Emily Wilson: The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (OUP 2014)

This book traces the paradoxes that emerge in Seneca’s life and work through his attempt to gain “control“ or “empire“ (both covered by the Latin term imperium) in both the public and personal senses: to be influential over other people within his society, and also to be stable in himself. The phrase I use as my title, “the greatest empire,“ comes from a passage in Epistle 113 (113.30 ) dealing with the problematic relationship of these two kinds of empire. Seneca insists that those who attempt to conquer the world and attain political, military, and economic power are far inferior to those who manage to achieve the empire of control over themselves: imperare sibi maximum imperium est (“The greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself” – or, “The greatest kind of power is self-control”).

I came to read this book in a roundabout way. Philosophy tends to show up a lot in my Youtube recommendations. One day I realized I didn’t know much about the Stoics, so I listened to a few brief descriptions. From there, an interview with historian James Romm cropped up; he was discussing his book on Seneca, Dying Every Day, with Francesca Rheannon. It sounded interesting – a philosopher (about whom I knew nothing, other than his name) advocating virtue and simplicity while amassing a huge fortune serving as a top advisor to Nero – so I went looking for the book. I discovered Classics professor Emily Wilson had also written this other biography of Seneca. I’m quite fond of the introduction to her recent translation of The Odyssey (which waits patiently in my TBR pile for me to sit down with it and the Fagles and get serious) so I chose to read her book instead; or, perhaps, first.

This little reading adventure was highly productive. I found out a lot more about Stoicism in general, laying a foundation for further reading, and I have a somewhat better understanding of early Imperial Rome. I have trouble with straight history texts, which tend to throw names and battles and conquests around until I give up, but approaching history from the angle of biography/philosophy helps get the straight history stick together.

Seneca turns out to be a fascinating character. The only problem is, there’s very little solid historical data about his life. Few original sources exist, and what secondary sources exist sometimes contradict each other. Seneca’s own comments in his letters sometimes contradict what factual information exists. Much of his writing seems to be defensive, countering criticisms. Drawing conclusions about motivations is risky business. But it makes for a damn good read.

The book is organized chronologically from birth to death to his effect on the future up to the 21st century, and seats Seneca’s works in the context in which he wrote them, at least, as much as possible, since some works are undateable. Chapter I, Parental Love is Wise, goes through his birth in Spain and the family dynamics. This is often the part of biography that I find tedious and boring, but here it was quite helpful, since it helped me understand the social and political norms of the time, as well as potential family dynamics at play (an overbearing father, a favored younger brother). Chapter II, Nowhere and Everywhere, traces several journeys Seneca undertook, from time in Egypt to help with his respiratory illness (probably TB, asthma, some such thing), to his initial public service under Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, to exile to Corsica for adultery, which may or may not have actually taken place.

Then we get into the thick of things:

In Chapter III, we move back to Rome: Seneca, now a middle-aged man of about fifty, was recalled from exile thanks to the emperor’s new wife Agrippina and became tutor to her son Nero. I focus on the fascinating tensions and contradictions created by Seneca’s position as the educator of the young prince, including the paradoxes of being an ascetic philosopher who achieved vast wealth in the imperial court. In Chapter IV we turn to the life and work of Seneca’s last years, his repeated attempts to disentangle himself from Nero’s service, and eventually his long awaited death. The Epilogue traces some key moments in the reception of Seneca’s life and work in the later Western tradition. I point to the ways that Seneca’s yearnings for wealth and wisdom, for death and time, for power and kindness, for flexibility and constancy, even in the most terrifying and tempestuous of circumstances, have provoked both shocked resistance and the desire to emulate him, in the early Christian period, in the Renaissance, and into twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

That last Epilogue is wonderful. As I read more and more about Stoicism and its similarities and differences with Epicureanism (which I dove into a couple of years ago via Greenblatt’s The Swerve) and Cynicism, I kept thinking of two other possible connections: Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy in which Boethius is assured that his virtue is what matters, and nothing else should bother him, and contemporary cognitive and dialectical therapies, which examine painful emotional states for the thoughts that give rise to them, and try to eliminate any cognitive distortions that are causing the actual distress. I found no mention of Boethius in this book (there are some connections elsewhere, but I’m not confident in my knowledge of either Stoicism or Boethius to draw conclusions, so I’ll leave that for another day) but Wilson does connect the dots to CBT/DBT: “Seneca’s discussion of anger, and of the emotions in general, there’s comparison with modern analysis of emotional disturbance and mental health, having particular affinity’s with the cognitive therapy movement in psychology.”

One of the sociohistorical elements that this book helped me with is the shift from Rome the Republic to Imperial Rome. I got a much better sense of this, through Wilson’s comparison of Cicero and Seneca:

Moreover, Cicero and Seneca were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Cicero (despite repeated acts of hedging and compromise) struggled to stand up for the old ways of the Republic. Seneca, by contrast, belonged both to the empire and to the emperor. Despite deep hostility to particular emperors (such as Caligula and Claudius-at least after his death) and a degree of covert resistance to his ward and patron, Nero, Seneca had no interest in restoring the Republic and no particular hostility toward the institutional structure of the Principate.
Cicero turned to the writing of his works of philosophy only in the interludes between his political engagements; philosophy was, for him, a means to an end, the primary end being the renewal of the Republic. For Seneca, philosophy was an end in itself. His rhetoric aims to achieve a change in the readers individual psyche, not in the institutions of government. In Cicero’s time, there was still a sense that political action could make a difference. Cicero hoped that he really could bring down Caesar and Marc Anthony. Seneca, by contrast, had no hope that he could achieve anything by direct opposition to any of the emperors under which he lived. His best hope was to moderate some of Nero’s worst tendencies and to maximize his own sense of autonomy.

Seems I’ve heard that phrase about “moderating the worst tendencies” a few times in recent years. Never seems to work out that way, does it? And yet another book has special overtones when read in 2019.

As a fiction reader, I would claim the primary conflict here is between Seneca’s words and the life he leads. He carved out some exceptions to simplicity, declaring wealth and comfort to be “indifferent”, that is, not necessarily opposed to virtue as long as the head isn’t turned by them, and they can be easily released. Wilson spends a good deal of time looking at both sides of this. His essay De Beneficiis (On Benefits) seems in places to be an indirect defense of the wealth he had accumulated under Nero:

Seneca’s arguments in the essay allow him to suggest positive interpretations of his own service to the Neronian court, even though he never actually draws the connection directly. For instance, his insistence that the most important benefits are not material at all allows him to offer an implicit answer to those, like Suillius, who complained at how rich he had become . … This is a wonderful way of having his cake and eating it too. Nobody needs to be jealous or critical of his own huge material benefits under Nero, because wealth and status are not real benefits; the real gift Nero has given him, if any, comes from the mind.

In some places, Wilson uses what I interpret as sly wit to hold his feet to the fire a little bit. In his Letters to Licilius (112.2), written near the end of his life, he writes, “Not every Vine accepts grafting.” Wilson notes: “This is as close as Seneca ever comes to discussing his failure at teaching Nero.” She describes his daily self-examination, which found its way into the practices of future intellectuals such as Descartes and Virginia Woolf, as not precisely self-examinations as much as I’m OK what’s wrong with you-examinations:

His account of his day slips from the self who is supposedly the subject of the analysis to gaze around at all the other people he has encountered in the course of his waking hours. In discussing, for instance, how he snapped at an “uneducated person“, he does not then try to work out what made him snap; instead, he shifts to analyze why this kind of person might not be teachable, and therefore, why one ought to avoid such people. If this is the kind of moral training Seneca gave Nero, it is easy to see why the boy did not become strikingly self aware or self-critical.

It’s that last line that made me smile.

But she’s also got a good point: it is the very conflict between words and deeds that elevates his work.

Seneca’s intense awareness of, for example, the emptiness of luxury was not independent of his own experiences in luxurious living. Rather, he knew of what he wrote. He understood first hand that wealth cannot buy peace of mind; if he had not been so rich, he would have been less conscious both of the dangers and the advantages of having money. He was neither a monster nor a saint; he was a talented, ambitious, deeply thoughtful man, who struggled to create an uneasy compromise between his ideals and the powers that were, and who meditated constantly on how to balance his goals and his realities. His work is deeply preoccupied with the question of how to create and fully inhabit an authentic self, end of what it might mean to be authentic. This is one of the many ways in which his work seems particularly relevant to contemporary anxieties and concerns.

Some of Seneca’s darker views – on slaves, or on capital punishment – can be seen as simply rooted in his time. He complained of an exhausting trip to one of his villas; he was riding in a carriage carried by a group of slaves, but their fatigue was not noticed or mentioned. His objections to gladiator fighting, which gave him a reputation for humaneness, was indeed humane, not for the gladiators, but for the spectators: “He deserves to suffer this punishment for his crime. But you, poor man, what did you do that you deserve to watch it?”

The fourth chapter describes Seneca’s attempts to get out of Nero’s service without getting himself killed. I’m still not precisely sure why this was such an issue, but apparently it’s more about Nero being a touch crazy and Roman mores and such. And he doesn’t quite make it. He’s convicted of conspiracy, and sentenced to suicide. But, as Wilson says, “For somebody who wrote so frequently about the importance of facing death bravely and readily, Seneca was extremely good at avoiding it.“ He had to try three times before he succumbed: wrist slashing didn’t work, neither did hemlock, but it was a steam bath that finally suffocated his diseased lungs. This is almost too sad to satirize.

I get the sense, having listened to the interview with James Romm, that his book, which limits itself to the Nero years, is more consistently kind to Seneca; I’ll have to see if that plays out if/when I read it. But Wilson presents a balanced view, allowing readers to weigh factors with their own values scale. I’m quite taken with the writing style, which combines so many layers. It was truly an enjoyable read, and while there are a few elements that still confuse me, I have definitely made some progress here, both philosophically and historically.