Friday, August 31, 2012

Dialogues and Essays

Seneca: Dialogues and Essays
© 2007 Oxford World's Classics
 translated by John Davie
263 pages



Care to read the thoughts of a man chosen to tutor an emperor? Seneca the Younger lived in the opening century of the Roman Empire, and was such an accomplished author that even the early Roman Church tried to claim him. I've previously read a collection of his letters (Letters from a Stoic), part of an exchange between Seneca and his friend Lucilius, but Analogs and Essays is far more sharply focused.  The theme of the letters ran toward the general; here, Seneca writes on particular topics, beginning with theodicy and touching on anger, happiness, tranquility of mind, sorrow, and -- oddly -- earthquakes.

This is a magnificent collection. If the translators' rendering in English is representative of the power Seneca imbued his Latin with, little wonder the early Church regarded a 'pagan' author with such admiration. Seneca here is clear, direct, and forcefully dramatic. After I finished the final piece, I re-read several essays over again, just to savor the experience.  Stoicism is the reigning influence, of course: the ideas of Zeno are utterly pervasive. In the opening essay "On Providence", Seneca asserts that the universe is a fundamentally sensible and moral place: nothing happens without good purpose,  and even the harshest of circumstances can prove a boon to the wise man. It matters not what we endure, Seneca writes, but how we endure it. Difficulties are not punishments: they are opportunities.  The worst of luck is in fact a sign of favor of the gods, that they have deemed a man worthy of his character being tested. While I don't particularly agree with the notion that everything that happens is the product of a deity enforcing character training on we poor mortals, I rather like the indomitable attitude, and the idea that can winnowed out from the text -- life is nothing without struggle. We are creatures made to run and strive, not sit idly whining.  

Although Stoicism dominates, Seneca is no puritan: he freely borrows from Epicurus, and not simply to 'know his enemy' as he piously defended himself in the Letters. Seneca sees Epicurus as quite wise, in fact, and not at all deserving the slander heaped upon him because of the abuses of those who call themselves his followers. Epicurus is in Seneca's eyes the soul of virtuous moderation -- and Seneca defends comfort and wealth at several points, perhaps feeling guilty at his own success. But lest we think him a hypocrite, when the time came Seneca followed in the path of his heroes, Cato and Socrates -- accepting death in the manner he advocated several times in this collection. (The final piece on earthquakes isn't quite as odd as it might seem: while Seneca spends most of it musing on how earthquakes might happen, he uses the then-recent destruction of Pompeii to point out that nothing in the material universe is truly reliable: only virtue matters, only it can maintain us against the ravages of fickle fortune.)

I have been sharing excerpts from this book on facebook's Stoics group, and they've found a very will-pleased audience there. This is the stuff of excellence; obviously of interest to those interested in philosophy, mindfulness, and wisdom literature, but a must-read for moderns who find such value in the Stoa as I do. Seneca's essays are elaborations on the potent thoughts of Epictetus' Handbook and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.


This is one to re-read, remember, and recommend.

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