Seneca in the face of death

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Ricky Joseph

Lucius Aneu Seneca was a man of great defects, admittedly, in fact. About his performance as a politician and the convenience of his philosophy with the life he led, opinions have always differed widely. A man of vast wealth, not a few accused him of hypocrisy for saying, as a stoic, that material goods were indifferent - although no contemporary has claimed that he lived inHis closeness to Nero made him detestable to much of the Senate; he had been preceptor to the future emperor at the request of the latter's mother, Agrippina, and while he had ascendancy over the young monarch in the early years of his reign, the Empire was well administered. Relations between emperor and his former master gradually deteriorated as Nero's tyrannical character becameSeneca, however, continued to gravitate around the imperial power, perhaps because he thought it possible to mitigate the cruelty of the sovereign through his influence - in which he failed miserably. In 62, with the death of Sexto Aphranio Burro, head of the Praetorian Guard, the emperor felt even more comfortable to eliminate troublesome political agents. The discovery ofconspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Pision, three years later, gave Nero the pretext he needed to get rid of Seneca and other prominent figures.

In his later years, he lived in seclusion on his estates in southern Italy, devoting himself solely to study and writing. He was of the opinion that when the political environment is too corrupted, the philosopher's only means of being useful to others is to meditate and write with posterity in mind. This is how the Letters to Lucilius In the work one can read, for example, this admission of Seneca:

What use then will leisure be to me but to tend my wounds? if I show you the swollen foot, the hand covered with spots, the shrivelled leg with sclerosed nerves - surely you will allow me to remain at rest and try to cure my illness. for know that an even greater evil is this which I cannot show you: this tumour, this swelling that resides in my breast. no, I do not intend thatcover me with praise, or call me an admirable man who has retired by despising society and condemning all the passions which afflict men! one thing only have I condemned: myself! you should not approach me in the hope that I may be of service to you. you are mistaken if you think you can find any help here: he who dwells in this house is a sick man, not a physician. I prefer that, when you leaveIf you think and speak thus, your visit will not have been in vain: I would rather have you understand my idleness than envy it! (Letters to Lucilius, LXVIII, 7-9)

Whatever his faults and inconsistencies, Seneca cannot be denied the merit of having behaved with courage and tranquility - if not exemplary, at least sufficient - in the face of death. And, from the stoic point of view, this is all that matters, it is virtue par excellence.

Seneca was accused by Nero of involvement with the conspirators who supported Pision's ascension to the throne. After supping with his wife Pompey Pauline, already knowing what the emperor would surely do to him, he awaited his sentence. A centurion was sent to the house of the old preceptor, bringing him the imperial order to commit suicide. Cornelius Tacitus' account of this deserves to betranscribed:

Seneca, without any fear, asked for tablets to draw up a will, and, with the centurion's refusal, turning to his friends, told them that, since he was prevented from gratifying their merits, he left them only one good, though it was the most beautiful he could give them, which was the image of his own life; of which, if they had a memory of what it had esteemed, they would be paid with the honorAt the same time, before their tears, already with loving words, already with severity by way of correction, he tried to lead them back to firmness of mind, asking them where were the precepts of wisdom, where was the resolution of conduct prepared for so many years to oppose any imminent adversity? Was there anyone who was unaware of Nero's cruelty? And who wasWhat was the fault of the one who had ordered the murder of his mother and brother, but to have the one who had been his educator and preceptor killed?

After having made these and similar considerations to his friends all, he embraces his wife, and somewhat moved in view of the fears of the moment, makes exhortations to her and asks her to try to temper, and not to eternalize, the grief for the loss of a husband, but that she should bear it by taking honest consolation in the contemplation of a life devoted to virtue. She, in her turn, affirming thathad also taken the resolution to die then, asks with great urgency for the hand of a matador. With this, Seneca, not wanting to prevent her glory and at the same time loving her tenderly, so as not to abandon the woman who had been so dear to him and to him alone to the insults, says to her: "I had indicated to you the advice you needed to carry on with life, but I see that you choose the glory of death.I do not intend to show that I envy you the example you will give of yourself, nor to hinder you from this honor. May the constancy of our generous end be equal in both of us, although it is certain that yours will be more resplendent. After this, the veins in his arms were cut at the same time by the same iron. Seneca, who had a very old body, weakened by long abstinence, to the point of making it shedblood very slowly, he also cut the veins in his legs and ankles. And exhausted by the cruelty of those torments, so as not to affect the mood of his wife with the signs of his pain, and so that he himself would not fall into weakness seeing what she was suffering, he persuaded her to retire to another room. And using his eloquence until that last moment of his life, calling for someone to write, he dictatedmany things which, because they have remained in the commonplace with the same words, I shall leave unrecorded.

Nero, however, having no personal hatred for Pauline and fearing that his cruelty would become too hateful, ordered her to be prevented from dying. At the entreaties of the soldiers, his slaves and freedmen dressed the wounds on her arms and staunched her blood. It is not known whether this was against Pauline's will; for among the vulgar, inclined to the worst interpretations, there was no lack of those who believed thatshe had sought to share in the honour of her husband's death while she suspected Nero of being implacable, but that afterwards, when a sweeter hope had been offered her, she was finally overcome by the brandishes of life. She lived still some years, faithful to the memory of her husband, preserving an extreme pallor which showed how much of her vital force had gone from her. meanwhile Seneca,seeing the blood pouring out with such difficulty, and death coming so slowly, he requested of Estacius Aneu, in whom he knew by experience to be endowed with a faithful friendship and the art of medicine, to bring him a poison already prepared beforehand: the same that was given to those condemned by public trial in Athens. Seneca took it, but it was in vain: his limbs were already cold, and the body could not give freecourse to the effect of the poison. At last he stepped into a tub of hot water, and sprinkling the slaves nearest him, he added: "I offer this libation to Jupiter the Liberator." He was then carried into a stove room, where the steam suffocated him. His body was cremated without solemn pomp, as he had before ordered in his will, while, still very rich and very powerful, he thought of whatwould be made in its final moments.

(Tacitus, Annals, XV, 62-64)

Was Seneca proud in the face of death? It would seem so: this is proved above all by the fact that he tried to die in imitation of Socrates (in which he failed because of the weakness of his body). Pompous? It is clear: not even in his last moments did he stop discoursing to his friends and disciples, and it is a pity that Tacitus did not mention his final words, which were lost. The little we knowof them, however, allows us to infer that they were not without wisdom, fitting the act well. Moreover, we must recognize that the account of the Annals apparently so devoid of idealization at this point, is able to give us Seneca in full, with his defects, but also with his final greatness. He did not succeed in having a death like that of Socrates or Cato of Utica (his models), but he had enough fearlessness and patience to find a way to leave life with dignity.

And does anyone think that a good person leaves to others anything more secure and lasting than his own example, than the image of his life ( imago vitæ suæ )?

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