Lucius Annaeus Seneca, also known as Seneca the Younger, is a Roman writer, philosopher and a notable figure in Rome’s political and literary life.
Seneca lived between 4 BC–AD 65, leaving behind a large and diverse body of works: essays, philosophical treatises, tragedies, a satire.
Why Read Seneca Today?
Today, in a world of constant connectivity, reading any of Seneca’s works, one can find really good advice. In a way, Seneca’s legacy provides a way to “philosophically structure our own lives” (see Massimo Pigliucci’s introduction and commentary to Seneca’s On the happy Life).
Seneca’s writings teach us to look at life, ourselves and the human nature in a more calm way with an understanding that reaches beyond the external circumstances and into the very essence of our own being (and doing).
Seneca’s written word remains a wonderful place to run away from the noise of the crowd (see Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 7 – On Crowds) where it is upon us to realize the brevity of life (see. Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae) and be very careful with the only thing that is ours and that we so often loose entrapped with pointless digital activities – time (ref. Seneca’s advice to collect and keep time: “collige et serva” from Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 1 – On Saving Time).
Seneca’s Life: A Rise, an Exile, a Suicide
Seneca was born in Cordoba, capital of the Roman province of Baetica and today’s city of Spain, in the affluent family of Seneca the Elder, Roman rhetorician and writer, and Helvetia, a well-educated woman of a prominent Baetican family.
In his early age, Seneca moved to Rome with his father to study rhetoric. After a period of youthful convalescence in Egypt, where his aunt’s husband was a prefect, at the age of 31, Seneca returned to Rome to begin a career in politics and law.
During the reign of emperor Caligula (37-40) Seneca was a member of the Senate and established himself as a writer and orator, renowned for his eloquence.
In the year 41, Seneca was sentenced in exile in Corsica by emperor Claudius for an alleged adultery. After spending 8 years in exile Seneca was recalled to Rome by Agrippina, the new wife of emperor Claudius and the mother of Nero, the soon-to-be emperor. Becoming a praetor and further the tutor of the future emperor Seneca’s career entered a 10-year rise.
In the final years of his life, Seneca withdrew from public life and Roman politics to the countryside where he composed a considerable part of his works.
In 65 AD, when Seneca was about 60 years old, under suspicion of conspiring against the emperor, the philosopher was ordered to commit suicide. And so he did.
Seneca’s Works: An Immense, Wide-Ranging Literary and Philosophical Legacy
The works of Seneca the Younger comprise a large body of writings with various styles and of diverse form. Most of them cannot be dated with precision and many are known only as titles. The surviving works by Seneca, date between 41 and 65 and include poetry (tragedies and epigrams), prose (philosophical treatises and letters) and a Menippean Satire.
Seneca wrote a total of 9 tragedies which are the only fully preserved works of this genre in Rome:
- Troades (The Trojan Women)
- Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
- Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules)
- Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta)
In his tragedies, Seneca uses stories and characters from the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, strengthening the pathos they originally carry and amplifying the ugliness of the immoral, conceived as an opposition of virtue – the higher good according to the Stoic principles.
The ideas of Stoicism – the ancient Greek school of philosophy founded by Zeno, Seneca develops in his Dialogues. Collectively known as Dialogi, Seneca’s Dialogues are 10 treatises in 12 books, as found in an eleventh-century Ambrosian manuscript. Among the most prominent of them are:
- De Vita Beata (On the happy life)
- Ad Marciam, De consolatione (To Marcia, On consolation)
- Ad Helviam matrem, De consolatione (To Helvia, On consolation)
- De Brevitate Vitae (On the shortness of life)
- De Providentia (On providence)
- De ira (On anger)
- De Tranquillitate Animi (On tranquillity of mind)
- De Constantia Sapientis (On the Firmness of the Wise Person)
Among Seneca’s other works are Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii (Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius) – a witty political skit, and Naturales quaestiones (Natural Questions) where Seneca writes about the problems of the nature of things, which inevitably are associated with ethics.
Ethics, virtue and good life are discussed in Seneca’s Ad Lucilium epistulae morales (Moral Letters to Lucilius). The 124 essays are concise treatises in the form of diatribe in which specific occasions of everyday life evoke philosophical generalizations, treating a wide range of moral challenges.
The Seneca Renaissance
Seneca’s philosophical views, considered among the most read in Stoics teachings, and his way of seeing the virtuous life have resonated loudly for many authors and readers from Antiquity till today. How “Seneca’s intellectual power is currently radiating far beyond the realm of specialized philosophy ” is very well described in Brill’s Companion to Seneca: Philosopher and Dramatist.
With Seneca’s maxims for ethical understandings and behaviour he has been an inspiration for more than 2 millennia. True to the tradition of Stoicism, in his philosophical treatises Seneca places an emphasis on virtue, austerity and self-possession. And it seems that this never-ending desire to understand the self and master it that makes Seneca’s writings timeless.