Germans and Scythians: Seneca on enduring hardships and on anger (first century CE)

Author: Seneca the Younger, On Providence, especially 4 (link to Latin text; link to full translation).; Seneca, On Anger 2.15 (link to Latin text; link to full translation)

Comments: Seneca was a Stoic philosopher and elite Roman active in the first century. In these two writings he employs ethnographic traditions about northern peoples to two quite different purposes.  In the first writing, northern peoples are put forward as a positive model of endurance. Seneca addresses Lucilius regarding the problem of evil, namely why bad things happen to good people. Seneca’s answer is a very Stoic one as he emphasizes providence (god or reason’s activity in the universe) and the notion that apparent hardships are something to be endured and are, in fact, good for people. In the process, Seneca puts forward the Spartans and the Germans (and other peoples along the Danube) as examples of peoples who withstand hardships on a regular basis, who benefit from their endurance, and who are no less happy than others.

In the second writing On Anger, Seneca once again employs ethnographic traditions but this time northern peoples (Germans and Scythians, for instance) are put forward as extremely negative examples to be avoided.  The common stereotype that Seneca is working with is that northern peoples – due to their harsh, cold environment and “spirited” nature – have little or no control over their emotions, including anger. They are, in fact, lacking in civilization or humanity as a result, Seneca assumes (like many other elite authors).

These alternative uses of ethnographic material for philosophical purposes show just how flexibile such characterizations or stereotypes could be.

Source of the translation: A. Steward, L. Annaeus Seneca: Minor Dialogues (London: George Bell and Sons, 1889), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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On Providence

[Introduction and progression of the argument on providence and misfortunes]

1 You have asked me, Lucilius, why, if the world is ruled by providence, so many evils happen to good men? The answer to this would be more conveniently given in the course this work after we have proved that providence governs the universe and that god is among us. But, since you want me to deal with one point [i.e. why bad things happen to good people] apart from the whole, and to answer one replication before the main action has been decided, I will do what is not difficult and plead the cause of the gods. At the present time it is superfluous to point out that it is not without some guardian that so great a work maintains its position, that the assemblage and movements of the stars do not depend upon accidental impulses, or that objects whose motion is regulated by chance often fall into confusion and soon stumble. This swift and safe movement goes on, governed by eternal law, bearing with it so many things both on sea and land, so many most brilliant lights shining in order in the skies. That this regularity does not belong to matter moving at random, and that particles brought together by chance could not arrange themselves with such art as to make the heaviest weight, that of the earth, remain unmoved, and behold the flight of the heavens as they hasten round it, to make the seas pour into the valleys and so temper the climate of the land, without any sensible increase from the rivers which flow into them, or to cause huge growths to proceed from minute seeds. . .

2 Why do many things turn out badly for good men? Why, no evil can happen to a good man; contraries cannot combine. Just as so many rivers, so many showers of rain from the clouds, such a number of medicinal springs, do not alter the taste of the sea, indeed, do not so much as soften it, so the pressure of adversity does not affect the mind of a brave man. . .

3 However, as my argument proceeds, I will prove that what appear to be evils are not actually evils. For the present I say this: that what you call hard measure, misfortunes, and things against which should pray are really to the advantage, firstly, of those to whom they happen and, secondly, of all humankind, for whom the gods care more than for individuals. Next, that these evils happen to them with their own good will, and that men deserve to endure misfortunes, if they are unwilling to receive them. To this I will add that misfortunes proceed in this way by destiny, and that they happen to good men by the same law which makes them good. After this, I will prevail upon you never to feel sorry any good man; for even though he may be called unhappy, he cannot actually be unhappy. . .

4 Prosperity comes to the common people and to those of low character as well as to great men. Yet it is the privilege of great men only to put under subjection the disasters and terrors of mortal life. On the other hand, to be always prosperous and to pass through life without a twinge of mental distress is to remain ignorant of one half of nature. You are a great man; but how am I to know it, if fortune gives you no opportunity of showing your virtue? . . .

. . . How can I know with how great a spirit you could endure poverty, if you overflow with riches? How can I tell with how great firmness you could bear up against disgrace, dishonour, and public hatred, if you grow old to the sound of applause, if popular favour cannot be alienated from you, and seems to flow to you by the natural bent of men’s minds? How can I know how calmly you would endure to be childless, if you see all your children around you? . . .

[Example of the Spartans]

. . . The gods deal with good men according to the same rule as teachers with their students, exactingthe most labour from those they are most hopeful about. Do you imagine that the Lakedaimonians, who test the resilience of their children by public flogging, do not love them? Their own fathers call upon them to endure the strokes of the rod bravely, and when they are torn and half dead, ask them to offer their wounded skin to receive fresh wounds. Why then should we wonder if god tries noble spirits severely? There can be no easy proof of virtue. Fortune lashes and mangles us. . .

[Example of the Germans and peoples along the Danube]

. . . You can see what endurance might do for us if you observe what labour does among peoples (nationes) that are naked and rendered stronger by what they lack. Look at all the descent groups (gentes) that dwell beyond the Roman peace: I mean the Germans and all the nomadic tribes that war against us along the Istros [Danube] river. They suffer from eternal winter, and a dismal climate, the barren soil resents giving them sustenance, they keep off the rain with leaves or thatch, they bound across frozen marshes, and hunt wild beasts for food. Do you think they are unhappy? There is no unhappiness in what experience has made part of one’s nature: by degrees men find pleasure in doing what they were first driven to do by necessity. They have no homes and no resting-places except those which weariness appoints them for the day. Their food, though coarse, must still be found with their own hands. The harshness of the climate is terrible, and their bodies are unclothed. This, which you think a hardship, is the mode of life of all these descent groups: how then can you wonder about good men being shaken in order that they may be strengthened? No tree which the wind does not often blow against is firm and strong. For it is stiffened by the very act of being shaken, and plants its roots more securely. Those which grow in a sheltered valley are brittle. So it is to the advantage of good men, and causes them to be undismayed, that they should live much in the midst of alarms, and learn to bear with patience what is not evil save to him who endures it poorly.

[Snippet of the conclusion]

6 . . . That very act which is called dying, by which the breath of life leaves the body, is too short for you to be able to estimate its quickness. Whether a knot crushes the windpipe, or water stops your breathing; whether you fall headlong from a height and perish upon the hard ground below, or a mouthful of fire makes you unable to get your breath—whatever it is, it acts swiftly. Are you not embarrassed to spend so much time dreading what takes so short a time to happen?

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On Anger

Book 2

[Introduction on whether anger is an impulse or a controllable passion]

1 My first book, Novatus, had a more abundant subject: for carriages roll easily down hill. Now we must proceed to drier matters. The question before us is whether anger arises from deliberate choice or from impulse: that is, whether it acts of its own accord or like the greater part of those passions which spring up within us without our knowledge. It is necessary for our debate to stoop to the consideration of these matters in order that it may afterwards be able to rise to loftier themes. . . There is no doubt that anger is roused by the appearance of an injury being done. But the question before us is whether anger immediately follows the appearance and springs up without assistance from the mind, or whether it is roused with the sympathy of the mind. Our [Stoic] opinion is, that anger can venture upon nothing by itself without the approval of mind [i.e. it is controllable]. For to conceive the idea of a wrong having been done, to long to avenge it, to join the two propositions, to think that we should not have been injured, and to avenge our injuries as if it was our duty cannot belong to a mere impulse which is excited without our consent. That impulse is a simple act. This is a complex one that is composed of several parts. The man understands something to have happened, he becomes indignant at the situation, he condemns the deed, and he avenges it. All these things cannot be done without his mind agreeing to those matters which touched him.

[Many sections omitted]

[Negative example of Germans and Scythians]

15 Our imagined opponent says: “In order to understand that anger has in it something noble, take a look at the free descent groups (gentes), such as the Germans and Scythians, who are especially prone to anger.” The reason for this is that strong and daring intellects are liable to anger before they are tamed by discipline. For some passions engraft themselves upon the better class of dispositions only, just as good land, even when waste, grows strong brushwood, and the trees are tall which stand upon a fertile soil. In a similar manner, dispositions which are naturally bold produce irritability and, being hot and fiery, have no mean or trivial qualities. Instead, their energy is misdirected, as happens with all those who without training come to the front by their natural advantages alone, whose minds, unless they are brought under control, degenerate from a courageous temper into habits of rashness and reckless daring.

“What? are not milder spirits linked with gentler vices, such as tenderness of heart, love, and bashfulness?” Yes, and therefore I can often point out to you a good disposition by its own faults. Yet their being the proofs of a superior nature does not prevent their being vices. Moreover, all those descent groups which are free because they are wild, like lions or wolves, cannot command any more than they can obey. For the essence of their natural disposition is not human [i.e. not civilized] (non enim humani uim ingenii), but fierce and unmanageable. Now, no one is able to rule unless he is also able to be ruled. Consequently, the empire of the world has almost always remained in the hands of those peoples who enjoy a milder climate. Those who dwell near the frozen north have a savage natural disposition (inmansueta ingenia). “Just on the model of their native skies,” as the poet has it.

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