Review: Seneca, Of Clemency

De ClementiaOf Clemency”, also translated as “On Mercy”, is an essay of originally three volumes of which only the first and part of the second survived. It was written in 55-56 AD, dedicated to Emperor Nero in his first (or second) year of reign.

In “Of Clemency” Seneca he develops his reflections on the power of the state and on the difference between the tyrant and the good king. He traces the image of a ruler who reigns, as representative of the gods. He explains that absolute power can be legitimised and justified by the practice of clemency, thus maintaining order and establishing consensus among men. By being clement, by being virtuous, the emperor becomes useful to the public good, behaves according to Nature, conforms to the Logos, to Fortune.

In the work we see how clemency should be exercised mainly by those who can wield power over others: princes, teachers, military, parents, considering that the damage caused by an error of judgment by them, when affected by any passion, will be deeply harmful to those who receive the punishment and to those who order it. For the prince, the practice of clemency, besides avoiding the creation of oppositions, legitimate his power and guarantee him the right of succession, provides stability and security in power. While the tyrant, the bad emperor is persecuted and lives without tranquility, the philosopher king, the good and clement emperor lives in peace, because he counts on love and not on the fear of his subjects:

… to be powerful only for mischief is the power of a pestilence. That man’s greatness alone rests upon a secure foundation, whom all men know to be as much on their side as he is above them, of whose watchful care for the safety of each and all of them they receive daily proofs, at whose approach they do not fly in terror, as though some evil and dangerous animal had sprung out from its den, but flock to him as they would to the bright and health-giving sunshine. They are perfectly ready to fling themselves upon the swords of conspirators in his defence, to offer their bodies if his only path to safety must be formed of corpses: they protect his sleep by nightly watches, they surround him and defend him on every side, and expose themselves to the dangers which menace him.” (I,iii)

Clemency therefore, as I said before, naturally befits all mankind, but more especially rulers, because in their case there is more for it to save, and it is displayed upon a greater scale. Cruelty in a private man can do but very little harm; but the ferocity of princes is war” (I,v)

The instructional contrast between the good ruler and the tyrant is made initially in a theoretical way, then moving on to examples of tyrannical rulers, such as Sulla and Caligula as a warning; Augustus as an example to be followed. An extensive illustration of Augustus’ clemency with the rebel Cinna next to an example from Nero’s own life is intended to encourage the aspiring emperor to also show clemency. (Book I, chapters ix-xvi). Seneca also states that excessive punishment is bad for the morale of the nation:

A proposal was once made in the Senate to distinguish slaves from free men by their dress: it was then discovered how dangerous it would be for our slaves to be able to count our numbers. Be assured that the same thing would be the case if no one’s offence is pardoned: it will quickly be discovered how far the number of bad men exceeds that of the good.” (I,xxiv)

In Book II Seneca he reminds Nero of an episode in which he had shown clemency and thereby achieved his goals and demonstrated a clear reasoning and benevolence. He then explains that Clemency is a virtue that requires balance in its application: it is not opportune to have a promiscuous and banal clemency, nor an inaccessible clemency, because it is as cruel to forgive everyone as it is to forgive no one. 

There are four definitions of clemency to Seneca:  (II, iii)

  •  Mercy is a restraining of the mind from vengeance when it is in its power to avenge itself.
  • Gentleness shown by a powerful man in fixing the punishment of a weaker one.
  • …self-restraint, which remits some part of a fine which it deserves to receive and which is due to it.
  • …a tendency towards mildness in inflicting punishment.

Seneca considers pity to be a vice, and defines it as the corruption of the clemency:

At this point it is useful to inquire into what pity is; for many praise it as a virtue, and say that a good man is full of pity. This also is a disease of the mind. Both of these stand close to mercy and to strictness, and both ought to be avoided, lest under the name of strictness we be led into cruelty, and under the name of mercy into pity.” (II,iv)

Pardon is the remitting of a deserved punishment. …  A man grants pardon to one whom he ought to punish: now the wise man does nothing which he ought not to do, and omits to no nothing which he ought to do: he does not, therefore, remit any punishment which he ought to exact.  (II,vii)

Therefore, clemency would be closer to a correction of the law whose universal nature makes it fail. It would be a kind of justice exercised by a higher authority, of a humanitarian character, which allows the sovereign to override the laws written by men.

This work influenced important thinkers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. One example is the reformer John Calvin. Shortly after finishing his law studies, the young John Calvin wrote his first book, a commentary on De Clementia that consists mainly of philological notes interspersed with impressions on Seneca’s style and ideas. In his work Institutas de Religia Christi, Calvino addresses the role of civil authorities in punishment and the importance of revisiting concepts of this book.

Unfortunately the essay came to us incomplete, the text would have been written in three books. Of the three parts, the manuscripts offer only book I and the first seven chapters of book II. Book III is totally lost. As a matter of fact, it is not known for certain whether part of the work has been lost or whether Seneca has never finished it. From Book I, we have the complete text and the theme. From Book II, the summary announces that it will deal with the nature of clemency and the signs that distinguish it from vices. Even unfinished, the subject and the summary agree. Book III, still according to the summary, shall try to teach, through practical advice, how the human spirit can be led to the exercise of clemency. Nothing remains of this book.

The work summarizes the concept of authority according to stoic philosophy: the aristocratic authority that dominates the people, retaining their anarchic tendencies, contributing to order and development, is derived from their own greatness and power, which, in turn, belong to the gods whom the ruler represents.

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Review: Seneca, On the shortness of life

Seneca wrote On the shortness of life in 49, the year he returned to Rome from his exile in Corsica. The twenty sections were written as a moral essay addressed to his friend Paulinus. It begins: “The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.” (I, 1)

Seneca immediately argues that it is not really the case that human life is short, but that the majority of people waste much of it.  “The part of life we really live is small. For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.” (II, 3)

In section III he observes that we tend to carefully safeguard goods that can be exchanged for money, and yet we are incredibly wasteful of the one thing that people cannot give us back: time: “Look back in memory and consider when you ever had a fixed plan, how few days have passed as you had intended, when you were ever at your own disposal, when your face ever wore its natural expression, when your mind was ever unperturbed, … how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire; you will perceive that you are dying before your season! (III, 3)

After this passage, Seneca reproaches Paulinus for leaving only scraps of his life to the pursuit of wisdom after he had taken care of ordinary business:  “Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live!” (III, 5)

Seneca says that putting things off is a great waste of life’s resources and also that “yet postponement is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day as it comes, it snatches from them the present by promising something hereafter”. In section X, he says that life can be divided into three main parts: “Life is divided into three periods—that which has been, that which is, that which will be. Of these the present time is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.

What, then, is a good way to spend your life? Not surprisingly, Seneca suggests engaging in conversations with philosophers of all times, as we can do by reading this book: “we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam. We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics.” and then “We are wont to say that it was not in our power to choose the parents who fell to our lot, that they have been given to men by chance; yet we may be the sons of whomsoever we will. Households there are of noblest intellects; choose the one into which you wish to be adopted; you will inherit not merely their name, but even their property, which there will be no need to guard in a mean or niggardly spirit; the more persons you share it with, the greater it will become.” (XV, 3)

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Review: Of Peace of Mind

The essay Of Peace of Mind was written as a means of guidance for all those who wish to dedicate themselves to moral improvement. Seneca presents the stoic doctrine’s response to help us overcome the torments caused by human fears and desires and achieve tranquility, the ideal state of serenity experienced fully and permanently by the ideal stoic sage.

Seneca’s philosophical lecture is used not as a strictly intellectual activity, but as a means to stimulate in the readers an inner disposition that can result in the practice of positive conducts in line with the stoic doctrine, of which Seneca was an important proponent.

Of Peace of Mind begins with a letter from Annaeus Serenus to his friend Seneca, asking for advice and saying that he feels he has a good command over some of his vices but not over others, and as a result his soul has no tranquility. He says “I am neither ill nor well and realizes that his judgment on his own affairs is distorted by personal prejudices. “I am well aware that these oscillations of mind are not perilous and that they threaten me with no serious disorder: to express what I complain of by an exact simile, I am not suffering from a storm, but from sea-sickness. Take from me, then, this evil, whatever it may be, and help one who is in distress within sight of land (I, 17).

Serenus lists his problems: doubt in the face of the desire for goods and physical pleasures (§5-9); alternation between the desire for social action and recollection into studies (§10-12) and an ethical and aesthetic dilemma concerning the search for fame (§13-14). After presenting the symptoms, making use of the patient’s image before the doctor, Serenus asks for the diagnosis and remedy: “I beg you, therefore, if you have any remedy by which you could stop this vacillation of mine, to deem me worthy to owe my peace of mind to you“.

Seneca’s response takes the remaining chapters and begins with a full description of the characteristics of the disease. He informs Serenus that he seeks the most important thing in life, a state that he calls Peace of Mind (tranquillitas) and that the Greeks called euthymia (II,3). He then explains that there are several kinds of men who do not achieve peace of mind, for different reasons. Some suffer from inconstancy, continually changing their goals and yet always lamenting of what they have just given up. Others are not erratic, but are in an unhappy position because of their torpidity. They “go on living not in the way they wish, but in the way they have begun to live, that is, by inertia (II,6). Still others believe that the way to overcome their inconstancy is to journey far away, but of course they carry only their own problems with them: “Thus every mortal from himself doth flee (II,14). Seneca concludes his preamble by suggesting that our problems do not reside in the place where we live, but in ourselves, and rhetorically asks: “How long are we to go on doing the same thing? (II, 15)

From Chapter III, Seneca presents a series of specific advice for Serenus on how to achieve peace of mind. The first comes from Athenodorus: “is to occupy oneself with business, with the management of affairs of state and the duties of a citizen. This is because to be at the service of others and one’s own country is, at the same time, to exercise oneself in an activity and to do good. But one can also do good and keep oneself occupied by engaging in philosophy. This kind of occupation will provide satisfaction and therefore peace of mind and will make our lives different from those of others who will have nothing to show for their own at the end of their lives: “Often a man who is very old in years has nothing beyond his age by which he can prove that he has lived a long time. It then follows with precepts about activities and idleness (negotia × otium).

In chapters VI and VII Seneca elucidates how to evaluate oneself and thus to choose a path where success is possible. It begins by warning his friend that it is common for people to think they can achieve more than they really can. The wise person, instead, is aware of his or her limitations. We must also remember that some pursuits are simply not worth the effort and we must move away from them because our time in life is short and precious. And so, says Seneca, “apply yourself to something which you can finish, or at any rate can hope to finish” (VI, 4). We must also be careful in choosing our associates, dedicating portions of our lives to people worth the effort. In addition, our quests should be of the kind we really like, if possible: “for no good is done by forcing one’s mind to engage in uncongenial work: it is vain to struggle against Nature. (VII,2)

Chapters VIII and IX deal with precepts about wealth, “the most fertile source of human sorrow (VIII, 1). Seneca warns Annaeus Serenus that, in his experience, the rich cannot bear losses better than the poor, for “that it hurts bald men as much as hairy men to have their hairs pulled out (VIII, 3). That is why Diogenes was not the owner of anything, to make it impossible for any one to take from him: “Fortune, mind your own business: Diogenes has nothing left that belongs to you (VIII:7). Of course, Seneca himself was no Diogenes, and in fact he was a very rich man. He was often accusated and charged with being hypocritical because of this, but his point is that one should not be attached to material goods. It is possible to have possessions, as long as you are not possessed by your wealth. Yet in the same section he advises to reduce the quantity of our possessions in order to reduce the probability of clinging to them in an exaggerated manner: “We never can so thoroughly defeat the vast diversity and malignity of misfortune with which we are threatened as not to feel the weight of many gusts if we offer a large spread of canvas to the wind (IX,3).

In the sequence, chapters X and XI, the vicissitudes of fortune are addressed, beginning with the good and traditional stoic suggestion on how to adjust to new situations. If you have lost something, even something precious, because of the changes of the winds of Fortune, just remember that “In every station of life you will find amusements, relaxations, and enjoyments; that is, provided you be willing to make light of evils rather than to hate them. (X,1). To this, classical quotes follow that are jewels of wisdom that require no addition: “When [the wise man] is bidden to give [property] up, he will not complain of Fortune, but will say, ‘I thank you for what I have had possession of: I have managed your property so as largely to increase it, but since you order me, I give it back to you and return it willingly and thankfully.’ (XI, 2). “What hardship can there be in returning to the place from whence one came? A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well. (XI, 4). And: “Disease, captivity, disaster, conflagration, are none of them unexpected: I always knew with what disorderly company Nature had associated me.” (XI,7).

In chapters XII and XIII the sources of restlessness arising from personal circumstances are addressed, bearing in mind the hardships of Fortune: false desires concerning goods and honors, public and private activities. Seneca warns his friend of the danger of occupying himself just to do something, instead of making good choices about how to use his time. He envisions a brief dialogue with those who do not know what they are doing or why: “By Hercules, I do not know: but I shall see some people and do something. We probably know people like that: things haven’t changed that much in two thousand years. It follows that we accept fate for what it is, and we actually try to do the best with the new circumstances. Seneca recalls the example of Zeno – the founder of the Stoic School – who lost everything in a shipwreck and began to study philosophy – saying: “Fortune bids me follow philosophy in lighter marching order (XIV, 3).

But of course Seneca understands that sometimes life is a tragedy, as when good people (he mentions Socrates, Rutilius, Pompey, Cicero and Cato) are treated with injustice. Even so, valuable lessons can be learned: “See how each of them endured his fate, and if they endured it bravely, long in your heart for courage as great as theirs … All these men discovered how at the cost of a small portion of time they might obtain immortality, and by their deaths gained eternal life. (XVI, 2-4).

In the the epilogue, Seneca affirms that the soul of men must have a rest, we must mix loneliness with social contact, work with leisure and enjoy games, amusements and drinks, but all with moderation: “We must not force crops from rich fields, for an unbroken course of heavy crops will soon exhaust their fertility, and so also the liveliness of our minds will be destroyed by unceasing labour, but they will recover their strength after a short period of rest and relief: for continuous toil produces a sort of numbness and sluggishness.

This last section overturns the unjustified accusation that the stoics would be spoil-joys, by recommending that we play with children like Socrates, dance like Scipio, walk outdoors and drink like Cato and Solon. “sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases. (XVII, 8).

It is not known when the dialogue Of Peace of Mind was written. It may have been composed and published in the period from the early 1950s until around 62 or 63.

Annaeus Serenus is the recipient not only of the book Of Peace of Mind, but also of On the Firmness of the Wise Person and of On the Leisure. He was a great friend of Seneca, a member of the equestrian order, formed by the wealthiest citizens. Serenus was also in charge of public administration, having obtained, under the influence of Seneca, the function of praefectus, responsible for fighting fires, an important activity in the city of Rome. He was quite young and died prematurely, according to Seneca in one of his letters to Lucillius. (Letters from a Stoic)

Review: Seneca, On the Happy Life

The essay On the Happy Life was written around the year 58 AD destined to his older brother, Gallio, to whom Seneca also dedicated his dialogue De Ira (“On Anger”). Seneca explains that the search for happiness is the search for reason. The main point to understand about the text is the title itself: ‘Happy’ here does not have the modern connotation of feeling good, but it is the equivalent of the Greek word eudaimonia, which is better understood as a life worthy of being lived, a state of plenitude of self. For Seneca and the stoics, the only life worth living is that of moral righteousness, the kind of existence we look at in the end and can honestly say that we are not ashamed.

Right in the first paragraph Seneca provides the stoic line of argument: We should not have happiness as our goal: “so far is it from being easy to attain to happiness that the more eagerly a man struggles to reach it the further he departs from it, if he takes the wrong road; for, since this leads in the opposite direction, his very swiftness carries him all the further away”. The solution is to aim for virtue. Happiness will be a consequence.

In the essay Seneca makes great opposition to the epicureans, a philosophical school that gives value to pleasure as a source of happiness, as we see in section ten: “You devote yourself to pleasures, I check them; you indulge in pleasure, I use it; you think that it is the highest good, I do not even think it to be good: for the sake of pleasure I do nothing, you do everything.”. In section XV, Seneca explains why one cannot simply associate virtue with pleasure. The problem is that sooner or later pleasure will lead you into non-virtuous territories: “You do not afford virtue a solid immoveable base if you bid it stand on what is unsteady.

In book VII he further elaborates on the distinction between pleasure and reason: “if they were entirely inseparable, we should not see some things to be pleasant, but not honourable, and others most honourable indeed, but hard and only to be attained by suffering.” Now, one could reasonably reject the distinction Seneca is trying to make, but then would be hard pressed to explain a large range of human behaviors where people do seem to genuinely prefer something despite its unpleasantness, for principled reasons, because they think it is good and honorable.

Section X ends with perhaps the sharpest contrast between Epicureanism and Stocism: “You devote yourself to pleasures, I check them; you indulge in pleasure, I use it; you think that it is the highest good, I do not even think it to be good: for the sake of pleasure I do nothing, you do everything.” Further, Seneca construct a finely balanced defense of Epicureanism from the apparently common abuse that many made of the school: “So, men are not encouraged by Epicurus to run riot, but the vicious hide their excesses in the lap of philosophy, and flock to the schools in which they hear the praises of pleasure. They do not consider how sober and temperate—for so, by Hercules, I believe it to be that “pleasure” of Epicurus is, but they rush at his mere name, seeking to obtain some protection and cloak for their vices. They lose, therefore, the one virtue which their evil life possessed, that of being ashamed of doing wrong: for they praise what they used to blush at, and boast of their vices… The reason why that praise which your school lavishes upon pleasure is so hurtful, is because the honourable part of its teaching passes unnoticed, but the degrading part is seen by all. This is a good example of Seneca’s justice, as well as of his compelling style of argumentation, whereby he is able to both strike a point in favor of his opponents and one against them in a single sentence. After this Seneca goes back to a critique of the pleasure principle: “those who have permitted pleasure to lead the van, have neither one nor the other: for they lose virtue altogether, and yet they do not possess pleasure, but are possessed by it, and are either tortured by its absence or choked by its excess, being wretched if deserted by it, and yet more wretched if overwhelmed by it”.

In section XX provides a list of rules that Seneca believe will lead to happiness. These are worth fully consideration:

  • I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance.
  • I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not.
  • I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.
  • Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly.
  • I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience.
  • I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honourable men half way.
  • Whenever either Nature demands my breath again, or reason bids me dismiss it, I will quit this life, calling all to witness that I have loved a good conscience, and good pursuits.

Review: Seneca On Anger

The essay On Anger is addressed to Seneca’s older brother, Gallio. Although it is divided into three books, the text is effectively divided into two parts. The work defines and explains anger within the context of Stoic philosophy, and offers therapeutic advice on how to prevent and control anger.

The first part (I-II, xvii) deals with theoretical issues, while the second part (II,xviii – final) offers therapeutic advice. It begins with a preamble on the horrors of anger, followed by its definitions. It continues with questions such as whether anger is natural, whether it can be tempered, whether it is involuntary, and whether it can be completely erased.

No man becomes braver through anger, except one who without anger would not have been brave at all: anger does not therefore come to assist courage, but to take its place… Every weakling is naturally prone to complaint.” (I,xiii)

Nothing becomes one who inflicts punishment less than anger, because the punishment has all the more power to work reformation if the sentence be pronounced with deliberate judgment. This is why Socrates said to the slave, “I would strike you, were I not angry.” He put off the correction of the slave to a calmer season; at the moment, he corrected himself. Who can boast that he has his passions under control, when Socrates did not dare to trust himself to his anger?” (I,xv)

The second part (Book II, xviii onwards) begins with advice on how to avoid anger and how this can be taught to children and adults. Then followed by several pieces of advice on how anger can be postponed or extinguished, and many real cases are given of cases to be imitated or avoided. The work draws to a close with some tips on how to calm others, followed by a summary of the work

Other vices affect our judgment, anger affects our sanity: others come in mild attacks and grow unnoticed, but men’s minds plunge abruptly into anger. There is no passion that is more frantic, more destructive to its own self; it is arrogant if successful, and frantic if it fails. Even when defeated it does not grow weary, but if chance places its foe beyond its reach, it turns its teeth against itself. Its intensity is in no way regulated by its origin: for it rises to the greatest heights from the most trivial beginnings.” (III, i)

While you are angry, you ought not to be allowed to do anything. “Why?” do you ask? Because when you are angry there is nothing that you do not wish to be allowed to do. (III, xii)

In On Anger Seneca defends the thesis – contrary to that of other ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle – that anger is always harmful. According to the Roman, a great man should never be angry, and when it is not possible to repress anger, he should try to calm down as soon as possible.

The depth of thought, the liveliness of style, and the rich examples provided by Seneca to confirm his theses make the reading of On Anger extremely satisfying.