Ancient Wisdom: Lucius Annaeus Seneca - Happiness Comes From Virtues

Without correct values and moral principles, men will turn one against another and no one will find happiness. We invite you to discover Seneca and his invaluable ancient wisdom.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, also known as Seneca the Younger, was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 4 BC, but he lived his life in Rome, where he died in 65 AD. He was an important Spanish-Roman philosopher and one of the best orators in the Empire, a lawyer, writer (known for his moral teachings), and a politician.

He is considered one of the leading figures in Stoic philosophy and his ideas were a source of inspiration for important philosophers, intellectuals, and religious thinkers over the centuries.

Exploring Seneca's Life

Seneca the Younger, son of Marco Annaeus Seneca (Seneca The Elder), was quaestor, praetor, senator, and consul during the governments of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius. He was a tutor to Nero and, when Nero became Emperor, he was one of his advisers. His role as a tutor is described in the famous play "Britannicus" by Jean Racine.

People do not know much about Seneca's life before 41 AD, and the few things we know are due to what Seneca himself wrote. In any case, he came from a distinguished family connected to the highest Hispanic society, at a time when the province of Hispania was flourishing within the Roman Empire.
Seneca_the_Younger
Picture Credit: Wikipedia.org
His family owned large olive groves in Jaen and Cordoba. Many families have been enriched by the huge export to Rome of amphorae filled with the best olive oil in the world. One of those families was Seneca's. The ease of speaking and the gains from the olive oil trade allowed Seneca to reach the highest social level a man of his condition could aspire to in his day.

He studied grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy in Rome, where he was taught by the Stoic Attalus, the Cynic Demetrius, and Fabio Papiro, whose teachings influenced his Stoic philosophy.

Seneca was in poor health (he suffered from asthma) so he went to recuperate in Egypt, where his aunt lived with her husband Vestrasio Polion, who was appointed governor of Egypt by Emperor Tiberius. There he acquires notions of administration and finance while studying the geography of Egypt and India, developing an interest in the natural
sciences. According to Pliny the Elder, Seneca was praised for his knowledge of geology, oceanography, and meteorology.

When he returned to Rome, he was appointed quaestor, praetor, and senator of the Roman Empire during the governments of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, as well as minister and adviser to Emperor Nero.
Nero and Seneca_the_Younger
Picture Nero & Seneca Credit: Wikipedia.org
Seneca was a bright thinker and a politician. He was a sparkling speaker, being a predominant figure in Roman politics, as well as one of the most admired, influential, and respected senators. With extraordinary prestige and political influence, he attracted both enemies and benefactors. In 41 AD, he was sentenced by Emperor Claudius to eight years in exile in Corsica on the pretext of committing adultery with Julia Livilla, Caligula's sister.

In 49, Claudius' new wife, the famous Agrippina the Younger, rehabilitated Seneca, who was summoned back to Rome and appointed praetor in the city. In the year 51, Agrippina also appointed him guardian of the young Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the future Nero, the son he had from a previous marriage.

Between the years 54 and 62, Seneca provided a competent government for the first five years of Nero's reign, being very influential in the Empire. But Nero later forgot his tutor's teachings and even killed his family: his mother Agrippina, his brother Germanicus, and his wife Octavia. In 62 AD, Seneca moves away from the Roman Court to live in one of his properties on the outskirts of Rome.


The Death Of Seneca - An Example Of Dignity And Serenity

His life ended in 65 AD. Seneca was caught up in the aftermath of the Pisonian conspiracy, a plot to kill Nero. Although it is unlikely that Seneca was part of the conspiracy, Nero ordered him to kill himself.

His death is an example of stoic serenity. He followed tradition by severing several veins in order to bleed to death. But for he was old, his blood was flowing too slowly and he couldn't die... He also took poison, which proved, also, not fatal. Then, finally, he asked to be immersed in a warm bath, which he expected would speed blood flow and ease his pain. The steam suffocated him as Seneca suffered from asthma.

Tacitus wrote, "He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without any of the usual funeral rites. So he had directed in a codicil of his will, even when in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of life's close."
Antique Carved Cameo Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger
Victorian Gold Carved Citrine Cameo Locket of Philosopher Seneca

It is probable that the immense wealth of the philosopher would have provoked the envy of Nero, who did not tolerate another individual overshadowing him in this regard. All of Seneca's wealth passed into the imperial patrimony.


Stoicism and Seneca's Thinking

Seneca's Stoicism is a doctrine that is based on practical philosophy, mainly on human morality. He wrote a number of books on Stoicism, mostly on ethics.

He expressed wise counsel and reflections on morality and how all human beings should behave if they want to reach happiness. For Seneca, wisdom consists in cultivating the will to find happiness in virtue, and not in material wealth. Seneca's originality lies in the accuracy with which he captured the vices and evils of his contemporaries. He promoted mercy and humanity towards slaves and gladiators.

As a writer, Seneca is considered the greatest representative of New Stoicism, along with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. He accepted the division of philosophy into logic, ethics, and physics, and conceived it as a path to wisdom, as "studium virtutis."  

Seneca conceived existence as a path to virtue because he knew his weaknesses and imperfections.

His works discuss both ethical theory and practical advice. Seneca regards philosophy as a balm for the wounds of life. He wrote about good governance, freedom, dignity, beauty, and death. He considered it important to confront one's own mortality and be able to face death. One must be willing to practice poverty and use wealth properly. He also wrote about clemency, the importance of friendship, and the need to work for the benefit of others.
seneca philosopher stoic
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Seneca believed in the dignity of all people, regardless of their actions: "Even a murderer is still a man and as such, worthy of respect, so it is inhuman to throw him to the beasts." No one has approached the issue of slavery with such a critical spirit, pointing out that slaves are "people," "humble friends," and are therefore not obliged to obey orders that reject reason.

He also considered that a man's excellence is not measured by his possessions, but by his goodness: "If you want to weigh yourself up, set aside your money, your house, your rank, and consider your inner man: for as it is, you are entrusting to others the gauge of your quality." If you can only get rich by giving up your moral values, don't do it.

The philosopher prised the value of human beings: "homo res sacra homini" - "man is sacred to man".

Seneca taught people that material goods do not offer happiness, only "virtue" does, and that we must serve others and not hate: "Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness."

In the "Moral Letters to Lucilius," he reveals that "without company, there's no pleasure to possess any good," and that we should be our own friends, loving one another in spite of our own shortcomings.

The Stoic avoids crowds, because he is only interested in "inner applause", celebrating old age: "How sweet it is to exhaust your passions and put them aside!" Seek God in your conscience: "God is near you, He is with you, He is in you." Wisdom is accessible to all - "all men are of the same offspring," including slaves, who "enjoy the same heaven, breathe the same, live, and die like you."

Wisdom teaches us that friendship is "living in communion." We do not know happiness by living only for our benefit: "You must live for your neighbor if you want to live for yourself." Seneca does not claim to know everything, but she is content to learn to live with serenity and integrity.

He thought that we must not close the door on our fellow men and our antagonists can be the best teachers.
Statue Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger
Picture Credit: Wikipedia.org

Like Socrates and Plato, he understood that philosophy is also a preparation for "death." In "Moral Letters to Lucilius," Seneca writes: "I bravely prepare for that day when I will judge myself and show whether my worth was in my heart or on my lips. People's opinion doesn't matter: only death is our judge. Philosophical disputes, conversations, precepts of wisdom do not show the true soul. Your individual worth will only be revealed in your last breath. I accept these conditions: I am not afraid of the Death Tribunal".

For Seneca, "happiness" was what all people wanted, only they were blind and did not see what made them truly happy. The more they wanted to look for happiness, the farther they went from it. A truly happy life is only when people are looking for a healthy soul and body.

The happy person is honest, virtuous, has a free, just, and stable soul without fear or any suffering. He always considered that unhappy people were living a bad life and did not know what regret meant.

Seneca's philosophical thinking spread throughout the West, being one of the few Roman philosophers who has always enjoyed great popularity. After many years he became one of the most republican and translated philosophers, and his work is admired by the most influential Western thinkers and intellectuals: Erasmus of Rotterdam, Michel Montaigne, Rene Descartes, Denis Diderot, Jean Jaques Rousseau, Francisco de Quevedo, Thomas de Quincey, Dante, Petrarca, etc.

Seneca's influence on later generations was immense. During the Renaissance, he was admired and revered as an oracle of moral edification, even Christian, a teacher of literary style and a model for the dramatic arts.

Seneca's Ancient Wisdom - Famous Quotes

- Three evils must be avoided: hatred, envy, and contempt

- Courage looks to the stars, fear to death

- Kindness is the best remedy against fear

- What science could not do, Time has often solved

- Hope is the last consolation in misfortune

- All objects of art are imitations of nature

- Just like his tongue, so was his life

- Do not rush with praise or reproach

- Difficulties strengthen the mind, just as physical work strengthens the body

- If virtue precedes every step we take, we will always be safe

- It's great to know when to talk and when to shut up

- It's not good to condemn when you're ignorant

- Life without courage means death or slavery

- It is easier to rule out evil passions than to govern them, to deny their existence, instead of denying them after we have previously admitted them

- The soul is the only value of man. He makes the servant equal to his master

- Life is like a play: it doesn't matter how long it lasts, but how it unfolds

- We suffer more in imagination than in reality

- Sometimes even living is an act of courage
 
- Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness
 
- Silence is a lesson learned through life’s many sufferings

- It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it

- To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden
 
- He who indulges in empty fears earns himself real fears

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