Is it just me or is everyone talking about the Stoics lately? One of the adult students I tutor works them into conversation at least once per session, and somehow or other I am part of a Facebook group called “the Daily Stoic” – a group that I swear I didn’t sign up for, though I don’t mind seeing its daily reminders about self-control, balance, and endurance.
All of this is an election thing, of course. If Stoic philosophy could be summed up in one sentence, that sentence would be “You can’t let yourself care about things you don’t control.” And if I could add another sentence, it would be “The only thing you can control is yourself.” People have been turning to these philosophers – Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius – for consolation for centuries when they’re struggling to accept a reality they find unacceptable, and the more appalling reality becomes, the more relevant the Stoics feel.
The formal philosophy of Stoicism came into being during a horrific time in human history. The Roman empire (as opposed to republic) was relatively young, and after the prosperity of Augustus’ long reign, the Julio-Claudian dynasty had devolved into an orgy of violence and madness. I remember when I was a kid I was taught that the Julio-Claudii were all suffering from lead poisoning because they were the only ones in Rome rich enough to install indoor plumbing, and the pipes were all made of lead. I’m not sure if this theory is still current – since it is never mentioned in this book, I tend to think it isn’t – but I can understand why the theory came about.
This book begins under Caligula, who was declared emperor just as Seneca was starting his philosophical and political career in the Roman senate. Seneca was known for “his unique verbal style – seductive prose with short, punchy clauses and pithy epigrams” (9), and he quickly caught the attention of Caligula’s sister Agrippina – an ancient-Roman version of Cersei Lannister. Romm writes that the Roman senate at this time lived in denial of the fact that they were no longer a decision-making body. Both Augustus and Tiberius struggled with the senate and executed senators who refused to bow to their authority. In another book about ancient Rome that I am currently reading, an emperor (I forget which one – either Nerva or Titus, I think?) is praised for “promising not to kill any senators,” which struck me as an awfully low bar to set until it occurred to me that our own nascent autocrat has made no such promise – but I digress.
Romm writes that “Caligula stalks through Seneca’s later writings like a monster in recurring nightmares, arresting, torturing, and killing senators, or raping their wives for sport and then taunting them with salacious descriptions of these encounters” (11). Romm returns often to an anecdote from Seneca’s On Anger, in which a man must sit calmly and smile placidly while the emperor tortured and killed his son. “‘How could he bring himself to do it?’ asks Seneca, who then gives the answer: [The man] had another son (and Caligula knew it)” (19). I don’t know much (yet) about living under an autocratic government, but in the abstract this seems to be as good a metonym as any for the experience.
After Caligula (who also enjoyed shooting arrows at his enemies at close range and serving people their dead loved ones at dinner) died, Seneca was tried for adultery with one of Caligula’s sisters. He was sentenced to death, but the new emperor, Claudius, commuted his sentence to exile, and Seneca spent the next several years writing philosophical texts and enjoying the Mediterranean lifestyle on Corsica. During this exile, he really came into his own as a Stoic, for whom “true happiness comes from Reason, a force allied with Nature and with God. All that Seneca had left behind – senatorial rank, half his property, and what he called gratia, the public esteem he had won as a writer, thinker, and decent, fair-minded man – were “indifferents” in Stoic terms, inconsequential to the search for a good life” (27).
Long story short, Seneca was recalled to Rome by Agrippina, with whom he had colluded in the past and would again. Claudius, who had “decided to scrap all previous dynastic assumptions and start his family over” (30), married Agrippina, who was determined that her son Nero would become the next emperor instead of any of Claudius’ biological sons. Seneca was brought to the royal household to tutor Nero, who was still a child, and as much as possible, teach him to rule the world.
I am fascinated by the pairing of philosophers and absolute monarchs that pops up occasionally in the ancient world. The most famous, of course, is Aristotle’s long-term teaching and mentoring of Alexander the Great. I believe there are some more examples among the Romans but can’t think of specific names. If we descend into dictatorship and madness, could we try this – send, I don’t know, Ta-Nehisi Coates to be Barron Trump’s tutor? I say this in jest, not only for the obvious reasons but also because such a move would in effect silence Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I would never want to do that. Romm emphasizes that Seneca is an extremely difficult philosopher to study because circumstances required him to be cagey. There are more recent examples of writers who lived and worked – and, in general, died – under Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and so forth.
Seneca died under Nero, too, though he was not executed. Nero executed a fair share of people, including his mother, but when he wanted to kill off an advisor or other adult male of rank and status, he preferred to “suggest” that they commit suicide. One of the most well known facts about the Stoics is that they considered suicide to be a viable, honorable reaction to an unacceptable situation. This is a tough idea for a modern Westerner, most of whom grow up steeped in some combination of Christianity (whether active or vestigial) and pop culture’s I’m-okay-you’re-okay rhetoric, and in both traditions suicide is a great taboo. In Christianity, the party line is that suicide is an unpardonable act because it emerges out of the sin of despair – yet Seneca and other Stoics didn’t approach suicide in a despairing way at all. Seneca saw suicide as a rational choice that prevents a person from staying in a situation that might destroy him. “Everywhere you look you find an end to your sufferings. You see that steep drop-off? It leads down to freedom. You see that ocean, that river, that well? Freedom lies at its bottom. You see that short, shriveled, bare tree? Freedom hangs from it. You ask, what is the path to freedom? Any vein in your body” (20).
My least favorite thing about this book is the fact that so little is known of Seneca’s true experienced and beliefs once he arrived at Nero’s court (the passage about suicide above was written from exile) that Romm was never able to say with any certainty how his years with Nero affected him. This time and place needs its own Procopius, who wrote his Secret History while serving under Justinian in Constantinople as a loyal courtesan. Romm does an admirable job combing through Seneca’s essays and plays and drawing conclusions about connections between his writing and his time at Nero’s court, but I would have loved a bit more active, personal story.
My favorite thing about this book is its portrayal of Nero in his early twenties, content to allow others do the daily business of ruling while he sneaked into various performance venues both in Rome and elsewhere to feed his hunger for performance. He fancied himself a singer and a poet and was happy to devote the vast majority of his time on stage, forcing innocent people to applaud mightily to his every off-key offering. I find these anecdotes adorable on the one hand and have actually jotted down a few notes for a short story about a fictionalized version of the young Nero as Theatre Kid – but on the other hand, it is terrible to be given so much power, to understand how much good could have been done with that power, and then trivialize it by tramping from club to club, performing and feeding his ego. Celebrity Apprentice, anyone?