Seneca trans Robert A. Kaster

ISBN 978-0-691-23854-7  Princeton  £14.99

reviewed by Alan Dent


Seneca shared the earth with Christ, apparently. We can be sure of the existence of the former but not the latter. The Stoics made much of magnanimity: a mind able to see things from wide perspectives, characterised by what most of us recognise as virtues: generosity, tolerance, calm, unbiased judgement. They almost certainly influenced the Christian creed. Is it possible to say Seneca was a good man rather than a man who wrote about being good? Probably not. It’s hard to judge unless we know people fairly well, which is why it’s easy for public figures to be hypocrites. How cloely Seneca came to his model of goodness we’ll never know, but his perspectives are interesting. “What a fine and holy sight we’d see if we could observe the mind of a good person.” It isn’t so difficult as Seneca suggests: we are mind-readers by nature. According to neuro-scientific theory, mirror neurons provide the capacity. In any case, we are able to recognise generosity, kindness and so on when we encounter them. The question is, are we able to rise to their level. 

Cato the Younger was famous for his probity. He handled Rome’s finances without a hint of corruption, which shows just how unlucky we are. Seneca praises him for  despising office and distinction. “If you value freedom highly, all else must be thought cheap,” he wrote. Perhaps this sounded as innocently high-minded to the ancient Romans as it does today. Yet who would argue against it? The problem lies in finding the means of setting freedom above all else. Seneca is urging us to an inner strength external forces are constantly trying to destroy. A good mind is available to all. Philosophy, by which he means Stoicism, doesn’t stand on pedigree: trace everyone to their beginnings and they came from the gods, or nature. It’s sobering to reflect the idea of a given, shared human nature has existed for more than two thousand years, yet our contemporary reality is organised around assumed distinctions of nature: white people as against people of colour, men as against women and so on. Had Seneca been taken seriously, the history of white supremacism wouldn’t have happened.  

Virtue, Seneca argues, is the unlearning of vice. We come to it only because vice came first. This is akin to original sin, but conflicts with the suggestion that nature equips us for virtue. It entails the idea that virtue can’t be unlearned. Is he right?  Is a person who has worked through their thinking and feeling and arrived at a virtuous mind exempt from vice? Seneca doesn’t consider the power of circumstance. Who can say what a virtuous person might do under torture. Yet the idea of having to learn virtue seems potent: our nature may incline us to good, but we have to work out how to be good in particular circumstances, and they are almost infinitely variable. If we have an inner moral faculty, which looks an indispensable assumption, learning how to apply it makes sense; and as learning to ride a bike, or more relevantly, to use language, never leaves us, it may well be true that having conquered an internal morality, we never (except perhaps under extreme conditions) lose it. The question  remains, why do some succeed and others fail?  

Stay calm and think clearly might be Seneca’s motto. Easier said than done, of course, when thinking clearly gets you sent to the gulag or the concentration camp, injected with Novichok or denied promotion. Seneca catalogues the kind of minds which resist or fail to attain the calm which is characteristic of rationality. There are, for example, people whose desires outstrip their daring. Once again, who would argue against a calm and rational mind? A great part of the difficulty is creating the conditions in which it can survive, let alone prevail.  

“If I ever want to be amused by a fool, I don’t have to look far,” says Seneca, “I laugh at myself.” He knows he isn’t wise, though wisdom is what he relentlessly seeks. In the former, if not the latter, he is like everyone. We are blind to our own motivations, make excuses for our moral backsliding, blame forces outside ourselves. The wise, however, are never surprised by how things turn out, because they take for granted their desires might not be realised. Fashion, however, has a hold over the general mind (in which Seneca puts no faith): we do what others are doing rather than thinking things through and choosing for ourselves.. Much human behaviour is imitative. Seneca is right: this can lead people to copy bad examples; on the other hand, it has a potentially positive side if they can be induced to imitate good models.  

“When I recall all I have said,” Seneca writes, “I envy the mute.” Perhaps his greatest virtue is this capacity for self-criticism and modesty. He has faith in our nature: we are provided by endowment with all we need for good and happy lives, yet he is painfully aware how easy it is to be stupid or foolish. We can do only what is within our power. The Stoics’ metaphor for this was the archer: if he sets his arrow, draws and releases well, he has done what he can. If the wind sends his dart off course, that is no criticism. So should we live. We won’t always hit the target, but if we do all we can, we have no reason for too much self-reproach, even if we must be constantly aware of our shortcomings. Perhaps this isn’t merely the sense of our permanent fallibility, but akin to Hume’s acceptance of the limits of human cognition. Perhaps virtue is, first of all, the capacity to recognise and accept the limits nature imposes. What we can genuinely call our own are our motivation and effort.  

“Everyone is a helmsman on a flat sea.” It’s when we are tested we show what we’re made of. Seneca is thinking of moral tests as opposed to our culture’s focus on the physical. The great moral test is universalism. When we are born, we recognise no reality but ourselves. We have a right to our narcissism, it’s how we survive; but growing up means leaving behind our self-centredness and setting our neighbour’s interest as high as our own, and by our neighbours Seneca means the whole of humanity. The rhetoric of human rights is everywhere, but along with it “America First”, the conflict of spheres of influence, corporate greed and control. We are a long way from treating all others as well as we treat ourselves. In that regard, Seneca reminds us that “not everything which offends us harms us.” Interesting in the light of “cancel culture” and the refusal on the part of some States to admit of the slightest criticism. The argument that books or films or plays or speakers should be banned to avoid offence is dishonest: whatever doesn’t cause offence to someone is probably not worth attending to.  

To correct ourselves, we have to catch ourselves unawares. When we are in the usual ruts of our thinking, we can’t perceive our mistakes; we have to seize the unruly thought which shows us our faults if we are to improve. Hence, the worst people have the greatest difficulty in being corrected. A good person will welcome sensible criticism, indeed will want to be saved from folly and evil. At the same time, how can we accuse others if we aren’t blameless? How many judges condemn people for crimes no greater than their own? Also, we have to distinguish intended from accidental injury. To take action against someone who injures us accidentally is unjust.  

The best way to live for yourself, is to live for others. Seneca recognises what our political world still denies: that we are one humanity and by living in the recognition of our shared humanity, we fulfil our own. “Honourable behaviour,” he says “is not for hire.” Something of a problem in a world based on employment. Also, he argues, a  bad name honourably won is a delight. Once again, at odds with our prevailing culture. The gods, by which we could take him to mean nature, never stint from distributing good. In other words, we are amply endowed by nature to live well. Nor is there any need for harshness in correcting bad behaviour: if punishment rains down, it loses its effect. To be too strict is cruel, mercy is more effective.  

Finally, Seneca reminds us that god has no money. Being rich won’t make you more godlike. Someone should tell Bezos, Gates and Zuckerberg, but would they listen?