Seneca Entries

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:

On the Shortness of Life


This past week, although fun, has been TOTALLY INSANE for me. What with driving up to the out-of-town wedding of some close friends, preparing for and attending an art opening showcasing my knitted work, getting to witness two amazing dance performances (one of them by ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov!), going with David on a fantastic professional photoshoot, and various dinners out with friends and family, I've barely had time to read at all, let alone write about my reading. In fact, in the past ten days I've barely had time to get through this first slim volume of the Penguin Great Ideas series: Seneca's On the Shortness of Life.

Which is actually kind of fitting. Seneca would point out that I obviously need to heed his advice if I'm finding myself so overwhelmed with commitments that I lack any time for myself. One of the central tenets of his first essay (the titular "On the Shortness of Life") is that taking time for leisure and reflection, for communing with the works of philosophers and meditating on one's own past, is absolutely essential in order to feel, at the end of one's life, that one has lived a long and full existence. Most people, Seneca says, have only truly lived a fraction of their actual time on earth: the rest has been spent in "preoccupation," which I interpreted (possibly a little loosely) as any form of mental busy-ness that fails to bring a person into closer contact with the deeper truths of themselves and the universe. (Heady!) So, he classes those addicted to vice as "preoccupied" (drunks, misers, the avaricious, the lazy, the gluttonous), but also those who are so blindly ambitious or just busy that they can never stop to look back, reflect, or ponder. These people, he says, fear death and try not to think about it, spending their time as if it were infinite, and are then panic-stricken when the death they have not prepared for comes for them at last. But those with tranquility of mind, who have spent their time in "learning how to live" and becoming mature mentally, can face death with equanimity. Life will not have seemed short to them, because they lived it fully, and learned from it what they needed to know.

Most human beings, Paulinus, complain about the meanness of nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, and because the spell of time that has been given to us rushes by so swiftly and rapidly that with very few exceptions life ceases for the rest of us just when we are getting ready for it. Nor is it just the man in the street and the unthinking mass of people who groan over this - as they see it - universal evil: the same feeling lies behind complaints from even distinguished men. [...] It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death's final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.

And again:

So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage; just a long tossing about.

I adore, by the way, the rhythm of that opening line: "Most human beings, Paulinus, complain about the meanness of nature..." Those old Roman rhetoricians really knew their stylistic stuff. The mid-sentence apostrophe-to-actual-person is one of my favorite rhythmical and rhetorical devices; it is, of course, used famously by Shakespeare ("There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy"), but it's also central to one of my favorite Charles Bukowski poems, which begins:

William Saroyan said, "I ruined my
life by marrying the same woman

there will always be something
to ruin our lives,
it all depends upon
what or which
finds us
we are always
ripe and ready
to be

I imagine Bukowski leveling his intoxicated yet withering stare at Saroyan while his gravelly voice pauses on that "William," like a stern teacher who has caught a pupil in wrongdoing. It tickles me to trace such a tiny rhetorical thread all the way from Seneca to Bukowski - not that the latter necessarily read the former, but he swam in a cultural soup that was still seasoned with Roman stoicism, even if he himself was severely "preoccupied" by Seneca's standards.

And speaking of that: I really liked how Seneca divided the world into "tranquil" and "preoccupied," rather than "good" and "evil" or "righteous" and "sinful." Even though his rubric wasn't actually any more value-neutral than any other (believe me, he's really down on the preoccupied), it seemed more usefully descriptive to me: I can feel when I'm becoming preoccupied; I experience preoccupation on a day-to-day basis, and I can take concrete steps to avoid it in a way I don't feel is true about becoming more "evil" or "sinful." I don't say to myself "I'm feeling a little evil today," but I've often remarked that I'm feeling a little preoccupied. Sin and evil are such huge and fraught concepts, involving as they do entire belief systems that I may or may not share, that their presence can often be distracting if all an author really wants to talk about is preoccupation. But I'm not sure if this would be true for a reader more accustomed to thinking about sinfulness as part of their everyday life.

One of my favorite ideas from Seneca's essay is that of one's past as a precious possession, that, if one has lived well, will be richly rewarding to summon into one's mind. I connected deeply with this passage as a way of talking about virtue in a secular world. Religious philosophers sometimes claim that without fear or hope for an afterlife, people will fail to act honorably, but I think this is an excellent counter-argument: I want to feel satisfied with the net effect of my presence on earth, and with the person I know myself to be, regardless of any other factors.

The man who must fear his own memory is the one who has been ambitious in his greed, arrogant in his contempt, uncontrolled in his victories, treacherous in his deceptions, rapacious in his plundering. And yet this is the period of our time which is sacred and dedicated, which has passed beyond all human risks and is removed from Fortune's sway, which cannot be harassed by want or fear or attacks of illness. It cannot be disturbed or snatched from us: it is an untroubled, everlasting possession. In the present we have only one day at a time, each offering a minute at a time. But all the days of the past will come to your call: you can detain them and inspect them at your will - something which the preoccupied have no time to do. It is the mind which is tranquil and free from care which can roam through all the stages of its life: the minds of the preoccupied, as if harnessed in a yoke, cannot turn round and look behind them. So their lives vanish into an abyss; and just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.

As I am by nature a thoughtful introvert, this argument really struck a chord with me, and made me wonder why I was spending so much time amid the hubbub of other voices. Which leads me to the place where "On the Shortness of Life" falls, um, short: it doesn't really address the fact that things like relationships with other people, doing hard jobs or challenging oneself in one's art, are all valuable experiences that DO bring people more in tune with larger universal truths - provided, of course, that they have the occasional opportunity to look back at the process and learn from their experience. I got the impression that Seneca was addressing a lack he perceived in those around him: not enough people were taking time out to philosophize and reflect. The whole piece is addressed to Paulinus, after all, who has lived a full life in the public eye, and whom Seneca is now advising to retire into a life of reflection. Taken out of context, though, it seems like he's recommending that nobody should do anything BUT reflect and philosophize - advice which would lead to quite the navel-gazing culture if we all acted on it together. Reading and thinking about philosophy is great, but ideally we should be absorbing those theoretical constructs and comparing and applying them to our rich and multifaceted extra-literary existences. I'm pretty sure Seneca would agree with me; after all, he was a Roman magistrate and tutor of the young Emperor Nero. One just needs to take him in a larger context in order to understand his intentions.

The other two essays in this volume - "A Consolation to Helvetia," which attempted to console Seneca's mother upon his exile from Rome; and "On Tranquility of Mind," an imagined dialog with his friend Serenus - didn't grab my fancy as strongly as the first, but they were occupied with many of the same themes: the power of attitude to change perception, the importance of a tranquil and reflective mind, the benefits of living a life of semi-retirement and making the most of your limited lifespan. This was one of those books that came along just at the right time: a slim volume that reminds me to make time for larger ones.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography