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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

Ancient bust of Seneca, part of a double herm (Antikensammlung Berlin)

Seneca - extracts

(text from the 2nd edition, 1896, scanned by )

THE greatest name in the Stoic School, and the first of Latin moralists, came into existence at Corduba (Cordova) contemporaneously with the beginning of the Christian era. His family, like that of Ovidius, was of the equestrian order. He was of a feeble physical constitution, and bodily weakness, as with many other great intellects, served to intensify, or perhaps originate mental activity. At the capital, with which he early made acquaintance, he soon gained great distinction at the bar; and the eloquence and fervour displayed by him in the Senate before the Emperor Caius (Caligula) excited the jealous hatred of that insanest of tyrants, who banished him from the city. At this period he visited Hellas and Egypt. Later in life he obtained high office, and, in conjunction with Burrus, pretorian prefect, was appointed to the tutorship (1) of the young Domitius, afterwards the Emperor Nero. On the accession of that prince, at the age of seventeen, to the imperial throne, Seneca became one of his chief advisers: nor should it be forgotten that he dared to dedicate his famous treatise On Clemency to that tyrant. Unhappily for his credit as a philosopher and a Stoic philosopher, while exerting his influence, such as it might be, to restrain the vicious propensities of his former pupil, he acquired not only a moderate proportion of wealth but, apparently, even an enormous fortune; and his villas and gardens were so splendid as to provoke the avarice of the Emperor. This added to his alleged disparagement of the prince's talents for singing and dancing (to fame for which Nero especially aspired) caused his subsequent disgrace and death. By a voluntary surrender of all his possessions the philosopher prudently attempted to anticipate the will of Nero, and vainly sought to disarm the imperial jealousy by a retired, unostentatious, life; but his death, in spite of the hypocritical assurances of Nero (recorded in the distinguished sentences of the historian Tacitus), had already been determined. Charged with complicity in the conspiracy of Piso, the only grace allowed him was to die by his own hands. His wife, Pompeia Paulina (who seems to have been another Arria, celebrated by Tacitus and immortalised by the younger Plinius, by her almost incredible fortitude and the famous "Pœte non dolet") (2) in spite of her husband's remonstrances, chose to die with him, and the two faithful friends laid open their veins at the same moment. Advanced age and his meagre diet had left little blood in Seneca's veins, and it flowed with painful slowness; and to avoid the intolerable pain of being witness of each other's sufferings, they shut themselves up in separate apartments. With the astonishing endurance, which characterised so many of the old Stoic victims of imperial tyranny, the philosopher calmly dictated his last wishes to his surrounding friends. His agonies being still prolonged, he took hemlock; and this, also, failing, he was carried to a vapour stove, by which he was suffocated, and thus, at length, he ceased to suffer.

In estimating the character of Seneca, it is just to consider all the circumstances of the exceptional times in which he lived. Perhaps, there never has been an Age or people more utterly corrupt than that of the period of the earlier Roman Cæsars, and that of Rome and the large cities of the Empire. Even if we should adroit the charges of avarice which his enemies brought against him—and, as Tacitus records, the statements of the multiplicity of writers of the Neronian Age are conflicting and derived to a large degree from hostile critics—the moral general character of the author of the treatise on Clemency and the Epistles shines for us in bright relief as contrasted with that of the immense majority of his contemporaries, of equal rank and position, who were sunk in the depths of licentiousness, and of callous indifference to the frightful miseries of the world surrounding them. (3) That his public career did not reach the exalted standard of his later precepts seems to be indisputable and, in the falling short of a loftier ideal, he must share reproach with some of the most admired of the world's intellectual heroes, If we compare him with Cicero or with Francis Bacon, for example, the comparison will scarcely be unfavourable to Seneca. The worst charge brought against him is his connivance at the death of the infamous Agrippina, the mother of his pupil; or rather the apology drawn up by him and read in the Senate. For this line of conduct the only possible excuse could be that suggested by the historian—the suspicion that the mother intended the death of her son; the choice thus lying between the comparative guilt of the two exalted criminals. If such be the truth, the Apology becomes natural and even necessary. As for the unproved charges of complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy, some six years later, when the cruelty and outrageous profligacy of Nero had reached the furthest bounds of criminality, tyrannicide became not a culpable but a praiseworthy act; and if ever, in the long annals of royal tyrants, " killing, no murder," has been a justifiable thesis, it certainly would have been so in the case of Nero.

In an impartial estimate of the public character of Seneca, the fact of his having contrived to restrain, so long as he directed the counsels of his pupil, his depraved disposition from those outbreaks which, after the philosopher's death, have stigmatised the name of Nero with undying infamy, will appear in itself proof of superior merit. In fine, if the conduct of Seneca, in his public life, has deserved the severe censures to which it sometimes has been subjected, the general eulogy of his most distinguished contemporaries would be hard to explain. The illustrious, and usually impartial, author of the Annales, who makes frequent reference to him in connexion with Nero, presents it certainly in no unfavourable light—ingenium anœnum (amiable and attractive disposition) is his expression in referring to his character. Nor would the historian, in describing with minute detail the last moments of the philosopher, have reported without dissent the confident appeal to surrounding friends. Dying in the agony of slow torture, he besought them to find consolation in the contemplation of a life which had been passed in the practice of virtue, and "in his bequeathing to them the picture [imaginem] of a life, the faithful memory of which would ensure to themselves the fame of so firm and lasting friendship." "If," asks Juvenal, a younger contemporary, "the people had free suffrage, who would be so lost to all sense of right as to hesitate to prefer a Seneca to a Nero?" (4)

But the best vindication of the character of Seneca is found in his writings. It is simply impossible to suppose that the expression of so exceptionally humane, of so lofty, thoughts could have proceeded from other than an essentially good man in the best sense of the word. For, it can not be too emphatically stated, his was no common place and conventional morality—no common-places of the School, no mere sectarian or religious utterances so easily affected, meaning anything or nothing, and which are always received with approbation and applause. It is not the least exaggeration to assert that the change in the manner of thinking and in the conduct of life, in all its relations, required by his teaching, demanded quite as much of self-abnegation and of separation from the orthodox world, and presented as sublime a standard of self-denial and self-control as that of the first and best of the Christian teachers. Nothing but prejudice and partiality will refuse to admit the truth of this statement. So great, indeed, was his reputation as a moral teacher with the authorities of the newly-established religion, that the most erudite of the doctors of the Latin Church hesitates to include him in his Hagiology (or Catalogue of Saints) only because he is uncertain of the genuineness of his alleged literary correspondence with Paul of Tarsus. (5)

His principle writings are:—De Irâ his earliest and, perhaps, most often quoted work; De Clementiâ, addressed to Nero Cæsar—one of the most meritorious writings of all Antiquity, and not unworthy to be classed with the Degli Delitti e delle Pene of Beccaria, or the similar humanitarian protests of Voltaire. The Stoical distinction between "clemency" and "pity" (misericordia), as the moralist admits, is merely a dispute about words; De Beneficiis ("On Kindnesses"); De Vitâ Beatâ, next to the De Clementiâ and De Irâ, the most admirable of his treatises; De Vitæ Beavitate, in which the reasonable employment of brief human life, and the acquisition of true wisdom are eloquently enforced; De Animi Tranquillitate; De Consolatione—addressed to his mother Helvia—may be ranked with the similar treatise of Plutarch; the Epistolæ ad Lucilium, one hundred and twenty-four in number, abounding in admirable precepts in morality, mixed (it must be allowed) with a large proportion of what may be termed transcendental stoicism and exaggerated asceticism; Quœstiones Naturales, in seven books.

As respects the superiority of his mental endowments, the admiration of his contemporaries and of modern authorities is universally consentient.

"Splendour and celebrity of his philosophic writings" (their distinguishing humane excellence then, as now, seems not to have attracted attention, or at any rate, remark) is the homage of the great historian of the Empire (Annales xii.) The elder Plinius writes of him as "at the very head of all the literati of that age" (xiv, a). Petrarca, in the fourteenth century, quotes the valuable testimony of Plutarch, "that great man who, Greek though he was, freely confesses there is no Greek writer who could be brought into comparison with him in the department of Morals." How much the "Seneca morale" (as Dante styles him) has been in esteem with all the better thinkers of the mediæval centuries, and with the most eminent thinkers of modern times, from Montaigne down to the leaders of thought in France in the xviii century; and how much of what was higher in morality has been owed, directly or indirectly to his influence, conjoined with that of Plutarch, hardly can be over stated.

It is matter for much regret, we shall add in this place, that the "popular" English epitomes of Seneca give, for the most part, so altogether inadequate presentment of the real merits of his writings. With strange perversity, while giving the English reader all the sometimes (it must be confessed) hyperbolic ascetic declamations of Stoicism, they seem (almost industriously) to avoid his humanitarian and practical ethics. With somewhat similar perversity of taste, modern critics and writers point with excess of admiration to the purely subjective, and sometimes almost morbid, reflections of the imperial author of the Private Meditations (ra Els Tavi-.)v) and the Manual of Epiktetus, while, for the most part, they ignore altogether the objective and practical morality of the best Teacher of Antiquity.

To his authorship are assigned ten tragedies, which, although disputed by some critics, seem to bear internal evidence of his work both in the rhetorical style and, yet more, in the sentiments. But the high authority of Quintilian and of Tacitus, who assign them to him, alone might seem to be all but conclusive, and to outweigh modern objections. Of these didactic dramas, the Medea has attracted the most attention from the often-quoted very remarkable verses, so applicable to the discovery of the American continent, that they might almost be suspected to be interpolated. (6) The only Latin subject is the Octavia, the one of the tragedies which, probably, is spurious. It receives its title from the unhappy wife of Nero, and daughter of the Emperor Claudius, whose murder in the island of Pandataria (off the Campanian coast) is so graphically described by Tacitus. Poppæa Sabina, the beautiful mistress and afterwards wife of Nero, who had incited him to the murder of his mother and of his first wife (Octavia), and who herself soon perished through his brutal outrage, is, it needs hardly to be stated, a very prominent dramatis persona. The rhetorical and declamatory style of the Tragedies has often been a subject of criticism; but the critics, for the most part, seem to have overlooked the fact, that they were not designed for the stage, but—according to the well-known fashionable practice with Roman literati under the Empire—for recitation before select audiences, or for private reading. This fact, obviously, must largely affect criticism of their character; and, as regards moral or didactic merit, they may, without excess of eulogy, be preferred to the vast majority of modern productions for the stage.

It is their remarkably humanitarian spirit, which honourably distinguishes the writings of Seneca. With this very modern feeling he is imbued to a larger and deeper extent than any other writer of Antiquity—nor are there any moderns who have surpassed, and there are very few who have rivailed, him in the enunciation of the higher morality. Plutarch, indeed, in his noble Essay on Flesh-Eating, more expressly denounces the barbarism of the slaughter-house, and the terrible cruelties inseparably connected with it. But the Latin moralist deals with a wider range of ethical teaching; and, on such subjects, e.g., as the relations of master and slave (7) (the most crucial test of ethical truth, perhaps, in those ages), and the barbarities of the Circus, is far ahead of all his contemporaries. The following notable passage is to be found in a letter to his friend Lucilius, in which, after expatiating on the loftiness of the teaching of the philosopher Attalus in inculcating moderation and self-control, Seneca thus professes his dietetic opinions:

"Since I have begun to confide to you with what exceeding ardour I approached the study of philosophy in my youth, I shall not be ashamed to confess the affection with which Sotion [his preceptor] inspired me for the teaching of Pythagoras. He was wont to instruct me on what grounds he himself, and after him, Sextius, had determined to abstain from the flesh of animals. Each had a different reason, but the reason in both instances was a grand one (magnifica). Sotion held that man can find a sufficiency of nourishment without blood shedding, and that cruelty becomes habitual when once the practice of butchering is applied to the gratification of the appetite. He was wont to add that, 'It is our bounden duty to limit the materials of luxury. That, moreover, variety of foods is injurious to health, and not natural to our bodies. If these maxims [of the Pythagorean school] are true, then to abstain from the flesh of animals is to encourage and foster innocence; if ill-founded, at least they teach us frugality and simplicity of living. And what loss have you in losing your cruelty? (quod istic crudelitatis tuæ damnum est?) I merely deprive you of the food of lions and vultures."

Moved by these and similar arguments, I resolved to abstain from flesh meat, and at the end of a year the habit of abstinence was not only easy but delightful. I firmly believed that the faculties of my mind were more active, (8) and at this day I will not take pains to assure you whether they were so or not. You ask, then, 'Why did you go back and relinquish this mode of life ?' I reply that the lot of my early days was cast in the reign of the emperor Tiberius. Certain foreign religions became the object of the imperial suspicion, and, amongst the proofs of adherence to the foreign cultus or superstition, was that of abstinence from the flesh of animals. At the entreaties of my father, therefore, who had no real fear of the practice being made a ground of accusation, but who had a hatred of philosophy, (9) I was induced to return to my former dietetic habits, nor had he much difficulty in persuading me to recur to more sumptuous repasts…

"This I tell," he proceeds, "to prove to you how powerful are the early impetuses of youth to what is truest and best, under the exhortations and incentives of virtuous teachers. We err, partly through the fault of our guides, who teach us how to dispute, not how to live; partly by our own fault in expecting our teachers to cultivate not so much the disposition of the mind as the faculties of the intellect. Hence it is that in place of a love of wisdom there is only a love of words (Itaque quæ philosophia fuit, facta philoloia est)."—Epistolacviii. (10)

Seneca here cautiously reveals the jealous suspicion with which the first Cæsars viewed all foreign, and especially quasi-religious, innovations, and his own public compliance, to some extent, with the orthodox dietetic practices. Yet that in private life he continued to practise, as well as to preach, a radical dietary reformation appears sufficiently from his various writings. The refinement and gentleness of his mind is everywhere apparent in them, and they exhibit him as a man of extraordinary sensibility and just feeling.

As for dietetics, he makes it a matter of the first importance, on which he is never weary of insisting. "We must so live, not as if we ought to live for, but as though we could not do without, the body." He quotes Epikurus : "If you live according to nature you will never be poor; if according—to conventionalism, you will never be rich. Nature demands little; fashion (opinio) superfluity." In one of his letters he eloquently describes the riotous feasting of the period corresponding to our festival of Christmas—another illustration of the proverb, " History repeats itself" :—

"December is the month," he begins his letter, "when the city [Rome] most especially gives itself up to riotous living (desudat). Free licence is allowed to the public luxury. Every place resounds with the gigantic preparations for eating and gorging, just as if," he adds, "the whole year were not a sort of Saturnalia."

He contrasts with all this enormous waste and gluttony the simple living of Epikurus, who, in a letter to his friend Polylænus, declares that his own food does not cost him sixpence a day while his friend Metrodorus, who had not advanced so far in frugality, expended the whole of that small sum:—

"Do you ask if that can supply due nourishment? Yes; and pleasure too. Not, indeed, that fleeting and superficial pleasure which needs to be perpetually recruited, but a solid and substantial one. Bread and pearl barley (polenta) certainly is not luxurious feeding, but it is no little advantage to be able to receive pleasure from a simple diet of which no change of fortune can deprive one. …Nature demands bread and water only; no one is poor in regard to those necessaries." (11)

"How long shall we weary heaven with petitions for superfluous luxuries, as though we had not at hand wherewithal to feed ourselves? How long shall we fill our plains with huge cities? How long shall the people slave for us unnecessarily? How long shall countless numbers of ships from every sea bring us provisions for the consumption of a single mouth? An Ox is satisfied with the pasture of an acre or two: one wood suffices for several Elephants. Man alone supports himself by the pillage of the whole earth and sea. What! Has Nature indeed given us so insatiable a stomach, while she has given us so insignificant bodies? No: it is not the hunger of our stomachs, but insatiable covetousness (ambitio) which costs so much. The slaves of the belly (as says Sallust) are to be counted in the number of the lower animals, not of men. Nay, not of them, but rather of the dead. …You might inscribe on their doors, 'These have anticipated death.' " (Ep. lx.)

The extreme difficulty of abstinence is generally alleged:—

"It is disagreeable, you say, to abstain from the pleasures of the customary diet. Such abstinence is, I grant, difficult at first. But in course of time the desire for that diet will begin to languish; the incentives to our unnatural wants failing, the stomach, at first rebellious, will after a time feel an aversion for what formerly it eagerly coveted. The desire dies of itself, and it is no severe loss to be without those things that you have ceased to long for. Add to this that there is no disease, no pain, which is not certainly intermitted or relieved, or cured altogether. Moreover it is possible for you to be on your guard against a threatened return of the disease, and to oppose remedies if it comes upon you."—(Ep. lxxviii.)

On the occasion of a shipwreck, when his fellow-passengers found themselves forced to live upon the scantiest fare, he takes the opportunity to point out how extravagantly superfluous must be the ordinary living of the richer part of a nation?

How easily we can dispense with these superfluities, which, when necessity takes them from us, we do not feel the want of…Whenever I happen to be in the company of richly-living people I cannot prevent a blush of shame, because I see evident proof that the principles which I approve and commend have as yet no sure and firm faith placed in them.…A warning voice needs to be published abroad in opposition to the prevailing opinion of the human race: 'You are out of your senses (insanitis ); you are wandering from the path of right; you are lost in stupid admiration for superfluous luxuries; you value no one thing for its proper worth.'"—(Ep. lxxxvii.)


"I now turn to you, whose insatiable and unfathomable gluttony (profunda et insatiabilis gula) searches every land and every sea. Some animals it persecutes with snares and traps, with hunting-nets [the customary method of the battue of that period], with hooks, sparing no sort of toil to obtain them. Excepting from mere caprice or daintiness, there is no peace allowed to any species of beings. Yet how much of all these feasts which you obtain by the agency of innumerable hands do you even so much as touch with your lips, satiated as they are with luxuries? How much of that animal, which has been caught with so much expense or peril, does the dyspeptic and bilious owner taste? Unhappy even in this ! that you perceive not that you hunger more than your belly. Study," he concludes his exhortation to his friend, "not to know more, but to know better."


"If the human race would but listen to the voice of reason, it would recognise that [fashionable] cooks are as superfluous as soldiers…Wisdom engages in all useful things, is favourable to peace, and summons the whole human species to concord—(Ep. xc.)

"In the simpler times there was no need of so large a supernumerary force of medical men, nor of so many surgical instruments or of so many boxes of drugs. Health was simple for a simple reason. Many dishes have induced many diseases. Note how vast a quantity of lives one stomach absorbs—devastator of land and sea. (12) No wonder that with so discordant diet disease is ever varying…Count the cooks: you will no longer wonder at the innumerable number of human maladies." (Ep. xcv.)

We must be content to extract only one more of Seneca's exhortations to reform in diet:—

"You think it a great matter that you can bring yourself to live without all the apparatus of fashionable dishes; that you do not desire wild boars of a thousand pounds weignt or the tongues of rare birds, and other portents of a luxury which now despises whole carcases, (13) and chooses only certain parts of each victim. I shall admire you then only when you scorn not plain bread, when you have persuaded yourself that herbs exist not for other animals only, but for man also—if you shall recognise that vegetables are sufficient food for the stomach into which we now stuff valuable lives, as though it were to keep them for ever. For what matters it what it receives, since it will soon lose all that it has devoured? The apparatus of dishes, containing the spoils of sea and land, gives you pleasure, you say.…The splendour of all this, heightened by art, gives you pleasure. Ah ! those very things so solicitously sought for and served up so variously—no sooner have they entered the belly than one and the same foulness shall take possession of them all. Would you contemn the pleasures of the table? Consider their final destination" (exitum specta.). (14)

If Seneca makes dietetics of the first importance, at the same time he by no means neglects other departments of ethics, which, for the most part, ultimately depend upon that fundamental reformation; and he is equally excellent on them all. It is not possible for us to present our readers with all the admirable dicta of this great Moralist. We cannot resist, however, the temptation to quote some of his unique teaching on certain branches of humanitarianism and philosophy, little regarded either in his own time or in later ages. Slaves, both in Pagan and Christian Europe, were regarded very much as the domesticated non-human species are at the present day, as born merely for the will and pleasure of their masters. (15) Such seems to have been the universal estimate of their status. While often superior to their lords, nationally or individually, by birth, by mind, and by education, they were at the arbitrary disposal of very often cruel and capricious owners:—

"Are they slaves?" eloquently demands Seneca. "Nay, they are men. Are they slaves? Nay, they live under the same roof (contubernales). Are they slaves? Nay, they are humble friends. Are they slaves? Nay, they are fellow-servants (conservi), if you will consider that both master and servant are equally the creatures of chance. I smile, then at the prevalent opinion which thinks it a disgrace for one to sit down to a meal with his servant. Why is it thought a disgrace, but because arrogant Custom allows a master a crowd of servants to stand round him while he is feasting?"

He expressly denounces their cruel and contemptuous treatment, and demands in noble language (afterwards used by Epiktetus, himself a slave):—

"Would you suppose that he whom you call a slave has the same origin and birth as yourself? Has the same free air of heaven with yourself? That he breathes, lives, and dies like yourself?" (16)

He protests against the insulting attitude of masters towards their helpless dependants, and lays down the precept:—"So live with your dependant as you would wish your superior to live with you." He laments the use of the term "slaves," or "servants" (servi), in place of the old "domestics" (familiares). He declaims against the common prejudice which judges by the outward appearance:—

"That man," he asserts, "is of the stupidest sort who values another either by his chest or by his condition. Is he a slave? He is, it may be, free in mind. He is the true slave who is a slave to cruelty, to ambition, to avarice, to pleasure. Love," he declares, insisting upon humanity, " cannot co-exist with fear."—(Ep. xivii.)

He equally insists upon the ferocity and barbarity of the gladiatorial and other shows of the Circus, looked upon by his contemporaries as note only interesting spectacles, but as a useful school of war and endurance—the same pretext as that on which the "sports" of the present day are defended. Cicero used this argument, and only expresses the general sentiment. Not so Seneca. He speaks of a chance visit to the Circus (the monstrous Colosseum was built a fewer years later), for the sake of mental relaxation, expecting to see, at the period of the day which he had chosen, innocent exercises. He indignantly narrates the horrid scenes of suffering, and demands whether such evil examples do not receive their retribution in the frightful demoralisation of those who encourage them:—

"Ah ! what dense mists of darkness do power and prosperity cast over the human mind. He [the magistrate] believes himself to be raised above the common lot of mortality, and to be at the pinnacle of glory, when he has offered so many crowds of wretched human beings to the assaults of wild beasts; when he forces animals of the most different species to engage in conflict; when in the full presence of the Roman populace he causes torrents of blood to flow, a fitting school for the future scenes of still greater bloodshed." (17)

In his treatise On Clemency, dedicated to his youthful pupil Nero, he anticipates the very modern theory—theory, for the prevalent practice is still a very different thing—that prevention is better than punishment; and he denounces the barbarous policy of princes and magistrates, who, for the most part, concern themselves only in variously torturing criminals who are produced by unequal laws—

"Will not that man," he asks, "appear to be a very bad father who punishes his children, even for the slightest causes, with constant blows? Which preceptor is the worthier to teach—the one who scarifies his pupils' backs if their memory happens to fail them, or if their eyes make a slight blunder in reading, or he who chooses rather to correct and instruct by admonition and the influence of shame? …You will find that those crimes are most often committed which are most often punished. …Many capital punishments are no less disgraceful to a ruler than are many deaths to a physician. Men are more easily governed by mild laws. (18) The human mind is naturally stubborn and inclined to be perverse, and it more readily follows than is forced. The disposition to cruelty which takes delight in blood and wounds is the characteristic of wild beasts; it is to throw away the human character and to pass into that of a denizen of the woods."

Speaking of giving assistance to the needy, he says that the genuine philanthropist will give his money—

Not in that insulting way in which the great majority of those who wish to seem merciful disdain and despise those whom they help, and shrink from contact with them; but, as one mortal to a fellow-mortal, he will give as though out of a treasury that should be common to all." (19)

Next to the De Clemeraiâ and the De Irâ; his treatise On the Happy Life is most admirable. In the abundance of what is unusually good and useful it is difficult to choose. His warning (so unheeded) against implicit confidence in authority and tradition cannot too often be repeated:—

"There is nothing against which we ought to be more on our guard than, like a flock of sheep, following the crowd of those who have preceded us—going, as we do, not where we ought to go, but where men have walked before. And yet there is nothing which involves us considering those dogmas or practices best which have been received heretofore with the greatest applause, and which have a multitude of great names. We live not according to reason, but according to mere fashion and tradition, from whence that enormous heap of bodies, which fall one over the other. It happens as in a great slaughter of men, when the crowd presses upon itself. Not one falls without dragging with him another. The first to fall are the cause of destruction to the succeeding ranks. It runs through the whole of human life. No one's error is limited to himself alone, but he is the author and cause of another's error.…We shall recover our sound health if only we shall separate ourselves from the herd, for the crowd of mankind stands opposed to right reason—the defender of its own evils and miseries. (20) …Human history is not so well conducted, that the better way is pleasing to the mass. The very fact of the approbation of the multitude is a proof of the badness of the opinion or practice. Let us ask what is best, not what is most customary; what may place us firmly in the possession of an everlasting felicity, not what has received the approbation of the vulgar—the worst interpreter of the truth. Now I call 'the vulgar' the common herd of all ranks and conditions" (Tam chlamydatos quam coronatos).—(De Vitâ Beatâ i. and ii.)


"I will do nothing for the sake of opinion; everything for the sake of conscience."

He repudiates the doctrines of Egoism for those of Altruism:—

"I will so live, as knowing myself to have come into the world for others…I shall recognise the world as my proper country. When ever nature or reason shall demand my last breath, I shall depart with the testimony that I have loved a good conscience, useful pursuits—that I have encroached upon the liberty of no one, least of all my own."

Very admirable are his rebukes of unjust and insensate anger in regard to the non-human species:—

"As it is the characteristic of a madman to be in a rage with lifeless ojbects, so also is it to be angry with dumb animals, (21) inasmuch as there can be no injury unless intentional. Hurt us they can—as stone or iron—injure us they cannot. Nevertheless, there are persons who consider themselves insulted when horses, who will readily obey one rider are obstinate in the case of another; just as if they were more tractable to some individuals than to others of set purpose, not from custom or owing to treatment."—(De Irâ xxvi.)

Again, of anger, as between human beings:

"The faults of others we keep constantly before us; our own we hide behind us… A large proportion of mankind are angry, not with the sins, but with the sinners. In regard to supposed offences, many speak falsely to deceive, many because they are themselves deceived."

Of the use of self-examination, he quotes the example of his excellent preceptor, Sextius, who strictly followed the Pythagorean precept to examine oneself each night before sleep:—

"Of what bad practice have you cured yourself to-day? What vice have you resisted? In what respect are you the better? Rash anger will be moderated, and will finally cease when it rinds itself daily confronted with its judge. What, then, is more useful than this custom of thoroughly weighing the actions of the entire day?"

He adduces the feebleness and shortness of human life as one of the most forcible arguments against the indulgence of malevolence:—

"Nothing will be of more avail than reflections on the nature of mortality. Let each one say to himself, as to another, 'What good is it to declare enmity against such and such persons, as though we were born to live for ever, and to thus waste our very brief existence? What profit is it to employ time which might be spent in honourable pleasures in inflicting pain and torture upon any of our fellow-beings?'…Why rush we to battle? Why do we provoke quarrels? Why, forgetful of our mortal weakness, do we engage in huge hatreds? Fragile beings as we are, why will we rise up to crush others?…Why do we tumultuously and seditiously set life in an uproar? Death stands staring us in the face, and approaches ever nearer and nearer. That moment which you destine for another's destruction perchance may be for your own.…Behold ! death comes, which makes us all equal. While we are in this mortal life, let us cultivate humanity; let us not be a cause of fear or of danger to any of our fellow-mortals. Let us contemn losses, injuries, insults. Let us bear with magnanimity the brief inconveniences of life."

Again, in dealing with the weak and defenceless:—

"Let each one say to himself whenever he is provoked, 'What right have I to punish with whips or fetters a slave who has offended me by his voice or manner? Who am I, whose ears it is such a monstrous crime to offend? Many grant pardon to their enemies; shall I not pardon simply idle, negligent, or garrulous slaves?' Tender years should shield childhood—their sex, women—individual liberty, a stranger—the common roof, a domestic. Does he offend for the first time? Let us think how often he may have pleased us."—(De Irâ iii., passim.)

As to the conduct of life:—

"We ought so to live, as though in the sight of all men. We ought so to employ our thoughts, as though some one were able to inspect our inmost soul—and there is one able. For what advantages it that a thing is hidden from men; nothing is hidden from God (Ep. 83.)…Would you propitiate heaven? Be good, He worships God, who imitates [the higher ideal of] Him. How do we act? What principles do we lay down? That we are to refrain from human bloodshed? Is it a great matter to refrain from injuring him to whom you are bound to do good? The whole of human and divine teaching is summed up in this one principle—we are all members of one mighty body. Nature has made us of one kin (cognates), since she has produced us from the same elements and will resolve us into the same elements. She has implanted in us love one for another, and made us for living together in society. She has laid down the laws of right and justice, by which ordinance it is more wretched to injure than to be injured; and by her ordering, our hands are given us to help each the other.…Let us ask what things are, not what they are called. Let us value each thing on its own merits, without thought of the world's opinion. Let us love temperance; let us, before all things, cherish justice.…Our actions will not be right unless the will is first right, for from that proceeds the act."


"The will will not be right unless the habits of mind are right, for from these results the will. The habits of thought, however, will not be at the best unless they shall have been based upon the laws of the whole of life; unless they shall have tried all things by the test of truth." (22) —(Ep. xcv.)

Excellent is his advice on the choice of books:—

"Be careful that the reading of many authors, and of every sort of books, does not induce a certain vagueness and uncertainty of mind. We ought to linger over, and nourish our minds with, writers of assured genius and worth, if we wish to extract something which may usefully remain fixed in the mind. A multitude of books distracts the mind. Read always, then, books of approved merit. If ever you have a wish to go for a time to other kinds of books, yet always return to the former."—(Ep. ii.)

In his 88th Letter Seneca well exposes the folly of learning, which begins and ends in mere words, which hasno real bearing on the conduct of life and the instruction of the moral faculties:—

"In testing the value of books and writers, let us see whether or no they teach virtue.…You inquire minutely about the wanderings of Ulysses rather than work for the prevention of error in your own case. We have no leisure to hear exactly how and where he was tossed about between Italy and Sicily…The tempests of the soul are ever tossing us, and evil doing urges us into all the miseries of Ulysses.…O marvellously excellent education ! By it you can measure circles and squares, and all the distances of the stars. There is nothing that is not within the reach of your geometry. Since you are so able a mechanician, measure the human mind. Tell me how great it is, how small it is (pusillus). You know what a straight line is. What does it profit you, if you know not what is straight (rectum) in life." (23) What then? Are liberal studies of no avail? For other things much; for virtue nothing.…They do not lead the mind to virtue—they only clear the way. (24)

"Humanity forbids us to be arrogant towards our fellows; forbids us to be grasping; shows itself kind and courteous to all, in word, deed, and thought; thinks no evil of another, but rather loves its own highest good, chiefly because it will be of good to another. Do liberal studies [always] inculcate these maxims? No more than they do simplicity of character and moderation; no more than they do frugality and economy of living; no more than they do mercy, which is as sparing of another's blood as it is of its own, and recognises that man is not to use the services of his fellows unnecessarily or prodigally.

"Wisdom is a great, a vast subject. It needs all the spare time that can be given to it.…Whatever amount of natural and moral questions you may have mastered, you will still be wearied with the vast abundance of questions to be asked and solved. So many, so great are these questions, all superfluous things must be removed from the mind, that it may have free scope for exercise. Shall I waste my life in mere words (syllabis)? Thus does it come about that the learned are more anxious to talk than to live. Mark what mischief excessive subtlety of mind produces, and how dangerous it may be to the truth." (Ep. lxxxviii.)

Elsewhere he indignantly demands:—

"What is more vile or disgraceful than a learning, which catches at popular applause (clamores)?"—(Ep. lii.)

Anticipating the ultimate triumph of Truth, he well says:—

"No virtue is really lost—that it has to remain hidden for a time is no loss to itself. A day will come, which will publish the truth at present neglected and opposed by the (malignitas) of its age. He who thinks the world to be of his own age only, is born for the few. Many hundreds of years, many millions of people, will intervene. Look forward to that time. Though the envy of your own day shall have condemned you to obscurity, there will come those who will judge you without fear or favour. If there is any reward for virtue from fame, that is imperishable. The talk of posterity, indeed, will be nothing to us. Yet it will revere us, even though we are insensible to its praise; and it will frequently consult us.—What now deceives has not the elements of duration. Falsehood is thinly disguised; it is transparent, if only you look close enough."—(Ep. lxix.)

In his Questions on Nature, in which he shows himself to have been in advance of his contemporaries, and, indeed, of the whole mediæval ages, in scientific acumen, he takes occasion to reprobate the common practice of glorifying the lives and deeds of worthless princes and heroes, and exclaims in the modern spirit:—

"How much better to try to extinguish the evils of our own age than to glorify the bad deeds of others to posterity! How much better to celebrate the works of Nature [deorum] than the piracies of a Philip or Alexander and of the rest who, become illustrious by the calamities of nations, have been no less the pests of mankind than an inundation which devastates a whole country, or a conflagration in which a large proportion of living beings is consumed."—(Quæst. Nat. iii.)

It will be sufficiently apparent, from what we have presented to our readers, that Seneca, if, nominally, of the Stoic school, in reality belonged to no special sect or party. Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri. Bound to the words of no one master, he sought for truth everywhere. The authority whom he most frequently quotes with approval is Epikurus, the arch-enemy of the School of Zeno. More wise and more candid than the great mass of sectaries, he scorns the tactics of partisanship. He justly recognizes the fact taht the "luxurious egoists have not derived their impulse, or sanction from Epikurus; but, abandoned to their vices, they disguise their selfishness in the name of his philosophy." He professes his own conviction to be "against the common prejudice of the popular writers of my own school, and that the teaching of Epikurus was just and holy, and, on a close examination, essentially grave and sober.…I affirm this, that he is ill-understood, defamed, and depreciated." (De Vitâ Beatâ, xii., xiii ) (25)

It will also be sufficiently clear that the ethics of Seneca consist of no mere trials of skill in logomachy; in finely-drawn distinctions between words and names, as does so large a proportion both of modern and ancient dialectics. If so daring a heresy may be forgiven, we venture to suggest that the authorities of our schools and universities would, with no inconsiderable advantage, substitute judicious excerpts from the Morals of Seneca for the Ethics of Aristotle; or, rather, as Latin literature is now in question, for the De Officiis of Cicero. This, however, is perhaps to indulge Utopian speculation too greatly. The mediæval spirit of scholasticism is not yet sufficiently out of favour at the ancient Schools of Scotus and Aquinas.


    1. "Seneca præceptis Eloquentiæ et comitate honestá (with gentleness and honest virture) is the expression of Tacitus," referring to this tutorship.
    2. See Letters of C. Plinius Secundus iiil, 16
    3. With a boldness rarely exampled in the innumerable records of all but incredible servile baseness and submission, on the part of the patricians and Senate, to the atrocious mandates of the sanguinary and vilely-debauched tyrants who ruled the Roman Empire, Seneca (we learn on the authority of Tacitus) to an emissary of Nero asserted, "The bent of his disposition was not to adulation—and no one could know that better than Nero himself, who had oftener experienced his freedom of speech than his servility," Annales xv, 61. A sort of courage for which our own nobility certainly were not famous, under the Tudor despots, in particular. Cf. Juv. Sat. iv., 150-5.
    4. Alluding to the current report (noticed by Tacitus) that the Pisonian conspirators had proposed to give the imperial diadem to Seneca rather than to Piso. Had this been an accomplished fact, the Antonine Age would have been anticipated—for a brief period. See Juv. Sat. viii. 212.
    5. Jerome, Script. Ecclesiast. The presence of the two most distinguished teachers respectively of the (reformed) Old and of the New Faith, in the capital of the Roman Empire, is at once one of the most remarkable, and one of the most dramatic, instances of strange coincidence in the records of religious history. It is possible that the latter had knowledge of the writings of Seneca: but the total silence of the "Pagan" teacher seems to prove him ignorant of the Pauline Letters.
    6. . . . . "Venient annis secula seris,
      . . . . Quibus Oceanus vincula rerum
      . . . . Laxet, et ingenos pateat tellus,
      . . . . Tethysque novos detegat orbes,
      . . . . Nec sit terris ultima Thule."—Med.
    7. Aristoteles expressed the universal idea of the slave (in Hellenic and Latin society) in defining him or her to be an "animated machine" (greek omitted)—Ethica. Human slaves were, in fact, regarded in the same light as the non-human slaves are, among European nations, at this day—as without natural rights; and were equally abandoned to the caprice, the cruelty, or the avarice of the owner. As for the atrocities of the Circus, they were regarded by the fashionable, religious, or literary society of the age as are the atrocities of the Christian Tauromachia and bull-ring of Christian Spain of to-day.
    8. In a note on this passage Lipsius, the famous Dutch commentator, remarks: "I am quite in accord with this feeling. The constant use of flesh meat (greek omitted) by Europeans makes them stupid and irrational (brutos).
    9. Lipsius suggests, with some reason, that Seneca actually wrote repecting his father, the exact opposite, "who had no dislike for this philosophy, but who feared calumny," etc.
    10. On this melancholy truth compare Montaigne's Essais.
    11. Compare the elder Pliny, who professes his convictism that "the plainest food is also the most beneficial" (cibus simplex uticissimus), and asserts that it is from his eating that man derives most of his diseases, and from thence that all the drugs and all the arts of physicians abound. (Hist. Nat. xxvi , 2S.)
      On the subject of intoxicating drinks Plinius, writes:—
      The nations of the West have their intoxicating drinks made from fermented grains. Thus drunkenness prevails all over the world. For these liquors are taken pure, and are not diluted as wine [among the Greeks generally] is; yet, assuredly, the earth thought that she was producing corn. Oh ! the amazing sagacity of our vices. We have discovered how to make even water an instrument of intoxication."— xiv. 2.
    12. Cf. Pope's accusation of the gluttony of his species:—
      "Of half that live, the butcher and the tomb."
      Essay on Man
    13. Compare Juvenal, Martial, Athenæus, Plutarch, and Clement of Alexandria.
    14. Ep. cx. Cf. St. Chrysostom (Hom i. Coloss. i.) who seems to have borrowed his equally forcible admonition, on the same subject from Senecca.
    15. The force of truth and candour obliges the impartial historian, however reluctantly, to confess that from a very early period of Christianity—at least, of established Christianity—the virtues of humaneness and justice (as regards the two chief typical exhibitions of them—the treatment of slaves and the barbarities of the Circus) were little more conspicuous than under Paganism. As to slaves, it is enough to recall the enactment of the Christian Emperor Gratianus (at the end of the fourth century) by which a slave who bore witness against his master, truly or falsely, was sentenced to be burned alive; and that not before the ninth century were slave marriages regarded as valid by ecclesiastical law. But the notorious fact that slaves were scarcely better (if indeed so much) protected by Law from the cruelty and selfishness of their masters in the United States of America in our own times, than they were (e.g.), in pre-Christian Athens, may be deemed yet more significant. The Stoic sect, it deserves to be recorded to its credit, had already in the early period of the Empire, proclaimed the doctrine that all men are born free, and that slavery was "a custom of the law of nations, contrary to the law of nature." Dion Chrysostom, the most distinguished of the Hellenic rhetoricians of the Empire, born a few years before the death of Seneca, followed in his footsteps, and protested against the treatment of slaves, and advocated abolition of certain forms of that iniquitous institution.
      . . As for the Circus, with its horrible brutalities, it was not until many years after Constantine that the human (gladiatorial) shows were abolished; while the equally cruel and demoralising enforced combats and wholesale slaughtering of the non-human victims continued down to the sixth century. The gladiatorial exhibitions, in fact, lingered on in the provinces so late as the time of Salvian, the Christian authority to whom and to St. John Chrysostom we owe so much of our knowledge of the unedifying manners of their contemporaries. The former expressly states that the gradual decay of that "peculiar institution" was owing to the general destitution and misery of the times rather than to express teaching (miseriæ est beneficium non disciplinæ.) What however Is most to the present purpose is the fact, that the slave—that is to say the most hard-worked part of the population was refused flesh-meats.
    16. See the indignant protest of Juvenalis against the extravagant selfishness of the master of a household, who, while expending huge sums on his luxurious gluttony, left his slave-dependants to starve, and to shiver from cold:
      . . . . "Simplexne furor sestertia centum
      . . . . Perdere et horrenti tunicam non tradere servo?"

      Cp. Satires I, 93; vi, 475 495; xiv, 15-25. For other expressions of the higher morality of the greatest of Latin satirists, see x, 6o; xv, 131-142. Also, Plinius Secundus, Epist. viii, 16; ix. 21, on human treatment of slaves. In the latter letter he eloquently requests pardon for a slave—or rather a freedman—from his owner—(which may be compared with the more celebrated Letter to Philemon). Plinius, elsewhere referring to the brutal indifference to the sufferings of slaves says of their masters: "whether they are 'great' and 'wise' I know not: I know that they are not men. It is the part of a human being to be affected by grief and pain, to have feeling (sentire)" viii. 16. For further proof of his sensibility, see, (inter alia)Ep. v. 16—on the death of a young girl; and Cp. Juv. Sat. xv. 138-140.
    17. Epistola vii. and De Brevitate Vitæ xiv. As to the effect of the gross diet of the later athletes, Ariston (as quoted by Lipsius) compared them to columns in the gymnasium, at once "sleek and stony"—Greek omitted. Diogenes of Sinope, being asked why the athletes seemed always so void of sense and intelligence, replied, "Because they are made up of ox and swine flesh." Galen, the great Greek medical writer of the second century of our æra, makes the same remark upon the proverbial stupidity of this class, and adds: "And this is the universal experience of mankind—that a gross stomach does not make a refined mind." The Greek proverb "Greek omitted" exactly expresses the same experience. Pausanias records the name of the first athlete, at Olympia, in a later age, who trained on flesh—(about 480, B.C.) He states that previously cheese was the most solid part of the diet of the athletes (Greek omitted), Cf. Shakspere: "Fat paunches make lean pates" (Twelfth Night), and Troilus and Cressida (ii. i.) for same sentiment.
      . . See Terernius (or Diphilus) in the Adelphia (I, i,) and Quintilianus for very just admonitions on this matter. The humane and rational reflections of the great Latin critic on the common practice of flogging children for the most venial faults—especially in schools—are worthy of Seneca, and contrast conspicuously with Christian theory and practice down to our own days. (See Instituta II). Ascharn (Schoolmaster) and Lily (Euphues) deserve high praise, in an age of the most brutal severity, for having expressed the same humane feeling. Ascham's account of the treatment of the Lady Jane Grey by her parents, as told to him by herself, is well known. Among modern protesters against the savage severity of Criminal Codes, Beccaria, Voltaire, Howard, Phillips, and Bentham shine foremost.
    18. De Clementid i. and ii. The author has been accused of flattering a notorious tyrant. The charge is, however, unjust, since Nero, at the period of the dedication of the treatise to him, had not yet discovered his latent viciousness and cruelty. Like Voltaire, in recent times, Seneca bestowed unmerited praise in the hope of flattering the
    19. "The prophets prophesy falsely, the priests bear rule by their means, and the people love to have it so."
    20. In the original, "dumb animal" (mutis animalibus)—a term which, it deserves special note, Seneca usually employs, rather than the traditional expressions "beasts" and "brutes." The term "dumb animals" is not strictly accurate, seeing that almost all terrestrials have the use of voice, though it may not be intelligible to human ears. Yet it is, at all events, preferable to the old traditional terms still in general use.
    21. It is one of the many marks of the superior sagacity of Seneca that he appears, in a manner, to have anticipated the protests of more reasonable persons against the fashionable unnatural method of preventing disease by implanting disease:—"To be indebted to Disease for seeming Health is a sort of medical nostrum to be abominated" (Abominandum remedii genus sanitatem debere morbo) De Irâ I. An apophthegm which might be adopted as the motto of the anti-vaccination associations.
    22. See this finely and wittily illustrated in Micromégas (one of the most exquisite of satires), where the philosopher of the star Sirius proposes the same sort of questions to the contending metaphysicians and savants of our microscopic planet.
    23. Quintilian, in his remarks on the education of the young, frequently insists on the importance of a judicious selection of literature for them.—Institutes.
    24. Cp. De Benet. I. 15. The eulogy of the founder of the "Garden" by Lucretius ("vivida vis animi pervicit, et extra Processit longe flammantia mænia mundi"), and by Virgilius ("felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas," etc.) and of Juvenalis (Sat. xiii, 123, xiv, 319.) expresses the high estimation in which he was held by the most discerning minds of pre-Christian times. Gassendi, in modern days, has been his principal vindicator.
  • Seneca's Morals (PDF 17mb) - trans Sir Roger L'Estrange, New York, c.1870.

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index