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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Seneca (c. 4 B.C.–65 A.D.)

THE GREATEST of Christian evangelists was haunted by the awful dread lest, while he pointed out to others the path to bliss, he himself “should become a castaway.” The most fluent, tolerant, and persuasive of Roman ethical teachers, Seneca, demonstrated by his tragic failure in the trying crises of his life, how hard it was to be brave, consistent, or even free from crime, under the mad despotism of a Caligula, a Claudius, and a Nero.

At Cordova there is still shown a ruined villa bearing by tradition the name “House of Seneca.” In Spain, then, the native land of so many Roman scholars and authors, the great philosopher’s father was born. The race was already wealthy, and enjoyed the privileges of Roman knighthood. The father was at least a devoted amateur student of rhetoric, and endowed with a memory as phenomenal as Macaulay’s. After once hearing a speech of several thousand words, he could easily repeat it verbatim. He knew the world-city well, for he had repeatedly heard all the orators and pleaders since Cicero. Still, especially after his rather late marriage, he seems to have preferred more and more the security and quiet of his estates in Spain.

The two books by the elder Seneca of which we hear, were probably both undertaken largely for the education of his three sons. His history of the civil wars and the early empire is wholly lost. We are told that in a general preface he compared the earlier epochs in the development of the State to the stages of human life. This comparison itself has a certain pedagogical sound. His other work, extant in a fragmentary form, is chiefly made up of quotations from the noted rhetoricians he had heard, taking both sides in a series of very academic Adversariæ, or subjects for debate, such as—“Should Leonidas retreat from Thermopylæ?” “Should Cicero beg his life from Antony?” etc., etc. In his prefaces to the various books the elder Seneca shows a pleasing wit, an unexpectedly pure Latin style,—and his prodigious memory.

The three sons already mentioned are memorable for very different reasons. The youngest, Mela, was merely the father of the poet Lucan, whose brief life ended in utter ignominy and cowardice, dragging his parents down with him.

The eldest of the trio was adopted by his father’s friend Gallio. Under that name he has enjoyed an unwelcome fame among Christians, as the Roman governor of Greece who “cared for none of these things” (Acts, xviii. 12–17). As to the strife between the old Hebrew Paul of Tarsus and his fellow Jews, or even as to street brawls in Corinth, though the Greeks mobbed and beat the Israelitish high priest before the very judgment-seat of the Prætor, Gallio of course maintained the indifference and contempt shown by the typical Roman aristocrat toward all quarrels among the subject races of the empire. Canon Farrar reminds us effectively how trifling and soon forgotten this incident was to the man who was destined to be remembered chiefly thereby, and not by his famous brother’s loving words: “No mortal was ever so sweet (dulcis) to any one as he was to all men.”

The greatest man of the race, however,—the most brilliant literary figure of three imperial reigns,—was the second son, Lucius Annæus Seneca, like his father a native of Corduba. Born shortly before the Christian era, and always of a delicate and sickly constitution, he devoted himself, not like his kinsmen chiefly to rhetoric, but rather to philosophy. The Stoic school was far more sympathetic to Roman character than its only powerful rival, the sect of Epicurus. With these devotees to duty rather than to pleasure as the chief end of life, Seneca associated himself. He also had a strong regard for the Cynics, whose school may be regarded as the superlative degree—or as the reductio ad absurdum—of Stoicism. But it is a pleasing trait in this genial and tolerant nature, that he saw too how nearly Epicurus himself and his austerest followers had arrived by a different road at the same ethical goal. Indeed, in Rome at any rate, such commonplaces as the uncertainty of all prosperity, or the duty of meeting calamity with fortitude, needed in those evil days no instiller save the demoniacal caprice of “Cæsar,” and the insatiate cruelty and greed of countless satellites, informers, and spies.

Such lessons Seneca has left us in a hundred sermons,—under which general title we may include nearly all his epistles, the avowed essays, and the “dialogues,” which narrow to monologues as inevitably as a Ciceronian treatise or a poem of Wordsworth. The themes are few, and not often new; the illustrations, epigrams, tropes, disguise the monotony and obviousness of the thought. As Quintilian sternly says, the style is an essentially vicious one, and doubly dangerous because its errors are clothed in brilliant beauty. The tendency of Seneca is constantly to put manner above matter, to hide familiar and undisputed truth under striking and picturesque ornament.

This advocate of contented poverty was the wealthiest and most profuse of courtiers. He assured his disciples that contentment abides only in the huts of humility,—and entertained them at five hundred splendid tables of cedar and ivory. Such inconsistency, indeed, he frankly confesses; bidding us follow rather his aspirations and future intentions than his present example.

The very prominence of Seneca’s position exposed him to yet more deadly perils and temptations. His youthful successes as an advocate exposed him to the dangerous jealousy of Caligula, who was only mollified by the assurance that the feeble consumptive was already at death’s door. Promptly banished by the next emperor, Claudius, Seneca for eight years (41–49 A.D.) languished an exile in Corsica. Thence he addressed to the dissolute freedman Polybius, favorite of the half-witted tyrant Claudius, the most fulsome flatteries intended for the ears of both. One of the great philosophic treatises ‘On Consolation’ is nominally written to condole with this arch-villain upon the death of a brother. The long-prayed-for return to Rome came at last through the infamous Agrippina, when she had destroyed her imperial rival, and begun her lifelong machinations for the advancement of her ungrateful son, the future emperor Nero. Of this precocious monster Seneca became the guardian or tutor. Whether the sage connived at the murder of the emperor Claudius (54 A.D.), is an insoluble problem of court scandal. He did not denounce the guilty, and he shared the fruits of the crime. He even composed and read, to amuse his pupil and the guilty queen mother, a heartless and irreverent account of Claudius’s reception and condemnation in the world of the dead. This is the same Claudius who was so extolled and flattered in the ‘De Consolatione ad Polybium’!

Nero in the first five years of his reign gave some promise of statesmanlike development and a juster balance of character. Doubtless for the best acts of this period his mentor deserves the chief credit. While his fellow guardian, the sturdy Burrus, lived to control the turbulent prætorian guards, Seneca was as secure in his position as he can be who draws his breath by the permission of a young tyrant with madness in his blood, bred to folly and self-indulgence. The culminating horror in Nero’s lurid reign is of course the monarch’s assassination of his own mother, whose worst crimes had been committed in the son’s interest. After condoning at least, and justifying as a political necessity, this awful deed, Seneca himself must have felt that his pulpit should be vacated. He soon realized that his only hope of life was in the abdication of all authority, the “voluntary” proffer of his wealth to the young emperor, and a prompt retirement to Cordova or some equally remote retreat. Even this path he found blocked. Accused of treason, he was commanded to put an end to his own life. Thus set face to face with the inevitable, Seneca offered the usual example of a philosophic death (an example, by the way, which his pupil Nero, almost alone among eminent Romans, failed to follow). This was in 65 A.D. His wife attempted to share his fate, and was rescued against her will.

There are numberless pleasing traits in Seneca’s character. Indeed, it is much the same here as with his literary style. The central motive we may be forced to condemn, yet a hundred charming touches lend to it a dangerous attractiveness. He loved power, wealth, glory; and to them sacrificed his own approval and his after fame. But he was faithful to all the ties of human friendship, in a century when betrayal and ghastly selfishness were inbred in most men. Especially in his love for children, and his delight in them, he is almost un-Roman. In many of his educational and social doctrines he is surprisingly in advance of his age. And after all, the errors of his life are largely inferred rather than proven,—and certainly have long since ceased to do harm. Many of his ethical doctrines are of so lofty a nature that he has actually been recognized by popes and councils as at least in part an authority for Christian doctrine.

Perhaps to the same cause we may attribute the well-invented but baseless legend that Seneca was in correspondence, and even on terms of personal friendship, with the apostle Paul, during his two years’ imprisonment in Rome. Seneca, like the other Romans of his day, made no distinction between the Christians and the other sects of the “most detestable” Jews. Indeed, he never mentions the new sect by name. When Seneca’s brother Gallio refused to hear Paul speak in his own defense, the opportunity for personal influence of the great apostle upon that gifted and haughty family undoubtedly passed by forever.

Most of Seneca’s prose works we have already characterized. There is indeed one series of essays, in which he attempts to discuss the laws and phenomena of the physical world. Based of course upon the Ptolemaic system, these books had much influence throughout the Middle Ages, but have become mere curiosities in the broader daylight of modern science.

The mocking satire upon the dead Claudius is written partly in prose and partly in verse; and so may be classed as an example of “Menippean” satire. Most of Seneca’s other poetic productions have perished.

An important exception to the last statement must probably be made, in that ten tragedies have been handed down to us under his name. Composed long after the decay of drama, rhetorical and bombastic, unsuited to our ideas of scenic effect, these have nevertheless an extreme interest and importance, as the only specimens of serious Roman drama still extant. They were highly esteemed during the Renaissance, and exercised considerable influence on the revival of European tragedy in general and of English tragedy in particular. See J. W. Cunliffe’s ‘The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy’ (1893) and his ‘Early English Classical Tragedies’ (1912). Probably only seven of the tragedies are Seneca’s, but all ten passed with the Elizabethans as his, and were well known to them, both in the original and in translation.

There are excellent texts of the prose works of Seneca in Latin published in Leipzig—of the larger works by Haase (1893–5) and Hosius (1899); of the Epistles by Henze (1898); of the Quæstiones Naturales by Gercke (1907). Of the Tragedies there is an older text by Peiper and Richter, and a more recent one by Leo, in the Teubner series. There is a translation by Holtze in the Tauchnitz German Series. The English versions exhibit an astonishing gap after the Elizabethan translation mentioned above; it had no successor until early in the twentieth century, when a prose version by Watson Bradshaw was published in London (1902). This was quickly followed by verse translations by Ella Isabel Harris (Yale, 1904) and Frank Justus Miller (Chicago, 1907). There is a good English translation of the Quæstiones Naturales by John Clarke (1910) but no adequate rendering of the prose works as a whole.