The Book Report: Reading Seneca 2,000 Years Later


The Book Report is a reading series that promises to deliver exactly what it promises: reports on books by the people who’ve read them. On July 8th, join hosts Leigh Stein and Sasha Fletcher, with special guests Amy Lawless, Gili Malinsky, and Megan Sass, for an evening that will remind you of 3rd grade in the best possible way. 7pm, The Gallery at LPR.

Reading Seneca 2,000 Years Later: A Book Report in the Form of the Scientific Method
by Chelsea Hodson

1. Initial Observations

Seneca is important because he only has one name and the only photos of him are photos of statues. Sometimes he has a beard, sometimes a cleft has been carved into his marble chin. His full name is Seneca the Younger, but his letters are 2,000 years old.

The first time I heard of Seneca was a year ago when I submitted an essay to The Seneca Review, not because I liked Seneca, but because I wanted essays editor John D’Agata to praise me. He did not praise me.

I went on not knowing who Seneca was until I listened to an audiobook called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I can’t stand positive thinking, and I felt unhappy, so I did what unhappy people do: I bought something. The book didn’t work, but I liked what it said about stoicism, so I bought another thing: Letters from a Stoic by Seneca.

Stoicism is all about “resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him” and that famous phrase, “There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Your brain is your enemy, and also the only thing that can save you.

When Googled, the text below Seneca showed me other single-named men: Cicero, Nero, Ovid. I nodded at the screen, pretending to know their relation to Seneca. The truth is I have very specific taste: almost all of the books I read are written by female authors that are still alive, so I was hesitant to dive headfirst into a philosophy book, but I decided to try anyway.

I remember dissecting a cat in high school biology class. Next to the cat lying on her side in a metal tray was a worksheet titled The Scientific Method. It had six bullet points to guide me through the dissection, from initial observations to conclusion. Here I am with Seneca in my lap like a pet. I open him.


2. Question

Is Seneca still relevant after 2,000 years?


3. Hypothesis

If I can ignore Seneca’s excessive use of male pronouns and the inconsistencies between the advice he gave and the life he lived, then yes, I can find useful insights.


4. Experiment

On the first page, I learned that Caligula sentenced Seneca to death in Rome in A.D. 37, allegedly for having an affair with Caligula’s sister. Seneca did not die, though, he spent eight years in exile on an island where he is reported to have written letters to his mother. The biographer comments on this, writing, “His exile does not seem to have been endured as stoically as it might have been.”

Seneca was called back into Rome to tutor Nero, who, five years later, became Roman emperor. Nero eventually “compelled” Seneca to commit suicide but Seneca spent the year prior to his death studying philosophy and writing letters to his mentee, Lucilius.

Seneca considered Lucilius somewhat of an equal, writing in one of his letters, “I’m talking to you as if I were lying in the same hospital ward, about the illness we’re both suffering from, and passing on some remedies.” Seneca never claimed to have invented stoicism, but he did provide 220 pages of advice.

He and I did not get off to a great start, as he argued against traveling and moving. I grew up in Phoenix, went to college in Tucson, moved to Brooklyn, moved to Los Angeles, and now live in Brooklyn again. Paring down my possessions and arranging them in new rooms is a fond pastime of mine. But Seneca wrote, “Nothing is better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”

I found it surprising to recognize myself so soon in the issues Seneca was writing about, but he certainly wasn’t a source of comfort I could mindlessly ingest before bed. Continuing on his traveling tangent, he wrote, “The miser, the swindler, the bully, and the cheat who would do you a lot of harm by simply being near you, are actually inside you.” Oh.

Of course, right when I felt like Seneca really “got” me, he wrote this to Lucilius: “‘I’m suffering severe pain,’ you may say. Well does it stop you suffering it if you endure it in a womanish fashion?”

I don’t appreciate complaining being described as “womanish,” but the next day I found myself complaining in exactly this type of fashion.

I read an article about a young female essayist with a bestselling book and interpreted this to mean that there were no more book deals left in the world. Nope, that’s it, I’ve lost my chance, I thought. I’m ashamed to say I actually shed tears over my imaginary competition that, according to me, I was losing.

Seneca, on comparing yourself to others: “Your ambition will be running at so feverish a pitch that if anyone’s ahead of you in the race you’ll see yourself as coming last.” It doesn’t take much to play a whole movie in my mind: cut to the racetrack where essays editor John D’Agata is crossing the finish line first, leaning into a red ribbon, then taking that red ribbon and wrapping it into a sash around my imaginary rival’s torso.

This movie about running a race reminds me: Seneca had asthma.

He wrote to Lucilius, “Difficulty in breathing is a good way of describing it.” I would like to propose here my theory that Seneca suffered from panic attacks. I’m pretty sure this term, perhaps even this concept, did not exist 2,000 years ago, but I want to believe that smart people have panic attacks, and that’s why I have panic attacks.

Seneca has a succinct way of describing his difficulty breathing deeply: “Doctors have nicknamed it ‘rehearsing death.’”

Even if Seneca really did have asthma, he’s familiar with the anxiety that plagues all humans. He wrote, “Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come.” This is precisely what keeps me rehearsing death, I mean out of breath.

If I were a real stoic like Seneca, I wouldn’t fear death. I’d use my last gasp to quote Seneca: “What is death? Either a transition or an end.” I’m not sure I can subscribe to this relaxed mode of thinking quite yet, but I do like it. “You’re leaving no duty undone,” Seneca said, “there’s no fixed number of duties laid down which you’re supposed to complete.”

While reading the book, I began offering more unsolicited advice than usual. When my friend expressed money problems, I said, “You know, Seneca advised stoics to spend one day per month devoted to living in poverty. That way you’ll realize it’s not so bad and you can stop fearing it.” The next minute I went back to scrolling through Twitter on my iPhone, pretending not to hear the tattooed teenager begging on the L train for money for his dog.

But as Seneca said, “Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you. Life’s no soft affair.”


5. Analysis

For every questionable sentence such as, “I’m glad to hear that you live on friendly terms with your slaves,” there are 10 other sentences worth underlining and memorizing. I actually found myself comforted when I was able to see Seneca’s imperfections seeping through even the most carefully curated letters. Therefore, I believe my hypothesis is correct. I like Seneca.


6. Conclusion

Just like the predictions a psychic gives while holding your hand, I can pick and choose which pieces of stoic advice I wish to follow. No one will ever know how often Seneca acted against his own teachings. There’s no way to know for sure how many times he cheated on his wife or compared himself to a more popular philosopher or thought of death and felt his lungs tighten or traveled to a faraway place in the hopes of escaping the worst parts of himself. The word “stoic” makes me think “dead statue,” and that’s what Seneca is.

He wrote, “The living voice counts for a great deal.” But the dead also count, especially when a woman living in 2013 realizes she is battling the same anxieties and fears as a man that died in A.D. 65. I can anticipate my death at every corner, but that doesn’t mean I’ll welcome it the way Seneca would advise me to. I don’t think I can bear to spend even one day per month pretending to live in poverty, but I can continue writing to an ambiguous, unknowable “you” and pretend that someone somewhere hears herself being addressed.

Seneca did not expect to be forgotten (he promised Lucilius immortality through their correspondence), but he also told Lucilius, “I am writing this, not for the eyes of many, but for yours alone: for each of us is audience enough for the other.”

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