Magazine article The American Conservative

A Stoic's Empire

Magazine article The American Conservative

A Stoic's Empire

Article excerpt

The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca, Emily Wilson, Oxford University Press, 272 pages

Letters on Ethics, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, University of Chicago Press, 528 pages

There are not many philosophers in the Western canon who have taken an active role in politics. Give or take a few thinkers, we have an assortment of men whose lives reflect a slight paraphrase of Heidegger's description of Aristotle: they were born, they philosophized, and they died. Indeed, the equation of the contemplative life with the summum bonum--an argument made famous in Aristotle's Ethics--has been so pervasive throughout the history of Western thought that we have difficulty imagining how--or if--a philosophic spirit can be combined with an active political life. Fortunately, we have The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca, by University of Pennsylvania classics professor Emily Wilson, an intellectual biography of the Roman philosopher-statesman that admirably elucidates the "paradoxes of being both a 'philosopher in politics' and a politician in philosophy."

Wilson's point of departure in her life of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BCAD 65), the great Stoic philosopher, historian, dramatist, and statesman, comes from a line in one of Seneca's letters: imperare sibi maximum imperium est--"the greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself." This is a summation of Stoic philosophy and frames, as Wilson puts it, the "most interesting question" of "why he preached what he did, so adamantly and so effectively, given the life he found himself leading" Seneca was born in Cordoba--then in the Roman province of Hispania, in southern Spain--to an elite, educated mother and an equestrian (or "knighted") father, Seneca the Elder, whose writing on rhetoric survives to the present day. He had, we can assume, a childhood similar to anyone in his station and seems to have been particularly close to his mother, Helvia, to whom he later dedicated an extensive public letter.

As a young boy, Seneca was brought to Rome, where he formally began studies in rhetoric and philosophy under the tutelage of Attalus, a well-known Stoic philosopher and friend of his father. Of Attalus, Seneca would later write:

   when I used to hear Attalus at the
   climax of a speech against faults,
   against errors, against everything
   bad in life, I often felt pity for the
   human race and thought that Attalus
   was an exalted being, above
   the pinnacle of human affairs. He
   said himself that he was a king,
   but I thought he was more than
   that, for here was a man who
   could censure kings.

As Wilson observes, Seneca's preoccupation--later echoed by Machiavelli--with the questions of "who is the real king" and "where does his authority come from" may well have begun with Attalus' teachings.

From the ages of 25-35, Seneca, suffering from a lung ailment, convalesced in Alexandria under the care of his aunt, who happened to be married to the Roman prefect of Egypt. But if his body was at rest, it was a poor indication of the health of his ambition. By the time Seneca traveled back to Rome in AD 31, his aunt had used her influence to get him a quaestorship, the first official "rank" for the young Roman elite, and a position that usually was granted only after 10 years of service in the army. This officially marked Seneca's turn toward politics, a career that would find him, at various points, exiled to Corsica by the emperor Claudius on charges of adultery, becoming consul of Rome, and serving as mentor/speechwriter to his later executioner, Nero.

Wilson is particularly good about describing the waning years of Neronian Rome. We get a sense of how precarious it was for Seneca to mentor a psychopath and the deleterious effect it began to have on his own psychological well-being. Seneca played a decisive role in helping Nero consolidate power through the murder of his mother, Agrippina--the person, incidentally, responsible for Seneca's return to her son's court in Rome. …

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