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Today's thoughts on the Roman Empire

Air travel can be tedious. The experience is frequently marred by delays, cramped seats and a gnawing fear of insufficient space in the overhead bins. Once I am finally seated, however, I find flying quite relaxing. I enjoy the hours of detachment from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It is an opportunity to record some impressions in a journal or read a long-neglected book. On a recent journey to Los Angeles, I overheard a woman complain to a stewardess that the spotty Wi-Fi meant that she could not listen to her team’s staff meeting. When life gave her lemonade, she looked for lemons.

Before boarding that flight, I browsed a bookstore at JFK and bought a copy of Seneca’s Letters from the fabled Penguin imprint. Stoicism has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years – why not spend my long flight reading one of its well-known proponents? A long journey back in time seemed appropriate for a transcontinental flight.

Who was this man and why do people care about the thoughts of someone dead for some 2,000 years? Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4BC in Corduba, the capital of the Roman province of Baetica – modern-day Cordoba, Spain. His father was a senior government official there, who wrote handbooks on public speaking that survive to this day. While the famous Stoic was the most prominent of his children, his brother Junius Gallio served as proconsul of Achaea in Greece. He is mentioned in several ancient Roman texts, but also in the Christian Acts of the Apostles (18:12-17), where he refuses to hear a case brought against the Apostle Paul. A third brother, Mela, entered finance. While successful in his own right, Mela is best remembered as the father of the Roman poet Lucan. I believe theirs is the first recorded instance of a banker father and poet son. Later examples included Robert Browning and John Berryman. The poets are remembered; the bankers are not.

Seneca spent much of his childhood living with an aunt who was married to the Prefect of Egypt. While his relatives undoubtedly exposed him to practical aspects of government administration, Seneca studied a wide array of topics there – geography, ethnology, geology, astronomy and marine life. Frustratingly, many of his works do not survive, but are described by other ancient authors. According to Pliny the Elder, for example, Seneca wrote an extensive study on India. “Seneca, one of our fellow-countrymen, who has written a treatise upon the subject of India, has given its rivers as sixty-five in number, and its nations as one hundred and eighteen.” (1)

Seneca rose to great prominence in the Roman Senate.  Although he fell out of favor with the Roman Emperors Caligula (reigned 37-41 AD) and Claudius (41-54 AD) successively, his political fortunes revived when he was asked to become the tutor to the son of Claudius’s second wife, the future emperor Nero. Upon Claudius’s bizarre assassination in 54 AD, Seneca continued mentoring the young ruler. Along with Sextus Afranius Burrus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Seneca effectively ran a regency that lead to a five year period of remarkably good governance. The Roman historian Cassius Dio (165-235 AD) wrote: “They took the rule entirely into their own hands and administered affairs in the very best and fairest manner they could, with the result that they won the approval of everybody alike. As for Nero, he was not fond of business in any case, and was glad to live in idleness…”

Seneca had his detractors as well, who pointed out that Seneca grew immensely wealthy through his influence. Eventually, Nero turned against his mentor, first forcing him into retirement and ultimately forcing him to commit suicide in 65 AD. A period of remarkably poor governance ensued. Americans ought to think about the Roman Empire every single day, as it will remind them of the deleterious impact of megalomaniacal, profligate and incompetent leaders.

Seneca wrote 124 letters to his friend Lucillius, a procurator in Sicily, in the years before his death. Seneca instructs his friend how to live out Stoicism in everyday life; their intention is to improve the character of the reader. While some sections were written directly for Lucillus, Seneca clearly had a broader audience in mind. In Letter VIII, he writes: “I am acting on behalf of later generations. I am writing down a few things that may be of use to them…I am pointing out to others the right path, which I have recognized only late in life, when I am worn out with my wanderings.” (2)

Some 65 generations separate Seneca from me. Flying from New York to Los Angeles, I did, in fact, find some things that were of use to me. In particular, I spent considerable time thinking about Letter XXVII. In it, he writes about a wealthy man named Calvisius Sabinus. For the sake of social appearances, Sabinus wanted to appear erudite, but did not want to spend any time reading and studying.

“And to this end he thought up the following short cut: he spent an enormous amount of money on slaves, one of them to know Homer by heart, another to know Hesiod, while he assigned one apiece to each of the nine lyric poets…He began to give his dinner guests nightmares. He would have these fellows at his elbow so that he could continually be turning to them for quotations from these poets which he might repeat to the company.”

To the philosopher, Sabinus’s pretensions were absurd. “A sound mind can neither be bought nor borrowed.” It must be cultivated through reading and reflection. The process of learning is important, not the output itself. Struggling with a question or problem gives you a deeper understanding of its dimensions. Seneca drives the point home by describing the playful mockery of Satellius Quadratus, a character that every age has known. In the colorful translation of Robin Campbell:

“Satellius Quadratus, who regarded stupid millionaires as fair game to be sponged off, and consequently also fair game for flattery, as well as…fair game for facetiousness at their expense…started urging Sabinus, a pale and skinny individual whose health was poor, to take up wrestling. When Sabinus retorted: ‘How can I possibly do that? It’s as much as I can do to stay alive,’ Satellius answered: ‘Now, please, don’t say that! Look how many slaves you’ve got in perfect physical condition’.”

Today we would immediately recognize the absurdity of attempting to delegate physical exercise to another human being. But are we cognizant of the problems in attempting to delegate thinking to another person...or, more dangerously, to an algorithm?  The technological innovation of the past two decades has advanced more rapidly than our society’s ability to understand its implications. While innovators have certainly sold us many gratifying indulgences, we should not be naïve about innovation. It can harm us just as easily as it can help us.

There is, for example, much debate at present over the proper role of AI in education. While administrators may encourage teachers and professors to integrate AI into curricula, experienced educators perceive a serious threat as members of Gen-Sabinus have begun to pass off AI-generated essays as their own. These students do not realize how they are cheating themselves. Researching and writing should be mental exercise. Just as weights and aerobics improve the body, mental exercise improves the mind. In a good humanities education, students learn to evaluate sources, make critical distinctions, and express themselves clearly. If they delegate these tasks to AI, they lose the capacity to think and reason.

To be fair, students’ misevaluation of education is rooted in society’s misguided utilitarianism. We impress upon them that the value of an education is dependent upon the results it provides: Good grades, good college, good job, good money. What then? “Every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good”, Aristotle begins his Nicomachean Ethics. What is that good? What ultimately makes us happy? We cannot delegate these questions to AI. We need to struggle through them ourselves.

The problem is not simply a missed opportunity. There is a great danger when we collectively lose our capacity for critical thinking. Whose mind are we borrowing when we “ask the internet” question? A flabby body will have great difficulty navigating the challenges of an endurance course. A flabby mind will have great difficulty recognizing when it is being manipulated. If we condition ourselves to be fed “bespoke curated” content, we will at best become marketing fodder. At worst, we will become willing recipients of political and ideological propaganda. It is much easier to be fed opinions than actively seeking the basis for having them. Witness the sordid state of American politics at present. How well are we attuned to demagoguery – particularly when it is committed by our favored team? Many of us appear to have bought someone else’s mind or sold our own – for a very cheap price. Stoicism’s suspicion of passions might risk a certain passivity, but it can serve as a needed corrective during phrenetic ages.

Our current age seems far too comfortable fostering mob violence – both physically and in the cyber-sphere. Seneca did not believe in ‘the wisdom of crowds’. From Letter VII:

“You ask me to say what you should consider…particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd…Associating with people in large numbers is actually harmful: there is not one of them that will not make some vice or other attractive to us…And inevitably enough, the larger the size of the crowd we mingle with the greater the danger.”

Our character is influenced by the people with whom we associate. In a large crowd that is motivated by passions, we more frequently gravitate to the individual with the greatest vice rather than the greatest virtue. “Following your passions” is generally poor advice – if those passions are unrestrained by critical thought.  

Our overblown political rhetoric can at times resemble a blood sport, one that too many of our fellow citizens find entertaining. Seneca’s discussion of the gladiatorial arena, one of the darker aspects of Roman society, is rather sobering. Seneca believes that it is the communal aspect of the spectacle that is so degrading to our characters.

“It is then, through the medium of entertainment, that vices creep into one with more than usual ease…I go home more selfish, more self-seeking and more self-indulgent…a person crueler and less humane through having been in contact with human beings.”

While a comparison of our own society to Roman practice of gladiators and public executions may seem far-fetched, we should not be naïve about where hatred of our neighbor may lead.

Discerning the darker side of the world around us might lead to despair, but the ancient sage advises against it:

“What then do you imagine the effect on a person’s character is when the assault comes from the world at large? You must inevitably hate or imitate the world. But the right thing is to shun both courses: you should neither become like the bad because they are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you. Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.”

Cultivating friendships can be an antidote to the social isolation brought about by our increasing dependence upon virtual worlds. Meaningful relationships with other human beings check our own obnoxious behavior, help us to grow from our contact with them and afford them the opportunity to grow from their contact with us. But just as we can become lazy physically and lazy mentally, we can become lazy in pursuing friendship. Love is not a passive endeavor. St. Thomas Aquinas’s defined love as “to will the good of the other.” Like learning, love requires effort on our part; knowledge, physical fitness and friendship all require cultivation.

The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, who is depicted with two faces. He was the god of transitions, both in the physical sense of gates and doors, but in a more abstract sense from one period of time to another. New Year’s Day was consecrated to Janus, as the god looked with one face at the old year and, with the other, ahead to the new one. Our contemporary custom of New Year’s resolutions in some ways embraces the spirit of Janus. Reflect upon the past to correct it in the future. Think clearly about which activities ennoble you and which activities lead you to atrophy.

My own resolution is to spend one night each week avoiding the Siren of the screens. Instead, I will catch up over drinks or dinner with some friends or a family member whom I have neglected. Or, I will read a book, particularly one written a long time ago. A journey to the past may help me see the present all the more clearly.


(1) Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book VI: An Account of Countries, Nations, Seas, Towns, Havens, Mountains, Rivers, Distances, and Peoples Who Now Exist, or Formerly Existed, Chapter XXI: The Nations of India.

(2) All quotatons from Seneca's Letters from a Stoic are from Penguin Books's 2004 edition, which was translated by Robin Campbell.

Notes on the Images:

Seneca, Attributed to Giuliano Finelli (1602-1653 AD), carrara marble, executed 1641-1644. Museum del Prado, E000144. For more information, go here.

Vesuvius in Eruption, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851 AD), watercolor on paper, executed 1817-1820. Yale Center for British Art, B1975.4.1857. For more information, go here.

Nero and Seneca, Eduardo Barrón González (1858 -1911 AD), plaster, executed 1904. Museo del Prado, E000586. For more information, go here.

Letter 79 from Seneca's Letters from a Stoic, Manuscript Fragment, Northern French, executed in the mid-12th century AD. The Rubenstein Library of Duke University, Latin Manuscript 159. For more information, go here.

Homer, marble portrait, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC. British Museum, 1805,0703.85. For more information, go here.

Sappho and Alcaeus, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912 AD), oil on panel, executed 1881. The Walters Are Museum, 37.159. For more information, go here.

Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669 AD), oil on canvas, executed 1653. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 61.198. For more information, go here.

Vitellius Dragged through the Streets by the People of Rome, detail, Georges Rochegrosse (1859 - 1938 AD), oil on canvas, executed 1882. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Sens.

Floor Mosaic with Gladiators and Hunters, marble tesserae, Roman, 3rd - 4th century AD. Galleria Borghese. For more information, go here.

St. Thomas Aquinas, detail, Carlo Crivelli (1430/5 - 1494 AD), tempera on panel, executed in 1476. The National Gallery, London, NG788.9. For further information, go here.

Roman Denarius Depicting Janus, silver, 119 BC. Art Institute of Chicago, 1920.778. For further information, go here.

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