The Greatest Empire, A Life of Seneca

Amazon link

Emily Wilson's analysis and contextualization of Seneca the Younger's (4-65 CE) work was brought  to my attention by Ryan Holiday's email list. He wrote of it:

Perhaps there is no historical figure more appropriate for today's times than Seneca. He was a philosopher drawn into politics—he wanted to make a difference in the real world and then found himself in the court of Nero, trying to contain a wildly insecure, inexperienced leader who some thought was deranged and others thought was brilliant (sound familiar?). Seneca loved nothing more than quiet, reflective time alone...yet he also needed and wanted fame, fortune and impact. And it was these competing desires—between his philosophy and the real world—that created an incredible life and an incredible set of lessons. I deeply enjoyed James Romm's book Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero which is a more tragic and personal look at Seneca, and for that reason had held off reading Emily Wilson's biography. That was a mistake, because hers is also very good. Her translations of Seneca are excellent and her insights are provocative. Must read for any student of history or philosophy. (Also, read the interview we did with Emily for

The Guardian also posted a wonderful and thorough review of the book, Seneca the fat-cat philosopher, which does a far better job of unravelling the book than I ever could.

The book interweaves direct translations of Seneca's work (over half of which is lost to us, including all of his private letters) with Seneca's own fascinating biographical narrative: rising from provincial philosopher to high-ranking official to ignominious exile to close (and immensely rich) advisor to the emperor and ultimately to enemy of the emperor, the famously wild emperor Nero.

Seneca has seen a recent resurgence in popularity thanks to his contributions to the philosophical school of  Stoicism (other thinkers: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Zeno), and his wonderfully pithy work that lends itself well to tattoos and quotes: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." "Sometimes even to live is an act of courage."

But without context, many of these quotes lose their real value. Primarily, this is because what is available to us consists of mainly public letters, writings that Seneca expected to be circulated and therefore knew he would be held responsible for, i.e. to Nero, who murdered his own step-brother  and mother, and eventually ordered the death of Seneca himself, his tutor. Thus, especially in the later years of his life, any political criticisms Seneca might have wanted to have expressed about would have to cleverly concealed in metaphor and imagery.

All in all, though they are presented as Stoic ideals, Seneca's writings and reflections on them represent his own philosophical journey towards those ideals, and certainly not any realization of them. Indeed, it's his awareness of both his own imperfections and his inability to reach his own lofty goals that is most salient and refreshing to read.

On virtue

For somebody who subscribed to the Stoic belief that things can only either be good, bad, or indifferent in terms of virtue — of which indifferent things are incommensurable with things of virtue, i.e. receiving the largest amount of torture (an indifferent thing) is better than conducting the smallest amount of vice — Seneca was fully willing to help Nero conduct an affair as well as murder Nero's mother Agrippina, Seneca's most important benefactor (she had brought him back from earlier exile).

"Seneca was a pragmatist," Wilson writes. 

In his tragedy Thyestes, Seneca implies that moral teaching is potentially impossible. From this point of view, Seneca's whole project of trying to educate Nero to be a philosopher-king, a Socratic ideal, appears doomed from the start, something he is close to admitting in his Moral Letters to Lucilius when he writes that:

"Not every vine accepts grafting;  if it's old and decayed, or weak and slim, the vine will not receive the cutting, or won't nourish it and make it part of itself to the qualities and nature of the grafted part."

On constancy

In those same letters, Seneca imagines his friend having to extricate himself from prosperity and power, and offers the simple response "Any old way!" Ironically, Seneca presents something as easy which he himself found impossible (trying to escape the court of Nero), and the same letter this advice is contained in focuses heavily on the theme of inconstancy. Seneca argues that one's life should match one's teaching and that "this is the most essential duty and proof of wisdom: that one's actions should match one's words, and that a person should always, everywhere, be the same and himself."

Perhaps optimistically, Seneca writes that he is still trying to figure this out, just as we all are.

On wealth

In On the Happy Life, Seneca sets out 3 criteria for a philosopher to be rightfully rich: (i) he must not be dependent on his wealth, (ii) his wealth must have been honestly obtained, and (iii) he must be generous. However, his vague concept of "honest acquisition" is not fully fleshed out, and this is perhaps on purpose. Seneca, outside of his work as imperial tutor — for which he was richly rewarded — was also a prolific and perhaps usurious moneylender and real estate agent.

Wilson exposes the tension between what Seneca writes and the reality he lived in by teasing out the revealing moments in letters where he claimed to be living the "simple life." In one such case, he reported to only being accompanied by "very few slaves, only one carriage-full," and only partaking in very bare meals that "took less than an hour to prepare." Clearly, his standards of what counts as moderate are formed only in comparison to others of the most privileged class of Roman society.

Seneca would have himself been one of the richest men in the Roman Empire during his life, having amassed a wealth of 300m sestertii when the average Roman senator (highest class) might only have 5m. Of course, much of this came thanks to his close relationship with Nero, but Seneca comes up with a clever trick for ill-gotten gains: whenever you might receive a gift from somebody you do not admire, accept it "as if from Fortune, whom you realize might next minute become unkind." Apparently this is enough to justify ill-gotten gains as having been honestly obtained.

On consumerism

"One who owns himself has lost nothing."

"Natural desires are limited; but those that spring from false opinion can have no place to stop."

"Enough is never too little."

"Prosperity is  a restless thing: it troubles itself."

Seneca's writing on the emptiness of consumerism is perhaps the most relatable and vivid. Having tried to give his wealth back to Nero twice (as well as run away from Rome), Seneca also writes (ironically, again) that "few men have been allowed to put aside prosperity gently."

On death

For somebody who writes very evocatively about preparing for and always being ready for death, Seneca tried his hardest to avoid it, and indeed when it came to him, botched it. Having written that "nobody does not die his own death," there is final irony in Seneca's attempted suicide: failing to commit suicide via the opening of his wrists and the drinking of hemlock, Seneca has his slaves prepare him a hot bath so that he might suffocate in the steam of the water — he had chronic asthma.

Having prepared a soliloquy for his death, Seneca also appears to have chosen narcissism rather than stoic calm to be the overarching theme of his death, just one more incongruency between his rational philosophical ideals and messy life.

Conquering the self

Seneca wrote in Epistle 113 that "the greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself" (imperare sibi maximum imperium est), a conquest he proved to not be very easy.