In today’s Friday Philosophy post we’ll be looking at the Roman statesman, philosopher, and dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who had some interesting advice to offer concerning the way in which we should live our lives.
Who Was He?
Lucius, son of Seneca the elder, was born in Cordoba in Spain, and lived from 4 BC – 65 AD. From an early age he was educated in philosophy in Rome. Various Roman emperors, including Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, plotted against his life, but he was able to escape on each occasion, and actually had a successful career as a lawyer and became very wealthy.
Seneca wrote many works, including essays, letters, and plays, and could be described as a Stoic philosopher who was a pragmatist, emphasising a practical approach to philosophy. The Stoics advocated the living of a simple life dedicated to the pursuit of virtue and reason.
What’s the Big Idea?
Expressing himself mostly via the composition of sermons offering practical advice to his readers, Seneca’s work was less theoretical philosophy and more a guide to living. Unlike the Epicureans, who pursued a hedonistic lifestyle, Seneca insisted that the only good is virtue. That’s a word that is unavoidable when studying the philosophers of antiquity, which is interesting because it’s not a word that we employ very often in modern times.
Seneca’s approach to virtue could be described thus: Do the right thing and show indifference to all else.
It’s interesting that many of the philosophers of antiquity spent time pondering what virtue is and how to live a virtuous life. I suppose that when considering why the term has fallen out of fashion in the West we might look to the influence of the Christian Scriptures. As Christianity flourished in the centuries following Seneca, virtue took on a whole new meaning, as for the first time we had the prescriptive teachings of Jesus, claiming to be God Himself. The New Testament writers taught us what goodness is in the eyes of God, rather than simply using rational argument to try to discern how to be virtuous.
We can look at these two different approaches to virtue – rational enquiry into how to live justly, and revelation from God concerning how to live justly, and we might see this as an evolution in thought. There is much value that the atheist philosophers of today might find in Seneca’s approach to virtue, but those of a religious inclination will always argue that virtue which is absent of divine command isn’t virtue at all.
In next week’s philosophy post, we’ll be looking at the thought of Marcus Aurelius, who as well as having a spell as Roman Emperor, also produced some writing relaying his take on Stoicism. If you’d like to ensure you never miss a post, please consider subscribing!