Sallust trans Josiah Osgood ISBN 978-0-691-21234-4 Princeton £12.99


Conspiracies are nothing new, but we live in an age of upsurge. The recent US case against Alex Jones is one of many egregious examples of outlandish flapdoodle being peddled as fact. Osgood mentions Richard Hofstadter’s characterisation of a “paranoid style” in American politics, and of course, Trump’s ludicrous claims. In 63 BCE Catiline, who attracted no small degree of support, tried to overthrow the Roman Republic having failed to win the consulship twice. It seems, however, his conspiracy existed some time before his failures. Sallust, born in 86, was a tribune who favoured democracy (limited though it was by our standards). The corruption in the State was a vital matter for him and therefore the Catline Conspiracy an attractive subject. His little book recounts the history of the events. It would be redundant to rehearse it here. However, in typical Roman fashion he reflects philosophically on his subject and his aphoristic observations provide the book with much of its ballast. Sallust was influenced by Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, who wisely was less interested in the actions of the gods and more in those of people, especially the rich and powerful. Thucydides was particularly interested in the discrepancy between what people seeking power claim to stand for and what they do (plus ça change). “Those who would carry through odious deeds” he wrote, hide behind “fair phrases.” Something to remember at election time.

 Sallust takes a moral line, unlike modern historians of ancient Rome. He’s attracted to psychology and sees individuals as shapers of events. Wealth, he claims is not the source of power. On the contrary it produces impotence. He may exaggerate, but he has a point: the character of history’s actors is significant, even if it is less decisive than what might be called more objective forces. “Kings suspect good men more than bad,” writes Sallust. Monarchs prevent people of character from flourishing. They reward the sycophantic and manipulative. Perhaps the same is true of presidents. “…the good man strives along the honest path, the worthless one, lacking in honorable skills, competes by trickery and deception.” Ambition and avarice corrupt: “Avarice entails a yearning for money, which no wise man covets. As if steeped in strong poison, avarice weakens a virile body and mind. It is always unending, unsatisfied, slaked neither by abundance nor by dearth.” This and corruption more generally laid the ground for Catiline’s scheming. “Prosperity enervates even the minds of those who are wise.” Something we might be advised to remember in our culture of pursuit of material wealth above all things. He speaks of “important citizens caught in the greatest crime.” It is these remarks which make Sallust relevant. The conspiracy was long ago, but what motivated it is still among us.  

“When you have exerted your intellect, it prevails; if desire takes hold, desire rules, and the mind does not prevail.” Sallust may not be quite right. Is there an enduring conflict between intellect and desire? What if we desire good and justice? Perhaps what he means is self-indulgence. Clearly his intention is that we should address the world rationally and he recognises that when people have an interest to defend, they will quickly flee from objectivity. Orwell feared the disappearance of objectivity. For a hundred million Americans, it has evaporated. Against all the evidence, they believe Trump won. Sallust’s brief examination of the roots of conspiracy is unfortunately all too pertinent.



Seneca trans James S Room

Princeton ISBN 978-0-691-21912-7 £14.99


Seneca’s essay was entitled De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life). The updated title is more in keeping with modern conceptions, but maybe Seneca’s is preferable. Life is short when viewed even against the backdrop of human history and pre-history; set against the existence of the earth, of life, of the universe, it’s a blink. This isn’t Seneca’s point. What he’s getting at is that we squander our lives and then blame their brevity. What does the squandering consist in? “Nothing belongs less to the distracted person then living,” he writes. People are distracted in myriad ways: ambition, avarice, hedonism.The essence of distraction is a failure to be aware: “only philosophers are alive.” What he means by “philosopher” isn’t a professional, but a person who reflects, who chooses, who knows what he is doing and why. He argument is that most people don’t do this. They exist. They follow a course laid down by external forces. They are ruled by heteronomy. Seneca is arguing for the autonomous individual. “Only those whose every action was monitored by their own judgement – a faculty never deceived – turn back willingly towards the past.” How can he claim judgement is never deceived? He presupposes maturity, education, reason, fortitude, forbearance; the characteristics of an autonomous individual. His view of the past and our relation to it is telling: fortune (the ancients had a great belief in fortune’s whimsical rule) can’t alter our past. It can ruin the present or the future but the past is secure. Thus, memory is a healthy faculty. Those who have lived autonomously, whose judgement has ruled their lives, can look back on their past in peace and satisfaction. Those who have lived “distracted” lives, however successful, have no such comfort. Ours is a culture of distraction. Autonomy is its enemy. People are required to be dutiful employees and consumers. In Seneca’s terms, almost everyone in a so-called advanced society is “distracted”. To choose according to your judgement might upset the markets. Seneca’s conception of memory is akin to Proust’s who wrote: “Reality takes shape in the memory alone.” Like Seneca he recognised that the present is slippery, the future uncertain, but the past a reserve of certainty. It’s because memory is so defining we must live according to our own judgement, otherwise what we look back on is an emptiness.  

Seneca is harsh on what he calls “the hollow zeal for learning meaningless things”. He would have hated the pub quiz. Accumulating scraps of knowledge, however extensive, is a poor use of intelligence. It should be employed in thinking: “…the things made holy by wisdom can’t be harmed.” Today we value being “smart”, which usually means having some skill you sell for a fortune. Seneca’s wisdom is disdainful of anything transient. 

Time is a burden to the distracted. Leisure itself becomes a kind of unpleasant task. It’s this notion of time weighing heavy that Seneca intends when he speaks of the shortness of life. People feel their life is short, even if they’ve lived to a hundred, when they haven’t lived autonomously. To live twenty years according to your own lights is to live longer than to survive to ninety as a slave to external influences.  

Xerses wept at the thought of his troops all being dead in a hundred years, and then sent them into battle where many of them perished. What underpins this contradiction is the emptiness of power. The powerful fear losing it, argues Seneca. It’s a distraction. The powerful aren’t living. They have surrendered autonomy for autocracy. The old who can’t give up work have fallen prey to a kind of addiction. They are at the mercy of a compulsion and want to go on working when they have lost the capacity.  

Seneca was both wealthy and powerful. Was he a hypocrite? Rather he surpassed in his philosophy what he couldn’t shake off in reality. He believes what he writes, but circumstances entrapped him. In that, he’s like the rest of us: who doesn’t want to ditch the burdensome job and take life as it comes? People buy lottery tickets in that hope. What Seneca says is fundamentally correct: we waste our lives. Will we stop? That’s a question that’s been around for thousands of years.



Cicero trans Michael Fontaine

ISBN 978-0-691-22032-1 Princeton £14.99.


Not a direct translation of Cicero but based on his writing. The original was lost. What has come down to us (Fontaine explains how in his introduction) is a compilation. This is Cicero’s response to the loss of his beloved daughter Tullia, who died from complications in childbirth. He was shattered but determined to pull himself round, effectively to think his way out of his devastation. The means, essentially, is to diminish life and the elevate death. Death is “the best of life” he writes, reasoning that it frees us from all life’s miseries and uncertainties. The book is made up of variations on this theme. It’s hard not to conclude that grief turned the philosopher’s mind. Shakespeare, who also suffered the appalling experience of losing a child took a different view: “,,,the weariest and most          worldly life/ that age, ache, penury and imprisonment can lay on nature/ is a paradise to what we fear of death.” Perhaps he gets the better of the argument. Cicero’s position depends on a belief in the after-life and a confidence that it will be happy. What’s wrong with the view of the after-life, of course, is that happiness is impossible without the possibility of unhappiness, peace without the possibility of conflict, justice without the possibility of injustice. If there were nothing but justice, we wouldn’t recognise it as such, just as if everything were white we wouldn’t know it. We have the capacity for happiness, but have to make the right choices. We can establish justice, but it takes courage, insight and effort. Cicero accepts the delusion of a one-dimensional reality. Hardly surprising that he should find comfort in an unrealistic view and it may be that it saved him from complete breakdown. Maybe such illusions have saved many people. Interestingly he writes: “All excessive grief is disgraceful and unnatural because grieving excessively and unreasonably is a conscious choice.” He may be right that if grief is excessive it contains an inauthentic element, but there can be little doubt that grieving is a natural process which permits us, at length, to regain our equilibrium. Perhaps Cicero has exaggerated. His own position looks like a conscious choice. He deliberately frames his daughter’s death as an inevitability, and who can rail against life’s inevitabilities? He cites Anaxagoras, who on the death of his son, remarked: “I knew he was mortal.” The book is a fascinating exploration of the way a powerful mind deals with one of the most distressing events. Accepting Cicero’s judgement that death is the best of life is very difficult, but following the process he employs to console himself is compelling.