There is, as we have talked about many times, a tinge of sadness in the story of Seneca. This immensely talented and wise man spent the best years of his life advising and collaborating with one of the worst emperors in history. As James Romm illustrates in his fascinating book, Dying Every Day (and you can listen to our podcast episode with James here) Seneca’s ambition, his drive, it took him fatally off track from where he should have been.
We should all see it as a cautionary tale. “Nobody, great or small, can be ruined except by his own hand,” Oscar Wilde writes in De Profundis. Wilde was proof of this. He traded his genius for pleasure and parties and fame. He let his ego get the best of him. He let his anger get the best of him. “I ceased to be the Lord over myself,” he said of himself. “I was no longer the Captain of my Soul.” It wasn’t his fault that he was ultimately persecuted under unjust laws–just as Seneca was unjustly killed by the man he taught. But Wilde had committed his own crime against himself long before that.
As Seneca said, we must always be under our own power, even as we walk the halls of power or chase success. We must be the captain of our souls even if we are a captain of industry. We cannot waste the gifts we have been given. We cannot give ourselves over to superficial pleasures or honors.
Both Seneca and Oscar Wilde were victims. They couldn’t have stopped that. But they were first victims of themselves and that, in the end, was what they regretted most. As will we. As will we.