Seneca: A Life Review: A Nuanced Portrayal Of One Of History’s Most Complex Figures

When it comes to studying the Stoics, Seneca is often cited as one of the most prolific because of the number of works he produced and the sources about his life. A complicated man, Seneca was a proud Stoic who often lived at odds with the philosophy he claimed to love under the corrupt regime of Nero.

Was Seneca a philosopher who sought the simple life? Was he a hypocrite who failed to practice what he preached? Was he a man who found himself in an impossible situation and did the best he could to mitigate the excesses of an emperor? Was he all of these things and more?

Such questions are the topic of Emily Wilson’s Seneca: A Life, which provides a nuanced portrayal of one of antiquity’s most complex figures.

Charting the rough road to greatness 

While functioning as a biography, Seneca: A Life is also about holding a mirror up to Seneca and reflecting all of his flaws, contradictions and ambitions over the course of his life. Wilson is focused on the idea of the ‘greatest empire’ which she explains in the introduction:

“This book traces the paradoxes that emerge in Seneca’s life and work through his attempt to gain ‘control’ or ‘empire’ (both covered by the Latin term imperium) in both the public and personal senses: to be influential over other people within his society, and also to be stable in himself.

The greatest empire comes from a passage in Epistle 113, dealing with the problematic relationship of these two kinds of empire. Seneca insists that those who attempt to conquer the world and attain political, military and economic power are far inferior to those who manage to achieve the empire of control over themselves.” 

This duality is a constant theme throughout Seneca’s life, from his time as a young boy in Spain and his early days in Rome under the guidance of his father Seneca The Elder and the complicated relationships he formed with his brothers Mela and Novatus (later Gallio).

Wilson puts a strong emphasis on Seneca The Younger carefully crafting an idealised lifestyle for himself even in those earlier days through his writing. 

“Seneca fictionalised his own relationship with his father for two main reasons. First, the son bolsters his own claims to moral decency by presenting himself as the offspring of a man who was the salt of the old Roman earth. It would have looked bad for the author of the Moral Epistles to acknowledge himself as the son of a nouveau riche provincial, one who encouraged his sons to be highly ambitious, who enjoyed rhetorical exercises as leisure time activity and who had some interest in (Greek!) philosophy, especially as a tool for social advancement.

The second reason for the fudging is more personal. Seneca was presumably comforted by presenting himself as the beloved son of a devoted father. This was particularly important fiction since the father’s own writing suggests, quite to the contrary, that Mela, the youngest boy was the favourite and that Seneca the Elder may have been rather less impressed with his two older sons.”

Writing a legacy 

Writing in this way became a habit for Seneca, who was keenly aware of his own imperfections. He created a fictionalised self that owned these flaws and yet somehow distanced himself at the same time. 

It’s worth remembering that a lot of what the philosopher wrote was being consumed by the public. Presenting himself as a man of virtue was no different to what many of his contemporaries were doing and was part of the complex web of Roman politics.

Wilson provides a fascinating analysis on Seneca’s Letters To Lucilius that drives home his paradoxical writing tendencies:

The Letters To Lucilius conjure up a paradoxical relationship between writer and addressee. On one hand, Seneca sets out to give advice to his friend, suggesting that he himself is at least somewhat further along the road towards philosophical perfection. On the other hand, he constantly acknowledges that the real work has to be done by each person for himself: only Lucilius can teach Lucilius.

But Seneca constantly works in the Letters to undermine the distinction between the reader and the writer; we are supposed to become so closely involved that this distinction disappears. If you can find a true friend, he suggests, you can talk to him as if to a second self. Seneca manages to invite us to think of the text as a transparent window into his thoughts, even as he constructs his own image.” 

This is the power of Seneca’s writing at work. Centuries later, people are still reading his work and drawing their own conclusions about a man who was many things. 

Seneca: A Life seeks to present its titular character as a product of his time, who climbed out of obscurity and reached the heights of ambition. The truth is there may be a little Seneca in all of us and that’s what makes the man endlessly fascinating and this biography so damn riveting.

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