The words of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the famous Roman Stoic philosopher that also dabbled in politics as Nero’s educator and advisor, have been well-preserved. In fact, my wife is reading a Dutch translation of his De Tranquillitate Animi (On Tranquillity of Mind). We both love Seneca because he wrote about how to live a life—something that heavily influenced The School of Life— and because he and his friend advocate the usage of “a simple pen”. Take that, odd German post-rationalist philosophers. I’m looking at you, Hegel and Heiddeger.
But what if Seneca wasn’t Nero’s advisor? In his works, he regularly admits the privilege of being born in an affluent family, being one of the few Romans that could afford to devote a life to study. Seneca was born four years before Christ, and yet, two thousand years later, many of his writings can still be loaned in almost any library. His wife held up his legacy for a few years after Nero forced him to commit suicide. I suppose his fate also sealed his fame (or the other way around).
What Seneca wrote about—life, death, happiness—is something we all can write about given enough time is put in to ponder on the subjects. It is the stuff of life, not the dusty stuff of erudite knowledge. Perhaps many Would-Be-Seneca’s lived and thought interesting thoughts during that era, only those people did not have the fame, or perhaps not the ability to write. Blogging and archive.org wasn’t quite there yet, although I wonder how volatile the world is where I upload these words to. Think about it. Montaigne? Famous lawyer and mayor of Bordeaux: legacy preserved. Socrates? Did not write down a single word, but his philosophy is still preserved thanks to his influence in Athens and Plato’s Academy. Aurelius? The last great Roman emperor: double check. Diogenes the Cynic? Hmm, a bit of a puzzler, I must admit.
More recent philosophers who lived post-Gutenberg-press had less to worry about, although enough books have been burned during wars to cause great cultural losses. How many great thinkers did we miss thanks to illiteracy, being in the wrong social class you could not escape, great fires, or just forgetting to jot down thoughts?
Serenus, Seneca’s pen pal, made serious reservations about writing down things for later generations. He writes:
Why write texts that defy centuries? Do you really think it is important that later generations keep talking about you? Come on! You are born to die, a funeral in silence is less hassle. Try to use your time for yourself, not to become famous, and therefore use a simple pen. Writing for the here and now takes less effort.
A few sections later, Serenus mentions he regularly fails because “the greatness of his ideas causes him to raise the bar”. It might have been a crappy translation from Latin-to-Dutch-to-English on my part, but Serenus admits to frequent “mental weaknesses” that cause him to write bolder than he originally planned to.
Luckily, Seneca did see the benefit in his writings. Luckily, he was Nero’s advisor. And thus, here it is: his thoughts condensed in a hardback in my hands, 1971 years later.