Classics On The Upswing

Seneca was venerated as a moral thinker; he was also one of Nero’s closest advisers. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH FROM AISA / EVERETT So

Seneca was venerated as a moral thinker; he was also one of Nero’s closest advisers. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH FROM AISA / EVERETT

This book review reminds us (for example where, in the middle of the review, the reviewer irresistibly, simply, says: “These days, Seneca is again on the upswing.”) of James, now firmly planted in the green fields of Harvard University taking his classics education to the ultimate level.

James, for his part, reminds us of our many reasons for paying attention to the classics, having little directly to do with the day to day activities of Raxa Collective except that the classics help us keep it all in perspective:

…If poets and philosophers dream of influencing those in power, Seneca was uniquely positioned to do so. He was a celebrated rhetorician, a satirist, the author of several books of natural history, and a playwright. He was also what today might be called an ethicist. Among his many works of moral philosophy are “De Ira” (“On Anger”), “De Providentia” (“On Providence”), and “De Brevitate Vitae” (“On the Shortness of Life”). Seneca had been Nero’s tutor since the younger man was twelve or thirteen, and he remained one of his closest advisers.

After the botched boating accident, Seneca set to work. Writing in the voice of the emperor, he composed a letter to the Senate explaining what had happened. Hungry for power, Agrippina had been planning a coup. Once the plot was revealed, she’d taken her own life. As for the shipwreck, that was a sign that the gods themselves had tried to intervene on the emperor’s behalf.

At least in public, the response of Rome’s élite to the letter was jubilation. Tacitus reports that there was “a marvelous rivalry” among the senators in celebrating Nero’s narrow escape; they held games, made offerings at shrines, and proposed that “Agrippina’s birthday should be classed among the inauspicious days.”

Most of the letter comes down to us in paraphrase, but one line has survived verbatim. It is considered an example of Latin rhetoric at its finest, though clearly it loses something in translation. “That I am safe, neither, as yet, do I believe, nor do I rejoice,” Seneca had the newly orphaned Nero declare.

All writers’ reputations have their ups and downs. In the case of Seneca, the highs have been very high and the lows pretty low. Early Christians so revered him that they faked an exchange of edifying letters between him and St. Paul. During the Reformation, both Calvin and Zwingli turned to his writings for inspiration. Montaigne wrote a “defense” of Seneca, Diderot an essay on his life.

Then Seneca fell out of favor…

Read the whole book review here.

One thought on “Classics On The Upswing

  1. Pingback: Umberto Eco, Come To Kerala! | Raxa Collective

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