Subject: Premeditation – Seneca’s Prescription
Event: Earthquake in Campania, Italy, 62 AD
The Stoic philosopher Seneca was born in Spain in 4 B.C. He was educated in Rome. After achieving a prestigious position in politics as a financial clerk, his fortunes took a dark turn. Accused of committing adultery with the emperor’s niece, he was exiled by the Roman Emperor Claudius to the island of Corsica. Seneca’s fortunes changed eight years later when Claudius’ wife Agrippina allowed him to return to Rome as the tutor for her son and future emperor, Nero. After working as Nero’s tutor for five years and as his aide for another ten, Seneca found himself again at the bottom of Fortune’s wheel. After Nero uncovered a conspiracy to have him removed as emperor, he executed a purge of the people in his inner circle. This included Seneca who was sentenced to death by suicide. In 65 A.D., Seneca bled to death after he severed veins on his arms and legs.
Three years prior to his death — on February 5, 62 A.D. — an event occurred in Pompeii, Italy, that served as an allegory for Seneca’s view toward fortune. Seventeen years before a volcanic eruption buried Pompeii, the city suffered a tremendously destructive earthquake. In the months following the earthquake, as inhabitants began to leave the region, Seneca commented on the futility of their actions, arguing that there is no place on earth where we are free from Fortune’s fickle finger:
Perhaps tonight or before tonight, today will split open the spot where you stand securely. How do you know whether condition will henceforth be better in those places against which Fortune has already exhausted her strength or in those places which are supported on their own ruins? We are mistaken if we believe any part of the world is exempt and safe. . . .
Instead of moving to a different region to avoid bad fortune, Seneca had a different prescription which involves a metaphorical shifting of ground. He called it the premeditatio malorum — or premeditation. This daily morning ritual is an exercise of the imagination where an individual contemplates what might possibly go wrong during the day ahead. Rather than being a pessimistic, negative practice, the premeditatio is meant to build optimistic self-confidence. In other words, we can lessen fortune’s blows by mentally anticipating and preparing for them.
As Seneca said:
What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events….
To illustrate the inescapability of fortune, Seneca used the metaphor of a dog tied to an unpredictable cart. Like the cart, fortune moves capriciously. We have degrees of freedom of movement based on the length of the leash, but once the cart begins to move, we must either move with it or be dragged by our necks.
In Seneca’s words:
An animal, struggling against the noose, tightens it… there is no yoke so tight that it will not hurt the animal less if it pulls with it than if it fights against it. The best alleviation for overwhelming evils is to endure and bow to necessity. (1)
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is the “premeditatio malorum,” and how does it relate to his attitude toward fortune and his attitude toward unfortunate events like an earthquake?
Challenge – Seneca’s Sage Sayings: Research some wise quotations by Seneca, the Younger. For example, he said, “There are more things . . . that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” Select one quotation that you think provides especially smart insights. Quote it and follow the quotation with some commentary explaining why you like it.