God in Man – Seneca

Synopsis:

In letter #41, Seneca observes the vitality of the Holy Spirit within the human soul. He considers human excellence, and virtue to be demonstrations of continuity with the Holy Spirit. Living in accordance with nature for Seneca is the soul in union with the Holy Spirit. A union made discordant by vice.

Excerpts:

“We do not need to lift our hands to heaven or beg the sexton for nearer access to the idol’s ear, as if he could hear us more clearly; god is near you, with you, inside you. Yes, Lucilius, there is a holy spirit abiding within us who observes our good deeds and bad and watches over us. He treats us according as we treat him. No man is good without god. Could any man rise above Fortune without his help? It is he that imparts grand and upstanding counsel.

“If you see a man undaunted in danger, untouched by passion, happy in adversity, calm in the raging storm, viewing mankind from a higher level and the gods from their own, will you not be moved by veneration? Will you not say: ‘This is too grand and lofty to be of a quality with the little body that contains it; the power that has informed that man is divine?

“A soul which is of superior stature and well governed, which deflates the imposing by passing it by and laughs at all our fears and prayers, is impelled by a celestial force. So great a thing cannot stand without a buttress of divinity. Its larger portion therefore abides at its source. Just as the rays of the sun do indeed warm the earth but remain at the source of their radiation, so a great and holy soul is lowered to earth to give us a nearer knowledge of the divine; but though it is in intercourse with us, it cleaves to its source; it is tied to it, it looks toward it, it seeks to rejoin it, and its concern with our affairs is superior and detached.

“In a vine the peculiar virtue is fertility, and in a man, too, we should praise what is peculiarly his own. He has a handsome troop of slaves, a fine house, broad acres, large investments; but none of these things is in him, they are around him. Praise what cannot be given or taken away, what is peculiarly the man’s. What is this, you ask? It is soul, and reason perfected in the soul.

“Man is a rational animal, and his good is realized if he implements the potentiality for which nature gave him being. And what does reason demand of him? A very easy thing: to live according to his nature. But general derangement makes this difficult; we shove one another into vice. And how can people be recalled to safety when there is a crowd pushing them and nobody to hold them back?

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

Philosophy and Progress – Seneca

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Synopsis:

In letter #90, Seneca examines the purpose of philosophy in life. He fuses his own Stoic philosophy with ideas on the art-of-living, the development of government, and the pursuit of wisdom.

Excerpts:

“If they had made philosophic knowledge also a common attribute and we were all born wise, then wisdom would have forfeited its principal quality, which is that it is not fortuitous.

“The natural measure which limited desires by essential requirements has retreated; to desire a mere sufficiency is now a mark of boorishness and wretchedness.

“Wisdom turns to the incorporeal and scrutinizes truth and its manifestations and determines the modes for distinguishing ambiguities in life or speech, for in both the false is mingled with the true.

“Virtue is not Nature’s gift; to become good is an art.

“Virtue can occur only in a soul trained and taught and raised to its height by assiduous exercise.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

Reason and the True Good – Seneca

Synopsis:

In letter #124, Seneca engages the fountainhead of the ‘true good’ in human action. He concludes that virtue is the cradle of happiness, and the cradle of virtue is reason.

Excerpts:

“And what is this good? I will tell you: It is a free and upstanding mind which subjects other things to itself and itself to nothing.

“We assert that ‘happy’ is what is in accordance with nature, and what is in accordance with nature is directly obvious, just as wholeness is obvious.

“As far as perception of good and evil is concerned both are equally mature; an infant is no more capable of the good than is a tree or some dumb animal. And why is the good not present in tree or dumb animal? Because reason is not.

“Confusion is applicable only where non-confusion can also occur, as anxiety is applicable only where serenity can obtain. No man is vicious unless he is capable of virtue.

“Pronounce yourself happy only when all your satisfactions are begotten of reason, and when, having surveyed what men struggle for, pray for, watch over, you find nothing to desire let alone prefer.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

Crowds – Seneca

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Synopsis:

In letter #7, Seneca grapples with the nature of crowds. He catechizes the influence crowds have on the human soul, and traces the remedies for its negative effects.

Excerpts:

“Contact with the crowd is deleterious; inevitably vice will be made attractive or imprinted on us or smeared upon us without our being aware of it. In every case, the larger the crowd with which we mingle the greater the danger.

“A single example of luxury or avarice works great mischief. A comrade who is squeamish gradually enervates us and makes us soft; a neighbor who is rich pricks up our covetousness; a companion who is malicious rubs some of his rust off upon us, however frank and ingenuous we may be.

“Retire into yourself, so far as you can. Associate with people who may improve you, admit people whom you can improve. The process is mutual; men learn as they teach.

“There is no reason why ambition to advertise your talents should lure you to the public platform to give popular readings or discourses. I should agree to your doing so if your wares suited such customers, but none of them can understand you. A solitary individual or two may come your way, but even him you will have to educate and train to understand you. ‘Then why did I learn all this?’ Never fear that you have wasted your effort; you learned for yourself.

“When asked the object of applying himself so assiduously to an art which would reach so very few people, he said: ‘For me a few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

The Sole Good – Seneca

Synopsis:

In letter #76, Seneca underscores the element of reason in human existence. He also surveys the subjects of wisdom, virtue, bravery, and what ingredients aggregate into the human soul.

Excerpts:

“Wisdom is never a windfall. Money may come unsought, office may be bestowed, influence and prestige may be thrust upon you, but virtue is not an accident.

“What is best in man? Reason, which puts him ahead of the animals and next to the gods. Perfect reason is, then, his peculiar good; his other qualities are common to animals and vegetables.

“The sole good in man, therefore, is what is solely man’s, for our question does not concern the good but the good of man. If nothing but reason is peculiarly man’s, then reason is his sole good and balances all the rest.

“Folly may creep toward wisdom, but wisdom does not backslide to folly.

“…men bear with fortitude, when they have grown accustomed to them, things they had thought very difficult.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

On Clemency – Seneca

Synopsis:

In his essay On Clemency, the stoic philosopher Seneca defines the requisite qualities of an ideal ruler relevant to the notions of justice and mercy. The motive for which Seneca wrote the essay was to instruct the young emperor Nero on how the consummate ruler ought to govern. Nero would of course go on to become the antagonist of nearly all the ideas representing virtue in the essay, thereby defining his legacy in history.

Excerpts:

“The true fruit of right deeds is, to be sure, in the doing, and no reward outside themselves is worthy of the virtues…

“No one can long hide behind a mask; the pretense soon lapses into the true character. But where the basis is truth and where the roots are solidly planted, time itself fosters growth in size and quality.

“…in full view for all to see is the happiest of administrations in which the only limitation upon the completest liberty is the denial of license for self-destruction.

“Lightning’s stroke imperils few but frightens all; so chastisement by a mighty power terrifies more widely than it hurts, and with good reason, for where power is absolute men think not of what it has done but of what it might do.

“It is a mistake to think that the king is safe when nothing is safe from the king; one bargains for security with security.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

The Trojan Women – Movie Review

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Synopsis and Review:

The eminent classicist Edith Hamilton provided the translation of the powerful Euripides play for this film from 1971, which stars Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache as well as Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba. The Trojan Women portrays the aftermath of the Trojan War, and the consequences of the Greek victory on the leading women of Troy.

Throughout the film as well as the play the mood is melancholy with moments of intense acrimony against Helen – played by Irene Papas. Although the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote his own more forceful version of The Trojan Women, this version – the original one by Euripides – has fewer of the graphic scenes Seneca depicts and relies more on the dramatic conditions these women find themselves in – i.e. a life of slavery awaiting them. Vanessa Redgrave is on another order of magnitude above the other performers in her portrayal of Andromache – the widow of Hector – and this is exquisitely revealed when Andromache learns that her young son is to be executed by being thrown off the walls of Troy.

For lovers of Classicism this film is a must watch, and for those that have not yet read the Seneca adaptation of the play it is absolutely recommended as well.

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