The Life of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. - A.D. 65)
Seneca was an important Latin writer for the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and beyond. His themes and philosophy should even appeal to us today, or so says Brian Arkins in "Heavy Seneca: his Influence on Shakespeare's Tragedies." Classics Ireland 2 (1995) 1-8. ISSN 0791-9417.
Seneca the Elder was a rhetorician from Cordoba, Spain, where his son, our thinker, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, was born in about 4 B.C. His aunt or someone took the young boy to be educated in Rome where he studied a philosophy that blended Stoicism with neo-Pythagoreanism.
Seneca began his career in law and politics in about A.D. 31, serving as consul in 57. He soon fell afoul of the first of 3 emperors, Caligula. He survived long enough to serve as advisor of the last of the Julio-Claudians from 54-62 A.D. whom he had earlier served as tutor.
Seneca wrote tragedies that have raised the question of whether they were intended for performance. They may have been meant for recitation. They are not on original topics, but treat familiar themes, often with gruesome detail.
Works of Seneca
Works by Seneca Available at the Latin Library:
Epistulae morales ad Lucilium
de Consolatione ad Polybium, ad Marciam, and ad Helviam
Dialogi: de Providentia, de Constantia, de Otio, de Brevitate Vitae, de Tranquillitate Animi, de Vita Beata, and de Clementia
Fabulae: Medea, Phaedra, Hercules [Oetaeus], Agamemnon, Oedipus, Thyestes, and Octavia
Apocolocyntosis and Proverbs.
Virtue, Reason, the Good Life
Seneca's philosophy is best known from his letters to Lucilius and his dialogues.
In accordance with the philosophy of the Stoics, Virtue (virtus) and Reason are the basis of a good life, and a good life should be lived simply and in accordance with Nature. But whereas the philosophical treatises of an Epictetus might inspire you to lofty goals you know you'll never meet, Seneca's philosophy is more practical. [See Stoic-Based resolutions.] Seneca's philosophy is not strictly Stoic, but contains ideas thrown in from other philosophies. He even coaxes and cajoles, as in the case of his advice to his mother to cease her grieving. "You are beautiful," he says (paraphrased) "with an age-defying appeal that needs no make-up, so stop acting like the worst kind of vain woman."
You never polluted yourself with make-up, and you never wore a dress that covered about as much on as it did off. Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that time does not tarnish, is the great honour of modesty.Another famous example of his pragmatic philosophy comes from a line in Hercules Furens: "Successful and fortunate crime is called virtue."
So you cannot use your sex to justify your sorrow when with your virtue you have transcended it. Keep as far away from women's tears as from their faults.
(www.uky.edu/ArtsSciences/Classics/wlgr/wlgr-privatelife261.html) 261. Seneca to his mother. Corsica, A.D. 41/9.
Parody and Burlesque in the Writing of Seneca
The Apocolocyntosis (The Pumpkinification of Claudius), a Menippean Satire, is a parody of the fashion of deifying emperors and a burlesque of the buffoonish emperor Claudius. Classical scholar Michael Coffey says the term "apocolocyntosis" is meant to suggest the conventional term "apotheosis" whereby a man, usually someone at the head of government, like a Roman emperor, was turned into a god (by order of the Roman Senate). Apocolocyntosis contains a word for some type of gourd -- probably not a pumpkin, but "Pumpkinification" caught on. The much ridiculed Emperor Claudius was not going to be made into a normal god, who would be expected to be better and brighter than mere mortals.
Seneca's Social Consciousness
On the serious side, because Seneca compared man's being enslaved by emotions and vices with physical slavery, many have thought he held a forward-looking view on the oppressive institution of slavery, even though his attitude towards women (see quotation above) was less enlightened.
Legacy of Seneca and the Christian Church
Seneca and the Christian Church
Although currently doubted, it was thought that Seneca was in correspondence with St. Paul. Because of this correspondence, Seneca was acceptable to the leaders of the Christian Church. Dante placed him in Limbo in his Divine Comedy.
During the Middle Ages much of the writing of Classical Antiquity was lost, but because of the correspondence with St. Paul, Seneca was considered important enough that monks preserved and copied his material.
Seneca and the RenaissanceHaving survived the Middle Ages, a period that saw the loss of many classical writings, Seneca continued to fare well in the Renaissance. As Brian Arkins writes, in the article mentioned at the beginning of this article, on p.1:
"For the dramatists of the Renaissance in France, in Italy, and in England, Classical tragedy means the ten Latin plays of Seneca, not Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides...."
Not only was Seneca suited to Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers, but he fits out mindset today. Arkins' article predates 9/11, but that only means another incident can be added to the list of horrors:
"[T]he appeal of Seneca's plays for the Elizabethan age and for the modern age is not far to seek: Seneca studies evil with great diligence and, in particular, evil in the prince, and both those ages are very well versed in evil.... In Seneca and in Shakespeare, we encounter first a Cloud of Evil, then the defeat of Reason by Evil, and, finally, the triumph of Evil.
All this is caviar to the age of Dachau and Auschwitz, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of Kampuchea, Northern Ireland, Bosnia. Horror does not turn us off, as it turned off the Victorians, who could not handle Seneca. Nor did horror turn off the Elizabethans...."