On The Death Of Seneca

There is a preparatory plaster statue, very finely executed by Eduardo Barrón, on display at the Museo Nacional del Prado Museum in Madrid.  It is called Nero and Seneca, and it was completed in 1904.  Barrón never produced a final version in marble or bronze; and although it remains a preliminary study, it is a powerfully evocative depiction of two strong personalities.  Seneca points at a passage in an unrolled book before him, and is leaning towards Nero, evidently to make some pedagogic point.  The young Nero, whom Seneca had the misfortune to tutor, remains slouched in his chair, a clenched fist pressed against his temple in sullen opposition to the lesson his teacher is attempting to expound.

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Hercules On Oeta: Immortality Through Virtue

As I have gotten older I find that reading plays brings more enjoyment than it did in earlier years.  Tragedies especially:  the unformed mind has not yet been sufficiently battered by the winds and waves of fortune against the rocks, and is equipped with a merciful immunity to the pathos of existence.  And yet, as the years roll on, beards and barnacles begin to replace the smooth, supple surfaces of youth; scars and aches accumulate; and the omnipresence of tragedy dawns on the maturing mind with a startling rapidity.  The mind then calls for a tonic:  it requires the writer to make sense of all this chaos, all this pain, and all this suffering.  The struggle must be dignified with a sense of universal justice, and an ethic of enduring goodness.  So the tragedian steps forward, and with his stylus attempts to perform this task.

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Ictus Animi: The Smiting Of The Mind

We are unlikely to arrive at any awareness of things while sitting within the confines of our domestic barricades.  Enlightenment requires perception; perception, sensory input; and sensory input, direct experience with the world of the living outside our familiar habitations.  The leisure of contemplation, and the enticements of philosophical reflection, allow for the refinement and processing of these experiences, but cannot serve as a direct substitute for them; and unlucky is he who deludes himself into believing he has arrived at weighty insights from the contemplation of the four walls around him.

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The Engrossed


Seneca had a word for men who were consumed with the chase after worldly riches and pleasures to the exclusion of everything else.  He called them occupati, the past participle of the verb occupare.  They were so busy in this obsessive, single-minded pursuit of the phantoms of prosperity that they never properly set aside time for themselves.  The word occupati means engrossed, preoccupied, or obsessed.  And I think this word is a fitting description.

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The Art Of Consolation


There used to exist a literary genre called the consolatio, or consolatory essay.  It is the type of thing that would be written by one person to another on the event of some terrible personal tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one.  Sometimes (e.g., in the case of Boethius) the writer simply wrote it for himself.  The ancient authors recognized it as a form of oratory, but it has been out of fashion for a long time now.

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The Consolation Of The Natural World


Seneca’s Natural Questions (Quaestiones Naturales) is an oddity of philosophical literature.  It does not fit into any neatly defined category, and stands nearly alone in its blend of science and speculative philosophy.  Perhaps “science” is not quite the correct word.  Our philosopher makes no experiments, and attempts no generalized scientific conclusions.  He is more concerned with describing and classifying the bewildering variety of natural phenomena that was seen and experienced by man, than in using experimentation to promote the advancement of learning.  The Romans were not scientists.

He presents us with a survey of the natural phenomena in earth and sky.  By analogy he tries to demonstrate which theories of his day are wrong, and which are not.

But Seneca is clear on his purpose:  the reason to study Nature is for our moral improvement.  His primary concern is to moralize.  What a marvelous idea!  And what scientist of today, in our negligently non-judgmental era, would dare suggest such a purpose?

How does the study of Nature help my moral development?  The answer, Seneca tells us, is that the study of Nature’s workings confirms the fundamental tenets of Stoicism.  The world moves on; death can come at any time; it is better for us to face our lives with diligence and quiet courage.


Perhaps, in so asking this question, we begin to approach the source of our modern problems in educating and training the youth.  “What is most important in human affairs?” he asks.  Not material gain or glory, but “Rather to have seen all the Cosmos in your mind and–for no victory is greater–to have conquered your vices.” [1]

In book one, he covers atmospheric phenomena:  rainbows, halos, parhelia, meteors, and comets.  Book two describes in detail lightning and thunder.  And here is where Seneca shows us why he is a philosopher.  Not content just to describe these things, he philosophizes about them.  So he interrupts his discussion of lightning to discuss the meaning of Fate, and how it is revealed by omens.  He reminds us that we should never fear extreme phenomena of weather, since death is unavoidable.  Death will come whether we want it or not:  so why fret about thunder or lightning?

Book three deals with the earth’s various types of waters and water cycles; book five, winds and tempests; book six, earthquakes; book seven, comets and associated meteorological phenomena.  It is a strange and wonderful book, in which every opportunity is taken to digress for our moral edification.  So Seneca interrupts a discussion of the earth’s wind patterns to rue that we immorally exploit the earth’s winds to construct murderous warships.


I love this little book.  He rises to great eloquence in many passages, among them this passionate plea:

With this, my dear Lucilius, we wrap up our discussion of these causes [of earthquakes].  Now we turn to those things which pertain to the solace of the spirit.  It is better for us to be morally strong than to be learned.  One does not happen without the others.  Strength does not come to the spirit except by the study of good arts, and by the contemplation of Nature….Why should I fear a wild animal, or why should I tremble at the light of an arrow or spear?  Greater dangers are waiting for me:  lightning, earthquakes, and the entire apparatus of Nature…A man’s life is an insignificant thing, but contempt for mortal life is a great thing.  [2]

To the ancients, character and moral development was more important than being “factually correct” in everything.  If you must know one thing about ancient literature, know this.  We see this tendency in historiography of the period, as well as in works of geography and science.  It is us moderns who are preoccupied with technology, truth, and always “being right.”  We may be better off now, with out technology and our theories, but have we advanced morally?   I am not so sure.

We can learn something from these old books, if only we will listen.


[1] Quid praecipuum in rebus humanis est?…sed animo omne vidisse et, qua maior nulla victoria est, vitia domuisse. (III.10).

[2] Haec, Lucili, virorum optime, quantum ad ipsas causas; illa nunc quae ad confirmationem animorum pertinent.  Quos magis refert nostra fortiores fieri quam doctiores.  Sed alterum sine altero non fit; non enim aliunde animo venit robur quam a bonis artibus, quam a contemplatione naturae…Quid est enim cur ego hominem aut feram, quid est cur sagittam aut lanceam tremam?  Maiora me pericula expectant; fulminibus et terris et magnis naturae apparatibus petimur…Pusilla res est hominis anima, sed ingens res contemptus animae.  (VI.4).

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