Friday, 19 July 2013

Seneca - The End - Stoic or Roman Suicide?

Somewhere between the 19th and 30th of April, C.E. 65, Seneca took the decision to end his life. By the accounts we have (Tacitus, positive, Dio Cassius less so) it was a drawn out affair apparently modelled on the last hours of Socrates. I think it best to hold judgement on whether this was a truly Stoic act or the act of a Roman, not always the same in my book, since it seemed to be a popular way of saving face or taking responsibility or removing oneself from an impossible situation, a huis clos. Had he gotten in too deep as an 'amici pottissimi?'

Seneca's last day could certainly fit any of the available scenarios and rationalisations. But like so much about him, there is more than meets the eye and the accounts that remain cannot be taken at face value. From the philosophical point of view, Stoicism has a range of attitudes and pronouncements on the philosopher taking his own life - a supreme and noble act arising from assenting to the will of divine reason. They range from, to our modern eyes at least, reasonably justifiable,  such as a debilitating illness which impairs the body and mind so much that one cannot properly function in a meaningful and dignified the frankly bizarre and seemingly highly capricious...

 Let us recall for example Zeno's end, taking his life after a fall in which he fractured his toe..exclaiming (presumably addressing the gods)..'Why do you call me?, I am coming'.

Seneca's case is further complicated by the fact that his own brand of stoicism is a mix of early and mid stoa and possibly even a few borrowings from Epicurus, although it must be said that the followers of the garden rarely advocated such a drastic act of self destruction, and there are strict requirements in early Stoa texts that only accept such an act where there is an imperative in tune with the divine reason and the actor is one who is fully enlightened and not an 'imperfectus'.

Through reading into the letters and some of the political world in which he was increasingly embroiled and as the reign of Nero spun out of control and the emperor increasingly gave in to his bizarre and cruel impulses, a more nuanced picture of Seneca emerges and I must admit an altogether more sympathetic one than I at first credited him with. A complex man - but above all things human and a man who wore the mantle of philosopher in good faith albeit lightly at times and replete with the compromises that high office must have brought.

Monday, 15 July 2013

A.D X Kal. Sextilis

The next meeting is set for 21st of July..or a.d. X Kalends Sextilis...hope to see you all there to discuss Seneca and his Letters.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Epictetus - Stoic Walk vs Stoic Talk

I have been looking at more Stoic stuff, this time the life and work of   Epictetus (55-135 CE) and can't help thinking that he seems such a contrast to Seneca and not just in terms of ideas although they are broadly upon the same Stoic page (Epictetus was a student of Musonius Rufus and went on to form his own school of sorts). Epictetus was a slave for much of his early life although he seems to be been fortunate in his choice of masters who were quite liberal in allowing him to pursue philosophical studies. He also lived quite simply  away from the limelight with few possessions as a freedman, this in contast to Senecas not inconsiderable assets and apparent thirst for high office. From the introduction in one of his works The Enchiridion or Handbook comes the following concept:

Epictetus opens both this work and the Discourses with making a clear distinction between the Prohairetic things, those things over which we have control, such as our opinions, emotions, fears, desires dislikes etc and the Aprohairetic, those things over which we have no control and therefore should not be deluded by ; such things as , our bodies, possessions, the physical world and its vagaries, glory, fame etc. To be distracted by such things is the way to disaster. I note in particular those two last items, Fame and Glory, again two things which Seneca from his letters to Lucilius at least appears to imply were the destiny of great men..almost their duty. This is why for me Epictetus seems to have the Stoa walk nailed right down and Seneca..well..he writes damn fine letters..but.

Its July now and the sun seems to be shining..long may it continue to do so..for the followers of  Seneca and Epictetus alike!