Commemorating Progress

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 others. The emperor’s forces found him at a villa on the outskirts of Rome and interrogated him about a cryptic remark he made to one of the conspirators. But 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? 

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 in his beliefs); 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 make educated guesses). 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 ( 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, women, and servants—slowly began planning the assassination of Nero and the installment of an aristocrat named Gaius Calpurnius Piso. Though this has come to be known as the “Pisonian Conspiracy,” it seems like the ringleader of the plot was Seneca’s nephew, Lucan.

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 cohort 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 Campania? But historians don’t have anything solid to go off of except what Nero had: hearsay and an unusual parting remark Seneca made to one of Piso’s confidant’s. After dismissing Piso’s requests to join the conspiracy, Seneca made this comment: “Besides, my own well-being relies on Piso’s safety” (ceterum salutem suam incolumitate Pisonis inniti). It could have been just a stylized farewell (his Letters 15 is evidence that Seneca liked these flourishes). Or, the remark could have been a coded message that he wouldn’t stand in the conspirators’ way. Regardless, it was enough for the rash and paranoid emperor to get rid of Seneca once and for all.

Nero ultimately commanded his former teacher and father-figure 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 seems to have worked). Seneca died in the late evening of April 19th with his wife, Paulina, and some friends present. He ordered his body to be cremated and buried without ceremony. (If you want all the gory details, read Tacitus)

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 really matters in life. But does Seneca’s death demand a more specific kind of reflection? —a stance towards the kind of tyranny Nero exemplified or an attitude towards the kind of freedom Seneca exhibited? Or should we 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 striking 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 29th, 2023). 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 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 such a hypocrite as to offer cures while I am sick myself. No, I am lying in the same ward, as it were, conversing with you about our common ailment and sharing remedies. So listen to me as if I were talking to myself: I am letting you into my private room and giving myself instructions while you are standing by.”

Letters 27.1 (trans. Graver & Long)

The word “ward” in this passage is the translation of the Latin valetudinarium. It comes from the word valetudo (“state of health”—either fine healthy or poor health), 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 or 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.

BONUS: Selections from Seneca’s Letters 75 and my reflections

I’ll be using Margaret Graver’s and Tony Long’s translation of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics ( Seneca begins the letter 75 with an assertion of the doctrines that I mentioned above:

“So many things to know: when will you learn them? When will you fix them in your mind so that they cannot be forgotten? When will you try them out? For these are not like other objects of study. With these, memorization is not enough: you must put them into effect. The happy person is not the one who knows them but the one who performs them. ‘But look: are there no levels below that person? Is it just wisdom and then a sudden drop-off?’ No, I don’t think that. The one who is making progress is indeed counted among the foolish, and yet he is separated from them by a considerable interval. And even among progressors there are important distinctions to be made.”

Letters 75.7-8

Seneca then says that there are three general types of progressors (proficientes). The best type (though still not wise) are those that have eliminated every “infirmity [or, sickness] of the mind” (morbus animī in Latin; nosêma psuchên in Greek) and cannot backslide.

[E]ven among progressors there are important distinctions to be made. According to some, they are divided into three types. First are those who do not yet possess wisdom but have set their feet in that vicinity, for being nearby is still being outside. Do you ask who these people are? They are those who have put aside their emotions and their faults, but whose loyalty is still untried. They do not yet possess their good in such a way as to use it; nonetheless, it is no longer possible for them to fall back into those things they have left behind. They are now in that place from which there is no backsliding, but they do not yet realize this about themselves. As I remember writing in one of my letters, “They do not know that they know” [71.4]. Already it is their lot to enjoy their good, but not yet to be confident of it. Some authors delimit the aforementioned category of progressors in such a way as to assert that they have now rid themselves of the infirmities of mind but not yet of the emotions, and that they are still in danger, since no one has gotten beyond peril of vice until he has shed it altogether, but no one has shed it altogether unless he has put on wisdom in its place.

Letters 75.8-10

The morbus or nosêma is a very important concept 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 infirmities 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. Here’s Seneca reminding Lucilius of what the infirmities actually are.

“The infirmities are faults [vitia] that have become ingrained and hard, like greed and ambition. These are conditions that bind the mind much more tightly and have begun to be permanent afflictions. To give a brief definition, an infirmity is a persistent judgment in a corrupted person that certain things are very much worth pursuing that in fact are only slightly worth pursuing. Or, if you prefer, we can define it this way: it is being overly concerned with things that one ought to pursue either casually or not at all, or considering something to be of great value when in fact it is either of some lesser value or of no value at all.”

Letters 75.11

Seneca continues with his hierarchy of progressors. The second highest type 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 type are those who have eliminated specific vices and nosêmata.

“The second category comprises those who have put aside both the worst of the mind’s failings and the emotions, but not in such a way as to have a secure grasp on their tranquility: they are still liable to relapse. The third category is beyond many serious faults, but not all. They have escaped greed, but still experience anger; they are not troubled by lust, but are still subject to ambition. They no longer experience desire, but they still experience fear. Even in fear they are steadfast against some things but yield to others: they are unconcerned about death but still terrified of pain.”

Letters 75.13-14

He then ends his list of the three types with this nice sentiment to keep in mind:

“Let us give some thought to this matter. It will be well for us if we can join the [highest] group. By great natural gifts and constant studious application, one may attain to the second; the third stripe, however, is not to be despised. Think how many ills you see around you—how no wrong is unexampled, how much depravity advances each day, what misdeeds are committed both publicly and in private—and you will realize that it is sufficient achievement for us if we are not among the worst.”

Letters 75.15

The last lines of the letter he reminds his friend Lucilius why this is all worth the trouble:

“‘I hope I can gain a higher rank,’ you say. That would be my wish for us; but it is a wish, not a promise. We have already been taken over: we are in the grip of faults even as we strive for virtue. I am ashamed to say it, but we seek honorable conduct only in our spare time. And yet if we make a clean break from the things that preoccupy us and from our faults that cling so closely, how great is the reward that awaits us! It will not be desire that drives us, nor fear. Untroubled by any anxiety, undefiled by pleasure, we shall fear neither death nor the gods. For we shall know that death is not an evil, that the gods mean us no harm. That which does harm is as feeble as that which suffers harm: the best things have no capacity to harm at all. What awaits us, if ever we emerge from this murky depth to the lofty regions above, is tranquility of mind and the freedom and independence that come when all error has been expelled. What is freedom, you ask? To fear no human being and no god, to want neither what is base nor what is excessive, to have absolute power over oneself. Just being one’s own person is wealth beyond measure. Farewell.”

Letters 75.16-18

If this is the freedom that Seneca exercised on the evening of April 19th, then perhaps he reached those “lofty regions” of sagehood. One must imagine Seneca happy.


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