On the 19th of Aprilis (or, as Nero demanded it be called, Neroneus) in 65 CE, a plot to assassinate Nero was foiled and Seneca was implicated along with many, MANY others. The emperor’s forces found him at a villa on the outskirts of Rome and interrogated him about a cryptic sentence in one of his many correspondences. The interrogation was merely a formality; Nero already decided to order his old friend and mentor to commit suicide that evening. With courage and equanimity the old Stoic obliged him.
Why are we commemorating Seneca’s death?
Well, Seneca is a very important figure in Stoicism for three general reasons: 1) he considered himself a member of the school of Stoicism and he wore it on his sleeve proudly; 2) he wrote a lot of stuff that we still have access to so he’s a great resource to understand Stoicism (even if he was a bit eclectic); and 3) like Socrates and Cato before him, Seneca chose to commit suicide rather than compromise his moral integrity.
You can learn a lot more about a person’s character by looking at how and when they died rather than how and when they were born. “Being born” is always a passive experience—not up to us—but “dying” is often a product (or byproduct) of our choices. So a person’s death is more important than their birth and this is why the Stoic calendar is full of these dates.
A more pragmatic reason for celebrating the death day of famous historical figures rather than their birthdays is that … we usually know them (or can guess). Seneca’s birthday is not known—even his year of birth is not agreed upon. But we certainly know the date of his death: April 19th, 65 CE just outside Rome.
What were the circumstances of his death?
The details leading up to Seneca’s death and the death itself was extensively documented by Tacitus’ Annals Books 14-16 (https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Tacitus). There’s also a helpful biography of Seneca I used to get a handle on the complex circumstances called Dying Every Day (2014) by James Romm.
Here are the important points: Nero didn’t seem like a very good emperor (for several reasons); the imperial senate and the praetorian guard didn’t like him very much (for several reasons); Nero sensed this and became paranoid that he was going to be assassinated or overthrown (perhaps a reasonable concern at this point in Roman history); this caused him to act worse and his suspicions became a self-fulfilling prophecy. A group of people from all corners of Roman society—senators, poets, military men, landowners, freedmen and women, and their servants—slowly began planning the assassination of Nero and the installment of an aristocrat named Gaius Calpurnius Piso. This has come to be known as the “Pisonian Conspiracy.” Unfortunately, there seemed to have been too many people involved and too much time wasted; word eventually got out that there was a conspiracy brewing and Nero took it very seriously. He locked down the capital; interrogated or tortured anyone that might have information; and killed anyone accused of being a conspirator. Among those accused was Seneca.
Why was he implicated? Because Nero didn’t like him at this point in his life and because there was a rumor that a sub-group of conspirators were planning on swapping Piso for Seneca himself. This is worth emphasizing: Seneca may have been very close to becoming a Stoic philosopher king almost a hundred years before Marcus Aurelius. This rumor may have been grounded in some fact—why was Seneca in a villa on the outskirts of Rome instead of at his home down in the Campania region? But historians don’t have anything solid to go off of except what Nero had: hearsay and a cryptic sign-off in a letter to one of the conspirators: “My well-being depends on your safety. Farewell.” That was enough evidence for the rash and paranoid emperor.
Nero commanded his former teacher and once-father-figure Seneca to kill himself. As I said, Seneca obliged but not without effort: he opened his veins (that didn’t work); then he drank some hemlock that he had with him (that didn’t work); and then he suffocated himself with hot vapor in a warm bath (the combo of all three eventually worked). Seneca died in the evening of April 19th with his wife, Paulina, and some friends present. He ordered his body to be cremated and buried without ceremony.
What should we actually do to commemorate this death?
Just contemplating death is important for Stoicism because—if done correctly—it can decrease fear, foster courage, increase gratitude, and focus our attention on what matters in life. But does Seneca’s death demand a more specific kind of reflection: our stance towards the kind of tyranny Nero exemplified or our attitude towards the kind of freedom Seneca exhibited? Or perhaps we should just spend the day reading and thinking about the discussions Seneca had with his friend Lucilius about death and suicide (Letters 70 will always stick out in my mind as the most extreme example).
Here’s my idea…
We already celebrated a Stoic’s confrontation with tyranny last week (commemorating the death of Cato on April 12th). We will commemorate Stoic freedom later in the year on Kronia (July 11th, 2022). So what is the theme around this holiday?
After thinking about Seneca’s contradictory life (for example, he insisted that wealth and social status was indifferent and yet was very wealthy and he seemed politically ambitious) in addition to his protracted and near-botched suicide, I suggest we use the day to contemplate our common imperfection and also the progress we are making towards the moral perfection of sagehood. None of us have attained wisdom yet, but we will continue to move toward it together since—as philosophers—we love wisdom.
There’s a particularly important passage from Seneca about recognizing this imperfection and our status as ‘making progress’:
“I am not so shameless as to undertake to cure my fellow-men when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital. Listen to me, therefore, as you would if I were talking to myself.”Letters 27.1
The word “hospital” in this passage is the translation of the Latin valetudinarium. It comes from the word valetudo (“state of health”—either healthy or unhealthy), which itself comes from valere (“to be strong or well”). The Latin word vale — which Seneca ends all his letters with — means “be well” or “farewell” (thus, the English word “valedictorian” is “one who says farewell”)
Our Stoic community is a valetudiarium. It is where we can converse to each other about our common ailments and share remedies. Together, we can become mentally and morally healthy (valens), we can strengthen our values, and we can become more valiant when confronting difficult circumstances. We are all proficientes and prokoptontes—those who are making progress, who are slowly getting healthy.
My overall impression from thinking about Seneca is that he was certainly not perfect—he was not a sage (sapeins or sophos)—but he was a philosopher and ‘someone making progress’ (proficiens or prokopton). He was still making progress while undertaking his suicide. I say that that’s something to admire and commemorate.
OK, then what should we literally do?
In short, I think we should pick out some of Seneca’s letters to Lucilius that highlight his good intentions and his commitment to making progress—my favorite is Letters 75. I think we should read them and reflect on them and discuss them with others.
We need to recognize and accept two Stoic doctrines: A) almost nobody is truly virtuous— we are all vicious and B) there are degrees of vice that are closer and further away from virtue. The goal is to continuously get closer and never stop trying—until our dying breath.
Selections from Seneca’s Letters 75 and some reflections
I’ll be using the public domain version of Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilus (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_letters_to_Lucilius/Letter_75)—certainly not the best translation, but not the worst… Seneca begins the letter with an assertion of the doctrines that I mentioned above:
When shall you learn all that there is to learn? When shall you so plant in your mind that which you have learned, that it cannot escape? When shall you put it all into practice? For it is not sufficient merely to commit these things to memory, like other matters; they must be practically tested. He is not happy who only knows them, but he who does them. You reply: “What? Are there no degrees of happiness below your ‘happy’ man? Is there a sheer descent immediately below wisdom?” I think not. For though he who makes progress is still numbered with the fools, yet he is separated from them by a long interval.75.7-8
Seneca then says that there are three general classes of those making progress (proficientes). The best type (though still not wise) are those that have eliminated every “disease (or, sickness) of the mind” (morbus animi in Latin; nosêma psuchên) and cannot backslide.
Among the very persons who are making progress there are also great spaces intervening. They fall into three classes, as certain philosophers believe. First come those who have not yet attained wisdom but have already gained a place near by. Yet even that which is not far away is still outside. These, if you ask me, are men who have already laid aside all passions and vices, who have learned what things are to be embraced; but their assurance is not yet tested. They have not yet put their good into practice, yet from now on they cannot slip back into the faults which they have escaped. They have already arrived at a point from which there is no slipping back, but they are not yet aware of the fact … Some define this class, of which I have been speaking, – a class of men who are making progress, – as having escaped the diseases of the mind, but not yet the passions, and as still standing upon slippery ground; because no one is beyond the dangers of evil except him who has cleared himself of it wholly. But no one has so cleared himself except the man who has adopted wisdom in its stead.75.8-10
The morbi or nosêmata are very important concepts for Stoic psychology and for a correct understanding for Stoic moral education. Seneca provides a helpful definition next. Remember that we all have some degree of these in our minds insofar as we have irrational fixations on objects and habitually judge them as morally good when in fact they are morally indifferent. These diseases of the mind are the last things the proficiens eliminates before the emotions/passions themselves.
Diseases of the mind are hardened and chronic vices, such as greed and ambition; they have enfolded the mind in too close a grip, and have begun to be permanent evils thereof. To give a brief definition: by “disease” we mean a persistent perversion of the judgment, so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or, if you prefer, we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all, or to value highly things which ought to be valued but slightly or valued not at all.75.11
Seneca continues with his hierarchy of those making progress (proficientes). The next highest class are those that are close to wisdom and yet can backslide into a worse condition depending on whether they give into unhealthy proclivities. The third highest class are those who have eliminated specific vices and nosemata.
The second class is composed of those who have laid aside both the greatest ills of the mind and its passions, but yet are not in assured possession of immunity. For they can still slip back into their former state. The third class are beyond the reach of many of the vices and particularly of the great vices, but not beyond the reach of all. They have escaped avarice, for example, but still feel anger; they no longer are troubled by lust, but are still troubled by ambition; they no longer have desire, but they still have fear. And just because they fear, although they are strong enough to withstand certain things, there are certain things to which they yield; they scorn death, but are in terror of pain.75.13-14
Then he ends his list of the three classes with this nice sentiment to keep in mind:
Let us reflect a moment on this topic. It will be well with us if we are admitted to this class. The second stage is gained by great good fortune with regard to our natural gifts and by great and unceasing application to study. But not even the third type is to be despised… we are making a considerable gain, if we are not numbered among the basest.75.15
The last lines of the letter he reminds his friend Lucilius why this is all worth the trouble:
“But as for me,” you say, “I hope that it is in me to rise to a higher rank than that!” I should pray, rather than promise, that we may attain this; we have been forestalled. We hasten towards virtue while hampered by vices. I am ashamed to say it; but we worship that which is honourable only in so far as we have time to spare. But what a rich reward awaits us if only we break off the affairs which forestall us and the evils that cling to us with utter tenacity! … There await us, if ever we escape from these low dregs to that sublime and lofty height, peace of mind and, when all error has been driven out, perfect liberty. You ask what this freedom is? It means not fearing either men or gods; it means not craving wickedness or excess; it means possessing supreme power over oneself And it is a priceless good to be master of oneself.75.16-18
If this is the freedom that Seneca exercises on the evening of April 19th, then perhaps he attained that “sublime and lofty height” of sagehood. One can imagine Seneca happy.