Essay Mondays: Seneca


Slightly late to the party, but with a badge and everything (look at me go!), welcome to the first Essay Mondays post. Over the next I-don't-know-how-many weeks, I'll be making my way through Phillip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay by pitting between two and four essays/essayists against each other, and writing about whichever I find most compelling. (I decided that longer essays call for two per week rather than four.)

This first week was always a fix: since the first four essays (or proto-essays) in Lopate's collection are by Seneca, he's guaranteed a spot. I devoted a full-length review to Seneca's On the Shortness of Life back in October, but Lopate's selections focus on a much different side of the Roman philosopher-statesman. In particular, he chooses pieces that highlight quotidian details of Roman life rather than timeless aphorisms on mortality - which makes sense, given that he's tracing the development of the personal essay. In one piece, Seneca catalogs all the noises of town life that assail his ears from the window where he writes (my favorite being the squeals of the itinerant hair-remover's clients as he tweezes their armpits). In another piece, he compares the old-fashioned bath in Scipio's villa with the luxuriance of contemporary Roman baths, an exercise that made me incredibly jealous of the Romans of Seneca's day.

The "most compelling" award, though, has to go to the essay "Slaves," in which Seneca outlines all the dire consequences that can result from mistreating one's slaves, and urges his reader to behave toward slaves with kindness, and with an awareness that, but for a turn of blind fortune, the roles could be reversed. "When they cannot speak in the master's presence," opines Seneca, "they speak about him."

Remember, if you please, that the man you call slave sprang from the same seed, enjoys the same daylight, breathes like you, lives like you, dies like you. You can as easily conceive him a free man as he can conceive you a slave. In the Marian disasters many men of noble birth who had entered military service as the preliminary to a senatorial career were declassed by Fortune and reduced to being shepherds or cottagers; now despise a man for his condition when you may find yourself in the same even as you despise it!

In fact, argues Seneca, given that masters depend so entirely on their slaves, one could really argue that the master is more of a slave to the slave than is the slave to the master. He urges his reader always to keep this in mind when tempted to be dismissive or cruel toward those in his service.

What I find so interesting about this essay is that Seneca never makes the argument that one shouldn't have slaves, despite rhetoric like the above. He seems to feel that the slave/master relationship is sanctioned by Fortune; while it's good to keep in mind that one could, with a different roll of the dice, just has easily have ended up a slave as a master, one should also accept the ordained world order and not do anything crazy like adopting a slave-free lifestyle. Not that Seneca comes right out and says all this about the sanction of Fortune; he implies it, but the idea of living without slaves seems never even to occur to him. This is doubly striking since Seneca belonged to the Stoic school of thought; Spartan simplicity and indifference to physical and mental discomfort did NOT, apparently, imply renunciation of slave labor. It's a fascinating snapshot of a moment in time and the logic that sustained Roman society.

Up next week: Plutarch ("Consolation to his Wife"); Sei Shonagon ("Hateful Things"); Kenko (Selections from "Essays in Idleness"); and/or Ou-Yang Hsiu ("Pleasure Boat Studio"). I'll say right now that it will take quite a feat of writing to top Shonagon; I adore her stuff. But we shall see.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


  • It's much easier to be stoic about physical and mental discomfort if you have slaves around tending to most of the things that might cause discomfort. What a fun project you are doing. That detail about the hair removers made me laugh!

  • Thanks, Stefanie! I think the project will be a little more interesting once I'm contrasting different authors with one another, but it's already kind of a fun way to start the week. :-) The hair-removers detail is great, isn't it?

  • I'm already feeling envious of that essay book of yours. First the Penguin collection and now this! It's always interesting to listen to the thoughts of great minds, regardless if you believe in the same principles :)

    About slave labor, I would guess that Seneca hadn't mentioned anything about renouncing the practice because the idea of having servants is simply very much ingrained into Roman society (or any other society with aristocracy at the time). Perhaps he thought his contemporaries would find it ridiculous, or perhaps he hadn't thought of it himself.

    Anyway... I'm really looking forward to reading your next Monday post :)

  • Ooo, I just read Shonagon's Pillow Book, I love her style. Enjoy "Hateful Things."

  • I was going to leave a link to my Seneca post, but then I realized I have a bunch of them! I read Letters from a Stoic after reading the Lopate selections and enjoyed it a lot. Here's my post on that one:

    I found him a very interesting and accessible writer, and I'm glad Lopate introduced me to him, especially as later writers such as Montaigne refer to him so often.

  • Mark David: Thanks for your nice words! Yes, I agree that the idea of a slave-free life would probably never occur to someone of Seneca's time and place. Amazing...

    Rebecca: LOVE the Pillow Book. Reading "Hateful Things" really brought back to me how much I love it. Am now contemplating a re-read!

    Dorothy: I agree, he's very accessible, and...sensible, especially compared with other writers of the time period. I feel like I could have him over to dinner without being too bored or terrified. :-) Thanks for the link; I'm off to read yours now.

  • Surely there are no modern Senecas, cloaking the iron will of the slave master in silky words.

    Nah...can't be. We've advanced further than that, right?

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography