Seneca's Mistake?

Why did the Stoic sage work with Nero

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

🏛️ Theory

James Romm writes:

Seneca felt, as he watched the Golden House rise on mountains of loot, that he must get clear of politics without delay. Nero had become an offense to all Stoic principles, an embodiment of luxury and excess. The icons of the gods themselves were being smelted into the emperor’s tableware. The twilight realm in which Seneca dwelt had grown gloomier than ever.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

That’s the anguish of attempting to undo what one’s past choices set in motion. Seneca must have known how things would have ended at this point.

It’s a perennial debate within Stoicism – why did Seneca, the Stoic sage, advise one of the most infamous Roman emperors?

Nero was known for being cruel and decadent. Someone more interested in playing the role of an artist, than an emperor. 

And yet Seneca was his personal tutor and advisor.

I think there are a few lessons here, but it’s something worth mulling over for years.

The first is that Seneca likely played an instrumental role in running the empire well with Burrus and Agrippina (another senior advisor and Nero’s mother) when Nero was young. Becoming Nero’s tutor, put him in the position to play the role of competent statesman, at least for a while. Perhaps that is sufficient justification for allying himself with Nero, who at that time, had not shown his full character.

The second is that you can’t lead the unwilling to philosophy. Whether Nero saw Seneca as a hypocrite or a sage, his teaching was not effective. That is evidence that Seneca was not an effective teacher, but it isn’t damning. History is replete with examples of vicious people who ignored the virtue of their mentors.

The third is that it’s always important to do the right thing, for the right reason, and at the right time. Did Seneca join forces with Nero because he saw that the empire needed a stable set of hands? Or was it a purely selfish calculation dressed up in high-flowing rhetoric? At the end of the day, he may have been the only person to know. So there’s a lesson in judging others. We can reflect on the nature of their actions, but other’s motivations will always remain hidden. Especially in cases like Seneca – where we’re thinking about a messy high-stakes domain like politics and a wide range of motives.

Let’s end with one of Seneca’s lines:

First, however, it’s easier to shut out harmful things than to govern them, easier to deny them entry than to moderate them once they have entered. Once they’ve established residence, they become more powerful than their overseer and do not accept retrenchment or abatement.

On Anger

🎯 Action

Reflect on the decisions you're currently making, especially those with long-term implications. In the future, will you welcome what you set in motion today?

📖 Looking into the lives of the Stoics can always be fruitful for seeing how others manage the situations life throws their way. A good introduction to the ancient Stoics is Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman’s Lives of The Stoics

📘 History aficionados may like this recent book on Nero: Matricide, Music, and Murder in Imperial Rome by Anthony Everitt. It paints him in a brighter light than many other modern and ancient biographers.

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