by David Fideler 

Disaster is virtue’s opportunity. — Seneca

When something negative happens, or when we are struck by adversity, we shouldn’t be surprised by it, but see it as an opportunity to create a better situation.

For the Stoics, every challenge or adversity we encounter was seen as an opportunity to both test and develop our inner character. Also, to believe that misfortunes will never befall us would be out of touch with reality, so we should actively expect occasional bumps in the road, and sometimes major ones.

Seneca and the Transformation of Adversity

I’m writing this note on April 12, the day that Seneca was put to death by his student and employer, the Emperor Nero.

Despite the fact that Seneca had become one of the richest men in the Roman Empire, his life was filled with considerable adversity. Yet Seneca tried to transform those misfortunes into something better, when possible, even the death sentence he received from Nero.

Under Caligula, as a senator, Seneca began to accumulate great personal wealth, which he would continue to do throughout his life. But these financial rewards were mixed blessings indeed, because his life became increasingly dangerous, and often under serious threat.

Seneca’s troubles began around age forty-three, when Caligula wanted him put to death out of jealousy, just because he didn’t like the high quality of a speech Seneca gave to the Senate. Fortunately, one of Caligula’s mistresses talked him out of killing Seneca because Seneca was ill, and she thought he would die soon in any case.

Later, when Seneca was forty-five years old, the Emperor Claudius had him exiled to the island of Corsica for eight years and took half his estate, on trumped up charges (as an alternative to having him killed). This exile took place only a few weeks after the death of Seneca’s only son, who died as a baby (a common occurrence then), and it entailed a total separation from Seneca’s wife.

After spending eight years on Corsica, where he got a fair amount of writing done (because there was nothing else he could do there), he was finally called back to Rome, but only under the condition that he would become a tutor to the young Nero, who at the time was eleven years old.

Despite Seneca’s efforts to help Nero develop a good character, the project was a total failure. Nero had no interest in philosophy or ethics. As Nero grew older, he was only interested in self-gratification and power at the expense of others, which turned him into a tyrant and a monster. In the end, Nero had many who surrounded him killed, including Nero’s own mother, his brother, and then his wife (who he found to be boring, compared to his mistress). Nero finally had Seneca killed too, when Seneca was sixty-nine, not to mention many others, including Seneca’s two brothers and his nephew.

But despite these serious hurdles, which would psychologically destroy many people today, Seneca’s Stoic philosophy helped him to endure these hardships and to transform these adversities into something positive. Even when Nero forced Seneca to commit suicide as an old man — which was far preferable to the alternate forms of execution available — Seneca used the occasion of his own death to give a final talk about philosophy to several friends who were present, just like Socrates did when he was forced to drink the hemlock poison.

Like a good Stoic, Seneca had prepared himself for death over the course of many years, as part of his philosophical practice and training, and didn’t show a single trace of worry or concern when surrendering his life.

He is reported to have said, quite matter of factly, “Given the fact that Nero killed his mother and brother, it is not surprising that he should kill his tutor as well.” And while Seneca’s last words about philosophy have not come down to us, it’s easy to imagine him echoing the words of Socrates about his death: “While you can kill me, you can’t harm me.” Or, as we might also put it, “While you might kill me physically, you cannot harm my inner character.”

David Fideler holds a PhD in philosophy, is the editor of Stoic Insights, and the author of Breakfast with Senecapublished by W. W. Norton, which is the first clear and faithful guide to the practical teachings of the Stoic philosopher Seneca. You can read more about his work here.


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