was born.
Page: 74 Remember [he says to Marcia] that evil exists not for the dead. All those tales of infernal regions are fables invented to terrify us. For the dead there is neither darkness nor prison, nor rivers of fire, nor Lethe, nor tribunals, nor accused. In that free state there are no fresh tyrants. These things are the fond imaginations of poets who delude us into empty fears. Death is alike the reward and the end of all pain; beyond it our sufferings cannot extend; it replaces us in that state of perfect tranquillity which was ours before we were born. If we pity the dead, we should pity those unborn.
Page: 75 For Seneca philosophy was divided into two branches, the one concerned with human and the other with divine matters. The former is what we should now call moral philosophy or ethics; the latter natural science. For the purely speculative part of philosophy, for all that had no bearing either upon the conduct of human life or upon the order of nature, he felt not only indifference but an impatient contempt. Lucilius, on the other hand, was much more attracted by metaphysics. He enjoyed the logical puzzles, paradoxes, and distinctions of the schools, and was constantly endeavouring in his letters to entice Seneca into abstract discussions. > Honestly, the best bits of this are quotes from Seneca! Still enjoying it though
Page: 77 He proceeds to give admirable advice as to how to avoid exciting these emotions in the minds of others; but ends by saying that, after all, every man’s best security is his innocence, and that the guilty, though they sometimes chance to escape, can never feel sure of doing so. The man is punished who expects punishment; and whoever deserves it expects it. Thus the imprudent always suffer the penalty of their follies and crimes. But if all these precautions are taken, can I guarantee your safety? I can no more promise you that, replies Seneca, than I can promise perpetual health to a man who takes due care of himself. Roman senators during the last half of Nero’s principate lived under a sword of Damocles comparable to that which threatened
Page: 77 ‘Wherever you cast your eyes you will find the end of your ills. Do you see that precipice? It is the descent to liberty. That sea? that river? that well? Beneath their waters liberty lies concealed. Do you see that little misshapen tree? There hangs liberty.’
Page: 80 I speak of those whom Fortune by persecution has rendered illustrious in their lifetime; how many are those whose accomplishments have become known only after their death! how many whom Fame has not received but dragged out! You see how greatly not merely the learned, but this whole throng of the unlearned, admire Epicurus. He was quite unknown at Athens itself, where he lived in obscurity.
Page: 81 although he was completely free from the grosser forms of self-indulgence and was personally simple to the point of austerity in his manner of life, these riches and the elegance of his surroundings laid him open to a charge of inconsistency between his theory and his practice, which was pressed home by his enemies during his lifetime, and has never ceased to be repeated by later critics, but to suppose that Seneca thought riches an evil in themselves — as the first Christians, who were his contemporaries and whose teaching resembles his on many other points, really did think — is to misunderstand his whole doctrine. Things in themselves, according to the Stoics, are neither good nor evil, but only the use we make of them and the manner in which we regard and handle them. They are the material, not the substance, of good and evil. A wise man may possess riches so long as he regards himself merely as Fortune’s banker, and is ready to yield them up at her demand with as little regret as a banker pays out the deposits of his clients. The danger is lest the rich man should confound his shirt with his skin and regard his possessions as part of himself. If he does not do this he may without inconsistency prefer riches to poverty, just as he may deny that exile is an evil, and yet if it be in his power spend his life in his native land, or as he may think a short life as desirable as a long, and yet may live to a tranquil old age.
Page: 86 We have some evidence that, in this instance at least, his practice was on a level with his precepts. No one [wrote Juvenal, some twenty years afterwards] now expects to receive what Seneca used to send to very humble friends, or what the good Piso or Gotta used to give; for in those days a bountiful disposition was thought to add lustre to honours and titles. And Martial, whose Spanish origin may have recommended him to Seneca, in the same vein regrets in two of his epigrams the spacious days of Piso and Seneca and Memmius, whom he prefers to the most liberal patrons of his own time.
Page: 87 There followed the great fire, in the course of which the greater part of Rome was burnt to the ground. Nero, who was reported to have watched the flames from the tower of Maecenas with aesthetic delight, while he chanted in costume a poem of his own composition on the destruction of Troy, was accused of having himself contrived the fire. Incendiaries were seen in the confusion rushing about with torches in their hands, stopping attempts to extinguish the fire, and crying out that they had authority for what they were doing. These were probably robbers, but they were widely believed to be emissaries of the emperor.
Page: 88 Whether or not Nero was concerned in the burning of Rome, the catastrophe allowed him to satisfy his passion for the grandiose in the rebuilding of Rome, and especially of his own palace, on a magnificent scale. The old city with its tall houses and narrow winding streets was gone, and broad regular thoroughfares with houses of moderate height, built of stone and fronted by colonnades, were laid out in its place. At the same time a fire-brigade and an improved water-supply were organised.
Page: 95 THE practical and unsystematic character of Seneca’s philosophy makes it less easy to describe than to understand.
Page: 101 Stoicism in the centuries before Christ was like a motor started but off the clutch. There is a great deal of potential energy, but being merely potential it results in nothing but noise. Seneca supplied the clutch to Stoicism by applying it to the practical conduct of life, and he was followed in this work by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Thus a statesman, a slave, and an emperor, differing as widely in temperament as they did in position, reached, nevertheless, the same conclusions as to the nature of man and the secret of his felicity. What the Greeks preach, the Romans practise, says Quintilian — a greater matter.
Page: 104 most modern writers have nevertheless attributed the remaining eight tragedies to the philosopher. Yet apart from the fact that there seems no sufficient reason for separating the Octavia from the rest of the collection, the case against his authorship seems to me so strong as to be almost conclusive.
Page: 104 Indeed, with the exception of a single passage in his twenty-first letter, in which with a certain solemnity he promises Lucilius that as Idomeneus lives for ever in the letters of Epicurus, Atticus in those of Cicero, so it was also in his power to confer immortality on his own correspondent, we hear nothing of his great position and reputation from himself.
Page: 106 Shakespeare and Milton have transmuted many of his thoughts into glorious poetry — Milton taking directly from him, Shakespeare in all probability by way of Florio’s Montaigne. From the first he has excited admiration and hostility in almost equal measure. He is perhaps the only pagan whom the early Christian writers — Tertullian, Augustine, Lactantius, and Jerome — regarded with all but unmixed approval. On the other hand, the pedantic Roman archaists of the Antonine period — Aulus Gellius and Fronto — detested him as the corrupter of taste and a dangerous innovator. It must always be remembered that his was no abstract philosophy of the study. It was addressed by a former man of action to men living under a reign of terror, whose lives were in daily peril; and its object was to free them from anxiety and brace their minds to meet their fate with indifference and dignity. Consequently it is in dangerous times that he has found the greatest favour.