There are not many philosophers in the Western canon who have taken an active role in politics. Give or take a few thinkers, we have an assortment of men whose lives reflect a slight paraphrase of Heidegger’s description of Aristotle: they were born, they philosophized, and they died. Indeed, the equation of the contemplative life with the summum bonum—an argument made famous in Aristotle’s Ethics—has been so pervasive throughout the history of Western thought that we have difficulty imagining how—or if—a philosophic spirit can be combined with an active political life. Fortunately, we have The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca, by University of Pennsylvania classics professor Emily Wilson, an intellectual biography of the Roman philosopher-statesman that admirably elucidates the “paradoxes of being both a ‘philosopher in politics’ and a politician in philosophy.”
Wilson’s point of departure in her life of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC–AD 65), the great Stoic philosopher, historian, dramatist, and statesman, comes from a line in one of Seneca’s letters: imperare sibi maximum imperium est—“the greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself.” This is a summation of Stoic philosophy and frames, as Wilson puts it, the “most interesting question” of “why he preached what he did, so adamantly and so effectively, given the life he found himself leading.”
Seneca was born in Cordoba—then in the Roman province of Hispania, in southern Spain—to an elite, educated mother and an equestrian (or “knighted”) father, Seneca the Elder, whose writing on rhetoric survives to the present day. He had, we can assume, a childhood similar to anyone in his station and seems to have been particularly close to his mother, Helvia, to whom he later dedicated an extensive public letter.
As a young boy, Seneca was brought to Rome, where he formally began studies in rhetoric and philosophy under the tutelage of Attalus, a well-known Stoic philosopher and friend of his father. Of Attalus, Seneca would later write:
when I used to hear Attalus at the climax of a speech against faults, against errors, against everything bad in life, I often felt pity for the human race and thought that Attalus was an exalted being, above the pinnacle of human affairs. He said himself that he was a king, but I thought he was more than that, for here was a man who could censure kings.
As Wilson observes, Seneca’s preoccupation—later echoed by Machiavelli—with the questions of “who is the real king” and “where does his authority come from” may well have begun with Attalus’ teachings.
From the ages of 25-35, Seneca, suffering from a lung ailment, convalesced in Alexandria under the care of his aunt, who happened to be married to the Roman prefect of Egypt. But if his body was at rest, it was a poor indication of the health of his ambition. By the time Seneca traveled back to Rome in AD 31, his aunt had used her influence to get him a quaestorship, the first official “rank” for the young Roman elite, and a position that usually was granted only after 10 years of service in the army. This officially marked Seneca’s turn toward politics, a career that would find him, at various points, exiled to Corsica by the emperor Claudius on charges of adultery, becoming consul of Rome, and serving as mentor/speechwriter to his later executioner, Nero.
Wilson is particularly good about describing the waning years of Neronian Rome. We get a sense of how precarious it was for Seneca to mentor a psychopath and the deleterious effect it began to have on his own psychological well-being. Seneca played a decisive role in helping Nero consolidate power through the murder of his mother, Agrippina—the person, incidentally, responsible for Seneca’s return to her son’s court in Rome. Afterward, we learn it is Seneca who drafts a statement from Nero declaring, falsely, that Agrippina was plotting to kill him, earning Seneca the ire of the public and the condemnation of later Roman historians.
Seneca, Wilson imagines, attempts to make sense of this episode in a seven-book work entitled On Benefits. As Wilson describes:
On Benefits serves as a response to those who might suspect Seneca of ingratitude towards poor murdered Agrippina. It also provides a platform for Seneca to defend himself against any suspicion he might be serving Nero only for material advantages … this is … a subtle and effective mechanism for dealing both with the author’s own guilt and anxiety about his position and with the public suspicions of a philosopher in such a position of power.
The Agrippina episode, and the public defense that followed, is characteristic of Seneca’s life. We read, time and again, of morally dubious situations defended after the fact, making it very tempting to castigate the philosopher on grounds of inconsistency or dishonesty. Wilson, for her part, mostly stays out of the fray, which is sensible. For, apart from the scant biographic details, mostly written by historians disinclined to say anything nice about Seneca, we know little about this great philosopher apart from his written work. Thus the question becomes one of evaluating Seneca on the quality of his thought rather than by the distance of his public pronouncements from his actions.
The Greatest Empire is one of the most engaging, thoughtful intellectual biographies I have read in some time, and Wilson is at her best when discussing Seneca’s ability to navigate the Roman court while preserving a degree of philosophical autonomy from the very real barbarism of politics. Much of her analysis relies on a critical exegesis of Seneca’s writing, which appears deceptively simple on its face but often turns out to be subtle and playful. If scholars have not suspected the link between persecution and the art of writing in Seneca’s craft before, Wilson’s book will go some way in making the claim that Seneca—and by implication other Roman writers—deserves a second, more careful reading.
It is a testament to Wilson’s ability that The Greatest Empire does not lapse into academese while exploring topics that might appear to be far from modern concerns. If the book could be said to suffer from a flaw, it is only that it leaves unanswered many of the interesting questions it raises at the beginning. Why, for instance, did Seneca feel the need to turn toward politics, a mode of existence that hardly allowed him the time for calm, protracted philosophic thought? And what was it in this champion of autonomy and honest introspection that kept him in an environment where health depended on the caprice of a madman? Finally, I would have liked to see Wilson conclude with a meditation on the supposed incompatibility of a philosopher in politics and politician in philosophy.
To be fair, Wilson’s decision to raise rather than answer questions about a man half of whose literary output has been lost is both judicious and philosophical. It is judicious because we simply don’t have the evidence to ascribe a definitive rationale to Seneca’s personal decisions; and it is philosophical because it moves us away from baseless speculation to the only thing we can ever know about a man: his writing.
Complementing Wilson’s biography is a new translation of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics from the University of Chicago Press. This translation, the first in English in nearly a century, presents Seneca’s 124 letters to his young friend Gaius Lucilius Iunior, in a rendering that serves “thoughts, not words.” While literalness takes a backseat to readability, translators Margaret Graver and A.A. Long should be commended for reintroducing the Letters to a new generation.
The Letters, composed during the three years before Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide, is, as the translators point out, Seneca’s “most significant philosophical contribution” and “his most innovative venture in literary composition.” Though each letter is addressed to Lucilius, Seneca notes early on “the work that I am doing is for posterity … the right path, that I myself discovered late in life when weary from wandering, I now point to others.”
The epistolary structure of the Letters allows the book to be opened and read at most any place, and it is written in such a way that weighty philosophic concepts are condensed into pithy statements that can have the power of thunderbolts. While the topics of the Letters can often feel discordant—for instance, Seneca follows a discussion on syllogisms by one on heavy drinking—a few themes, such as education, philosophy, death, and health, emerge throughout the work.
The Letters are hard to classify; they belong to that nameless group of books written by philosophers that have the appearance of philosophy, but, on closer inspection, are propaedeutic to the activity of philosophy itself. Like Aristotle’s Ethics, to read the Letters with profit one needs the proper habituation to philosophy; but to receive the proper habituation to philosophy, it helps to first have read the Letters. Though this may feel paradoxical, an appropriate stance towards the Letters, as Seneca himself might have agreed, is that this is a book one lives with rather than outgrows.
In light of the tragic events that closed his life, it is easy to read a certain fatalistic sorrow in many of Seneca’s letters. There is such obvious tension between the peaceful, contemplative life so necessary for human flourishing and the brutality of Roman court politics that one wonders if aspects of the Letters are best understood as autobiography. In a missive on making time for study, Seneca gives the one piece of advice he was unable to heed:
We ought not to wait for our spare time to practice philosophy; rather, we should neglect other occupations to pursue this one task for which no amount of time would be sufficient … you might as well not bother with philosophy if you are going to practice it intermittently … Rather than reducing your encumbrances, you should get rid of them altogether. There is no time that is not well suited to these healing studies, yet there are many who fail to study when caught up in the problems that give one reason to study.
The tension between a public and private existence, between the life of politics and the life of philosophy, that gripped Seneca does not feel as urgent to us anymore. At least in the United States, philosophy is seen—at best—as an avocation or profession, certainly not a mode of being. Seneca’s impassioned plea that we “pursue this one task for which no amount of time would be sufficient” falls on deaf ears—just ask Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz—making it even less likely that his Letters or interest in his life find an attentive audience. I suspect, however, that as we continue to get invaded by modernity’s bits and bytes those people who sense there is more to life than their repetitive nine-to-five workday may look to history for great figures who wrestled with similar questions, and thanks to these two wonderful editions they will find a Seneca as approachable and fresh as he was thousands of years ago, in an altogether different time and place.
David Bahr is assistant editor of The Weekly Standard.