Lucius Annaeus Seneca was one of the great Roman Stoic thinkers and is one of only a few philosophers from that era whose work has remained popular in recent times.
His writings were known by many of the early Christian writers, including Jerome, Augustine and Tertullian, who referred to him as ‘our Seneca’. It was Tertullian who first suggested that Seneca had corresponded with St Paul and although the letters survive, certain scholars have dismissed them as forgeries in later years.
Despite the scepticism surrounding the letters, it can be seen that the Stoic philosophy that Seneca advocated paved the way for Rome to make the move to Christianity. Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic proselytizes about humane and upright ideals and encouraged a spiritual way of life.
Many have quoted Seneca over the years. Dante referred to him in the Inferno and placed him in the first circle of Hell, or Limbo, a place of perfect natural happiness where virtuous non-Christians like the ancient philosophers had to stay for eternity, due to their lack of grace (given only by Christ) and required to go to heaven. Chaucer also quoted him, as did Petrarch and Virgil.
Seneca wrote extensively during the last three years of his life and De Beneficiis, or On Benefits, was completed in this period. The work is divided into seven books, and in them the author discusses giving and receiving and the views contained within the traditions of the Stoic philosophy.
It would seem that William Shakespeare might have been influenced by On Benefits, as a phrase from his famous play, All’s Well That Ends Well, bears a striking resemblance to some of the writing in Seneca’s book.
‘Tis pity – That wishing well had not a body in it
Which might be felt: that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends
And show what we alone must think; which never
Returns us thanks.
All’s Well That Ends Well, Act 1, Scene 1
About the author
Lucius Annaneus Seneca was one of the great Roman Stoic thinkers and is one of only a few philosophers from that era whose work has remained popular in recent times.
His life was not only limited to writing and philosophy; he was also a eminent statesman whose influence on Nero in the early years of his reign was crucial to the success of that part of his authority as Emperor.
Seneca was the son of the well known rhetorician Seneca the Elder and it is thought he was born in Cordoba, Spain, around 4 BC. He moved to Rome at a young age and his education included literature, oratory and philosophy.
Throughout his life he suffered with poor health and it is thought he lived with his aunt, who nursed him, in Egypt in the period between 20 and 31 AD. He and his aunt moved to Rome in 31 AD so that he could begin his career in politics. Although he quickly earned a reputation as an advocator his career did not proceed with any momentum as Emperor Gaius was not particularly impressed by him. The following Emperor, Caligula, was even less enamoured by Seneca and almost had him killed but spared his life as he believed Seneca’s ill health would do the job for him sooner rather than later.
He outlived Caligula only to be exiled to Corsica by the new Emperor, Claudius. While he was in Corsica, he furthered his studies in Stoic thought and wrote Consolations. Claudius’ wife, Messalina, had been instrumental in his decision to exile Seneca and when she died Claudius’ new wife, Agrippina, requested the return of Seneca to Rome so that he could tutor her son, Nero.
Claudius died in AD 54 and Agrippina used her considerable influence to install Nero, who was only 15 years old, as the new Emperor. Seneca thus became one of the most influential figures in Rome and in Nero’s early years, which are considered to be some of the most stable of the era, Seneca wrote speeches for Nero and also helped to temper the excesses that would later go on to consume the young Emperor.
As Nero got older, he became more independent and paranoid and considered Seneca surplus to requirements. So in AD 62, Seneca retired from politics to concentrate on philosophical pursuits.
He hadn’t heard the last of Nero, however. In AD 65, he was implicated in a plot to kill the emperor, and committed suicide under Nero’s orders, which was customary at the time.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published October 4th 2010
Size: 216 x 140 mm