Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the most brilliant figure of his time, was the second son of the great rhetorician of that name, and, like him, a native of Corduba in Spain. From infancy of a delicate constitution, he devoted himself with intense ardor to rhetorical and philosophical studies, and early won a reputation at the bar. Caligula threatened his life, and under Claudius his political career received a sudden check, for the influence of Messalina having effected the ruin of Julia, the youngest daughter of Germanicus, Seneca, who was compromised by her downfall, was banished to Corsica, 41 A.D. There eight weary years of waiting were relieved by study and authorship, with occasional attempts to procure his return by such gross flattery of Claudius as is found in the work on Consolation.
At length the tide turned; the next empress, Agrippina, had him recalled, appointed prætor and intrusted with the education of her son, Nero, then eleven years old. Seneca became, in fact, Agrippina's confidential adviser, and his pupil's accession increased his power. He was consul in 57, and for a few years he shared the actual administration of affairs with Burrus, the prætorian præfect. When the inevitable rupture between mother and son came they sided with the latter, and Seneca, who drew up all Nero's State papers, was called upon to write a defense of matricide. We must, however, regard the general tendency of his measures; for to judge him as a stoic philosopher by the doctrines laid down in his writings would be like applying the standard of New Testament morality to the career of a Wolsey or Mazarin. He is the type of the man of letters, who, as courtier and minister, rises into favor by talent and suppleness, and is entitled as such to the credit of a beneficent rule. In course of time Nero came to dislike him more and more, the death of Burrus, in 62, hastening his downfall. In vain did he ask permission to retire, offering to Nero at the same time his enormous fortune. Even when he had sought privacy on the plea of ill health he could not avert his doom. On a charge of being concerned in Piso's conspiracy, he was forced to commit suicide, to avoid a more shameful death. His manly end might be held in some measure to redeem the weakness of his life but for the testimony it bears to his constant study of effect and ostentatious self-complacency.
Seneca is one of the most eminent among the Latin writers of the silver age, and in a special sense their representative, not least because he was the originator of a false style. His affected and sentimental mannerisms became gradually ingrained in him, and appear equally in everything he wrote, whether poetry or prose, as the most finished product of ingenuity concentrated upon declamatory exercises, substance being sacrificed to form, and thought to point. Every variety of rhetorical conceit in turn contributes to the effect, now tinsel and ornament, now novelty and versatility of treatment, or affected simplicity and studied absence of plan. But the chief weapon is the epigram, summing up in terse, incisive antithesis the gist of a whole period. "Seneca is a man of real genius," writes Niebuhr, "which is, after all, the main thing; not to be unjust to him, one must know the whole range of that literature to which he belonged and realize how well he understood the art of making something even of what was most absurd."
Seneca had the wit to discover that conduct, which is, after all, "three-forths of life," could furnish inexhaustible topics of abiding and universal interest, far superior to the imaginary themes discussed in the schools of philosophy. The innovation took the public taste--plain matters of urgent personal concern sometimes treated casuistically, sometimes in a liberal vein, with seriour divergence from the orthodox standards, but always with an earnestness which aimed directly at the reader's edification, progress toward virtue and general moral improvement. His essays are, in fact, Stoic sermons; for the creed of the later Stoics had become less of a philosophical system and more of a religion, especially at Rome, where moral and theological doctrines attracted lively interest. The school is remarkable for its anticipation of modern ethical conceptions, for the lofty morality of its exhortations to forgive injuries and overcome evil with good; the obligation to universal benevolence deduced from the principal that all men are brethren. In Seneca, in addition to all this, there is a distinctively religious temperament, which finds expression in phrases curiously suggestive of the spiritual doctrines of Christianity. Yet the verbal coincidence is sometimes a mere accident, as when he uses "holy spirit;" and in the same writings he sometimes advocates what is wholly repulsive to Christian feeling, as the duty and privilege of suicide.
Eight of the tragedies which bear Seneca's name are undoubtedly genuine. In them the defects of his prose style are exaggerated; as specimens of pompous rant they are probably unequalled, and the rhythm is unpleasant, owing to the monotonous structure of the verses. The Octavia, also ascribed to him, contains plain allusions to Nero's death, and must, therefore, be the product of a later hand.
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