Seneca the Younger (c. A.D. 3-65) was born in Córdoba, Spain, about the same time as Christ; his father, Seneca the Elder, was an accomplished rhetorician and writer. Seneca went to Rome to study philosophy and rhetoric and became a renowned orator and writer himself. He also took up the philosophy of Stoicism, which counseled that perfection and contentment could be reached through reason, simple living, indifference to pain and death, and social equality. To the Stoics, a wise man was one who played the cards that were dealt him, uncomplainingly and with dignity, whether a slave or a king.
Exiled by the emperor Claudius, who was said to fear the philosopher's growing popularity, Seneca was recalled eight years later in triumph to become the young Nero's tutor. His influence over Nero was, at least initially, salutary; for a while, the emperor's tutor and the military leader Burrus ruled Rome together harmoniously behind the scenes. But eventually Nero's cruel propensities revealed themselves: he killed his mother, his brother, and, after Seneca was again sent into exile, his tutor; that is, he demanded that Seneca kill himself, and the old man obliged. The nobility with which Seneca took his life was much admired, and was considered an apt demonstration of his philosophy, suicide being a Stoic virtue. However, he was often criticized for the disparity between his Stoic beliefs and his practices in other respects: he amassed enormous wealth, curried favor, and even whined at misfortune--he acted, in short, like a human being instead of a paragon of virtue.
Seneca was a prolific author of tragedies (which strongly influenced Elizabethan drama), dialogues, and orations, but his reputation as the founder of the essay rests on his letters, which both Montaigne and Bacon cited as their inspiration and which remain his most attractive and accessible work. Essays in disguise, these "moral letters," written during Seneca's last exile, were probably intended from the start for publication rather than for their ostensible recipient, a civil servant named Lucilius. Each has a homiletic, ethical, Stoic message to convey. In them, a portrait of Seneca also emerges: asthmatic, aging, wry, alternately crabby and serene, critical of hypocrisy and luxury, observant of manners and mores (we learn much from him about Roman daily life), argumentative, worldly.
In his style Seneca stressed brevity and clarity. Reacting in part against Cicero's "grand style," a beautiful but wordy, florid oratory that rounded out sentences on the basis of sound, Seneca developed a more clipped, epigrammatic manner known as the humble or familiar style, which used common language and relied more heavily on metaphor, antithesis, and wit. Since writing in Seneca's time was often read aloud and drew applause at "points"--witty turns of phrase--it tended to devolve into aphoristic series. The results can be both dazzling and fatiguing. Macauley once complained that Seneca's "works are made up of mottoes. There is hardly a sentence which might not be quoted; but to read him straightforward is like dining on nothing but anchovy sauce." The paradox of Seneca's style is that it is at once simpler, more plainspoken than Cicero's and more baroque, contorted under brevity's lash. A virtue of his jerky, abrupt manner is that it gives the impression of a mind in action--thought, counterthought, without any smoothing over the bumps. Its importance to us here is that it affected the development of the essay during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when classicism had returned and the reigning academic model was the euphonious Cicero. The anti-Ciceronians, such as Bacon, Montaigne, and Lipsius, led a rebellion, taking Seneca as their model, and out of it came modern prose: quick, pungent, ironic, self-questioning, reflective of mental process. It all goes back to Seneca.
I cannot for the life of me see that quiet is as necessary to a person who has shut himself away to do some studying as it is usually thought to be. Here am I with a babel of noise going on all about me. I have lodgings right over a public bathhouse. Now imagine to yourself every kind of sound that can make one weary of one's years. When the strenuous types are doing their exercises, swinging weight-laden hands about, I hear the grunting as they toil away--or go through the motions of toiling away--at them, and the hissings and strident gasps every time they expel their pent-up breath. When my attention turns to a less active fellow who is contenting himself with an ordinary inexpensive massage, I hear the smack of a hand pummelling his shoulders, the sound varying according as it comes down flat or cupped. But if on top of this some ball player comes along and starts shouting out the score, that's the end! Then add someone starting up a brawl, and someone else caught thieving, and the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, and the people who leap into the pool with a tremendous splash. Apart from those whose voices are, if nothing else, natural, think of the hair remover, continually giving vent to his shrill and penetrating cry in order to advertise his presence, never silent unless it be while he is plucking someone's armpits and making the client yell for him! Then think of the various cries of the man selling drinks, and the one selling sausages and the other selling pastries, and all the ones hawking for the catering shops, each publicizing his wares with a distinctive cry of his own.
"You must be made of iron," you may say, "or else hard of hearing if your mind is unaffected by all this babel of discordant noises around you, when continual 'good morning' greetings were enough to finish off the Stoic Chrysippus!" But I swear I no more notice all this roar of noise than I do the sound of waves or falling water--even if I am here told the story of a people on the Nile who moved their capital solely because they could not stand the thundering of a cataract! Voices, I think, are more inclined to distract one than general noise; noise merely fills one's ears, battering away at them while voices actually catch one's attention. Among the things which create a racket all around me without distracting me at all I include the carriages hurrying by in the street, the carpenter who works in the same block, a man in the neighbourhood who saws, and this fellow tuning horns and flutes at the Trickling Fountain and emitting blasts instead of music. I still find an intermittent noise more irritating than a continuous one. But by now I have so steeled myself against all these things that I can even put up with a coxswain's strident tones as he gives his oarsmen the rhythm. For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighbourhood if one's emotions are in turmoil?
The peaceful stillness of the night had lulled
The world to rest.*
This is incorrect. There is no such thing as "peaceful stillness" except where reason has lulled it to rest. Night does not remove our worries; it brings them to the surface. All it gives us is a change of anxieties. For even when people are asleep they have dreams as troubled as their days. The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind. Look at the man whose quest for sleep demands absolute quiet from his spacious house. To prevent any sound disturbing his ears every one of his host of slaves preserves total silence and those who come anywhere near him walk on tip-toe. Naturally enough he tosses from side to side, trying to snatch some fitful sleep in between the spells of fretting, and complains of having heard sounds when he never heard them at all. And what do you suppose is the reason? His mind is in a ferment. It is this which needs to be set at peace. Here is the mutiny that needs to be suppressed. The fact that the body is lying down is no reason for supposing that the mind is at peace. Rest is sometimes far from restful. Hence our need to be stimulated into general activity and kept occupied and busy with pursuits of the right nature whenever we are victims of the sort of idleness that wearies of itself. When great military commanders notice indiscipline among their men they suppress it by giving them some work to do, mounting expeditions to keep them actively employed. People who are really busy never have enough time to become skittish. And there is nothing so certain as the fact that the harmful consequences of inactivity are dissipated by activity.
We commonly give the impression that the reasons for our having gone into political retirement are our disgust with public life and our dissatisfaction with some uncongenial and unrewarding post. Yet every now and then ambition rears its head again in the retreat into which we were really driven by our apprehensions and our waning interest; for our ambition did not cease because it had been rooted out, but merely because it had tired--or become piqued, perhaps, at its lack of success. I would say the same about extravagant living, which appears on occasion to have left one and then, when one has declared for the simple life, places temptation in the way. In the middle of one's programme of frugality it sets out after pleasures which one had discarded but not condemned, its pursuit of them indeed being all the more ardent the less one is aware of it. For when they are in the open vices invariably take a more moderate form; diseases too are on the way towards being cured when once they have broken out, instead of being latent, and made their presence felt. So it is with the love of money, the love of power and the other maladies that affect the minds of men--you may be sure that it is when they abate and give every appearance of being cured that they are at their most dangerous. We give the impression of being in retirement, and are nothing of the kind. For if we are genuine in this, if we have sounded the retreat and really turned away from the surface show, then, as I was saying a little while ago, nothing will distract us. Men and birds together in full chorus will never break into our thinking when that thinking is good and has at last come to be of a sure and steady character.
The temperament that starts at the sound of a voice or chance noises in general is an unstable one and one that has yet to attain inward detachment. It has an element of uneasiness in it, and an element of the rooted fear that makes a man a prey to anxiety, as in the description given by our Virgil:
And I, who formerly would never flinch
At flying spears or serried ranks of Greeks,
Am now alarmed by every breeze and roused
By every sound to nervousness, in fear
For this companion and this load alike.*
The earlier character here is the wise man, who knows no fear at the hurtling of missiles, or the clash of weapons against weapons in the close-packed ranks, or the thunderous noise of a city in destruction. The other, later one has everything to learn; fearing for his belongings he pales at every noise; a single cry, whatever it is, prostrates him, being immediately taken for the yelling of the enemy; the slightest movement frightens him out of his life; his baggage makes him a coward. Pick out any one of your "successful" men, with all they trail or carry about with them, and you will have a picture of the man "in fear for this companion and this load." You may be sure, then, that you are at last "lulled to rest" when noise never reaches you and when voices never shake you out of yourself, whether they be menacing or inviting or just a meaningless hubbub of empty sound all round you.
"This is all very well," you may say, "but isn't it sometimes a lot simpler just to keep away from the din?" I concede that, and in fact it is the reason why I shall shortly be moving elsewhere. What I wanted was to give myself a test and some practice. Why should I need to suffer the torture any longer than I want to when Ulysses found so easy a remedy for his companions even against the Sirens?*
Ill health--which had granted me quite a long spell of leave--has attacked me without warning again. "What kind of ill health?" you'll be asking. And well you may, for there isn't a single kind I haven't experienced. There's one particular ailment, though, for which I've always been singled out, so to speak. I see no reason why I should call it by its Greek name,** difficulty in breathing being a perfectly good way of describing it. Its onslaught is of very brief duration--like a squall, it is generally over within the hour. One could hardly, after all, expect anyone to keep on drawing his last breath for long, could one? I've been visited by all the troublesome or dangerous complaints there are, and none of them, in my opinion, is more unpleasant than this one--which is hardly surprising, is it, when you consider that with anything else you're merely ill, while with this you're constantly at your last gasp? This is why doctors have nicknamed it "rehearsing death," since sooner or later the breath does just what it has been trying to do all those times. Do you imagine that as I write this I must be feeling in high spirits at having escaped this time? No, it would be just as absurd for me to feel overjoyed at its being over--as if this meant I was a healthy man again--as it would be for a person to think he has won his case on obtaining an extension of time before trial.
Even as I fought for breath, though, I never ceased to find comfort in cheerful and courageous reflections. "What's this?" I said. "So death is having all these tries at me, is he? Let him, then! I had a try at him a long while ago myself." "When was this?" you'll say. Before I was born. Death is just not being. What that is like I know already. It will be the same after me as it was before me. If there is any torment in the later state, there must also have been torment in the period before we saw the light of day; yet we never felt conscious of any distress then. I ask you, wouldn't you say that anyone who took the view that a lamp was worse off when it was put out than it was before it was lit was an utter idiot? We, too, are lit and put out. We suffer somewhat in the intervening period, but at either end of it there is a deep tranquillity. For, unless I'm mistaken, we are wrong, my dear Lucilius, in holding that death follows after, when in fact it precedes as well as succeeds. Death is all that was before us. What does it matter, after all, whether you cease to be or never begin, when the result of either is that you do not exist?
Copyright © 1997 by Phillip Lopate. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.