In his famous epistles, the Roman writer and statesman of the first century, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, often comes across as more Epicurean than Stoic. His life was that of a well-to-do patrician and minister of the infamous Emperor Nero. Not surprisingly, Seneca’s style is witty and urbane. You seldom encounter the intensity of Marcus Aurelius or the religious asceticism of Epictetus. In some respects his humanistic sophistication nicely balances the more heroic, albeit seemingly superhuman, ethics of other Stoic thinkers. The Roman man of letters is never dull. Sometimes his comments indulge in clever understatement.
I wonder whether there’s anything I couldn’t be persuaded into now, after letting myself be persuaded recently into taking a trip by sea (Letter LIII).
Sometimes they are full of earthy and scathing observations.
Here am I with a babel of noise going on all about me. I have lodgings right over a public bathhouse…. the strenuous types are doing their exercises, swinging weight-laden hands about, I hear the grunting as they toil away…. think of the hair remover, continually giving vent to his shrill and penetrating cry in order to advertise his presence, never silent unless it be while he is plucking someone’s armpits and making the client yell for him! (Letter LVI).
But occasionally his writings venture into more sublime regions, as in this letter to his friend Lucilius.
Friendship creates a community of interest between us in everything. We have neither successes or setbacks a individuals; our lives have a common end. No one can lead a happy life in he think only of himself and turns everything to his own purposes (Letter XLVIII).
Like all Stoics, Seneca placed a high value on social virtues. But unlike Marcus Aurelius, who was a ruler of millions, Seneca’s sense of fraternity is on a more intimate and domestic level. He speaks of duties to one’s “fellow-men” in terms of individual relationships that appeal to an introvert like myself. At the same time he is led to ponder the ultimate responsibility of the philosopher, which is quite unlike the brilliant but selfish pessimism of egoists like Arthur Schopenhauer.
Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out to humanity? Counsel. One person is facing death, another is vexed by poverty, while another is tormented by wealth…; one man is appalled by his misfortune while another longs to get away from his own prosperity; one man is suffering at the hands of men, another at the hands of the gods…. This isn’t the place for [intellectual puzzles] – you are called in to help the unhappy.
Quotations are taken from the Penguin edition of Letters from a Stoic, translated by Robin Campbell.