89 Exemplars: In Defense of Seneca and Plutarch

In some ways I find Seneca to be a worthy role model. He wasn’t just a Stoic philosopher and dramatist, he was a highly influential government speechwriter, even serving the same role to a Roman Emperor that Theodore Sorenson served to John F. Kennedy. However, that Emperor happened to be Nero and no matter how much good advice Seneca may have given that mad tyrant, Seneca has to remain partly responsible for his reign.

Perhaps we can blame Nero’s mother Agrippina for Seneca’s failure — she forbade Seneca to instruct Nero in philosophy, limiting his instruction to rhetoric. So, in a way, Seneca became a test case of the Socrates and Plato’s view that rhetorical instruction without a philosophical foundation is decadent and prone to breed monstrous rulers. But even if this is the case, Seneca served as Nero’s speechwriter and had an opportunity then to slip in some philosophy to his rule. After Nero arranged to have his mother murdered, Seneca’s influence dropped sharply (his role was merely to moderate Agrippina’s influence.) It was at this point that Nero became the infamous tyrant who would eventually order Seneca to take his own life.

But considering that Seneca’s philosophy centers of matters like letting go of anger and forgiving transgressions against you, it’s hard to believe that he spent nearly a decade of his later days serving as Nero’s right hand man. Even though Montaigne in numerous passages seems to steal Seneca’s ideas outright, I’m willing to accept him as the genuine author of the thoughts because he made the genuine effort to live his life that way. Montaigne withdrew from the world and remained withdrawn … Seneca went into exile long enough to complete his philosophies, then moved up to the kind of life he warned against. In his essay on anger, Seneca suggests retiring to a life of reading poetry and history, avoiding the kind of toil that will lead to exhaustion and resentments.

Nonetheless, Montaigne feel obliged to defend Seneca against charges of hypocrisy in this essay, although a very different sort of criticism. Here, Montaigne takes issue with those who have criticized Seneca for using his political influence to become wealthy:

Seneca’s virtue is so evidently alive and vigorous in his writings, which themselves provide such a manifest defence against such insinuations as his being excessively rich and spendthrift, that I could never accept any witness to the contrary. Moreover in matters such as these it is more reasonable to trust the Roman historians than foreign Greek ones. Now Tacitus speaks most honourably of his life and of his death, portraying him in all things as a great man, most excellent and most virtuous.

In Montaigne’s defense, so little is known about the life of Seneca that an admirer of his philosophy should be forgiven for ignoring the worst and assuming the best. But I think Montaigne has something else in mind — a belief in promoting role models who may very well have never existed, merely to serve as exemplars for future generations. Here, Montaigne speaks of some of the ancients in Plutarch’s writings, but I think the views expressed apply just as well to his semi-fictionalized vision of Seneca:

I consider some men, particularly among the Ancients, to be way above me and even though I clearly realize that I am powerless to follow them on my feet I do not give up following them with my eyes and judging the principles which raise them thus aloft, principles the seeds of which I can just perceive in myself, as I also can that ultimate baseness in minds which no longer amazes me and which I do not refuse to believe in either …. I admire the greatness of those souls; those ecstasies which I find most beautiful I clasp unto me; though my powers do not reach as far, at least my judgement is most willingly applied to them.

A goal of philosophy according to Montaigne is to create models of virtuous behavior. So, in his view, Plutarch was a more valuable philosopher than Plato because he sketched models of human behavior for all of us to live up to:

In those parallel lives (which are the most admirable part of his works and to my mind the one he took most pleasure in) the faithfulness and purity of his judgements equals their weight and profundity. He is a philosopher who teaches us what virtue is.

So maybe Montaigne is right — maybe I need to drop my postmodern skepticism of the “real” Seneca, whoever he may have been, and worship the marble statue. No one else in history has come closer than Seneca to integrating speechwriting, political guidance and philosophy. If he failed — spectacularly — I should chalk it up to the tragedy of serving the wrong ruler. It was all Nero’s fault — Seneca’s greatness should remain unscathed.

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