The relevance of his thought

Sandra Colmenero Vázquez

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a philosopher from Cordoba, Roman Spain, who is believed to have been born around the 4 BCE and 1 CE. He was a remarkable Roman philosopher and playwright whose works have continued to inspire the generations that have followed
him for several centuries. Seneca’s theories on politics, human nature, and ethics have had a significant impact on Western thought. In the following essay, we will delve into the influence of Seneca’s concepts stated in his Moral Letters on Christian thought and their relevance in the present-day world.

 The Cordoban philosopher is also known as Seneca the Younger, due to his father being Seneca the Elder, who was a prominent literary figure in Rome. From a young age, Seneca the Younger became interested in philosophy, oratory, and literature. Throughout his long
career, he rose to become a senior adviser to Emperor Nero as well as one of the most prominent literary figures of his generation, publishing widely in both prose and verse. Seneca suffered exile due to a court intrigue in 41 CE and was recalled to Rome eight years later. During that time, he became Nero’s tutor and later advisor.

After more than ten years, Seneca’s influence at Nero’s court began to wane as the emperor’s personality and that of his government declined. Seneca eventually withdrew from public life and, upon the emperor’s suspicion that Seneca was personally involved in a plot against him, committed suicide in the spring of 65 CE (Inwood, 2007, p. xii).

It is known that Seneca wanted his legacy to be an imago vitae suae, which can be understood as him wanting to leave behind a representation of his life that would reflect his values and beliefs (Braund, 2015, p. 17).

The philosopher from Cordoba was a prolific writer who explored several literary genres including epistolary, essay, and theatre, among others. Particularly, his tragedies are renowned for their psychological depth and dramatic intensity. In this category, we can
include the following plays: Hercules, Troades, Phoenissae, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, and Thyestes. As for his essays, in which he deals with a wide variety of topics, some of the best-known are the following: De Providentia, De Ira, De consolatione, De Vita Beata, De Otio, De Brevitate Vitae, etc. 

On the other hand, the Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium which are dated from 62 to 65 CE, offer profound perspicuity into Stoic philosophy. In his letters, Seneca expands on his previous essays, presenting an exhaustive illustration of Stoic philosophy. As he states in
the beginning of Epistle 8 his intentions are clear: to benefit as many people as possible through his selfless and diligent work, by withdrawing into himself. Concerning this, Braund quotes the following passage of Seneca’s Epistle 8: “I have withdrawn not only from people but from business, especially my own. I am writing for future generations, writing down ideas that might be valuable to them.” (ibid. p. 18). 

The Epistulae morales are addressed to Lucilius, written late in Seneca’s life, and are based on the long separation from his friend. Repeatedly, Seneca not only conveys the pain and sadness of being away from Lucilius but also the deep anguish of remembering
his loss. It can even be deduced from his words that he is going through some kind of bereavement (Edwards, 2015, p. 41). 

Despite that, these letters cannot be thought of as addressed solely to Lucilius given their broad philosophical program and their conscious aspiration for a wide and lasting public. Instead, the epistolary qualities of the letters have been examined concerning their
philosophical purpose. The letters operate as a compelling and striking means of imparting philosophical education, emphasizing the importance of particularity, interaction, and careful scrutinization of one’s daily life.

Regarding the formal structure of the letters, it can be stated that they are organized in twenty books of varying lengths. One hundred and twenty-four letters are preserved, although more were known in antiquity. The earliest letters are usually shorter and simpler
than those we find towards the end of the epistolary, many of which deal with philosophical topics of great complexity. The earlier letters are usually associated with a more Epicurean philosophical idea, while the later ones are clearly of a Stoic tendency (ibid. p. 42). 

The subject matter of the letters is very broad, ranging from how the aspiring philosopher should behave during the Saturnalia to the validity of philosophical forms of argumentation, to more conventional epistolary topics such as friendship, ill-health and solace. Nevertheless, a repeated and very important concern in the epistolary is death. Seneca discusses how it should be approached, whether it can be self-inflicted with justification and, above all, the perpetual proximity of death.

It is also important to note that the concept of self-reflection and personal growth through introspection, one of the subjects often addressed by Seneca, has gained significant interest in recent times.

As mentioned above, there are some very brief letters and some very long ones. In some, the style seems to be simple, in others, complex. However, the letters display a flexible writing style, and he expertly uses richly developed images which makes his letters more
engaging. In addition, the philosopher makes subtle allusions to the works of earlier literary greats such as Virgil, Horace, or Ovid (ibid. p. 43).

The importance of the letter in emphasizing either the distance or the connection between sender and recipient is famously outlined in Janet Altman’s study of epistolarity. Consequently, it either emphasizes or minimizes their separation. Moreover, letters can
be seen as a means of establishing a live connection between the sender and receiver. In addition, the letters participate in a conversational effect, which is particularly important, since conversation held great significance in the Stoicism project. (ibid. p. 47).

Furthermore, many scholars have pointed out the numerous similarities between Seneca’s thought and Christianity. The great reception that Seneca had can be seen in the pseudocorrespondence between the philosopher and St. Paul. The early humanists approached
Seneca through this false correspondence. Thus, many of them were inclined to claim a Christian Seneca, or at the very least, to assert the presence of spiritual similarities between his philosophy and Christian doctrine. This notion displayed a persistent selfperpetuation, as critics would regularly compile instances of Seneca’s prose that bore a strong resemblance to Christian themes as proof that the Church Fathers often drew from his works and recognized him as a Christian thinker (Torre, 2015, pp. 266–267).

Nonetheless, more significant is the essential historical and geographic convergence of three prominent figures at the pinnacle of their career, all of whom died as martyrs during Nero’s reign: Seneca (Nero’s advisor), Peter (Christ’s heir), and Paul (the Apostle of the
Pagans). This convergence played a significant role in shaping the perception of Seneca among early Christians, as it established a historical link between Seneca and key figures in Christian history. Therefore, Seneca’s status as an icon in the Christian tradition was
greatly influenced by this synchronicity (ibid.).

Tertullian provides an example of the appropriation of Seneca’s ideas. In a passage where he quotes Seneca’s work On Benefits, Tertullian declares that Seneca “is one of ours”, Seneca saepe noster. Moreover, Tertullian employs a strategy of appropriation of pagan
philosophy. The relevant section of On Benefits discusses the “seed”- semina – theory of all innate notions of the mind, and the role of God as the teacher who cultivates them (ibid. p. 269).

Nevertheless, we find points in common between Christian doctrine and Seneca’s thought, especially concerning virtue, humility, and suffering. To delve deeper into these similarities, some of Seneca’s letters will be analyzed. For instance, in the Letter LXXI,
he discusses “supreme good”, stating that life has to be directed towards virtue and goodness:

As often as you wish to know what is to be avoided or what is to be sought, consider its
relation to the Supreme Good, to the purpose of your whole life. For whatever we do
ought to be in harmony with this; no man can set in order the details unless he has already
set before himself the chief purpose of his life. (…) To infer the nature of this Supreme
Good, one does not need many words or any round-about discussion; it should be pointed
out with the forefinger, so to speak, and not be dissipated into many parts. For what good
is there in breaking it up into tiny bits, when you can say: the Supreme Good is that which
is honourable? Besides (and you may be still more surprised at this), that which is
honourable is the only good; all other goods are alloyed and debased. If you once
convince yourself of this, and if you come to love virtue devotedly (for mere loving is not
enough), anything that has been touched by virtue will be fraught with blessing and
prosperity for you, no matter how it shall be regarded by others (Seneca, 2013, p. 206).

In Letter LXIII, entitled “On Grief for Lost Friends”, the philosopher deals with the subject of suffering and grief. In this letter, Seneca gives advice on how to bear the grief of the loss of a loved one. Seneca comments the following:

“What,” you say, “am I to forget my friend?” It is surely a short-lived memory that you
vouchsafe to him, if it is to endure only as long as your grief; presently that brow of yours
will be smoothed out in laughter by some circumstance, however casual. It is to a time no
more distant than this that I put off the soothing of every regret, the quieting of even the
bitterest grief. As soon as you cease to observe yourself, the picture of sorrow which you
have contemplated will fade away; at present you are keeping watch over your own
suffering. But even while you keep watch it slips away from you, and the sharper it is, the
more speedily it comes to an end. (…) No man reverts with pleasure to any subject which
he will not be able to reflect upon without pain. So too it cannot but be that the names of
those whom we have loved and lost come back to us with a sort of sting; but there is a
pleasure even in this sting. (…) To me, the thought of my dead friends is sweet and
appealing. For I have had them as if I should one day lose them; I have lost them as if I
have them still (2013, pp. 169–170). 

Seneca claims that it is normal to feel pain and sorrow and it is something we do not have to run away from, but on the contrary, we must accept this sorrow. Seneca’s philosophy emphasizes that suffering is inherent in life and encourages us to accept it and use it to
our advantage for personal growth. On the other hand, Christianity believes that suffering can bring us closer to God and be redemptive. Likewise, suffering can also be a test of faith; if we endure it with faith, it can enable spiritual growth. Both Stoicism and
Christianity stress the importance of accepting suffering as a means of spiritual growth and development.

In conclusion, there are undeniable parallels between Christian doctrine and Seneca’s philosophy, especially in terms of their ethical teachings. The emphasis Seneca places on virtues like restraint, humility, and love for others is consistent with Christian principles.
Additionally, the fact that Seneca passed away at the same time as Peter and Paul did during Nero’s rule and that early Christian writers like Tertullian adopted some of his ideas contributed to shaping the perception of Seneca as a person with ties to Christian
doctrine and history. Although there are some significant differences between Christian theology and Seneca’s Stoic philosophy, scholars have long recognized and discussed these resemblances.

Moreover, the modernity of Seneca’s thought can be seen in the letters that deal with topics such as personal growth and the importance of living in the present moment. For instance, the philosopher comments the following in Letter XCVIII:

If you are thus poised, nothing will affect you and a man will be thus poised if he reflects
on the possible ups and downs in human affairs before he feels their force, and if he comes
to regard children, or wife, or property, with the idea that he will not necessarily possess
them always and that he will not be any more wretched just because he ceases to possess
them. It is tragic for the soul to be apprehensive of the future and wretched in anticipation
of wretchedness, consumed with an anxious desire that the objects which give pleasure
may remain in its possession to the very end. For such a soul will never be at rest; in
waiting for the future it will lose the present blessings which it might enjoy. And there is
no difference between grief for something lost and the fear of losing it (2013, p. 395).

What is noteworthy about this passage of Seneca’s letters is the affirmation that worrying and fearing the future can be detrimental to the soul, as it leads to an incapability to embrace the present moment to fullness.

Similarly, in the letter titled “Los demasiado ocupados,” he speaks of those people whomake long-term projects causing a greater loss of life according to Seneca. It is crucial to emphasize the closing passage of this letter, in which he asserts that the most miserable life is that of those who conform their dreams to those of others. He concludes by saying that if they want to know how short their life is, they only need to think about the extent to which it has truly been theirs (2008, p. 22).

The previous text commented on was collected in the book Contra el trabajo, an edition that brings together a series of texts by different authors that deal in some way with related themes, as precisely indicated by the title, against work. Seneca’s text serves to reflect on
the alienation that work implies and how working diminishes life. This idea will gain great relevance from the 19th century onwards with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution and the birth of the working class.

All things considered, Seneca’s Moral letters provide timeless wisdom and helpful guidance for leading a meaningful life. The philosopher persuades readers to live in the present while preparing for the unknowns of the future and reinforces the value of reason,
self-awareness, and virtue. In short, Seneca’s Moral letters provide a timeless manual foranyone seeking to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, his insights are still relevant in ourcontemporary world.


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