Jan-Wilhelm Beck’s (henceforth B.) work is an analysis of Seneca’s life in light of the accusations of hypocrisy directed at the philosopher during his flourishing and after his death. B. tends to employ a historical-biographical approach, and in some aspects this book may be considered to be close to important studies that also dealt with Seneca’s historical context to some extent, such as Inwood1 (1995) or Griffin2 (1976).
Already on the first pages B. declares his intention to understand and evaluate the life of the philosopher as well as to conduct a focused examination of Seneca’s claim in contrast to reality (»eine gezielte Auseinandersetzung mit Senecas Anspruch und gelebter Realität«). B. divides the study into seven untitled sections, followed by an appendix. The first two (7–10 and 11–27, respectively) serve as an introduction, presenting Tacitus’ description of Seneca’s death scene, and contrasting it with some of the accusations made against the philosopher after his death. For the latter, B. focuses primarily on Cassius Dio (D.C. 61,10,1–6) and Tacitus (esp. Ann. 13,42,1ff), but also mentions both criticism and apologies by several modern scholars. Section three (27–35) deals with Seneca’s role at Nero’s court and the duties it entailed. B. maintains that, despite the difficulties generated by the situation, Seneca’s performance while at Nero’s side should be evaluated positively by modern scholarship. One reason for such an appraisal, argues B., is the fact that the philosopher conducted himself in an active and beneficial manner, to the best of his abilities, instead of staying passive and thus unproductive. Section four (35–49) deals with behaviors that might have been considered by some as a symptom of a weakness of character, and in that section B. discusses Seneca’s stance toward death and exile (especially in Ad Marc.), his alleged selfish motivations and lack of sincerity (in Ad Polyb., for instance), or his excessively angry satire of Claudius (Apoc.). In section five (49–60) B. discusses the high esteem Seneca had for the more practical side of philosophy and a productive and active life (vita activa), and contrasts those values with the forced otium of Seneca’s final years. Sections six (60–62) and seven (63–67) return to the philosopher's death and act as a general conclusion to the study. Finally, in the appendix (68–74) a digression serves to consider and assess the matter of the alleged inappropriateness of Seneca’s style, for which B. draws mostly on the descriptions of Quintilian (Inst. 1,10,125–131), Fronto (153.8–154.20 v. d. Hout) and Gellius (NA 12,2,1–14), as well as a few of Seneca’s own remarks about style and rhetoric. In this regard the work of Möller3 (2004) would have been a valuable addition to the discussion, even more so if we take into account that the scholar analyses in detail one of the epistles quoted by B. (namely, Ep. 114).
One notices that B.’s work is, above all, a critical commentary on several issues related to a perceived discrepancy between the Cordovan’s writings and his life. Ultimately, B. argues in defense of Seneca against accusations of hypocrisy without denying that the author’s life did to some extent differ from his teachings. One of the features of B.’s exposition is the close attention to the different stages of Seneca’s life, followed by an evaluation of the philosopher’s behavior according to the context in which he found himself and the intentions that he may have harbored at a given time. So B. distinguishes e.g. between earlier and later historical Senecas, arguing that the former, living under tyrants and burdened with onerous political duties, was forced to act pragmatically and, as a result, could not always comply with the strict requirements dictated by his philosophy. The latter, says B., was freed from those duties and redeemed himself by dedicating the later part of his life to philosophy. There are many problems raised by this approach. The most fundamental concerns the difficulty to assess Seneca’s intentions and thoughts, which prevents us from correctly determining the extent to which his life and his social context influenced his works, as well as the extent to which his works reflect his life.
Not every reader would agree with premises that B. takes for granted, and some explanation of the reasoning for some of the conclusions he draws would have benefited the book’s overall exposition. An instance of this is B.’s statement that until the closing years of the 50ies CE Seneca did not regard philosophy as the main goal of his life (»Er hat sie jedoch bis zum Ende der 50er Jahre nicht ausschließlich und auch nicht als Selbstzweck in den Mittelpunkt seines Lebens gestellt« 55). Another is the assertion that, until his retirement, his philosophical tenets were for him only of secondary importance (»[...] bis zu seinem Rückzug in den Ruhestand ist seine philosophische Lehre für ihn nur ein Beiwerk, nie Inhalt und Zweck seines Lebens gewesen« 56). Examples similar to these are found throughout the book, and the manner in which they are introduced may lead one into believing that such statements are not controversial. In reality, however, the issue is more complicated. Apart from the already mentioned difficulty in determining Seneca’s intentions at any given point of his life, one should also not under-estimate his dedication to philosophy.4 It should not be ignored that he began his studies of that art a few years after his first arrival in Rome, and that he himself reports an early interest in philosophy to the point that he became a vegetarian in his youth (Ep. 1108, 22). At any rate, as remarks Griffin (1976, 34), evidence of Seneca’s life before the exile is very slight, and so any attempt to determine his beliefs or preferences before that time can only be formed by speculation. Another example of a statement requiring additional explanation is B.’s assertion that the dialogi were written in a hurry (»rasch zusammengeschrieben« 45). In this case, some credit could have been given to the rhetorical complexity and the usage of sophisticated stylistic resources in those writings,5 which is evidence against the assumption of a hurried production.
Worthy of notice are B.’s detailed references to the sources. Although not every-one would agree with his theses, the presence of copious references, fully quoted in the original Latin and Greek, enables the reader to draw his own conclusions and is unquestionably a major asset.
To sum up: B. offers a detailed commentary of Seneca’s life from a biographical and historical perspective, a study that undoubtedly contributes to Senecan scholarship. It should be noted, however, that a more elaborate discussion about some specific topics could enrich the work, as would a relativization of some affirmations.
Matheus De Pietro
(1) B. Inwood, Seneca in his philosophical milieu, HarvSt 97, 1995, 63-76.
(2) M. T. Griffin, Seneca. A Philosopher in politics. Oxford 1976 (1992).
(3) M. Möller, Talis oratio qualis vita: Zur Theorie und Praxis mimetischer Verfahren in der griechich-römischen Literaturkritik, Heidelberg, 2004.
(4) An opposed opinion was held by Quintilian, who considered Seneca parum diligens in regard to philosophy (Inst. 10,4129).
(5) See e.g. M. von Albrecht (Seneca’s language and style I, Hyperboreus 14, 2008, fasc. 11, 68-90), M. Möller (op. cit.), M. Armisen-Marchetti (Sapientiae facies. Étude sur les images de Sénèque, Paris, 1989) and A. Traina (Lo stile drammatico del filosofo Seneca, Bologna, 1978).