Reading James Romm’s great biography of the life and times of Seneca, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, is getting me excited to finally pay Letters from a Stoic the attention it deserves:
Wherever Seneca went in those years, he carried on work on his magnum opus, a remarkable set of short moral essays framed as letters. Ostensibly addressed to Lucilius, these letters were in fact aimed at a wide audience. But the fiction of an intimate correspondence gave Seneca latitude in the structure of the essays, as well as unusual freedom to vary voice, tone, and technique. The melding of ethical inquiry with epistolary style produced a breakthrough for Seneca. He carried on the Letters to Lucilius at far greater length than anything else he had written and with greater candor about his life and thoughts—or at least, what seems to be candor.
A typical letter begins with a moment from daily life, then goes on to explore insights arising from that moment. In one of the letters, for example, Seneca describes a trip to a friend’s vacation home, a wealthy estate house in Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli).
To reach this house from Baiae, his point of departure, Seneca needed to cross a three-mile bay. He set out on a small hired ship, although dark clouds loomed in the distance. Hoping to beat the storm, Seneca told his steerman to save time by taking a direct route rather than hugging the shore. But that only put him in deep, open water when the winds began to pick up. Halfway across, when there was no longer any point in turning back, Seneca found himself in a pitching, heaving swell. Seasickness, a condition he found intolerable, began to torment him, though he found he could not relieve his distress by vomiting.
Panicking, Seneca urged the steerman to change course and head for the nearest shore, but that was a rough coastline without anchorage. The steerman argued that the ship could not go near those rocks, but Seneca was by now in agony. He forced the crew to bring the ship as near to land as they could. And then he leaped into the sea.
Noting that he had always been a good swimmer, Seneca describes to Lucilius how he got himself to shore and hauled himself painfully onto the rocky beach. Somehow he located a faint path leading to the villa he was seeking. He now understood, he writes whimsically, that the sufferings of Odysseus, driven about in his ship for yen years as described in the Odyssey, must have stemmed more from seasickness than from sea monsters.
Later, washed and changed, with the villa’s slaves giving his body a rubdown to restore its warmth, Seneca reflected on how nausea had driven him to desperation. “I endured incredible trials because I could not endure myself,” he writes, using a typically pointed turn of phrase. Then he let his thoughts wander down their usual path, toward the search for a virtuous life, a life of moral awareness. Discomforts overwhelm the body, Seneca muses, in the same way that vice and ignorance overwhelm the soul. The sufferer may not even know he is suffering, just as a deep sleeper does not know he is asleep. Only philosophy can rouse souls from such comas. Philosophy, Lucilius, is what you must pursue with all your being. Abandon all else except philosophy, just as you would neglect all your affairs had you fallen gravely ill.
The letter lands its readers at a very different place than where it appeared to be headed. The retching, desperate man who pitches himself into the sea turns suddenly into a serious thinker. Seneca’s portrait of his own folly in taking a shortcut, and his description of embarrassing physical distress, draw us in with their frankness and closely observed detail. Once we have been hooked by Seneca the man, Seneca the sage reels us in.
But Seneca was not only a man and a sage; he was also a politician. His mastery of image making during his decade at Nero’s side, his many efforts to manipulate public opinion, make the task of reading his Letters to Lucilius a complicated one. Is it the real Seneca we see before is–a man of profound moral earnestness, whose every third thought is of philosophy–or an imago, a shape conjured by the wordsmith’s arts? Did Seneca himself, after fifteen years in which his every written word was a political act, even know the difference?