This is a book about wisdom and how to get it. It takes the form of a series of letters from an old man to a young protégé – an apt model since wisdom, according to Seneca, comes not from experience, or travel, or labour, or failure, but only from listening to wise men. ‘Philosophy is good advice,’ he says, and learning is a kind of discipleship. The elder role model gives instruction, teaches by example, and acts as the conscience of the impressionable youth, being always with him, an angel on his shoulder. Choosing the right friends is important, too; not just for the young but for everyone. We soak up influences, good and bad, like sponges, so we should surround ourselves with the right people. It is our concern with their good opinion that helps keep us from doing wrong.
It is Seneca’s belief in friendship, and his capacity for it, that drives these letters. The great value he places on his friends leads him to prepare himself for their deaths in the same way as he prepares for his own. All this might sound morbid to the modern reader, but it is central to Seneca’s idea of wisdom as a defence against an uncertain world. ‘You’re younger than I am,’ he tells his correspondent, ‘but what difference does that make? Just where death is expecting you is something we cannot know; so expect him everywhere.’ To conquer the fear of death, to be ready for it when it comes, is to conquer death itself. This becomes possible with wisdom, which is the realisation that nothing but wisdom is essential. Health, riches, friends, even life; all are gifts to be appreciated, but they are only ever on loan. We must be prepared to give them up, smiling, at any time. Vicissitudes are like taxes, Seneca tells us: unavoidable. ‘Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck.’ The wise person can face the very worst misfortune with equanimity, never having taken peace and comfort granted. There is a compelling appeal at work here: Stoicism as a kind of superpower. If you are a Stoic, nothing can hurt you.
Seneca isn’t interested in the engineering feats and practical ingenuity that the Romans are famous for. He is not impressed by the building of bridges and roads, or the invention of new heating systems for the baths. These may contribute to our physical comfort, but physical comfort is of no importance. Neither does he care for the plastic arts, believing sculpture and painting to be mere commodities, luxury goods. He admires literature, but only so far as it imparts wisdom. In the end, the only worthwhile accomplishment for any individual is becoming wise. The clay you must work on is your own soul; you must be your own invention of genius, your own work of art.
Seneca is given to lecturing, and he can come across as a sanctimonious old bore, particularly in letter CXIV, where he rails against people who like to dress stylishly, stay up late and have a good time. There may be a subtext to this, though. Seneca wrote these letters during the decadent years of Nero’s reign, when the young emperor had shrugged him off as a good influence and was beginning to indulge his cruel and arbitrary whims. In this light, Seneca’s angry protest against moral dissipation might look courageous. In 62 A.D he exiled himself from the imperial court, and three years later Nero ordered his death.
Tacitus describes Seneca’s forced suicide in his Annals, and the dignity and courage with which the old man faced it is deeply moving. Seneca died a true Stoic. It must be said though that he hadn’t always lived like one. He was one of the richest men of his age, owned vast estates and surrounded himself with all the trappings of wealth he affected to scorn. His loan sharking operations in Britain are thought to have contributed to the Boudiccan uprising. The third century historian, Cassius Dio, accuses Seneca of avarice and hypocrisy, and the charges are compelling. In his defence though, the introduction to this Penguin Classics edition contains a typically withering quote from Samuel Johnson: ‘Sir, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles without having good practice?’
What is striking about Seneca is how modern he often sounds. His loathing for the arena, his enlightened attitude towards slaves, and his conception of a benign almost Christian-like god are all very much ahead of their time. His advice on how to deal with bereavement, illness, physical pain, anger, has links with coping techniques used in modern cognitive therapy. Even his model for this book has been revived recently in a series called The Art of Mentoring, which includes such titles as Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens, and Letters to a Young Gymnast by Nadia Comaneci. Two millennia after he lived, Seneca remains up there with the best of mentors. In more recent centuries, great western thinkers have been concerned with what it is possible for us to know, or how we should act politically. Seneca would have seen all this as a distraction, his concern being with something more fundamental – what we should be.