Seneca’s writings reveal a committed Stoic, a pious soul, and an inspirational moral philosopher. Nevertheless, some of his actions and financial dealings have generated doubt about his genuineness. Seneca is a mixed bag if the historical record can be trusted. However, it is crucial to keep in mind that Seneca engaged in politics at the highest levels of the Roman Empire, which was the dominant world power of his time. Thus, he had powerful enemies, not the least of which was the infamous Emperor Nero. When I imagine a man like Seneca in our modern political game of character assassination, I can easily find room to believe much of his negative press was politically motivated. I’m not going to dive into the morass of conflicting scholarship about Seneca; However, I offer the following quote as a balanced opinion,
Naturally, we can have no more certainty that Seneca actually followed his own moral teaching than we can have about any person from antiquity. At best, the sources allow us to extract certain implications for a prominent individual like Seneca. But common opinion about his person seems very much affected, first, by the bare fact that he was a wealthy man, as if that alone would have made him selfish and hypocritical by definition, and, second, by a peculiar fusion of the tutor and counselor Seneca with the student and Emperor Nero, who is best remembered for his bad morality. Here it seems to matter little that our sources suggest that the emperors ‘good period’ was in fact precisely when he was under Seneca's influence.
The stereotyped image of Seneca as a pretentious hypocrite is amazingly widespread, often simply found ‘as a stock assertion dragged from one second-hand work to another’.
As Stoics, I think we should take Seneca's writings at face value. They inspired multitudes in the past, and they do the same today. Many of the early Christian Church Fathers thought highly of Seneca and considered him a moral exemplar. Tertullian, a second-century Christian apologist, even referred to him as “our Seneca.” Regardless of the ambiguous historical record, Seneca’s writings reveal his deep philosophical thought and reverence for divine Nature.
Letters to Lucilius
Throughout his writings, Seneca refers to the relationship between the gods and us. In Letters 1.5, he calls this relationship a “kinship” and claims it is “sealed by virtue.” Later, in Letters 31, titled Our mind’s godlike potential, he suggests a committed devotion to philosophy, as a way of life, raises us above our human nature toward our godlike potential. How? Through virtue, which he defines as:
[T]he evenness and steadiness of a life that is in harmony with itself through all events, which cannot come about unless one has knowledge and the skill of discerning things human and divine. (Letters 31.8)
Again, in Letters 53, Seneca argues that a mind committed to philosophy will be near to the gods and can experience the “tranquility of God.” He points out the tremendous power of philosophy to “beat back all the assaults of chance” and claims,
No weapon lodges in its flesh; its defenses cannot be penetrated. When fortune’s darts come in, it either ducks and lets them pass by, or stands its ground and lets them bounce back against the assailant. (Letters53.11-12)
In Letters 41, titled God dwells within us, Seneca covers the topics of Stoic physics and theology in some detail. First, he makes a clear distinction between the practices of personal religion and those of conventional religions. As I discussed in previous episodes, Stoicism was never a religion in the traditional sense, with altars, temples, and priests. Nevertheless, the Stoics were deeply spiritual and reverential toward God, which they conceived as an immanent and creative force that permeates and providentially guides the cosmos and humankind. Seneca begins Letters 41 by asserting,
You need not raise your hands to heaven; you need not beg the temple keeper for ...