Evan Leach's Reviews > Dialogues and Essays

Dialogues and Essays by Seneca
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Jul 25, 12

bookshelves: 0-999, essays-and-treatises, roman-literature, philosophy
Read in July, 2012

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was an interesting man. His father, Seneca the Elder, was a famous teacher of rhetoric. His older brother (Junius Annaeus Gallio) was proconsul of Achaea during the 50s and makes an appearance in the Bible, where he lets the Apostle Paul off the hook. The younger Seneca was a tutor and advisor to Emperor Nero, one of the wealthiest men of his day, and one of the most prolific writers of the 1st century.

Seneca’s surviving writings include nine tragedies, 124 letters, a satire and 13 essays. This collection includes seven essays in their entirely and sections of two more:

On Providence: This is the only essay of Seneca’s that actually qualifies as a dialogue, with some back-and-forth between Seneca and another figure (Lucilius). Tackles the age-old question of why God Providence would let bad things happen to good people. I didn’t find Seneca’s explanation particularly convincing (if people are truly good nothing actually bad can happen to them; things that appear bad are really good, it’s our perception that’s the problem), but there are some interesting bits.

On Anger: A section of Seneca’s essay on anger. Controlling one’s temper is a good thing; acting rashly out of anger can have disastrous consequences. Nothing particularly mind-blowing here…only including a portion of this essay was probably a good choice.

Consolation to Marcia: An early work consoling a woman who’s been mourning her dead son for three years. While Seneca does not come across as incredibly sympathetic towards Marcia, philosophically this was interesting and one of the stronger essays in the collection.

On the Happy Life: The first half of this essay is a great introduction to Seneca’s Stoic beliefs. The second half is a muddled defense of Seneca’s vast personal fortune (for a man that preached about the unimportance of material possessions, Seneca had a lot of stuff). This one kind of fell apart down the stretch.

On the Tranquility of the Mind: Anxiety and restlessness can be cured by a calm mind focused on duty and philosophical reflection.

On the Shortness of Life: Valuing and allocating time property, not squandering it frivolously, is key to a fulfilling life. It’s not about how much time you have, but how you use it. Probably Seneca’s most famous essay, and his strongest.

Consolation to Helvia: Emperor Claudius exiled Seneca to Corsica for eight years. This essay was written to console his distraught mother. Not as strong as the first consolation, in my opinion.

On Mercy: An essay to Nero, Seneca’s former pupil. Discusses the benefits of merciful rule as opposed to tyranny. Very interesting, although considering what Nero turned into, and given that he later ordered Seneca to kill himself, it’s safe to say the lesson didn’t take.

Natural Questions, Book 6: On Earthquakes: An exploration of what causes earthquakes. The science is pretty much bunk, as one would expect. Interesting as a window into the science of antiquity, but mostly for its occasional references to the recent disaster at Pompeii.

This edition is the perfect collection of Seneca’s essays. The translations are excellent (as far as I can tell) and the decisions behind what to include and what to cut were very sound and will provide readers with an excellent understanding of 1st century Stoic thought. Seneca is sometimes criticized for not being a particularly original or profound thinker, and I do think there’s a degree of truth to that (I like him better as a tragedian). Readers expecting Plato or Aristotle will probably be disappointed. But Stoicism was the primary philosophy of ancient Rome, and this is a solid introduction to that school of thought. 3 stars, recommended for readers interested in Roman history and the history of philosophy.
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