The Wisdom of Seneca

SenecaSomething I hate is how people expect philosophers to live up to their philosophies. Usually, people’s disappointment comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of the philosophy. That’s certainly the case with Arthur Schopenhauer, who many people think should have killed himself. But it’s also true in modern politics where conservatives complain that well known liberals are rich, as though being a liberal is the same as being a Franciscan with a vow of poverty. But perhaps the most wronged philosopher is Seneca the Younger. Yes, he was a Stoic philosopher, but did anyone really expect him to live like that? In short: yes. But that’s wrong.

So Seneca came up a little short in the “living by his principles” measure. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was an interesting philosopher who was damned quotable. And it is on this second point that I want to spend some time. Because I found this great little webpage, Latin Quotes by Seneca. And some of it is really great—even things I disagree with.

Aequat omnes cinis

This means, “Ashes level all.” But it is perhaps better to say, “Death insures equality.” Well, that’s not true! It’s something people say to justify inequality and injustice. But you might as well say that “birth insures equality” or “breathing insures equality.” It’s all a bunch of rubbish. And in modern America, we have a special twist. If you are poor, death comes sooner. The only way that “ashes level all” is if history does not exist. This statement is only really true is in a trivial way: when life is over, it is over. Does that make being poor the same as being rich. No. So shut up about it!

Aut regem, aut fatuum nasci oportet

This one is some seriously messed up Latin syntax, but it more or less means, “A king or a fool you ought to be born.” If I had a coat of arms, that is what I would put on it. Of course, I would add, “Aut non sum.” That means, “I am not.” I am neither powerful nor am I a fool. That is my cross to bear. To me, what this means is that if you aren’t born lucky, it is best that you be stupid so you don’t spend your whole life wondering about the injustice of the world. Which reminds me: why do people believe in a loving god?

Divitae bonum non sunt

This one means, “Material wealth is not the supreme good.” Here we kind of get into that area where people had a problem with Seneca. Because the man did like his luxuries—everything money could buy, and that included people. But I agree with the idea. Unfortunately, I live in a society that might give lip service to this idea but it wholly rejects it. The saying that would would be displayed on the coat of arms of America is, “Bonum est cupiditas.” That’s “Greed is good.”

Errare humanum est, Perseverare diabolicum

This is the best one, “To err is human, to persevere is diabolical.” This too is a saying that goes against American values. Here we believe that winners never quit and quitters never win. But that’s so much rubbish, it is hard to know where to start. There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes quitting is exactly the right thing to do. When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a great baseball pitcher. I rightly gave up on that dream almost immediately. Since then, my decisions have been far less laudable. But here in the US, it is considered noble to pretend that you aren’t wrong and just continue doing the same thing wrong. Who knows? You might luck out! But it’s really doubtful.

Homines, dum docent, discunt

This is something I always stressed to my students, “Men learn while they teach.” Education is something that pays the teacher far more than the student. People who try to hide their knowledge only end up hurting themselves. I remember in math classes, I would help people and it seemed terrible because it only made the difference between those I helped and myself greater. But as long as they gain in an absolute sense, it is for the good. Stingy people are repaid in kind.

Otium sine litteris mors est et hominis vivi sepultura

Ah, this one sums me up, “Leisure without literature is death, and being buried alive.” Although I would take it further. Wherever I go, I bring a book. The idea of having to spend five minutes without having something interesting to read is just too terrifying.

That’s all for Seneca now. Food for thought. But as with Seneca’s life, not to necessarily be taken all that seriously.

0 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Seneca

  1. Nice post, Frank. I was a B- Latin student in college. I spent a few days down with a nasty flu trying to translate the script for Return of the Jedi back in 1998. Mostly limited by not having a written copy to work with. I had (have) the lines mostly memorized. Never read Seneca in school. We read Catallus, the windbag Cicero (whose pomposity is most similar to Paul of Tarsus), some Caesar, Jerome, and whatever was in the Wheelock textbook. And the Aneid in the last class. Good times.

  2. @Lawrence – Thanks! I used to have an actual Latin scholar as one of my experts, but he moved off to be with his fiance who worked in the Clinton State Dept and I lost touch. That was terrible, but with Google Translate and a Latin dictionary and the little knowledge I’ve gained over time, I can survive. Latin really isn’t that hard a language. I can see why so many grammarians have loved it over the years.

    My interest started with Horace by way of Wilfred Owen when I was in high school. Of course, what I [i]really[/i] wish I had a better understanding of is Greek, although even that I’ve gotten more comfortable with. It’s not for Homer, as you might expect. It’s for the Bible. Well, both really.

    Yes, to read the [i]Aeneid[/i] in Latin would be cool. My great hope is to read [i]Don Quixote[/i] in Spanish before I die. I have done some of my own translating, but I’m many years from being able to sit down and just read it.

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