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Seneca for beginners

On how an old book can save a life

Gonzalo X. Villava Alber

Photo by the author


I have just come across a rather interesting paperback that
begins by telling the story of a random discovery of a used
book, in a hotel that was not in very good shape. One of those
decrepit hotels, like those in films. A hotel that I would not
dare to enter on my own. The man in the story, about to
commit suicide, finds the hand-written inscription in the book
that reads: Do you believe in destiny? This book is written for
you.

From then on, the author realizes that a book, written twenty
centuries ago, with the title of Moral Essays, happens to be
perfectly fit to his miserable life. Because of this, his life turns
around completely. He embraces life and gets rid of his
stubborn need to take anti-depressants.

The author himself confesses that, on that very same night, he


read the volume in one sitting, and that the principles there
contained have guided his life ever since to turn him into a
useful person.

Clay Newman, the author that says that he had never read a
full book in his life, all of a sudden, happens to embrace stoic
philosophy and manages to write, with a certain degree of
grace, The prozac of Seneca.

-Mmm, hard to believe. I thought. However, I kept on reading.

So it happened, though, that I uploaded a page of the book


above mentioned to Facebook and I quickly got more than
twenty little hands with their thumbs up and eight comments
from well-educated people whom I appreciate. My intention
was not to make an experiment but I was surprised just as
Madame Curie was when she discovered, by mere chance, the
effect of radiation over a photographic film.
It would seem as though such an emotional response is
showing us the prevalence of an imperative need to find a
meaning to life, at least amongst the people of my generation.
The need to find the reason for life, but not for life in general,
but the purpose for the particular existence of each and every
one. A need that, probably, is coincidental to that of Senecas
contemporaries who liked the writings of the Hellenic
philosopher very much.

Perhaps a virtual Seneca would do us good today. One that we


could go to looking for guidance and consolation.

I am a confessed Seneca reader. I very much admire the


philosopher as much as the upright man. His life took place in
a very broad horizon. He was a friend as much as a preceptor
to the Caesars. Although they later feared him, thus resulting
in a pitiful exile to the point where he had to choose to commit
suicide.

I shall introduce a brief juridical digression: In his time, those


who were condemned to death had their belongings seized
towards the fiscal funds (Fiscus, pool of resources, property of
the State but that could be used by the emperor to his own will
and convenience). But -as a concession- some would be given
the choice of taking their own lives and in such cases their
possessions would belong to their heirs. This brief explanation
will exclude us from posing, for now, any moral judgement
about his suicide.

Comparing somewhat the times in which Seneca lived with our


present day would not be out of place. Seneca was born on the
year 4 of our era, at the dawn of the end of the roman republic,
when the Empire did not dare give itself such a name.
After a long period of growth, the roman republic was in a very
different situation to that of the founders of Rome and their
first descendants. The first patricians, members of the ruling
class, were particularly distinguished as working, modest, fair
and democratic people. Perhaps that is why they prospered so
much. The historians tell us that the conquered provinces
found the roman order and taxation more convenient than the
exactions and the constant whims of their own so-called kings.

Nevertheless, the size of the Republic itself and the complexity


of its government, as well as the amount of riches that flowed
from all corners of their territory gradually eroded the moral
fiber of the Romans, thus turning the moderate and sober
behaviors of their ancestors.

When Seneca was in public office and when he had high


influence in the government, he prospered and became one of
the wealthiest men of his time. However, he never flaunted his
condition but rather chose a frugal lifestyle. Due to his great
wisdom, he was appointed preceptor of Nero, the very man
that, in the end, would make him take his own life.

His philosophy belongs to the Stoic school that carefully avoids


confusing good life with luxury and pleasures. It rather
advocates for a moderate behavior. In a corrupted society
where scandal was becoming a second nature, the behavior
and the writings of Seneca were accepted by the illustrated
Romans as a refreshing zip of water in the heat of a summer
day.

For example:
But poverty is not such that is joyful; the poor man is not the
one that has little but the one that yearns for more. Because,
What does it matter how much is in his coffers, or in his
granaries, or how big is his cattle or how many loans does he
make if he covets what belongs to others, if he calculates not
what he has acquired but what he has left to acquire?[i]
The soul, weak still and with little steadiness in virtue, must
be kept apart from the multitude: it easily shares the feeling
of the majority. A multitude of the opposite mentality would
have made Socrates, Cato and Leilus from their way of life.
Even more so, not one of us, that precisely try to model our
character, can face the impulse of the vices that appear with
such company[ii]
The righteous way that I discovered late, tired of my
misdirection, I show to others. I loudly proclaim: avoid all
that pleases the masses, when sheer chance reaches us; keep
wary and distrustful of any fortuitous goods: both the beast
and the fish are deceived by the lure that attracts them. Do
you consider these gifts of fortune? They are ambushes. Any
of you who wishes to live life in peace must avoid, as much as
possible, these sticky benefits that deplorably deceive us in
this as well: we believe we possess them and we are subject to
them.[iii]

As you can see, our philosopher elaborates a doctrine that


despises wealth and the desire for the gifts of fortune. At the
same time, it warns us about the danger of catching up vices
that diminish and exercise domain over the crowds. The
barons of advertising will not be pleased with Senecas
philosophy, but, lets be honest, they will not be pleased with
any other philosophy either.

Some years ago, I found in the bookstore an interesting book


by Lou Marinoff. More Plato and less Prozac, is called. This
Marinoff person is a professional philosopher that decided to
open a clinic in New York. Something like a clinical
psychologist, but a philosophical one. His approach is that we
human beings have always had problems due to existential
emptiness, or lack of direction or identity confusions and that
he could, based upon the wisdom of previous or current
thinkers, help humans find themselves and a meaning to their
lives. A propo, Lou Marinoff has already published another
eight books on the subject. With such and editorial success, I
imagine he has quite a lot of patients in his clinic.

Seneca could have as much success in bookstores, if not more,


that the above mentioned Marinoff, just by finding the right
editor. Nowadays, where previous moral references have been
lost, as they have been rendered obsolete, moral is lost, bogged
down amongst the doubts of many and the astonishment of all,
that emerges with any new scandal of corruption and
impunity.

In reference to the virtual Seneca, to be practical, we would


have to create an app that we could all check in our smart
phones. We would have to add to it colorful attractive
landscapes and cheesy music, to go viral and be a hit. Ahh and
we would also have to make sure no one clones it or hacks it,
when rather than giving authorship of the moral sentences to
Lucius Anneo Seneca himself, they are attributed to the Dalai
Lama, Pablo Neruda or the recently beatified John Paul II, so
they grab and they are cool.
[i] Sneca, Lucio Anneo. Philosophical Letters. (Moral letters
to Lucilio) ePUB v1.2 MayenCM 22.10.11 Page. 10
[ii] Idem. Page 15
[iii] Ibid, Page 18

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