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How Not to Rule
What the ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca’s tragedies still teach us about political leadership and the destructive role of negative emotions in public life
From the time he entered politics and public life, the first-century Roman philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca had a front-row seat to political depravity. He witnessed first-hand just how extreme emotions could deform a society’s politics and drive already less-than-stable political leaders to acts of wanton cruelty and inhumanity. His public career began during the reign of the deranged emperor Caligula, and he later suffered exile under the comparably saner but still capricious Claudius. Seneca was then called back to Rome to advise Nero, and did so with reasonable success before that emperor too descended into madness and ordered him to commit suicide in the year 65 AD.
Our own politics today are thankfully far less sanguinary than those of Seneca’s day—but they’re no less overwhelmed by emotional extremes or susceptible to mercurial and meretricious demagogues. The underlying impulses Seneca concerned himself with remain ever-present, making his perceptive insights about political power and the need to exercise control over ourselves as we go about public life enduringly relevant.
The scion of a wealthy Iberian family, Seneca wrote prolifically on Stoic philosophy throughout his life—no matter his own personal circumstances. Indeed, more of his writings probably come down to us through the millennia than those of any other ancient Stoic source. Seneca’s surviving works span a wide range of genres, including his well-known and eloquent philosophical consolations, treatises, and letters as well as the eight dramatic tragedies preserved through the centuries. These plays are more than mere retellings of ancient Greek myths and stories, and their present-day importance goes well beyond the influence they had on Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
In these tragedies, Seneca paints brutal and bloody portrait of what happens when we let our passions run roughshod over our reason and succumb to the temptations of political power. They collectively constitute a meditation on the nature of rulership and the ubiquity of human folly, a dramatic exercise that draws its power from the emotional extremes Seneca so graphically depicts. Through negative examples and ignored counsel from wiser advisors, he drops repeated and not-so-subtle hints throughout his tragedies as to how political leaders ought to conduct themselves.
Seneca’s own up-close and personal encounters with political power undoubtedly informed his tragedies. But it’s important to keep in mind that modern scholars cannot date these plays with any real precision; as his biographer Emily Wilson has noted, Seneca likely composed these plays at various points over the course of his public life.1 They’re probably not the product of any one period in Seneca’s life—say, his time in Nero’s court—but instead should be seen as a lifelong literary project that frequently reflected and refracted his own experiences in first-century Rome’s brutal, murderous politics.
Taken together, Seneca’s tragedies amount to something of an anti-Handbook for public life—a dramatic and often grisly guide on how not to govern or rule as well as an extended argument about what it actually means to rule well. They’re equally a warning to posterity about the corruptions of power and the dangers of passion, cautionary narratives rooted in Seneca’s own Stoic philosophy. Seneca’s tragedies offer us visceral lessons about politics and governance that give us a decent sense of what he and other Stoics thought about these still-crucial issues in their own day—notions we’d do well to pay attention to in our own time.
What Makes a Ruler Good—or Bad?
Across Seneca’s tragedies, characters persistently raise basic but profound questions about the nature of rulership—how political leaders ought to run a given polity. Some of these characters offer their own definitions of what it means to govern well, with sage counsel given by minor players—often women—typically ignored by Seneca’s ill-fated protagonists. Other lead characters mouth the right words, making proclamations of principle that immediately ring hollow and which they inevitably betray later on. Antagonists rationalize their own inhumanity away, excusing themselves and their actions in ways that sound all too familiar today.
Seneca himself has a clear idea of how political leaders should act, surfacing positive accounts of the duties and responsibilities inherent rulership via his characters at various points in his plays. Moral courage and the ability to face adversity, for instance, rank high among the traits of a good ruler; as Jocasta, the queen of Thebes and wife and mother of the titular Oedipus, explains to her husband:
The essence of a king, I think, is to grasp adversity, to stand more firmly and courageously with a steady foot the more unsure his situation, the more his might power slips and slides. A real man does not retreat from Fortune.
Similarly, Antigone reminds her royal father in The Phoenician Women that
…what befits a man of such enormous strength is this: to not be subject to resentment, not retreat, beaten by misfortunes.
Self-control also looms large as an attribute to be desired in political leaders. As a chastened Agamemnon, fresh from his arduous, decade-long conquest of Troy, puts it in The Trojan Women, “The more power you have, the more you should put up with.” During a later argument with a vengeful relative of Achilles, he observes that decency should forbid what even the law permits—even for absolute monarchs like himself. In any case, he says, the “man permitted the most should want the least.”
Or as the servant to Atreus, the mad and vengeful king of Argos, futilely reminds his master in Thyestes:
When neither self-control nor care for law exists, nor human feeling, trust, and sanctity, the kingdom can’t stand firm.
As this passage suggests, however, Seneca more often defines decent political leadership in negative terms. His characters frequently deploy warnings and admonitions rather than constructive advice, cautioning those who possess political power against certain behaviors and courses of action—cruelty above all—rather than recommending preferred options. Jocasta’s brother Creon, for instance, bluntly counsels the exceedingly anxious title character in Oedipus:
He who wields the scepter cruelly and tyrannically Dreads his victims. Fear rebounds against its instigator.
Likewise, Theseus—the king of Athens—issues an equally stark and far more ominous general exhortation to his fellow sovereigns:
Abstain from human blood O you who rule, your crimes are punished In greater measure.
Though they may “lord over lives,” Theseus insists, kings and other political leaders ought to keep their hands clean and rule “mildly with unbloodied sway.” For Seneca, clean hands and compassion stand alongside courage and self-control as the defining qualities of a good ruler.
Seneca seems somewhat more concerned with presenting examples of terrible political rulers, however. As Wilson notes, he used his tragedies “to imagine exactly what happens, in gory detail, when all-powerful rulers operate without any thought for mercy toward their inferiors.”2
Take Atreus: Seneca has the bloody-minded king of Argos and antagonist of Thyestes express the tyrant’s mentality with exceptional clarity, repeatedly asserting that the best and indeed only way to govern is through brutality and cruelty. His subjects “must both praise and bear their ruler’s acts.” Rulers ought to have no use for “Human feeling, trust, and sanctity”—they’re “private goods,” and sovereigns by contrast should “go where they please.” “In my realm,” he proclaims, “death’s a fate that people beg for.” Nor does Seneca spin a simple morality tale in which Atreus receives a just comeuppance for exacting a monstrous revenge against his brother, Thyestes: the king of Argos essentially gets away with tricking the title character into devouring his own two sons.
It's a line of argument taken up by other real or would-be tyrants in Seneca’s tragedies as well. Eteocles, a son of Oedipus, echoes it when he claims in The Phoenician Women that a “mighty king” uses his power to quash whatever hatred he inevitably engenders through his iron-fisted rule. Rebuked by his mother, Jocasta, Eteocles declares, “Power’s a handsome purchase at any price.” Seneca takes a dim view of such motives, but he does not claim that brutality fails to win political power for those who covet it. As he has the chorus in Phaedra observe:
Fortune is queen over human affairs with no logic, and tosses out gifts with an unseeing hand, and favors the worse: awful lust overwhelms pious men, fraud reigns in the loftiest court.
But political power, Seneca argues, can be just as much a curse as a blessing: it’s a precarious and unstable thing, all the more so when it’s attained and held through violence. The chorus of Argive women in Agamemnon states as much:
Fortune—deceptive in power’s great blessings— you set in precarious, unstable positions the too-much exalted. Never do scepters possess tranquil peace or a day that is sure of itself.
Or as Agamemnon himself contends in The Trojan Women, “No one ever kept power long with violence; with moderation, it lasts.” After all, the conqueror of Troy has learned from long and harsh experience that a mere “moment crushes greatness.”
More than anything else, though, Seneca dwells heavily on the clear and present dangers of our passions—the destructive, negative emotions that overwhelm reason and invariably lead to tragedy. It’s important to remember here that the ancient Greeks and Romans defined very differently than we do today. When we say we’re passionate about a particular hobby or genre of music or some outdoor activity, we’re not speaking the same language as Seneca and his ancient philosophical contemporaries.
In his tragedies, Seneca has a wider, more universal point to make about the dangers inherent in these extreme emotions. He puts the myriad ways the passions can easily override reason, morality, and indeed our basic sense of humanity on macabre display throughout. For Atreus, the cold desire to avenge himself against the brother who had seduced his wife pushes him to concoct a grotesque scheme involving murder and unwitting cannibalism. Rage compels Medea to kill her own children to exact retribution against their father, Jason, after he left her for a political marriage in Medea. Blinding anger sent down by the jealous goddess Juno causes Hercules to mistakenly murder his wife and child in Hercules Mad. Weak self-control and a desire to reclaim a share of his throne guide Thyestes straight into the trap laid for him by his brother, while crippling fear leads Oedipus to bring about precisely what he dreads and claw out his own eyes when he discovers what he’s done.
When we let our passions rule over us, Seneca warns, they violently cast aside any semblance of human reason, shred our innate sense of sociability, and inevitably lead to tragedy—intentional or otherwise—for ourselves, those closest to us, and indeed society as a whole. Seneca offers us a clear message here: tragedy results when we fail to act as we should and let our passions overwhelm us, and it’s not hard to see how this general admonition applies even more strongly to political leaders and rulers. Indeed, such extreme emotions are all the more perilous and fraught with the potential for disaster when they arise in politics and public life.
What Did Seneca Ever Do For Us?
It's difficult to convey the full intensity of Seneca’s tragedies second-hand; they leave a much deeper impression on readers than any mere description or selective excerpts possibly could. That alone makes his plays well worth reading today.3 More than that, Seneca offers us much to consider as we choose our own political leaders and participate in public life in the twenty-first century.
To start, Seneca outlines a recipe for good rulers in his tragedies—one drawn heavily from the tenets of his own Stoic philosophy. Respectable sovereigns and good political leaders will stay true to reason and practice the four central philosophical virtues of wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice. Bad and cruel rulers conversely succumb to their passions and let the most extreme of negative emotions dictate their actions, invariably resulting in calamity for themselves and those they purport to rule.
Many characters in Seneca’s tragedies lack the sort of self-mastery good rulers and political leaders require. They can’t rule themselves, so they can’t possibly expect to govern others. As Seneca himself put it in one of his philosophical letters to his friend Lucilius, self-control is “the greatest command of all.”
But while self-mastery may be necessary for a good ruler, it’s not enough. Seneca’s characters don’t just lack self-control; they’re often lacking in practical wisdom, the exercise of reason that tells us what we things ought to pursue and those we ought to avoid. At very least, we ought to place a premium on our capacity for reason—and not let our passions bury it as easily as they so often do. It’s all of a piece with a broader philosophical point that the four main virtues are a package deal, not an a la carte menu. Courage without self-control or wisdom or justice leads down dark and bloody alleys, as Seneca starkly illustrates in his tragedies.
Most of us aren’t going to find ourselves in positions of political leadership or power of any sort at any point in our lives. Seneca’s advice nonetheless remains relevant to us regular citizens as we go about our duty to involve ourselves in public life as best we know how. First and foremost, Seneca’s criteria for good and bad political leadership can help us identify the good and bad political leaders in our own midst—a critical task in any democratic society. Granted, few actual political leaders will fully meet any of these standards. But they can serve as useful guideposts as we navigate our own twenty-first century politics.
What’s more, Seneca’s notions of good and bad rulership apply just as much to our own day-to-day lives today as they did myths of ancient Greece or the Roman Forum of Seneca’s day. Three main points stand out:
Listen to reason and accept advice—and act as one should in a given role, whether you’re the chief executive of a dominant world power or not.
Be sure to check your passions, the extreme and destructive negative emotions that overrule our capacity for reason when they take hold.
Recognize and remember that it’s harder than we might think to consistently take advantage of our rational faculty—and that it’s often far too easy to let our passions hold sway.
As with much else in ancient Stoic philosophy, these rules are deceptively simple—Seneca himself knew all too well that they’re easy to describe but extraordinarily difficult to put into practice. Still, it’s good advice for us to follow today when just about every election is the most important of our lifetimes, activists whip up widespread dread and fear of the future, and outrage entrepreneurs stoke unbridled rage for just a few more clicks. Each passing day throws up another example that our politics has been consumed by the sort of passion Seneca warned against so hauntingly in his tragedies.
We’d do well to heed his admonitions against the excesses of passion today—both for our own sanity and the sake of our society.
Wilson p. 125-126.