Fratricide, Matricide and the Philosopher

Shadi Bartsch

  • Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm
    Knopf, 290 pp, £18.45, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 307 59687 1
  • Seneca: A Life by Emily Wilson
    Allen Lane, 253 pp, £25.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 1 84614 637 4

How much weight should we give to unpleasant revelations about the private lives of thinkers? It partly depends on what kind of thinker we’re talking about. When it was discovered a few years after his death in 1983 that Paul de Man had written for Nazi-controlled newspapers in Belgium, a debate began on whether this had any bearing on the deconstruction he propounded. The new revelations rooted out by Evelyn Barish in her biography of de Man last year – bigamy, fraud and an unserved prison sentence – further fuelled the discussion.[*] Similar questions circle around Heidegger: it had always been known that he was a member of the Nazi Party, but his Black Notebooks, recently published in Germany, contained new evidence of anti-Semitism. Revelations like these trouble the writers’ acolytes, but it isn’t clear that they damage their work (not clear, but possible: a case has been made that there are connections between Heideggerian Dasein and Nazi ideology). Heidegger, after all, like de Man, made no claim to be a philosopher of ethics: he claimed in his ‘Letter on Humanism’ that ethics begins ‘to flourish only when originary thinking comes to an end’.

Yet the charge of hypocrisy can legitimately be levelled at any ethical philosopher, ancient or modern, who doesn’t abide by his own teachings. A mathematician who solves a famous problem may be a known scoundrel and liar, but mathematicians don’t come up with ethical injunctions for others to follow. If we were to discover that despite his exaltation of the rational part of the soul, Plato spent his days getting drunk and ogling young boys in the gymnasion, what would we think of the moral philosophy he puts in Socrates’ mouth? Still, simply noting the presence of hypocrisy doesn’t answer the question of whether hypocrisy matters, or when it should make a difference. It merely raises more questions: if an author doesn’t follow his own recipe for the happy moral life, can it still be a good recipe? If he’s too weak to follow it, can we assume others will be stronger? Should we be grateful that he can state philosophical ideals even if he can’t live them? Should we try to make sense of the situation by assuming that no one would willingly think of themselves as a hypocrite, but would believe there were extenuating circumstances in their own case?

We don’t get many opportunities to try out these options. Summon up a list of great ethical thinkers: they are all exemplary figures, even if that is because their lives were cleaned up ex post facto by the tradition that passed on their teachings. The Buddha was moved by human suffering to seek enlightenment; Socrates was self-abnegating and wise in his knowledge of his own lack of wisdom; Confucius left politics to teach the importance of duty, self-cultivation and personal example. They all seem to have abided by their own teachings, which has made the teachings more persuasive – imagine a hypocritical Jesus, and you get a sense of the devastation that would be wrought on the faithful. Even Marcus Aurelius belongs in this company: he held a degree of political power unusual for a moral philosopher but his apparently private notes to himself, the Meditations, show him to be troubled by the exercise of empire and keen to rid himself of any signs of a weakness for wealth or power.

There is one figure whose writings set more of a puzzle: Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Along with Marcus Aurelius, he is the best-known representative of Roman Stoicism, and its most prolific author. The many works Seneca left behind and the details about his career recorded by Tacitus, Dio Cassius and others present us with the starkest of contrasts: an apparent double standard which raised eyebrows in his own time. His essays and letters repeatedly advocate the superiority of Stoic wisdom: the good Stoic is indifferent to material goods, concerned above all with improving the state of his psyche through introspection and self-correction, and able to subordinate his emotions to Stoic rationality. Whether your child has died or a tyrant is stretching you on the rack, the goal is unshakeable equanimity. These circumstances are ‘externals’ that can’t affect the virtue of your soul, which depends on living according to reason (itself conceived of as a state manifested in the existence of the universe). Seneca never claims he’s become the unshakeable person who pursues virtue alone, but presents himself as constantly striving towards this goal, and his prose writings focus on the endeavour and its challenges.

But Seneca didn’t maintain a philosophical detachment from politics or ambition: his life resembles that of any enterprising but unfortunate senator under one of the later Julio-Claudian emperors. Already noted for his literary and philosophical talents under Caligula, he was recalled from eight years of exile in Corsica (where Messalina’s ill will had sent him in 41 ad) by the emperor Claudius’ new wife, Agrippina, who wanted a tutor to help her son outshine his half-brother, Britannicus. When the young Nero duly became emperor in 54 ad, Seneca and the praetorian prefect S. Afranius Burrus became his two principal political advisers. Seneca’s new position gave him influence and wealth. Worse still, it made him complicit with the worsening abuses of power by his former pupil, including Agrippina’s murder. When he tried to retire in 62 ad, whether through fear, compunction or the pressure of his schizophrenic existence, Nero wouldn’t let him: he was too useful as a way of legitimising the regime. Only when he was falsely accused of banding with others to kill Nero in the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 ad could he depart his uncomfortable position, but not for a life of otium: Nero ordered him to commit suicide, so he cut several of his veins while extolling, to a group of friends, the value of the philosophical life.

Seneca was perfectly aware of the discrepancy between his official position and his philosophy. On the Happy Life mounts a defence against the charges of excessive wealth, gourmandising and hypocrisy that were flung at him by his peers: Seneca claims that it is his critics who are morally suspect. Other senators, he writes, asked why he said that riches were to be despised while he himself was rolling in money, or that health was of no concern while he looked after his own with the greatest of care. In response, Seneca not only claims to be indifferent to his considerable assets, but positions himself in a long line of maligned philosophers: ‘You say that I talk one way and live another! You spiteful beings, who detest all outstanding men, this criticism was thrown at Plato, and at Epicurus, and at Zeno too; for they all spoke, not about how they lived, but about how they ought to live.’

But no matter how typical he deemed his failings, Seneca’s wealth and power were in contrast both to the famous philosophers of the past as well as other exemplars of Stoic thought in his own day and the century that followed. His contemporaries G. Musonius Rufus and L. Annaeus Cornutus played little part in public life; the political figures Helvidius Priscus and Thrasea Paetus protested against imperial abuses and paid the price; the ex-slave Epictetus never had enough worldly power to present a hypocritical contrast to his writings. As to his actual position at court, Seneca notoriously writes absolutely nothing about it; Nero himself only crops up in one essay, On Clemency. In the writings of his last years, the Letters to Lucilius, he warns his correspondent to stay out of politics altogether.

The new biographies by James Romm and Emily Wilson explore the tensions generated by Seneca’s life and legacy without resorting to the reductive choice between saint and hypocrite, Stoic idealist or stony practitioner of realpolitik. Romm admits that his mission to make a convincing single personality out of the courtier and the philosopher may be impossible, but his attempt to keep in sight at all times both the writer and the courtier, ‘despite their non-acknowledgment of each other’, yields an interesting and sympathetic Seneca, whose good intentions – and high profile – led to his entrapment in Nero’s self-serving net. Romm allows that Seneca ‘rarely mentioned the people with whom he worked hand in glove for years – Claudius, Nero, Agrippina, Burrus and Tigellinus’, instead creating ‘a body of work filled with yawning chasms of silence’. But this silence represents an inability to speak about power that found expression, instead, in anecdote and drama. Romm matches up the periods Seneca spent in exile, at court and in unsanctioned retirement with his writings (to the extent they can be dated), teasing out hints about the way Seneca may have been thinking about his role in politics even as he argued for uncompromising moral positions. On Anger invites us to reflect on Caligula; in On Benefits Seneca’s wealth is indirectly linked to his identification of the problem that gifts given by kings and tyrants can’t be refused; Agrippina’s behaviour is mirrored in the actions of the Medeas and Phaedras of the tragedies; the Thyestes offers a backwards look at Nero’s fratricide of Britannicus. All these texts offer reasons to be a Stoic: the world is a violent and soul-rending place.

Wilson, too, draws connections between the plays and other works and the periods of Seneca’s life in which he wrote them. Her shorter biography is aimed at a general audience, and as such necessarily lacks some of the investigative depth of Romm’s while offering digressions on Roman attitudes towards female sexuality; what it was like to take a three-day chariot trip from Spain to Rome; or Roman consumerism. The book is an enjoyable treatment of Seneca’s life for a public that may not know him well, though some readers may question such generalising assertions as ‘silver-tongued Seneca was clearly appealing to women.’ Seneca’s life is followed from birth to death, with 38 pages on his childhood and adolescence from very few details, but much space for On Benefits, which she sees as a sign of his discomfort with imperial generosity.

But it’s Romm who is most interested in the yawning silences. He pushes beyond the more cautious suggestions of Miriam Griffin, who in her 1976 biography noted ‘Seneca’s reluctance to mention his current public position, to allude to current events, or to refer to contemporaries by name’, which she attributed to Seneca’s ‘natural reserve’, his ‘emphasis on inner life’ and his status as a ‘teacher of morals’. Romm instead shows how Seneca might have found himself more and more implicated until there was no turning back. The titles of Romm’s chapters emphasise Nero’s successive crimes – fratricide, regicide, matricide, maritocide, mass murder – and highlight what it was with which Seneca had to be complicit. The doubleness of Seneca’s idealism and failure is caught in the title. Seneca himself wrote that ‘cotidie morimur’ – ‘we die every day.’ The obvious literal sense is that every day brings us closer to death; the phrase is also a reference to the Stoic self-preparation for death, the daily meditatio mortis which is supposed to ensure that you are constantly ready for death: ‘Death does not enter a great soul so much as return to it.’ But dying every day is also the way Romm portrays Seneca’s frame of mind under Nero: the concept plays double duty as political truth and philosophical ideal. We know from Tacitus that when Seneca tried to surrender all his wealth to Nero in 62 ad, the emperor refused on the grounds that it would make him look bad. By the end of his career, his hopes for a better emperor were in tatters, and, Romm writes, he ‘lived now in twilight, a prisoner chained to the palace by the very moral stature that had brought him there to begin with’.

The twilight spurred Seneca’s last work, the Letters to Lucilius, in which the task of philosophical self-formation and self-control is stressed above all else. The letters were for public consumption (many readers, then and later, found them unpalatable) and in them Seneca seems to have acknowledged his failure at court: ‘I show to others the right path, which I have found too late, and worn out by error.’ Despite his failure, he still seemed to have hoped that his writings could inspire others. Less nobly, perhaps, Romm suggests that Seneca hoped to prolong his life by a pact with Nero that offered him silence in return for survival:

In one of the Letters, Seneca appears to offer Nero a mutual non-aggression pact. The topic he has chosen to discuss with Lucilius is whether philosophers are the enemies of monarchs. Of course they are not, Seneca opines. Rulers preserve the peace that allows sages to think great thoughts; the sage should revere the ruler as a child does a parent, or a student his teacher.

At his death, Tacitus shows us Seneca effectively rebuking his friends for not learning the lessons of his writing. Why did he try to avoid the suicide that he so often presents as a release from intolerable conditions? Romm argues that such suicide could show an acquiescence to autocracy rather than defiance. It’s more likely Seneca still hoped when he wrote the Letters to Lucilius to outlive the more and more deranged and unpopular Nero and then to help reshape his own career for the eyes of posterity. In the absence of that opportunity, there will always be two images of his life: the court Seneca, marred by the great error of thinking that compromise was possible, and the idealised author of his writings, the imago vitae suae that Tacitus has him claim is his legacy to the future.

How tainted is that legacy? Wilson makes the point that while these days we think in terms of hypocrisy and integrity, Seneca judged himself on constancy and inconstancy. He said that ‘the greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself’; Wilson observes ‘the paradoxes that emerge … through his attempt to gain “control” or “empire” in both the public and personal senses’. In this too he failed. But it’s interesting that in Senecan drama, constancy is the hallmark of his most successful protagonists – and they are not the philosophers, but the tyrants. While the moralisers go to and fro, the Atreuses and Medeas take revenge. Seneca proves in both biographies to be not so much an inconstant hypocrite as a tragic figure. He was an idealist with stained hands: a man whose life demonstrated the view that philosophers and rulers are best off keeping their distance from one another.

[*] Michael Wood reviewed Evelyn Barish’s The Double Life of Paul de Man in the LRB of 8 January.