The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca was a Stoic who adopted and argued largely from within the framework he inherited from his Stoic predecessors. His Letters to Luciliushave long been widely read Stoic texts. Seneca’s texts have many aims: he writes to exhort readers to philosophy, to encourage them to continue study, to articulate his philosophical position, to defend Stoicism against opponents, to portray a philosophical life, and much more. Seneca also writes to criticize the social practices and values of his fellow Romans. He rejects and criticizes, among other things, the idea that death is an evil, that wealth is a good, that political power is valuable, that anger is justified. In Seneca’s philosophical texts, one finds a Stoic who attempts to live in accordance with the conclusions he reaches through philosophy. Though Seneca admits to falling short of this goal personally, his efforts have long been one of the attractions (though some have found these to be distractions) of his philosophical works.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in Cordoba during the reign of Augustus. Because of his birth to a provincial nobleman of low rank, Seneca was quite removed from the workings of the powerful Roman elite, yet the course of his life would come to be shaped by his relationships—sometimes inimical, sometimes friendly—with the early Julio-Claudian Emperors. He was exiled by Claudius and then recalled. He was friend and tutor to Nero. This relationship itself eventually soured, and Seneca, under orders from Nero, committed suicide in 65 C.E.
Someone familiar with Seneca exclusively as a philosopher is likely to be shocked by the details of his personal life. How, one may wonder, should Seneca’s argument that poverty is not an evil be understood in light of the fact that Seneca was one of the wealthiest men in the world? And how should Seneca’s commitment to and claims about the value of living philosophically be understood in light of the fact that Seneca’s own life was riddled with controversy and intrigue? On the other hand, one familiar with Seneca’s life may well meet with wonder the philosophical positions to be found in his philosophical works. How, one may ask, could the person who had positioned himself as the advisor to the young and impressionable (ex hypothesi) Princeps of Rome be the same person who upholds the private life as superior to the public? How could a man whose life story seems impossible for any but the most flexible character be the author of texts upholding the value of integrity and self-mastery as against mastery by one’s circumstances? These and many other questions make a clear view of Seneca difficult. This article attempts to provide a general sense of Seneca’s life and works that can serve as a starting point for understanding Seneca’s legacy. The aim here is primarily to bring the difficulties into view, rather than to resolve them.