“You become what you give your attention to.” – Epictetus

Exploring Seneca's dual nature: Sage and Shadow, wisdom and contradictions, on a journey of self-discovery.

I have once again been inspired by one of the Walled Garden meet-ups and had some thoughts regarding Simon Drew’s Ode to Seneca from June 30th, 2022. Is Seneca a Sage? How can we make sense of the life of an artist and the wisdom of their work?

Simon certainly seemed to describe divine inspiration he has received from the writings of Seneca, throughout his life and finding further depths through re-readings. Inspiration that not only inspired Simon, but has inspired people he has worked with.

The idea of Seneca as The Sage, or a sage, brought up a great discussion. I certainly would take a philosophical view, which I believe I have heard Kai Whiting espouse, that Seneca cannot truly be The Sage, because The Sage has absolute Wisdom. I am not well versed in the life of Seneca, but from what I have heard it certainly seems that he did not have the archetypal Wisdom of the archetypal Sage.

But the discussion of Seneca as a poet and artist got me thinking about whether sometimes he wrote from the point of view of the Sage.

If we all have all of the archetypes within us, then there is the potential that sometimes Seneca “had a few good days” and was channeling the true Wisdom of the Sage.

Seneca’s Shadow

Seneca has the reputation of a hypocrite, of not living the life of a Stoic philosopher. Not practicing what he would preach.

This may be a mark against Seneca being a sage but may have been a necessary step in his process as an artist and gaining understanding.

Carl Jung’s definition of the Shadow can be summarized by thinking about the “light of consciousness.” Whatever you are looking at consciously is illuminated. But this light casts a Shadow, which is whatever you are not looking at, whatever is left unconscious. 

When Seneca served as advisor to Nero, he likely believed he was serving the greatest good. His consciousness focused on making things better, or at least less bad.

I have heard the comparison before between Seneca and any bright man who stands by a tyrant to advise them. “If I do not do this work, someone else will, and it will likely be someone less morally upstanding than I, so it is my duty to continue advising.” Making things slightly better wherever I can.

The Wisdom of a true Sage would tell you whether this will make things better or whether it has the potential to actually make things worse. A mortal human would likely want to avoid considering that this could make things worse. Leaving that possibility in the unconscious.

The Stoicism of Epictetus warns that you will be corrupted by the company that you keep. The only Good is your virtuous choices and actions. It feels like cowardice to abdicate the responsibility of advising an emperor. Or is it cowardice to fear saying ‘no’ and hubris to agree to the position?

Seneca appears to have found Wisdom with age and hindsight. To bring the light of consciousness within, illuminate the Shadow, and recognize self-deception.

To find the goods of the soul, the anima, often symbolized as ‘the gold’, requires going to the underworld. It would be wonderful if there were another way, but history and mythology teach otherwise. Perhaps to have a guide, a mentor, or writings of a scholar help to not have to make ALL of the same mistakes.


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David Alexander

New Mexico-based psychotherapist exploring Stoic Philosophy and Jungian psychology to understand human nature, aiming for self-discovery and empathy through integrated disciplines.

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