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How to Endure Suffering Well

Many people today feel powerless. Facing events beyond their control, from wars to environmental problems, they regress into themselves, adopting a philosophy of self-satisfaction as a way of sidestepping despair. Often tied to this is a belief that quantum physics rules the universe: If nothing is out there other than particles and quarks, why not just live for me?

During the Roman Empire, a similar school of thought competed for the minds of the nobility. Epicureanism taught that one should seek pleasure and avoid pain to navigate a random world governed by atoms swirling in a universal void. It’s a shallow life philosophy that depends on accidental circumstances to be successfully applied, most notably health and wealth. But for people who suffer misfortune and hardship, it hardly provides a satisfactory outlook on life.

Fortunately, ancient Rome offers an example of a man who provided an alternative to this outlook. He was a rare instance of a great thinker who, invested with considerable power for a time, knew how fragile it was and sought more permanent truths than the vagaries of social status.

Educating a Bad Emperor

Epoch Times Photo
Seneca and Nero’s lives were intertwined. “Double Portrait of Seneca (?-65) and Nero (37-68),” circa 1617, by Peter Paul Rubens. (Public domain)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger was born to a wealthy equestrian family in Spain in about 4 B.C. He became a tutor to Nero, the future Roman emperor, but was unable to curb the boy’s licentious nature. When his pupil assumed the throne, Seneca became his chief adviser. Like all good teachers, he held out hope that Nero could change. Unfortunately, Nero was less interested in being a good emperor than he was in being a good artist. While he participated in rigged music, drama, and chariot competitions, Seneca was running the empire. The early years of Nero’s reign were thus marked by able administration and prosperity.

But over time, the emperor became paranoid and cruel. Seneca’s political enemies at court whispered in Nero’s ear that his adviser was trying to outdo the emperor as a poet and orator, and so the philosopher retired from public affairs to the relative safety of his country estate.

It was during these final three years of his life that Seneca wrote his most important literary works, including 124 philosophical letters to his friend and former student, Lucilius. Covering a wide range of topics, they’re written in a simple but witty style and provide an excellent introduction to Stoic ethics.

What Is Stoicism?

Stoicism was first theorized by Greek philosophers hundreds of years before Seneca’s time, but only fragments of these earlier works have come down to us. Seneca’s surviving writings, by contrast, fill 10 volumes in the Loeb Classical Library.

A newly revised collection published by Regnery Gateway, “Gateway to the Stoics,” includes a few of Seneca’s most important letters, translated by classicist Spencer Klavan. These selections reveal that Seneca’s teachings were, in many ways, strikingly similar to those of Jesus.

In Letter 47, he congratulated Lucilius upon hearing that he treated his slaves like members of the family. Despite superficial differences in social rank, Seneca observed, all men are “fellow slaves, if you only consider how drastically fortunes can change.” He went on to denounce the cruelty of masters before providing his own variation on the golden rule: “Live with those beneath you in rank as you would hope to live with those above you. Every time it occurs to you how much power you have over your slave, recall to mind that your own master has just as much power over you.”

And just who is this master, Seneca asked. Perhaps, like Hecuba, queen of Troy, you’ll be sold into slavery. Or maybe your master is an appetite: greed, sex, or ambition. And above all, Seneca noted, everyone is a slave to fear.

Fear was rampant during Nero’s later reign. After Seneca’s retirement, the imperial administration crumbled; Nero began executing those he suspected of disloyalty. Social unrest worsened after the failed Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate the emperor, named after its leader, Gaius Calpurnius Piso. The plot was discovered, Seneca was implicated, and Nero ordered him to commit suicide.

As the historian Tacitus described it, a centurion arrived at Seneca’s house during dinner and relayed the order. Deprived of the right to recite his will, Seneca turned to his friends and family, stating: “I leave you the example of my life, the best and most precious legacy now in my power. Cherish it in your memory, and you will gain at once the applause due to virtue, and the fame of a sincere and generous friendship.” Then, after chiding the teary-eyed to be firm, he opened his arteries.

Stoicism and Christianity

In Letter 91, Seneca described a fire that destroyed the city of Lyons in a single night, emphasizing how years of fruitful labor can quickly come to ruin:

“Things emerge by slow degrees and then rush to destruction.”

He admonished Lucilius to “rise to meet the blows of fortune, and, whatever happens, bear in mind that it is less serious than people say.” If we remember the inevitable fact that everyone is destined to die, we can bear the downfall of cities “with equanimity.” By changing one’s attitude, a person can learn to bear the workings of fate, represented by the divine mind that governs everything.

In A.D. 64, another fire broke out in Rome that destroyed large sections of the city. Nero blamed the Christians for the disaster as a way of redirecting rumors that he himself had started it. While Seneca doesn’t mention this more famous fire in his letter, the advice he gives on bearing death calmly could easily be applied to those who were brutally persecuted in the wake of Nero’s reign of terror.

In “Seneca: The Humanist at the Court of Nero,” biographer Villy Sorensen observed that “many of Seneca’s expressions are reminiscent of Christ’s words in the gospels, and in his letters to Lucilius he expresses more personal religious sentiments than the more impersonal belief in fate.” In Letter 41, for example, Seneca wrote: “God is near you, with you, in you.”

Some passages in the writings of St. Paul bear a remarkable resemblance to Seneca’s thinking. It’s noteworthy that these two men were exact contemporaries—both died violently in A.D. 65 as victims of Nero’s purges. In Romans 5:3–4, St. Paul wrote that “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” It’s this last part, “hope,” that was missing from Stoic doctrine.

For Christians, suffering wasn’t only proof of moral distinction but preparation for the world to come. Stoics believed that the universe would end in an apocalyptic conflagration, but they didn’t teach that there was anything beyond this.

Although Stoicism paid respect to the lower orders, it never caught on beyond the Roman aristocracy. It was Christianity that popularized the idea that all men are brothers, ending the cultural tribalism dominating pagan religions. But if, as Klavan noted in his foreword to “Gateway to the Stoics,” it’s true that “the Christian Church has made Stoics of us all,” we partly have Seneca to thank for that fact.

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