To have a great man for a friend seems pleasant to those who have never tried it

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018

In January 2017, Ryan Holiday was offered a potential position inside the newly forming Trump administration as communications director for a cabinet member, and he surprised himself by even considering it:

In the ancient world, as is true today, navigating political chaos was a pressing dilemma. Philosophers were forced to decide whether to participate in, resist or simply endure the political rulers of their time. Socrates, the incorrigible free spirit, was a soldier in the Peloponnesian War and a citizen who lived through Athens of the Thirty Tyrants. Aristotle, who wrote brilliant works on justice, happiness and government, worked for Alexander the Great, a murderous warmonger.

Or consider the case of Seneca, a man whose political life mirrors much of the chaos of the Trump administration. In A.D. 49, the well-known writer and Stoic philosopher was recalled from exile to tutor the successor of the emperor Claudius, a promising teenager named Nero. Like many people today, Seneca entered public service with ideals mitigated by a pragmatic understanding of the reality of the politics of his time.

Although just a few generations earlier, the Stoics had been ardent defenders of the republican ideals (Cato, Seneca’s hero, famously disemboweled himself rather than live under Julius Caesar), by Seneca’s time most of these objections had become futile. As Emily Wilson, a translator and biographer of Seneca, writes: “Cicero hoped that he really could bring down Caesar and Mark Antony. Seneca, by contrast, had no hope that he could achieve anything by direct opposition to any of the emperors under whom he lived. His best hope was to moderate some of Nero’s worst tendencies and to maximize his own sense of autonomy.”

We can imagine, too, that he saw the inexperienced Nero as an opportunity to advance his own interests and influence. Only time would reveal that fusing his fate to Nero was a Faustian bargain.

Though Nero had good qualities, he was obsessed with fame and had an endless need for validation. He was also unstable and paranoid, and began to eliminate his rivals — including murdering his own mother. Was Seneca personally involved in these decisions? We don’t know. But he helped legitimize the regime with his presence, and profited from it as well, becoming one of Rome’s richest men through his 13 years of service.

Seneca was torn. To the Stoics, contributing to public affairs was a critical duty of the philosopher. Could Seneca decline to serve because he disagreed with the emperor? Could he leave a deranged Nero unsupervised? In time, Seneca would also come to the conclusion that when “the state is so rotten as to be past helping, if evil has entire dominion over it, the wise man will not labor in vain or waste his strength in unprofitable efforts.”

As Nero worsened, Seneca attempted to leave. Joining Nero’s administration was easy, but an exit was not. Nero could not afford to lose his most influential adviser, or allow the perception that someone as well known as Seneca was cutting ties with him. Seneca was granted a quiet sabbatical at Nero’s whim — the modern equivalent of a jointly issued news release.

Seneca had finally come to experience the truth of the words of the Roman poet Horace, whose work had greatly influenced him: “To have a great man for a friend seems pleasant to those who have never tried it; those who have, fear it.”


In a remarkable essay titled “On Leisure,” published after Seneca retired, the philosopher wrote in an oblique way about his own experiences: “The duty of a man is to be useful to his fellow-men; if possible, to be useful to many of them; failing this, to be useful to a few; failing this, to be useful to his neighbors, and, failing them, to himself: for when he helps others, he advances the general interests of mankind.”

Removed from the day-to-day of Rome’s geopolitics (helping the many), he seemed to have a newfound appreciation for helping the few. Seneca seemed to realize only belatedly that one can contribute to his fellow citizens in ways other than through the state — for instance, by writing or simply by being a good man at home. There is some irony in the fact that as an individual, the famous letters and essays Seneca wrote would not only have a bigger impact than his work in politics but also in time would whitewash his contributions to a horrible regime.


Conspirators began to plot against Nero’s life, and Seneca, finally accepting that the monster he had helped create needed to be stopped, appears to have participated — or covered for those who did.

The effort failed but provided Seneca an opportunity: His life up to that point had contradicted many of his own teachings, but now when Nero’s guards came and demanded his life, he would be brave and wise. The man who had written much about learning how to die and facing the end without fear would comfort his friends, finish an essay he was writing and distribute some finished pieces for safekeeping. Then, he slit his veins, took hemlock and succumbed to the suffocating steam of a bath.

Another Stoic politician, Thrasea Paetus, who had chosen to challenge Nero while Seneca had collaborated, would ironically outlive Seneca by a year. His last words before his own death sentence: “Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” This line had come from Socrates.

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