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A documentary about the relationship between Seneca and Nero

A few years ago PBS did a series in four episodes called "The Roman Empire in the First Century"

Episode 3 is about Nero's reign but they tell the story by focusing on the relationship between Seneca and Nero. They do a fairly decent job and mostly present Seneca as a Stoic who tries to play the part assigned to him by fate as well as possible. The text is very pompous, though (to say nothing about the music!). Sigourney Weaver is narrating and sounds like she's quite uncomfortable about the whole thing. Every time a person is mentioned or quoted they show a bust of that person - if one is available - and every single time Seneca is mentioned, they show the "pseudo-Seneca" bust from Herculaneum even though everyone now agree that it is not a representation of Seneca.

All in all a pretty strange experience. It's incredibly rare that anyone mentions Seneca in anything about Rome produced for television so they deserve lots of credit for that - and also fo…
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How to win people over to virtue: Socrates vs Seneca

"To give a benefit is a social act that wins someone over."

- Seneca, On Benefits 5.11.5
One of the things I find extremely interesting about Seneca's thoughts on "winning someone over" is how radical an improvement it is to Socrates' ideas (as he is portrayed by Plato). As Socrates sees things, a wise person should try to persuade as many people as possible to become as wise as possible - by engaging in critical, philosophical discussion with them. Winning people over is done by challenging their assumptions vigorously and making good philosophers out of them. A major goal with this activity is to contribute to the best possible society since a society consisting of critical thinkers who have thought a lot about what is good for human beings - and tested their ideas in extensive critical debate with each other - will be the best society. Interestingly - and tellingly - Plato seemed to deeply doubt that it is possible to teach people virtue at all. Either t…

Aristotle on happiness and external goods

According to popular opinion both in ancient Greece and today, happiness requires things such as wealth, good health, good looks, friends, family and good reputation. In Plato's dialogue Euthydemus Socrates challenges those beliefs by claiming that none of those things are good, if they are not used wisely. In fact, Socrates claims that a person who has wisdom doesn't need any of those things at all since he or she can turn any situation into something beneficial for him- or herself.

"If wisdom is present, the one for whom it is present has no need of good fortune".

- Socrates in Euthydemus, 279E

In other words, Socrates claims that wisdom is a sufficient requirement for happiness (and a necessary requirement too, of course). Aristotle famously challenges that claim. But what exactly does he say? Let's have a look.

"we suppose happiness is enduring and definitely not prone to fluctuate, but the same person’s fortunes often turn to and fro. For clearly, if we t…

Stoicism and Evil Governments

This article claims that a Stoic has no reason to get depressed by bad political conditions since an evil government is not really a bad thing for a Stoic - since nothing can be bad for a Stoic except his own bad choices. Even so, the article claims, a Stoic acknowledges that an evil government is capable of doing "terrible things" to people.

To make this line of thinking work we have to think of ourselves as Stoics who can't be harmed by an evil government - since nothing can be bad for us as Stoics except our own bad choices - and other people as non-Stoics who will suffer terribly if they are oppressed by the evil government.
In my opinion, this interpretation of Stoicism is flat out wrong.
First of all, an evil government is indeed a bad thing. The Stoics distinguish between internal good/bad things such as our own good or bad choices and external good/bad things such as other people's happiness or unhappiness:
"some bad things are in the soul, i.e., vices a…

Lucretius: On the Nature of the Universe

Seneca dedicated three of his most important  works - the letters, "Natural questions" and "On Providence" - to Lucilius, a young man eager to get a carrier in politics. The letters give a very comprehensive analysis of the human mind, "Natural questions" attempts to explain the natural world in which we live and "On providence" gives further arguments for seeing the world as an ordered whole. Most people only read the letters but the three works are clearly conceived as one package designed to make the reader give up whatever he or she has of base goals and strive to become a true stoic. Seneca wants Lucilius to retire from his futile and self-destructive attempts to serve Rome in traditional politics and instead dedicate himself to serve the Cosmic City in which all human beings are citizens by striving to become wise and by helping others to reach that goal. And to become wise we need to understand both human beings and their place in the uni…

Happy Saturnalia!

Did you know that the historical roots of Christmas are the Kronia-festivities in ancient Greece which were a celebration of the Golden Age where all men were supposed to have been equal because the richness of nature made work unnecessary? During the Kronia "slaves and the free, rich and poor, all dined together and played games" (quote from the article linked to below).

The Kronia heavily influenced the Roman Saturnalia where gift-giving became a vital part of the festivities. Since the egalitarian theme was still as strong as ever, showing off with too valuable gifts was considered rude. Instead, gifts were commonly figures of clay or wax (sigillaria) which everyone could afford. Another symbol of the egalitarian spirit of the festivities was that both slaves (which wasn't supposed to) and free men (which didn't have to) wore the pilleus: a conical, red felt cap which was normally the mark of a freedman.

You can read more about Kronia here:…

A few notes on Stoic political philosophy

An absolutely brilliant passage from one of the best books about Stoicism currently available:

"Coming to see all others as fellow-citizens is quite distinct from striving to build a political community in which all others will be one's fellow-citizens. The community according to which all others are fellow-citizens is already there; it is the cosmos, the whole of which each human being is a part. The Stoics do not envisage a worldwide community that should be established. Rather, they tell us that such a community exists, should be understood, and should transform how we relate to others."
- Katja Maria Vogt, Law, Reason, and the Cosmic City: Political Philosophy in the Early Stoa, 2007, location 1241 

Witness Cicero:

"There are indeed several degrees of fellowship among men. To move from the one that is unlimited, next there is a closer one of the same race, tribe and tongue, through which men are bound strongly to one another. More intimate still is that of the sam…