A Stoic in Nero’s Court

Seneca: The Complete Tragedies, Volume 1

edited by Shadi Bartsch; translated from the Latin by Shadi Bartsch, Susanna Braund, Alex Dressler, and Elaine Fantham
University of Chicago Press, 274 pp., $45.00

Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Peter Paul Rubens: The Death of Seneca, circa 1612–1613

Plato, in his Republic, spoke of an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy; he sought to ban tragic drama—in his eyes the purest, most destructive form that poetry could take—from his ideal state. Four centuries later, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman philosopher who took Socrates as his model to the point of trying to kill himself by drinking hemlock, composed, along with a series of treatises on the path to a virtuous life, verse tragedies more harrowing and bleak than any that Plato knew. He wrote both tragedies and philosophic tracts until his death, producing masterpieces in both genres, without acknowledging, in either one, that he was simultaneously pursuing the other.

Over the course of two millennia, many have found the gap between Seneca’s tragedies and treatises too great to bridge. In the fifth century AD, the poet Sidonius Apollinaris assumed that two brothers had authored the two corpora: “One tends the ground of shaggy Plato…another shakes Euripides’s stage.” Medieval humanists assigned the plays to the philosopher’s father, also named Lucius Annaeus Seneca (hence Seneca the Elder, to us), or to a son, “Marcus,” invented for this purpose. More recently the revered Seneca scholar Miriam Griffin, in an otherwise comprehensive 1976 biography of Seneca and survey of his thought, declined to even mention the tragedies; a single footnote explained that, since the views of created characters are not the same as their author’s, the plays would not be considered. (By this reasoning, many of Seneca’s prose dialogi, or “dialogues,” as they have been termed since antiquity, could be disregarded as well—but more on this below.)

The tragedies, with their dark depictions of a cosmos in moral collapse, are indeed far removed from the self-assured prose works. Seneca’s philosophy draws on the ideas of Stoicism, a discipline that had arisen in Athens in the fourth and third centuries BC and later became popular with Roman elites. Stoics urged the subordination of the self to the orderly laws of the universe and sought a guide to human behavior through observation of nature. In his essays and epistles, Seneca preached the merit of moderating anger and grief and of taking strength from reason, the force within the mind that leads one toward virtuous conduct. (In modern usage, “stoic” usually refers to only the first of these objectives.) Reason, for Seneca, had a divine origin, and following its promptings would bring its adherents closer to divinity. “God is near you, with you, inside you,” he writes in one of his many expositions of this Stoic ethical code. “A holy spirit dwells within us, our watchman and guard whether we are upright or wicked. It draws us toward it, just as it is drawn from us.” To always be guided by that divine force was the goal of the Stoic…

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