Hardship and Happiness

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A collection of work from Seneca, with a good overview of his thoughts and the world of his time.

Seneca and His World

Seneca’s life was mired in political advancement and disappointment, shaped by the effects of exile and return, and compromised by his relationship with the emperor Nero—first his pupil, then his advisee, and finally his murderer.

Nero’s reign, moderated by Seneca and Burrus, represented a period of comparative good rule and harmony (the “quinquennium Neronis”). The decline started in 59 ce with Nero’s murder of Agrippina, after which Seneca wrote the emperor’s speech of self-exculpation—perhaps the most famous example of how the philosopher found himself increasingly compromised in his position as Nero’s chief counsel.

In any case, Seneca’s influence over Nero seems to have been considerably etiolated after the death of Burrus in 62.

A Short Introduction to Stoicism

Stoicism is one of the world’s most influential philosophical movements.

Stoic ethics begins from the idea of the boundless worth of the rational capacity in each and every human being.
unlike Plato, they did not think that people who had a natural talent for mathematics were better than people who didn’t.
They held that all human beings are equal in worth by virtue of their possession of the precious capacity to choose and direct their lives, ranking some ends ahead of others. This, they said, was what distinguished human beings f rom animals: this power of selection and rejection.
Stoics were serious about (human) equality: they urged the equal education of both slaves and women.
Epictetus himself was a former slave.

Realizing that chance events lie beyond our control, the Stoic will find it unnecessary to experience grief, anger, fear, or even hope: all these are characteristic of a mind that waits in suspense, awestruck by things indifferent. We can have a life that truly involves joy (of the right sort) if we appreciate that the most precious thing of all, and the only truly precious thing, lies within our control at all times.

Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius describe processes of repeated meditation; Seneca (in On Anger) describes his own nightly self-examination.

Cicero denied, however, that our common humanity entails any duty to distribute material goods beyond our own borders, thus displaying the unfortunate capacity of Stoic doctrine to support the status quo.

many philosophers of the early modern era turn to Stoicism for guidance—far more often than they turn to Aristotle or Plato. Descartes’ ethical ideas are built largely on Stoic models; Spinoza is steeped in Stoicism at every point; Leib- niz’s teleology is essentially Stoic;
Adam Smith draws more from the Stoics than from other ancient schools of thought; Rousseau’s ideas of education are in essence based on Stoic models; Kant finds inspiration in the Stoic ideas of human dignity and the peaceful world community;

Seneca’s Stoicism

The question that dominates his philosophical writings is how an individual can achieve a good life. In his eyes, the quest for virtue and happiness is a heroic endeavor that places the successful person above the assaults of fortune and on a level with god.

Key topics are how to reconcile adversity with providence, how to free oneself from passions (particularly anger and grief ), how to face death, how to dis- engage oneself from political involvement, how to practice poverty and use wealth, and how to benefit others.
In human relations, he pays special attention to friendship and the position of slaves. Overall, he aims to replace social hierarchies, with their dependence on fortune, with a moral hierarchy arranged according to proximity to the goal of being a sage.

As Seneca insists repeatedly, the mind is uplifted by venturing beyond narrowly human concerns to survey the world as a whole.

To make progress, a person must not only confront externals but also, above all, look within oneself. Drawing inspiration from Plato, Seneca tells us there is a god inside; there is a soul that seeks to free itself from the dross of the body. Seneca invites the reader to with- draw into this inner self, so as to both meditate on one’s particular condition and take flight in the contemplation of god.

Consolation to Marcia