This morning we are in first century Rome, with two individuals: Seneca and Nero. Seneca was a gloomy stoic philosopher, and Nero the Emperor of Rome was a crazed, bloodthirsty despot. They were rather different to one another - Seneca valued sobriety, reason, and moral virtue, and Nero was the exact opposite; he was a crude, self-indulgent exhibitionist who had incestuous relationships with his mother and sister, who in jealous fits of rage murdered members of his own family. During his 13-year reign as the Emperor of Rome, he brought the Empire to the edge of political and financial ruin. As dissimilar as these two people were, Seneca, the writer, thinker, and poet, was for many years the top adviser and close companion of Emperor Nero. What a truly fascinating pairing.
Seneca was dedicated to the Stoic Creed. Stoicism was a popular philosophy of ancient Rome and Greece. It was all about how you lived your life in an upright, logical way, in which you guarded against the dangers of allowing fear and pain to dictate our actions. By remaining self-controlled, one could become a clear and unbiased thinker, and thus more in tune with the natural order. Being in tune with the natural order meant an acceptance of our fate, our fate dished out by this calamitous world of ours - a world in which every individual must endure suffering, death, loss of loved ones, and deal with the knowledge of their own impending death. We must then accept this reality, and make peace with our fate. The stoics believed our ability to endure under adversity was always greater than we thought. As you might imagine, Seneca trying to live by this philosophy while keeping the close company of Nero must have been incredibility difficult. Seneca was, in effect, living two lives, his philosophical life that eschewed ambition and material things, and his political life as Nero’s primary adviser. He acted in this capacity for ten years, taking up the office when Nero was only seventeen. As such Seneca was in effect running the Empire, playing politics at the highest level.
When Nero was 13 years old he became heir apparent. Lacking a father, as he died when Nero was young, his mother, who was herself a pretty thorny power broker, sought out the wisest man to be his tutor and mentor as Nero prepared himself to be Emperor. And who better than Seneca? Seneca was already a renowned writer and thinker, but this appointment as Nero’s mentor also gave Seneca a great deal of political power. It’s difficult to psychologically assess historical figures, but Nero’s mother was a nightmare. This had a major bearing on who Nero became. She was dominating, controlling, and manipulative, she used her son to achieve political power herself, and in his early years as Emperor she was in effect a co-ruler. Their relationship was very unhealthy, full of anger and conflict; her very presence put Nero on edge. Ultimately, this resulted in Nero killing his own mother. As Nero came to power, Seneca worked behind the scenes calming politicians’ nerves, allaying some of the fears as this angry teenager took up office. After a few years though, Nero really lost it. He became increasingly delusional and self-indulgent; as well as being Emperor, he acted in plays and raced chariots, something previously unheard of. To Nero, Seneca was increasingly becoming a bore, constantly trying to reign in Nero’s excesses, and have him focus on more important tasks at hand. Nero was increasingly surrounding himself with advisers who indulged his fantasies and delusional grip on reality. That reminds me of someone... Anyway, because of all this Seneca was increasingly becoming viewed as an enemy. As reason, and sober governance, took a backseat, a plot on Nero’s life started to form. A plot which Nero found out about. And so, as all tyrants cornered in this way do, Nero lashed out violently, having many senior politicians and military leaders killed, and ordering many senior figures to kill themselves. When things really couldn’t get any worse, the Great fire of Rome broke out. Rumours were flying around that maybe Nero caused the fire, or Nero was drunk and entertaining guests at the time of the fire, or Nero happily played his fiddle, as Rome burned. None of this is likely. But it undermined his image in the ever-present propaganda war, cementing his reputation as a decadent, out of touch moron. A reputation which has endured to this day.
I said he ordered people to kill themselves, and that might sound odd. Why would anyone go along with that? There are two reasons for it. First, keep in mind we are in an oppressive dictatorial state, akin perhaps to somewhere like North Korea today. As bad as Nero was, a direct order from him carried almost divine authority. That kind of psychological pressure is difficult for us to imagine today, but in Rome itself his presence must have felt almost omnipresent. The second, more practical reason, was that if you were ordered to commit suicide (because you were an expected conspirator say), and you went along with it, your estate would pass down to your family, rather than being seized by the state. On the topic of Nero’s divine authority, it’s interesting to note some potential references to him in the Bible. Though the people of Rome, one way or another, blamed Nero for the fire of Rome, Nero himself blamed Christians. And in his ongoing crazed mania he savagely persecuted Christians, throwing them to dogs, nailing them up in his gardens, and so on… So Christians had a very negative and fearful view of Nero. So much so, that even after Nero died, Christians feared he would somehow return to torment them. This is probably the root of the whole anti-Christ idea. If Christ is the resurrected Jesus, the anti-Christ is the resurrected Nero. Of course, that’s all superstitious nonsense, but quite interesting, and highlights the existential fear surrounding the figure of Nero. Also as a side note, in Jewish mysticism Hebrew letters relate to corresponding numbers. They played around with this idea in the great 1998 film Pi, and if you take Nero’s title ‘Nero Caesar’, translate it into Hebrew, and then into numbers, you get the number 666. And that’s one possible source. I highlight the word ‘possible’, because it’s a bit dubious if this is really the reason for the numbers, but it’s an interesting possibility.
So, returning to Seneca: suicide, and death more generally, was a topic that really fascinated Seneca in a somewhat morbid way; he wrote about it a lot. Good men might be forced to do bad things by bad men, but suicide ultimately gives complete freedom to the good man, there is always an escape route available to them. Or as Seneca put it, ‘any vein in your body will bring you to freedom’. Suicide to Seneca was a way to reclaim your dignity in the face of humiliation, or in the face of being forced to do terrible things. He idolised another stoic philosopher called Cato, who himself committed suicide by stabbing himself with his sword and pulling out his bowels, because he didn’t want to live under a tyranny. Remember the stoics wanted to live lives, not dictated by strong emotions, like fear or anger, but logically. And as such their willingness to end their own lives gave ultimate power and agency back to them as individuals. What is social pressure, if you’re willing to just take your own life? In our world, it is incredibly easy to be swept up by the opinions and attitudes of the masses, in smaller peer group ways, but also in broader cultural narrative type ways (as we have been thinking about over the last couple of weeks). Often the power of in-group mentality, or common narratives of the age, shape and colour our outlooks far more than we would like to think. We obviously want to think of ourselves as individuals, with our own opinions, arrived at logically. This brings to mind that famous psychological study done by Philip Zimbardo, testing the limits of human obedience to authority. Most individuals, if put in lab-like settings with perceived authority figures over them, will do unethical things willingly. Social pressure and culturally normalized symbols of authority have immense power, and too easily cause us to surrender our own agency. The stoic philosopher, Cato, believed we must train ourselves to be disobedient, so that we might be self-assured enough to buck against everyone else when it really counts. And Cato did this, trained himself, by wearing clothes which were unfashionable, so that he could learn to take the shame of others. I have heard of a few modern-day examples of these types of exercises, small acts of nonconformity, like lying down on the floor for a few seconds in a coffee shop, or drawing a triangle on your forehead and leaving it there for the day. I have heard that these non-consequential acts of deviant behaviour provoke a disproportionate reaction, distressing and upsetting people. That alone obviously makes it quite amusing. But as Cato and Seneca point out, these acts prepare us to recognise when we are falling into harmful conformity, and to withstand the social stigma of acting when society at large doesn’t want us to.
Ultimately, Nero decided that Seneca must be put to death, and so Seneca in defiance did what was perhaps inevitable all along, and committed suicide at the age of 69. I suppose one of the most surprising things about Seneca is the extent to which his writings don’t really seem to reflect the man he was. He spends much time, for example, talking of the virtues of poverty, and living simply without material wealth, and yet we know that given his office and status, he was immensely wealthy. Also, he almost certainly had to collaborate to some extent with Nero’s regime and its appalling acts of cruelty. This, as I have said, must have been a living Hell, which puts Seneca’s entire life into perspective. Despite living this rather Machiavellian life, he is known as one of the great moral thinkers not just of his age, but ever. Ultimately then, when we think of Seneca what emerges is an immensely complex picture. There are at least two Senecas in one body. We could take a negative view of him because of this, and call him a hypocrite, or we could recognise that he, like most of us, cannot be simply explained or categorised, by either our profession, or even the impression we project on the surface. He was human. All too human. He is a moral philosopher, not disconnected from the real world. He is not simply writing down his erudite views from within the ivory tower, he is in the dirt, in the political arena, in the world of power brokering, playing the game of intrigue, and I believe it is all this which makes him such a compelling figure. Unlike other famous moral philosophers of the ancient world, he was attempting to synthesise the moral ideal with the complexity of the real world, the often cruel and unforgiving real world. This is of course the challenge we all face, reconciling the lofty ideal with the gritty world. Choosing where to cut against the grain, choosing our battles, and reconciling ourselves to that which is beyond us. There is a Christian prayer which goes a long way in capturing the spirit of Seneca, but also the spirit of Stoicism more broadly. It goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.