I know little about Seneca. In the back of my mind, I have the idea that his plays are disgusting and his moral philosophy derivative, although where these judgments come from I cannot tell. I know that he was studied by all the greats – Machievelli, Montaigne, Bacon – but I put this down to an exaggerated enthusiasm for Rome. So I had little reason to plunge into the article about Seneca’s and Nero’s suicides, Dying Every Day, by James Romm, in the winter Yale Review. Yet every once in a while I like to dive into a scholarly topic that I’m really not interested in, in the hope that I’ll broaden my horizons. I am an incorrigible optimist re those horizons, which – being horizons – are probably geographically and mathematically impervious to the broadening motivation. Nevertheless…
Well, Romm’s article is excellent. Of course, I recognize that much of it regurgitates what every historian of the period knows – but it plays the facts to create a kind of Lehrstueck about tyranny and what you could call the trivialization of the sage.
Our sages now roam the popular blogs and newspaper columns and tv opinion shows without, oddly enough, being questioned about their expertise. What in particular does a Tom Friedman or a Christopher Hitchens do? What is the skill set? Usually there is a retreat to the idea of “reporting” - but they aren’t reporting in the sense that the stringer or the semi-anonymous AP person reports. In most cases, they are opining. Their opinions, moreover, are based on a sort of assumed greater ethical sensibility. Hitchens, for instance, in his declining years, would often fill his columns for Slate or Vanity Fair with opinions in which he triangulate his feelings – his disgust, his righteous joy – to some object in the world, as though he were some moral litmus test.
Long ago, William James, in an excellent, disgruntled essay on the moral philosopher, dispatched the breed, which even then was turning up at Chatauquas and writing for the highfallutin’ quarterlies.
The ancestor of this type is surely Seneca. Although Cicero, too, was a sorta stoic philosopher in his off hours, for Seneca, there was a bond between the prestige he garnered as a sage and his heady position in the world of Roman politics. Having landed the job of tutor to Nero, he milked it for all it was worth.
Romm sets up his story by pointing to the ambiguous reputation of Seneca (who, spookily, willed his imago to his friends – as if his reputation, the image of his life, was some kind of separate creature). On the one hand there is a long tradition that sees Seneca in the terms he created for himself in his treatises and letters – as the moderate in all things Stoic sage, tragically doomed by having as his pupil a sort of armed Id. On the other hand, there was another version of Seneca:
“These are the opposing ways in which Romans of the late first century a.d. regarded Seneca, the most eloquent, enigmatic, and politically engaged man of their times. The first is taken largely from the pages of
Octavia, a historical drama written in the late decades of that century, by whom we do not know. The second is
preserved by Cassius Dio, a Roman chronicler who lived more than a century after Seneca’s death but relied on earlier writers for information. Those writers, it is clear, deeply mistrusted Seneca’s motives. They believed the rumors that gave Seneca a debauched and gluttonous personal life, a Machiavellian political career, and
a central role in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero in a.d. 65.”
Romm, as the essay develops, doesn’t think that Seneca’s life was debauched, and he thinks that his role in the assassination plot – a role that led to his death – was, as was much in his life, the result of trying to have it both ways. But he does seem to think that there was something Machiavellian about Seneca – that in effect he was like Thyestes, the hero of his most famous play. Thyestes the sage was also, by the will of his father, supposed to share the kingship with his brother Atreus. Rather than do so, he retired to the countryside. Atreus however lured him back with the promise of the throne. Actually, Atreus had in mind the extermination of Thyestes line, and he had a clever way of going about it – he slew and cooked Thyestes children, while getting Thyestes drunk and promising him a feast fit for his new royal function. Thyestes is shown revelling in his vision of power, and mightily enjoying the meal that, it turns out, consists of his children. Romm examines Thyestes as a projection of Seneca – a warning, perhaps, that Seneca issued to himself. And at the same time a reference, via Atreus, to the wicked Nero.
Even so, Seneca had not opposed the wicked Nero when he murdered his mother, or began murdering all the descendents of Augustus that he could find.
There’s something compelling about the duel between the Ubu-esque emperor and the Imperial pontificator. We have no Neros, but we have created a sort of plutocratic Neropolis in the US, with Senecas all over the place – and I kept thinking how mysteriously relevant this story is. Romm develops a nice little dialectical picture of the two sides of Seneca by contrasting two physical images of Seneca. One is statue that used to be considered to be of Seneca – a bust of a man who is “gaunt, haggard, and haunted, its eyes seemingly staring into eternity. Its features had served as a model for painters depicting Seneca’ s death scene on canvas, among them Luca Giordano, Peter Paul Rubens, and Jacques-Louis David.” The other is a bust dug up in Rome in 1813: “The bust shows a full-fleshed man, beardless and bald, who bears a bland, self-satisfied mien. It seems the face of a businessman or bourgeois, a man of means who ate at a well-laden table.”
1813 – ah, just in time for the birthpangs of the modern socio-economic world! Seneca, the bourgeois. I can see him in my minds eye, and hear him 24/7 on cable or talk radio.