What is man? a potter's vessel, to be broken by the slightest shake or toss: it requires no great storm to rend you asunder: you fall to pieces wherever you strike. What is man? a weakly and frail body, naked, without any natural protection, dependent on the help of others, exposed to all the scorn of Fortune; even when his muscles are well trained he is the prey and the food of the first wild beast he meets, formed of weak and unstable substances, fair in outward feature, but unable to endure cold, heat, or labour, and yet falling to ruin if kept in sloth and idleness, fearing his very victuals, for he is starved if he has them not, and bursts if he has too much. He cannot be kept safe without anxious care, his breath only stays in the body on sufferance, and has no real hold upon it; he starts at every sudden danger, every loud and unexpected noise that reaches his ears.
-Seneca, Of Consolation: To Marcia
I have read about Seneca, but I have never read Seneca. I started working my way through some of his philosophy and I have a few thoughts. The caveat is that I am quite uninitiated to his thinking, his influences and his milieu.
His writing is very modern. More than his writing, the way he builds ideas feels similar to how we design arguments today. This could be an effect of the translator, but I wonder if it is how the style Seneca wrote in is what remains influential. Another point is that his examples are very specific and from the real world. Although he speaks about contemporary Roman issues, they often have a universal quality to them.
Two ideas in Of Consolation: To Maria really surprise me how “modern” they sound. His work quoted above about the frailties of humans is very similar to how people would think about it today.
Even more eerie is the way he talks about what happens to the body after life (quoted directly above). Not only was this written nearly 2,000 years ago, but my understanding was that Seneca was not a monotheist. He was a known humanist who lived around the time of Christ, he didn’t seem to be swayed by the new Christian religion. His arguments about death freeing people from the prison of their body could have been written by a Christian a Muslim or a Jew.
What does this say about the influence of Seneca’s writing? Quite a lot. But could it also show how deeply ingrained these ideas are for most people, regardless of religion. Seneca does not talk about heaven in a Abrahamic sense (a victory of the self over death), nor does he speak about a soul’s separation from the body to be redeemed as it passes into heaven. Seneca didn’t speak about an afterlife, but he did talk about the separation of the body from the person.