c. 4 BCE–65 CE
The life of Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger often seems at variance with his Stoic philosophy. A rich and ambitious man who praised frugality and moderation, he was the moral tutor of the Roman Emperor Nero. When the Emperor Claudius was alive, Seneca celebrated his clemency in his essay De clementia, then ridiculed him posthumously in his satirical Apocolocyntosis (“Pumpkinification”). Thus, although Seneca never set himself up as a model of rectitude, even suggesting that his Epistulae morales were an exchange between two moral invalids, readers as early as Tacitus have admired the style more than the man.
Seneca was a prolific writer; his prose works fall into five groups, though they share much with regard to form, style, and content. These include the ten Dialogi, such as the early Ad Marciam de consolatione (“To Marcia on Consolation”) and De ira (“On Anger”), and the later De otio (“On Leisure”) and De providentia (Providence); the two longer treatises, De clementia (On Clemency) and De beneficiis (On Benefits); the seven extant books of Naturales quaestiones (Natural Questions); the Apocolocyntosis; and the 124 Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (Epistles or Letters to Lucilius). With the exception of the comic Apocolocyntosis, whose rich display of different styles makes it one of the few extant examples of Roman satura (satire) as defined by Quintilian, all of Seneca’s prose works are modeled on the form of the letter. Though they differ in tone and intimacy, each presents Seneca writing to a friend, family member, or disciple with the intention of moral instruction or consolation. Parallels have been drawn with his contemporary, St. Paul. The epistolary style also shapes the Dialogi, which are really one-sided monologues. Even the Natural Questions, which discuss the workings of nature and various natural phenomena, are addressed to Lucilius. This epistolary form hints at the origins and nature of Senecan style.
European and English prose styles tend to fall into one of two camps: the Ciceronian and the Senecan. The former is complex and rich, formed of cadenced periodic sentences; the latter is spare and abrupt, marked by the so-called “exploded period,” a series of independent statements set down in simple sentences or clauses linked by coordinating conjunctions. The result is lapidary and epigrammatic. Caligula described it as “sand without lime”; Thomas Babington Macaulay complained that it was “like dining on nothing but anchovy sauce.” The difference between the Ciceronian and Senecan styles emerges from the difference between a rhetoric aimed at oratorical performance in the Forum, and one intended for written expression, in a world where free speech was limited. Cicero’s repetitions and cadences are meant for the ears of a general audience, Seneca’s understatement, irony, and paradox for the eyes of a reader.
Stoic philosophy informs most of Seneca’s written works. For him the great paradox of the human condition is not between life and death, but between fate (fatum) and chance (fortuna). The measure of human happiness is not the achievement of pleasure, but the ability to accept suffering and the dictates of fate. Since we have little control over what we must endure, the concern is rather with how to endure. So saying, misfortune is that which allows the good person to show his moral worth, for he endures well, while the bad person does not. We must learn not only to understand correctly, but to act correctly, achieving self-command. Too often we are the slaves of our appetites. Attacking greed, avarice, and covetousness (gula, avaritia, and luxuria) in his Consolatio ad Helviam (“Consolation to Helvia”), he complains that in Rome, “they vomit to eat and eat to vomit.” While Seneca’s writings are deeply philosophical, they are not for the most part philosophical treatises, systematically developing a logical argument. Rather, as one commentator suggests, Seneca is a preacher, focusing on one or two themes in each letter, then reiterating them in a series of vivid and memorable variations in order to hammer home his point.
Seneca had an immediate and continuous influence as both philosopher and writer. If early Church fathers such as Lactantius were hostile to the materialism of Stoicism, others such as Jerome appreciated Seneca’s moral doctrine. In the Middle Ages, he exemplified philosophy, exerting a profound influence on medieval thinkers as diverse as John of Salisbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Bonaventure, and Dante, who referred to him in the Inferno as “Seneca morale.” The development of printing led to a resurgence of interest in Seneca’s work, and Erasmus of Rotterdam produced the first critical edition in 1515. Humanists such as Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Justus Lipsius, and John Calvin, as well as later Renaissance writers such as Montaigne and Francis Bacon, admired both his independence of mind and conciseness of style, positing him as the model of anti-Ciceronian eloquence. Among later philosophers, Seneca’s influence can be found in moral thinkers such as Spinoza, Rousseau, and Emerson, and especially among various existentialists from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Heidegger and Paul Tillich. Among later writers, Shakespeare, Quevedo, and Racine frequently quote him, and Pope, Hazlitt, Wilde, T.S.Eliot, and H.L.Mencken draw on his style.
See also Classical Influences
Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Born c. 4 BCE in Corduba (now Cordoba, Spain). Taken to Rome as an infant. Studied grammar and rhetoric, then various schools of philosophy, in Rome. Married Pompeia Paulina: one son (died, 41 CE). Lived in Egypt for health reasons, returning to Rome c. 31 CE. Elected quaestor (financial administrator), 30s.
Exiled to Corsica for alleged adultery with Julia Livilla, sister of Caligula and niece of Claudius, 41–49. Tutor to Nero, designated praetor (judicial officer), 50, and adviser and minister to Nero, with Burrus, 54–62; consul, 56; retired on Burrus’ death, 62. Forced to commit suicide for supposed participation in Pisonian conspiracy, near Rome, 65 CE.
Essays and Related Prose
De beneficiis, edited by C.Hosius, 1914; as On Benefits, translated by Aubrey Stewart, 1887
De clementia, edited by C.Hosius, 1914; as On Clemency, translated by Aubrey Stewart, 1899
De providentia, as Providence, translated by W.B.Langsdorf, 1900
Dialogi, edited by E.Hermes and others, 3 vols., 1898–1907, and by L.D.Reynolds, 1977
Epistulae morales, edited by L.D.Reynolds, 2 vols., 1965; as Letters (Loeb Edition; bilingual), edited and translated by R.M. Gummere, 3 vols., 1917–25; as Morals, translated by Roger L’Estrange, 1678, and by J.W.Basore (Loeb Edition), 3 vols., 1928–35; selections as The Epistles, translated by T.Morell, 1786; as Select Letters of Seneca, translated by W.C.Summers, 1910; as Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, translated by E.Phillips Barker, 2 vols., 1932; as Letters from a Stoic, translated by Robin Campbell, 1969
Naturales quaestiones, edited by P.Oltramare, 1929, and Harry M. Hines, 1981; as Natural Questions, translated by Thomas H. Corcoran (Loeb Edition), 2 vols., 1971–72
Minor Dialogues, translated by Aubrey Stewart, 1899
Moral Essays (Loeb Edition), 3 vols., 1928–35
Moral and Political Essays (selection), edited and translated by J. W.Basore, M.Cooper, and J.F.Procopé, 1995
Other writings: eight tragedies (and a further two attributed to him) and poetry.
Collected works edition: Works, 19 vols., 1981–84.
Motto, Anna L., and John R.Clark, Seneca: A Critical Bibliography, 1900–1980: Scholarship on His Life, Thought, Prose and Influence, Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1989
Arnold, Edward Vernon, Roman Stoicism, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958 (original edition, 1911)
Bourgery, Abel, Sénèque prosateur: Études littéraires et grammaticales sur la prose de Sénèque le philosophe, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1922
Canter, Howard Vernon, Rhetorical Elements in the Tragedies of Seneca, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1925
Coleman, Robert, “The Artful Moralist: A Study of Seneca’s Epistolary Style,” Classical Quarterly 24 (December 1974): 276–89
Costa, C.D.N., editor, Seneca—Greek and Latin Studies: Classical Literature and Its Influence, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974
Croll, Morris, Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm, edited by J.Max Patrick, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966
Currie, H.M., “The Younger Seneca’s Style,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 13 (1966):76–87
Griffin, Miriam T., Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992 (original edition, 1976)
Hutchinson, G.O., Latin Literature from Seneca to Juvenal, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993
Motto, Anna Lydia, Seneca, New York: Twayne, 1973
Sørensen, Villy, Seneca: The Humanist at the Court of Nero, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, and Edinburgh: Canongate, 1984 (original Swedish edition, 1976)
Williamson, George, The Senecan Amble: A Study in Prose from Bacon to Collier, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, and London: Faber, 1951
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