Seneca, Lucius Annaeus

views updated May 14 2018


Stoic philosopher, who exercised considerable influence on Christian writers; b. Córdoba, Spain, 4 b.c., into a rich equestrian family; committed suicide near Rome, a.d. 65, at the command of Nero, who suspected him of conspiracy. St. Paul came into contact with Seneca's brother Gallio, governor of Achaea (Acts 18.1217). Seneca's writings, both those in verse and those in prose, are of so high an ethical and religious standard that they have been deemed worthy of a Christian author.

Correspondence of Seneca and St. Paul. In the fourth century St. Jerome judged that he should place Seneca, "very much master of himself (continentissimae vitae ), in the catalogue of the saints" by virtue of the letters "of Seneca to Paul and Paul to Seneca" (Vir. ill. 12; Aug. Epist. 153.14). In the Middle Ages peter the ven erable and Peter abelard were of the same mind (Patrologia Latina 189:737; Patrologia Latina 178:535536, 103334, 1164). Many medieval MSS, 300 for the period 1200 to 1500 alone, contain the letters, eight by Seneca and six by Paul, often with Jerome's words. Later writers, especially in the 17th century (J. P. Camus, Georges d'Amiens, Guez de Balzac), doubted that the letters were authentic, although they granted that Seneca could have known St. Paul. In the 19th century the form of the letters was submitted to critical study, the content not being significant. The letters may actually go back to the fourth century, but today no one regards them as authentic or believes that Seneca was Christian. The kinship between Seneca's philosophy and Christianity is quite superficial and owes its explanation to the community of philosophical ideas.

Seneca in the Patristic Era. His influence was little. Tertullian, who calls him "our Seneca," cites him as an authority but twice (Anim. 20.1; Apol. 50.14) and attacks him elsewhere (Anim. 42.2; Carn. 1, 3). The only relationship between the two appears in their moral diatribes on marriage, and is due perhaps to the subject matter. Most of the parallels pointed out by H. Koch and F. X. Bürger between Seneca and the Christians cyprian and minucius felix can be similarly accounted for. Seneca's dialogue De providentia, however, surely guided the pens of the two Christians at timesespecially Dial. 1.3.10 and 4.5 on Cyprian's Ad Donat. 12, and Mort. 12; and Dial. 1.3.1 and 6.6, 4.12, 6 on Minucius 37.3 and 36.5,8. Lactantius, who does not hesitate to refer to Seneca as "the most subtle of the Stoics" (Inst. 2.8.23) and who quotes him more than 15 times; only once with reserve, does not believe he was Christian but only that he deserved to be (6.24.14). Jerome, who would make him Christian, uses him freely but on one point only (Adv. Iovin. 1.4149), where he quotes 18 fragments from a lost dialogue on marriage. The austerity pleased Jerome. Ambrose in his De officiis comes close to the Roman moralist Seneca but there is no definite contact. Augustine rarely borrows from Seneca (Epist. 153.14; C. Faust. 20.9; especially Civ. 5.8 and 6.1011). martin of braga, however, took whole passages from him. Three of his works are almost all from Seneca: Formula vitae honestae, part of a lost work of the Stoic; De ira, a résumé of Seneca's work of the same name; and De paupertate, assorted excerpts from Seneca. Canon 14 of the second Council of Tours in 567 even cites Martin's Libellus de moribus as Seneca's work.

Seneca in the Middle Ages. At a time when Stoicism was not in vogue his works could be found in many abbeys. The Premonstratensians may have been the source of this wide diffusion, but the Cistercians were Seneca's most fervent apostles. In the ninth century Sedulius Scotus, Paschasius Radbertus, and others made use of Seneca; in the tenth, eugenius vulgarius annotated the tragedies; in the 11th, othlo of sankt emmeram, sought to model the form and the content of his own Proverbia after those attributed to Seneca (Patrologia Latina 146:299300). In the 12th century Seneca gained more disciples: rupert of deutz (Patrologia Latina 170:521); alan of lille, who calls him venerabilis (Patrologia Latina 210:931); john of salisbury, who mentions him 28 times in the Polycraticus alone; Abelard; and others. william of saintthierry in his Epistola ad fratres de Monte Dei (Patrologia Latina 184:307354) owes more to Seneca than to any Church Father. godfrey of saint-victor admired him and said that Seneca's words were worth almost as much as the Gospel [Microcosmus 1.58 (ed. Delhaye, 75); Fons philosophie, 103]. Seneca then was a basic source for the traditional moralists, who continued to be pragmatic in the face of the new moralists, more philosophical and inspired by Aristotle. And so he figured prominently in florilegia, such as those of Oxford, Brussels, Kilmacduagh, and the Gallican; and in ethical treatises, which had just about ceased to be original: william of malmesbury's De dictis et factis memorabilibus philosophorum, peter cantor's Verbum abbreviatum, and especially the Moralium dogma philosophorum, very likely by william of conches, who also made free use of Seneca's Quaestiones naturales in his De philosophia mundi. Seneca's popularity continued in the 13th century with vincent of beauvais (Speculum doctrinale ) and William Peraldus (Summa de vitiis et virtutibus ). In the 15th century The Imitation of Christ (1.20.2) made use of Seneca's letter to Lucilius (7.3) (see imitation of christ).

Neostoicism. Seneca was the center of the Neostoicism of the Renaissance, a Western Latin phenomenon. In the 16th century countless editions, translations, and commentaries sprang up. Even religious writers used him: Petrus Crinitus (P. Ricci), Augustine Steucho, Josse Clichtove, Lawrence of Paris, and Martín Del Río who annotated the tragedies for Christian readers. louis of granada, OP, used him in sermons and in the most spiritual of his writingsat least five times in the Guia de pecadores (1556) and much more in his Introducción al simbolo de la fey (1582). His Collectanea moralis philosophiae (1582) is a collection of excerpts from Seneca for preachers. Louis illustrates the strong mark that Seneca made on Spanish spirituality in the 16th and 17th centuries. Following the popularity of Justus lipsius and Pierre charron in the 17th century, Seneca was used by every religious author who made use of Stoicism: especially by Sebastian of Senlis (166 quotations in Entretiens du sage, 107 in Maximes du sage, and 143 in Flambeau du juste ) and J. F. Senault (151 of 370 quotations in De l'usage des passions are from Seneca).

Conclusion. Sometimes people borrow from Seneca more for literary reasons than for philosophical. He has been a source of moral precepts and examples, and especially of psychological descriptions on a higher levelin particular for Yves of Paris, Sebastian of Senlis, Senault, Julian Hayneufve, and Nicholas caussin. Some of his works have been used more than others, in this order: Letters to Lucilius, De beneficiis, De providentia, Quaestiones naturales, De ira, De vita beata, Consolationes . The tragedies have been used muchless, except by Castori. After the 17th century Seneca's popularity waned. The great Roman Stoic left the stage along with the great French moralists.

Bibliography: Patrologia cursus completus, series latina, suppl., ed. a. hamman 1:673678. a. momigliano, "Note sulla leggenda del cristianesimo di Seneca," Rivista Storica Italiana 62 (1950) 325344. a. kurfess, "Zu dem apokryphen Briefwechsel zwischen dem Philosophen Seneca und dem Apostel Paulus," Aevum 26 (1952) 4248. p. benoit, "Sénèque et saint Paul," Revue biblique 53 (1946) 735. j. n. sevenster, Paul and Seneca (Leiden 1961). j. m. dÉchanet, "Seneca Noster: Des lettres à Lucilius à la lettre auz frères du Mont-Dieu," Mélanges Joseph de Ghellinck, S. J., 2 v. (Gembloux 1951) 2:753766. m. j. gonzÁlez-haba, "Séneca en la espiritualidad española de los siglos XVI y XVII," Revista de filosofía 11 (1952) 287302. k. d. nothdurft, Studien zum Einfluss Senecas auf die Philosophie und Theologie des 12. Jahrhunderts (Leiden 1963).

[m. spanneut]

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus

views updated Jun 11 2018


(b. Córdoba, Spain, ca. 4 b.c.–a.d. l;d. near Rome, April A.D. 65)

physical science.

Seneca came from a distinguished provincial family of Italian origin; his father, for whom he was named, wrote on history and rhetoric. The younger Seneca was educated at Rome and then for a time devoted himself to philosophy, particularly to the teaching of the eclectic Sextians and the Stoics. Ethics was his main concern; but his interests extended to physics, for in his youth he produced a book, now lost, on earthquakes. In accordance with his father’s wishes he entered politics, beginning his senatorial career soon after A.D. 31 with the post of quaestor. During the next ten years he became established as one of Rome’s leading orators and writers and won influential friends within the imperial family. In A.D. 41 he was implicated in a court intrigue and banished to Corsica, a grave setback to his career; but eight years later his fortunes were restored when Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius, recalled him and appointed him tutor to her son Nero. In A.D. 54 Nero, then aged sixteen, became emperor; and for the next eight years he governed with the assistance of Seneca and Sextus Afranius Burrus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard. Toward the end of this period of generally sound government Nero turned to different, less scrupulous advisers, so that when Burrus died in A.D. 62, Seneca withdrew from the court, his influence with Nero at an end. Three years later he was accused of involvement in the abortive Pisonian conspiracy against Nero. The evidence against him was weak. but Nero ordered him to commit suicide.

Writing and philosophy occupied Seneca’s leisure throughout his life. The tragedies and ethical works have always been his best-known writings, but also extant is one of his scientific books, Naturales quaestiones, written around A.D. 62. It is typical of Roman scientific writing, a popularizing work largely derived from Greek sources. Seneca shows the eclectic’s independence in choosing between rival theories, but he has no original ideas to contribute. He writes of the need for further careful investigation of natural phenomena but did not conduct any fresh research, although casual observation did provide him with some valuable new information.

The extant part of the Naturales quaestiones, which has survived incomplete, deals with meteorological phenomena, rivers, earthquakes, meteors, and comets, topics that all belonged to “meteorology” in the ancient sense. Apart from Aristotle’s Meteorologica it is the longest extant ancient work on the subject; hence it is the main source for the history of Greek meteorology after Aristotle, since it draws heavily on Greek sources and mentions the theories of many individuals whose works are lost. Admittedly Seneca had little interest in the historical development of the subject; knowing few of his predecessors’ works at first hand, he sometimes misunderstood or oversimplified their ideas and did not always sharply distinguish his own interpretations and cómoments. Furthermore, his characteristically terse and brilliant prose lacked the clarity and precision of expression needed for scientific writing. Yet despite these limitations the work greatly enlarges our knowledge of Greek meteorology after Aristotle.

The Naturales quaestiones owes more to the meteorolocial works of Posidonius than to any other single source, although the loss of these works prevents the extent of the debt from being known in detail. Posidonius had followed Aristotle closely, although he placed Aristotelian theories in the context of his own world system, a modification of the Stoic one. The main features of seneca’s world view were probably Posidonian. He thought that the stars and planets are nourished by vapors given off from the earth. An innate energy possessed by air, and the Aristotelian exhalations, account for most events in the atmosphere. (Aristotle had attributed most meteorological phenomena to the activity of moist and dry “exhalations” emitted from the earth’s surface, roughly equivalent to water vapor and radiated heat.) To explain earthquakes and rivers, Seneca assumed that the earth is like a living creature, permeated by channels for water and air analogous to veins and arteries. But he disagreed with Posidonius and Aristotle about the nature of comets, effectively criticizing their theory that these are a variety of meteor and using his own observations of the comets that appeared in A.D. 54 and 60 to support the view that they are heavenly bodies like planets, with regular orbits. Based on good evidence and well argued, this part of the Naturales quaestiones is in sharp contrast with the rest, which, like most Greek meteorology, abounds in untested speculation and analogy.

Certain broader issues also interested Seneca. As a Stoic he rejected Epicurean physics, particularly the atomic theory of matter, and the denial that the world was created and ordered by a rational God. Like most Stoics he accepted the principles of astrology and divination, and attempted to answer some of the skeptical arguments against them. The problem of relating science to moral life was of especial importance to him, for almost a third of the Naturales quaestiones is about ethical and theological subjects: Seneca thought that through the rational investigation of the universe, men may learn what their attitude toward the material world should be and may reach a true awareness of God’s nature, free from all superstition.

After the immediate popularity enjoyed by all Seneca’s writings, the scientific works were little read in the ancient world and never became established textbooks. The Naturales quaestiones survived the Middle Ages, contributing to the rediscovery of ancient science in Western Europe during the twelfth century, and was still read as a scientific work during the Renaissance. Today it gives an instructive picture of the state of Roman science in the first century A.D., and of the history of Greek meteorology, has considerable literary interest, and illuminates our knowledge of Seneca himself.


I. Original Works. Modern eds. of the Naturales quaestiones are by A. Gercke (Leipzig 1907; repr. Stuttgart, 1970); P. Oltramare, with French trans. and notes (Paris, 1929; repr. 1961); and T. H. Corcoran, with English trans., 2 vols. (London—Cambridge, Mass., 1971–1972). For recent eds. of other works, see Motto’s bibliography (cited below).

II. Secondary Literature. Bibliographies are by W. Schaub, of works since 1900 relating to the Naturales quaestiones, in the 1970 repr. of Gercke’s ed., pp. xivii-ixi; and by A.L. Motto, or works on all of Seneca’s prose since 1940, in Classical World, 54 (1960–1961), 13–18, 37–48, 70–71, 111–112; 64 (1970–1971) 141–158, 177–186, 191. A few of the works are O. Gilbert, Die meteorologischen Theorien des griechischen Altertums (Leipzig, 1907; repr. Hildesheim, 1976); R. Waltz, Vie de S´nèque (Paris, 1909); and G. Stahl, “Die Naturales quaestiones Senecas. Ein Beitrag zum Spiritualisierungsprozess der rümischen Stoa,” in Hermes92 (1964), 425–454. The following articles in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encycloädie der classischen Alterumswissenschaft refer to Seneca; W. Gundel, “Kometen,” XI, 1143–1193; W. Capelle,” Erdbebenforschung,” supp. IV, 344–374; and ’Meteorologie,” supp. VI, 315–358: A. Rehm. “Nilschwelle,” XVII, pt. 1, 571–590; and R. Böker and H. Gundel, “Windle,” 2nd ser., VIIIa, pt. 2, 2211–2387.

H. M. Hine

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus

views updated May 11 2018

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus (ad 4–65) Roman Stoic philosopher, b. Spain. Based on Greek models, Seneca's nine tragedies, such as Phaedra, Medea, and Oedipus, had a lasting impact on European literature. His other works include 12 books of Moral Essays and many philosophical letters.