Looking for Lucilius

Florin-Petru Ghiniță

The question “Who could Lucilius be?” is sure to arise in the minds of the readers of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics even from the first few letters, as this rather enigmatic figure becomes their companion, seemingly a fellow student following the path of wisdom, hoping to improve himself through the study of philosophy, whose progress we seem to witness with each letter that follows, and with whom we seem to be invited to identify ourselves. Whether he was a real person or just a character invented as a literary device with the purpose of creating a philosophical work in an epistolary form is the question which comes naturally. In my opinion, the answer is a combination of the two aforementioned possibilities. First, we have good grounds to believe that Lucilius was a real person, who lived in Campania and, at some point, might have become the procurator of Sicily. Second, it is very likely that this historical Lucilius is not the same with Lucilius, the character of the letters. The latter is a fictionalized character, possibly even an alter ego of Seneca, the same way in which the Seneca we find out from in the Letters seems not to correspond entirely with the way Seneca truly was in real life.

Brad Inwood mentions that Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius are widely seen as a literary philosophical exchange which is, at least in part, fictitious. This genre was wide-spread in the ancient times, and for writings of this type to be successful, they needed to look like a real correspondence, although it cannot be said for sure that such a philosophical relationship between the two did not take place in reality.[1] Furthermore, Shadi Bartsch and Alessandro Schiesaro suggest that, due to the comprehensive philosophical content and tone of the Letters, the main question is no longer whether they represent an actual correspondence between Seneca and Lucilius, since it is rather unlikely that they were written solely for Lucilius, but rather, they seem to be intended as a model of philosophical education.[2] Seneca is said to have created, in Lucilius, a role the reader can assume during their process of learning,[3] with the lack of an answer from Lucilius being a factor that could motivate readers to take on this role,[4] given the fact that, since we are being placed right in the middle of the dialogue regarding wisdom, it can be implicitly considered that it is us, the readers, who are the addressees and not Lucilius.[5] Thus, as mentioned by Amanda Wilcox, Seneca’s Letters on Ethics represent an account and model of friendship as well as an expression of Seneca’s teachings on friendship,[6] among other subjects, which create an image of the character Lucilius and construct his relationship with Seneca, one of “amicitia”, while also welcoming the reader to follow the teachings offered to Lucilius.[7] However, as further mentioned by Wilcox, the phrase Seneca uses while taking credit for his friend’s moral progress, namely “meum opus es”, in Letter 34 might also be interpreted as Seneca referring to Lucilius as “a product of his own imagination”[8], which showed me that my belief regarding the character Lucilius as being likely fictional or at least present under a fictionalized form in the Letters was valid.

Lucilius’ lost letters (reconstructed and commented)

In what regards the way in which I have imagined the character Lucilius, based on which I have reconstructed his missing letters, to which I will refer during the presentation of the character, I will continue with a description of Lucilius in the way I have envisioned him after reading the letters Seneca addressed to him in return, as well as considering his progress throughout my letters. Thus, the Lucilius I have imagined started as a young man going into the world, with the hope that the things he planned to accomplish will turn out right in the end. However, he began to feel that fate turned against him, as the responsibility which has been attributed to him, that of procurator in Sicily started to make him feel as if his life was not his, but was rather meant to be dedicated solely in the interest of his clients, something which only made his life sadder, causing him to lose moments which he wished he had the chance to spend doing something else. Because of that, he started to realize how fast life goes and how little a person has of it, and that realisation was only confirmed by the fact that one of his closest friends, whom he looked up to and admired died unexpectedly at a young age, making him realise that he has to rethink and revalue his own life and time left. Besides that, the unfortunate experience made him realize that he does not know how to come to grips with death, be it his or another person’s, and with the knowledge that he will eventually lose everything and everyone. This represents the beginning of his journey towards wisdom, as he chooses to write his first letter to Seneca. I should mention that I have not imagined Lucilius as having had any contact with other schools of thought, such as Epicureanism, before writing to Seneca, despite the fact that it might be possible for the “payments” included by Seneca in his letters to have made Lucilius want to find out more about Epicureanism, as part of his studies.

Even from the very beginning, Lucilius proves to be a fast learner, making progress rather quickly, being enthusiastic, but at the same time making some mistakes, just like a beginner apprentice who hasn’t gotten the hang of what he is practising, initially having the desire to learn everything at once and as quickly as possible, followed by the realisation that he must focus on what is proper for the beginning of his studies and then build on it once a foundation is well settled. Later on, as seen in my letter number 34, he himself mentions that one should spend a long time onto something to have a chance to fully understand it, and then present his own point of view, not just agree with what others say, because knowledge comes from disagreeing over things. As mentioned by Amanda Wilcox, the words used by Seneca himself in Letter 45 seem to imply that one who simply follows another person’s “exploration of philosophy” is a slave “who would have the name of his owner branded on his person”.[9] The author further mentions that an indication of the fact that Lucilius has progressed is the fact that in Letter 45, instead of asking for simple “allowances”, or maxims added to each letter, he asks Seneca for whole books, and in the following letter, sends Seneca a work authored by him.[10]

 Furthermore, my letter number 47 revealed that Lucilius is always looking for the truth, and is saddened that people seem to want to hide the truth from others just to keep it hidden for themselves, believing that everyone deserves to know the truth. He is eager to follow the path of wisdom laid in front of him by Seneca, and he believes that only good things come from one’s pursuit of the truth, wisdom and of his desire to improve himself. In his view, any kind of changes must take place in the mind and not only on the outside, as a person’s value does not come from the material things he possesses, and neither those things nor his manner of dress do not show anything else about a person other than what that person wants others to see. Thus, poverty or lack of riches is not seen by him as negative since, if one rises from the bottom, he would have no problem if he would get back there, since he has been through that before.

 Towards the end of his journey, in my letter number 55, he is shown as having withdrawn himself in an attempt to live for himself again and to get away from the things that put strain onto him, focusing on further pursuing his ambition of improving himself. At a certain point, he has doubts whether his decision to retire was right and is wondering whether such a life, of rest, leisure and respite is proper, since, the way he sees it, neither the convenience of one’s lifestyle nor the place he finds himself in are not of importance and do nothing to help in any particular way with one’s piece of mind, but rather would make one live solely for his pleasures, and completely separated from the world. Since this is the last letter of Lucilius from those that I have written which I have considered in this analysis, I can only assume what happens to Lucilius from this point onwards. I believe that, after consulting with Seneca, he got to the conclusion that his choice to retire, following Seneca’s advice, was a good one, after which he kept dedicating himself to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, since, as seen as early as in my letter number 11, he mentions that he sees the time spent on his own as a moment of reflection and a medicine for the mind, a conviction he continued to have and which helped him in his decision to consider retirement a necessary step on his path of improvement. But since both the letters I have recreated and Seneca’s letters do not offer any conclusion regarding the character, due to the incomplete state of the collection, this is the point at which the story of the character Lucilius in the way in which I have imagined it has stopped.

            Lucilius’s philosophical questions

In terms of Lucilius’ main philosophical questions and interests, the following are some subjects which he seems to have had the most interest in, based on my reading of Seneca’s Letters. The first of his questions, and the one which started the series of letters I have written is that of how to deal with death and with what, if anything, follows it. As he started to worry because of these thoughts, time seemed to go faster and without any meaning, making him feel like a slave to fortune. Thus, he sought guidance and advice from Seneca, as he felt his life going by, and felt burdened by his career. He wanted to change his view of the world and pursue wisdom before it was too late, before he died, so he requested Seneca’s advice for his feeling of loss and the fear of death. Following his guidance, he realized that people fail to live in the present and only think about the past, wishing they could change the things they have done, or regretting them until their death, something he himself used to do. As seen in my letter number 13, Lucilius is still pondering on the fact that fortune seems only to want to weaken us, instilling fear and anxiety and bringing us closer to our demise. He mentions that people seem to be too quick in giving in to opinions and letting themselves pray to emotions. And his final conclusion, present in my letter number 55, is that it is not a certain experience that one might go through, but rather the thought of pain, which makes people afraid, the impossibility to avoid or alleviate it, or worst, the fear of death. But he argues that since there was no pain before birth, there is sure to be none after death, the return to where we came from. Thus, there is nothing that can hurt us, except for our unwillingness to accept the fact and pass away peacefully.

 A second subject brought into discussion by Lucilius would be that of friendship. His initial idea of what a friendship is, as seen in my letter number 3, makes him present someone whom he considers close but with whom he would not share certain things, having the conviction that some things are better left unsaid, even to friends. Thus, his “friend” is a person with whom he enjoys conversing a lot about certain topics, and whose company he finds pleasant, but not someone he can confide in. But he has doubts whether his view of friendship is right and wants to find out Seneca’s views on friendship, because he wants to become a true friend of his, desiring to have someone with whom to go on a common path and share his progress with. I have considered this to be a common desire between the two, coming from the fact that both of them might have lost friends to death, just like the Lucilius I have imagined had, and which made him decide to follow the path of wisdom, a view similar to that of Emily Wilson who mentions in her book that Seneca is trying to build up another friendship after he lost both a colleague, Burrus, and a dear friend, Serenus, both of them having died.[11] However, Bartsch and Schiesaro mention that, even as far as in Letter 35, Seneca mentions that in the case of Lucilius, the term “friend” is not yet suitable, since he is still a “work in progress”.[12] In my letter  number 35, Lucilius affirms that he is a protégé of Seneca, without whom he would not be the one he became, at the same time claiming that friendship and love are equal. When Lucilius mentions, in my letter number 19, that he is disappointed in the fact that some of his clients whom he considered friends let him down, besides asking whether favours can lead to friendship, he begins thinking about the way he will spend the rest of his life, and asks for advice about retirement, something Seneca will continue to advise him to do in the future. Amanda Wilcox argues that the reason for such advice is that, since public life requires a lot of time and energy from a person, it might also impose certain social filters, while, in retirement, Lucilius might be able to choose friends the proper way, as well as taking back control over aspects of his life that his career has superseded.[13] This also leads to his question from my letter number 47 regarding whether one can make friends with everyone, including slaves. Freed from the restrains of his career, Lucilius begins to look for people with whom to become friends, as to progress further.

Lucilius the philosopher: the other Seneca

 As a conclusion, the Lucilius I have portrayed in my letters is more of a philosopher than a politician, being concerned not only with issues of ethics, but with philosophy in general, as applied to matters in his life, his fear of losing the moments of his life and to have everything stolen from him by death, as well as questions related to matters of friendship and public life, or better said, his retirement from it. He is on the road to bettering himself, becoming a student, a friend and at a certain point, a teacher himself, and one can assume that he continues to go further on that road, although we do not find out what happens in the end. However, as Emily Wilson argues, the image of Lucilius as having decided to progress on the road of wisdom guided by the advice of someone on the same road but finding himself a little ahead of him, who makes him consider giving up his public life in order to retire into study is in fact an image of Seneca’s own recent past, with Lucilius representing an idealized younger self of Seneca, given his name, a diminutive of Lucius, another name of Seneca, and his portrayal of a person who would choose his studies rather than his ambitions.[14]

Bibliography

Bartsch, Shadi. & Schiesaro, Alessandro. The Cambridge Companion to Seneca. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Gunderson, Erik. The Sublime Seneca: Ethics, Literature, Metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Inwood, Brad. Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome, 1st ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008.

Wilcox, Amanda. The Gift of Correspondence in Classical Rome: Friendship in Cicero’s Ad Familiares and Seneca’s Moral Epistles (Wisconsin Studies in Classics), 1st ed., Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.

Wilson, Emily. The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca, Reprint ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


Notes:

[1]    Brad Inwood, Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome, 1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008), 346-347.

[2]    Shadi Bartsch & Alessandro Schiesaro, The Cambridge Companion to Seneca. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 42.

[3]    Amanda Wilcox, The Gift of Correspondence in Classical Rome: Friendship in Cicero’s Ad Familiares and Seneca’s Moral Epistles (Wisconsin Studies in Classics), 1st ed. (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), 132.

[4]    Ibid., 14.

[5]    Erik Gunderson, The Sublime Seneca: Ethics, Literature, Metaphysics. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 6.

[6]    Amanda Wilcox, The Gift of Correspondence in Classical Rome: Friendship in Cicero’s Ad Familiares and Seneca’s Moral Epistles (Wisconsin Studies in Classics), 1st ed. (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), 21.

[7]    Ibid., 115.

[8]    Ibid., 144.

[9]    Amanda Wilcox, The Gift of Correspondence in Classical Rome: Friendship in Cicero’s Ad Familiares and Seneca’s Moral Epistles (Wisconsin Studies in Classics), 1st ed. (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), 110.

[10]  Ibid.

[11]  Emily Wilson, The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca, Reprint ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 181.

[12]  Shadi Bartsch & Alessandro Schiesaro, The Cambridge Companion to Seneca. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 45.

[13]  Amanda Wilcox, The Gift of Correspondence in Classical Rome: Friendship in Cicero’s Ad Familiares and Seneca’s Moral Epistles (Wisconsin Studies in Classics), 1st ed. (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), 127-128.

[14]  Emily Wilson, The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca, Reprint ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 181.


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