Every meal is a delight at the table of a king
Over the last twenty centuries, Seneca’s thoughts on solving moral problems and leading a meaningful life have influenced people from Shakespeare to our nation’s Founding Fathers.
But while Seneca talked the talk–and no Greco-Roman philosopher is as expressive, to-the-point and clear in philosophical advice than Seneca–he often stumbled walking the walk in his personal life.
Seneca could put on and take off his morality as easily as he did his toga. He loved too well power and riches and would do most anything to get them.
Apologetic of his shortcomings, Seneca wrote his older brother Gallio (who is mentioned in the New Testament; Gaillio listens indifferently to a complaint against Paul, Acts 18:12, 14,17)… anyway, Seneca told his brother that it is better to aim high and fall short than aim low and succeed.
This is from Seneca’s De vita beata:
“I am not a wise man, nor–to feed your malevolence!–shall I ever be. And so require not from me that I should be equal to the best, but that I should be better than the wicked. It is enough for me if every day I reduce the number of my vices, and blame my mistakes.”
Seneca lived in the most difficult of all environments for a man of honor, integrity and principles: the moral black hole of the ancient world, the court of the Roman emperor.
High ideals are the quickest route to a death sentence when you’re dealing with two of the worst tyrants in history, Caligula and Nero. And Seneca held high-profile positions serving both these unbelievably cruel, bloodthirsty rulers.
Between the reigns of Caligula and Nero he worked for one of the not-so-bad-but-watch-your-back emperors, Claudius, whom Seneca betrayed big time.
Seneca ran afoul of all his bosses.
Caligula would have executed him if he wasn’t persuaded Seneca was so sickly he was going to die soon anyway.
Claudius banished Seneca to Corsica for adultery with Julia, the emperor’s niece. By all accounts a real beauty, what Julia would see in the professorial, middle-age Seneca I don’t know, but you can bet Seneca was creepily courting her to advance his political career.
Seneca is implicated in the plot to murder Claudius. The poison mushrooms Agrippina, Claudius’ vicious wife (and Nero’s mom) fed him didn’t quite do the job. A poison enema finished off poor Claudius.
Seneca wrote a mean-spirited, nasty satire about Claudius getting it in the end, so to speak, his revenge on the emperor who banished him for eight long years. [See comments to this post]
Seneca was Nero’s tutor. When the adolescent Nero became emperor, following the death of Claudius, Seneca and Burrus, the tough, no-nonsense prefect of the Praetorian Guards, ran Rome. Years later the emperor Hadrian said that the empire was never run so well as during the first five years of Nero’s reign.
Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide when the emperor suspected that the wily old fox, though retired and supposedly out of politics, gave moral support to a group of senators who wanted to overthrow Nero.
This was about the time the Apostle Paul was in Rome, though there’s no record of Seneca and Paul meeting. Wouldn’t that have been a great conversation!
Despite ill-health since childhood, despite a career spent on thin ice with terrible tyrants, Seneca managed to live a long life and was fabulously wealthy.
Seneca’s personal formula for political success and living a long life was compliance and duplicity.
Restraint of sorrow
Seneca sums up the tightrope he had to walk between his values and survival with the lament, “Every meal is a delight at the table of a king.”
When dining with a homicidal maniac, who happens to be the most powerful man on earth, you had better smile and nod, be quick to praise, stifle your emotions, and put aside those high ideals.
“It is possible to hide the anger that arises even from great sufferings and compel ourselves to speak words that contradict our emotions,” Seneca writes in De ira.
He calls it a restraint of sorrow:
“This restraint of sorrow is necessary, particularly for those whose lot it is to dine at the table of a king. So must they eat in the company of kings, so must they drink, so must they respond, so must they laugh at the funerals of their loved ones.”
That last phrase, “laugh at the funerals of their loved ones,” reminds me of one of Auden’s poems, Epitaph On A Tyrant.
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst
And when he cried
the little children died in the streets.
Though Seneca’s experience with tyrants happened two thousand years ago, I bet his observations ring true with those who nervously dined with Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot (leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia), Romania’s Ceauşescu, Serbia’s Milosevic or, more recently, Saddam Hussein. And even today: North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, or your typical home owners’ association.
The long good-bye
When Nero ordered his suicide, Seneca obeyed in noble Stoic fashion, in complete control of his emotions and with firm resolution. In his last act, Seneca lived up to his philosophy.
Seneca chose bleeding to death as his exit from the world.
He threw a dinner party and invited all his friends over. His guests witnessed Seneca’s slow demise as the philosopher chatted away as his blood dribbled away. This went on and on. Seneca was an old man and his frail heart just didn’t have much pumping action.
I wish they had been able to video and post Seneca’s prolonged and glorious suicide to YouTube. The next best thing is this account of Seneca’s long goodbye by the historian Tacitus.
Seneca was 70 years old, ancient by Roman standards, well beyond the average life span for that time. He knew he had reached the end of the trail, his days numbered with or without Nero’s order. The emperor gave Seneca the opportunity to exit modeling the death of Socrates, as a great philosopher teaching to his last breath.
Here’s an example of Seneca’s brisk, clear style:
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
“Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones.”
“One should count each day a separate life.”
“The most onerous slavery is to be a slave to oneself.”
“We most often go astray on a well trodden and much frequented road.”
You can see why, almost two thousand years after he wrote his philosophical observations, people still read Seneca.
Perhaps I’ve been unkind to Seneca, concentrating on his faults and shortcomings as I have. I recently came across a quote from Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye that gave me pause.
“There is no reason why a great poet should be a wise and good man, or even a tolerable human being, but there is every reason why his reader should be improved in his humanity as a result of reading him.”
Frye speaks of poets, like Ezra Pound, who in their personal lives were a-holes, but whose poetry soared to the heights of the human spirit. The same, I’m sure, can be said of my friend Lucius Annaeus Seneca.
More Seneca quotes