There is a gulf between theory and practice. It can be a simple matter to know how to do something in the abstract, but actually implementing the ideal is quite different. We try to adjust ourselves to this tension as best we can, and trudge forward. There will always be some degree of difference between what we say, and what we do. The matter is one of degree.
When the gap becomes too wide, we fall into the yawning sinkhole of hypocrisy. But at what point does the gap between theory and practice become unbridgeable? At what point does the label “hypocrite” attach? It is an interesting moral question. The life and career of the philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca may provide us with some answers.
Seneca remains a controversial figure. He hailed the virtues of a simple life, yet collected mansions and mountains of money. He advised the quiet of country living, yet craved the intrigue of the palace. He advised sexual restraint, yet took full advantage of his position for his extramarital gratification. He praised honesty and sincerity, yet flattered the emperor Nero and his cronies as often as he could. To this balance sheet we must add his many positive traits: he did his best to mitigate Nero’s worst excesses, he was generous with his friends, he had the courage eventually to resist his tyrant employer, and he had a first-rate mind. The best way of exposing the contradictions in his character is to present his best qualities first, and then describe his less savory ones. We may then venture some conclusions.
Seneca owned many estates in the Italian countryside
Seneca The Man Of Virtue
He was born at Corduba (modern Cordova, Spain) around 4 B.C. His father, a noted rhetor, saw to it that the boy received the finest education possible. He practiced law in Rome, and served in a minor office as quaestor around 33 B.C. A timely inheritance from his father enabled him to pursue writing and palace politics in Rome. He tutored the young regent Nero for five years, and turned out moral essays (On Anger, On the Brevity of Life, On Benefits, etc.) that are beautiful exemplars of Stoic thought. But being in proximity to a tyrant was ultimately an impossible position. Slowly he became a prisoner of the palace, unable to do much good, and yet unable to leave. He begged Nero to let him resign, but the tyrant would not permit it.
Seneca was able to do some good. He donated a significant percentage of his fortune to the imperial treasury to help rebuild Rome after the great fire of 64 A.D. Yet he could not escape the paranoia of the mad sovereign. Nero accused him of complicity in a plot to dethrone him, and ordered him to take his own life. This he did with quiet dignity. His beloved wife Paulina tried to follow him, but Nero forcibly prevented her suicide.
His essays and letters are masterpieces of the Stoic creed’s admonition to live a virtuous life. Wisdom should be the art of living, a skill to be practiced daily. He points out the ideal road, but does not demand it; he is too practical to advocate perfection. There is more wisdom in a few of his pages than in the reams of nonsense penned by most modern writers.
Seneca The Hypocrite
Yet the picture is not quite complete. Even sages have dark sides, and Seneca was no exception. He was exiled to Corsica early in his life for scandalous relations with the daughter of a powerful Roman general named Germanicus. He was lucky to escape from that indiscretion with his neck. His writings from exile, like those of the poet Ovid from his own exile near the Black Sea, do not show him at his Stoic best.
He took full advantage of his official position to enrich himself. He lent money at crushing rates of interest, and counted his fortune at about three hundred million sesterces (at least five hundred million modern US dollars). He had numerous country estates, while at the same time never tiring of denouncing luxury. He posed to scorn imperial courtiers, while occupying a key position as premier. Accusations of sexual impropriety seemed to follow him wherever he went, leaving us to wonder if there must be more than a bit of truth to them. All in all, it is hard to square the beauty of his writings with the realities of how he lived his life. What are to think of a man who could write the following, while at the same time maintaining himself in opulence:
An atrium full of antique marble busts does not indicate nobility. No one in the past has lived for our glory. And neither does what preceded us belong to us. Only the soul makes for nobility, which may rise from whatever condition above Fortune. [Epistulae 44.5].
All men are figures of contradiction. It is only a matter of degree. Those who seek and serve power inevitably find themselves forced to make daily compromises that erode their ideals. Undoubtedly, Seneca falls short of his professed doctrines. Yet which of us can claim to be any better? Is there anything wrong with seeking and enjoying material success, while at the same time appreciating the ideals of Stoic virtue?
Serving a tyrant is an impossible position, and he probably sensed he was a marked man no matter what he did. Seneca never claimed to be perfect; he only points for us the road to virtue. Despite his flaws, there is something endearing about this sly old teacher. We recognize ourselves in him, and forgive him his faults. His death and his writings redeemed him for posterity, and washed away the memory of his avarice and pride.
A nearly impossible job: trying to please Nero
One gets the sense that Seneca was acutely aware of the divergence between what he wrote and how he lived. I imagine that all men who occupy positions of power feel some sort of inner conflict. To translate high ideals into practice: is this not the most difficult thing in history? How many leaders have been able to do this? More than anything else, he is a tragic figure. He was caught between two tensions: the desire for power and wealth, and the desire to live an uncorrupted, virtuous life. He was tormented by his inability to reconcile these two conflicting impulses.
Perhaps this is why he, despite his paganism, was such a revered figure to early Christian writers. Tertullian and St. Augustine practically considered him one of their own, calling him “our Seneca.” His writings (if not his example) molded some of the greatest statesman and minds of later centuries.
Life is not black and white. We will fall short of our ideals more often than we will attain them. What matters is a consistent, sincere effort. The gap between theory and practice is only bearable by our honest attempts to bridge the intervening space. To ask for more would be to set ourselves up for failure. If we accept man as he is, and not as he ought to be, then we must love Seneca.
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