Stoic fates

Of the classical Stoics, Seneca is appealing because he represents the tragic middle between Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Having risen from slavery to freedom, Epictetus is optimistic, while the emperor Marcus carries a gravitas difficult for us commoners to grasp, stemming as it does from his most private thoughts on the paradoxes of absolute power, morality, and the desire for solitude. Seneca’s famous line about chains includes all of us:

We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves.

Seneca’s daily life and duty was to survive the household of the capricious and powerful emperor Nero with decorum not revulsion, to tolerate the sycophants around him while at the same time performing his duty as tutor and counselor with aplomb and detachment. His writings superbly capture this underlying tension, but never let on what his daily life is really like. Later critics have called him a hypocrite for it, but that would make all but the most thorough-going hermit among us so.

An anecdote (probably apocryphal) about another mad emperor, Caligula, reveals the delicate and impossible situation of such an advisor. On the evening of a full moon, Caligula flung open his window curtains to let the goddess Diana enter. “There she is!” he exclaims to Vitellius. “Do you not see her?” The wary Vitellius answers, “Alas, only you gods can see one another.” Alas, indeed. Seneca was forced by Nero to kill himself. Vitellius, however, was one of the first to proclaim Caligula a god, though also one of the leading conspirators in Caligula’s overthrowal and assassination.