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Lucius Annaeus Seneca, surnamed the Philosopher to distinguish him from his father the Rhetorician, was born in Corduba, in Spain, about 4 B. C.—authorities differ by several years as to the precise date. When quite young he was brought to Rome by his father. He devoted himself with great zeal and brilliant success to rhetorical and philosophical studies. In the reign of Claudius he attained the office of quaestor and subsequently rose to the rank of senator. In the year 41 he was banished to the island of Corsica on a charge that is admitted to have been false, but the nature of which is not clearly understood.
In this barren and inhospitable island he was compelled to remain eight years. He was then recalled to Rome and entrusted with the education of the young Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who afterwards became emperor of Rome, and notorious as the monster Nero. For five years after his accession to the principate, the young emperor treated his former teacher with much deference, consulted him on all important matters, and seems to have been largely guided by his advice. He also testified his regard for him by raising him to the rank of consul. In course of time, however, the feelings and conduct of the prince underwent a change. The possession of unlimited power by a character that was both weak and vain; the adulation of the conscienceless favorites with whom he surrounded himself; the intrigues or cabals to whom the high morality of the philosopher was a standing rebuke; and the naturally vicious temper of Nero, all conspired to prepare the way for the downfall of Seneca. When the conspiracy of Calpurnius Piso against the monarch was discovered, the charge of participation, or at least of criminal knowledge, was brought against Seneca, and he was condemned to die. Allowed to choose the means of ending his life, he caused a vein to be opened and thus slowly bled to death. It was his destiny to be compelled to take his departure from this world in the way he had so often commended to others; indeed it is probable that his reiterated encomiums upon suicide as an effectual remedy against the ills of this life, was not without its influence upon his executioners. They probably wanted to give him the opportunity to prove by his works the sincerity of his faith.
During the closing scene he told his disconsolate friends that the only bequest he was permitted to leave to them was the example of an honorable life; and this he besought them to keep in faithful remembrance. He implored his weeping wife to restrain the expression of her grief, and bade her seek in the recollection of the life and virtues of her husband a solace for her loss.
It was the fortune of Seneca not only to be well born, but also to be well brought up and carefully educated. That he appreciated the high worth of his mother is evident from the words, “best of mothers,” with which he addressed her in the Consolation to Helvia. His father, though wealthy, was a man of rigid morality, of temperate habits, of great industry, and possessed very unusual literary attainments. His older brother, better known as Junius Gallio from the name of the family into which he was adopted, was for some time proconsul of Achaia, in which capacity he is mentioned in the Acts, xviii, 12-17. Seneca’s younger brother was the father of Lucan, the well-known author of the poem, Pharsalia. Both his mother and his aunt,—he was an especial favorite of the latter—were not only women of exalted character, but they had acquired an intellectual culture that was very uncommon for their sex in their day.
Our authorities for a life of Seneca and for an estimate of his character are fairly ample and have been variously interpreted. Nothing can be gained by taking up the controversy anew. To some of his contemporaries even, he was more or less of an enigma. Others, again, regarded him as a time-server, a hypocrite, a man whose professions were belied by his actions. Still others,—and they are largely in the majority—are more lenient in their judgment; though they cannot exculpate him from inconsistencies, they excuse them by pointing to the extremely difficult position in which he was placed during the greater part of his life. He has strong partisans who are attracted and charmed by the sublime sentiments scattered so profusely through his writings; his enemies, in forming their opinions, lay the chief stress on what they regard as the inexcusable deeds of his life. It is too late to add anything to the evidence either pro or contra. All that it is proposed to do in this essay is to place before the reader a picture of the man, mainly from his own writings, as the chief exponent of the highest philosophy reached by the ancient world before this philosophy was supplanted by the new religion that was destined to take its place in the thought of mankind. Seneca was next to Cicero, or rather along with Cicero, the most distinguished Roman philosopher; but as a philosopher he has received the far greater share of attention. Both were Romans at heart; both were earnestly engaged in the search for the supreme good; both were guilty of conduct inconsistent with their professions; both tried and tried in vain to combine a life devoted to reflection with with an active career in the service of the state; and both failed. But Seneca not only had a higher ideal than Cicero; he also came nearer attaining it. He was less vain, less hungry for public honors and applause, and attached less importance to mere outward display. As a thinker Seneca has more originality than Cicero, is less dependent upon books, knows better the motives that underlie human conduct. Both were essentially Roman in their views of life, and it is only by keeping this in mind that we are able to explain, if not to excuse, the lack of harmony between what they said and what they did; between what they preached and what they practised.