UPenn Professor Emily Wilson on Seneca, Stoicism and Learning How to Tell the Truth

Only a select few would look back on their high school years and use the word thrilled to describe their experience of reading Plato. But that was exactly how Emily Wilson felt, and she loved that philosophy was so deeply concerned with how people should or could live. Since then, she has been immersed in the subject—from a bachelor’s degree at Oxford to a Ph.D at Yale to now a Professorship at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been a well-known name in the Stoic community due to her masterful translations of Seneca as well as her biography of the man. She has most recently made headlines (including The New York Times) with her new, contemporary translation of The Odyssey, and we had the opportunity to ask her all about that.

Emily was incredibly generous with her answers, and in our wide-ranging interview below we touch on the parallels between Seneca/Nero vs Mattis/Trump, what virtues she aims to instill in her students, the connections between Stoicism and The Odyssey, as well as her favorite lessons from Seneca. Enjoy our interview with Professor Emily Wilson below!  

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You graduated with a degree in Classical Literature and Philosophy from Oxford in 1994 and have been immersed in philosophy ever since. Can you tell us a bit about the periods before Oxford? Why were you attracted to philosophy?

I was a very quiet, introverted kid and teenager; I spent a lot of time alone, reading, and looking in books for answers to big questions about the meaning of life, and also for escapism through stories and the imagination.  I had a period around age 14 of being very serious about religion (Christianity).  I made myself read the Bible all the way through, twice; I used to get up extra early to slog through Leviticus.  I didn’t find it very satisfying.  But it was a way of struggling to find out what the good life might be.  Later, I began to realize that I liked the Bible for the language, the stories and the glimpses of ancient ways of life, but a lot of it was not so useful to me as a guide to life.  A little later, I began learning Greek, and I found it a revelation to start reading Plato.  We read the Apology and the beginning of the Republic in my high school Greek class, and I was thrilled — intellectually and emotionally — by the way that Plato’s Socrates articulates these enormous, life or death questions about ethics and how one should live, and what the meaning of an examined life might be, and at the same time, Plato’s literary style is so alive and human and engaged with particular characters in a very specific context.  I loved that philosophy could seem so deeply concerned with how people live, as well as with questions about how we should or could live.

After finishing Seneca’s biography, are there any questions that you still wonder about? Granted, he is one of the more paradoxical characters of ancient history, but if you could go back in time and have a talk with him, what would you ask him and why?

I’d love to talk to his wife, or his two wives, as well as the other women in his life, like Julia Livilla and Agrippina.  I suspect that talking to Seneca himself, I might not get a straight answer, even though there’s plenty I’d like to know.  A lot of Seneca’s early life is very mysterious to us: we don’t have several important texts that we know he wrote (such as his treatise on marriage, or his essay on Egypt).  I’d like to know more about Seneca as a viticulturalist, and I’d like to know if he regretted not going off to Athens while he could.  I’d like to know, from talking to him, more about what kind of person he was; all we really know is what he’s like on the page, and what other people said about him.  Would I have found him charming, or annoying?  Was his speech anything like his extraordinary written style?  I’d like to know those things.

When the Japanese Defense Minister gave Jim Mattis a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, someone on our Facebook page joked that “something by Seneca would be more poignant.” Have you thought about this parallel between Trump and Nero and Mattis and Seneca? What would you advise Mattis given the situation that he is in?

Ha ha.  I’d say Mattis is much more like Burrus, Nero’s other close advisor along with Seneca, who came from the Praetorian Guard.  Clearly Mattis, like Burrus and unlike Seneca, isn’t in government to give advice about rhetoric (which is what Seneca was hired to do originally), nor to write speeches (again unlike Seneca) or even, in a pinch, talk Stoicism.  He’s there, like Burrus, as a man of the army.

Mattis, but also the whole Trump administration and Republican Party, could draw a pretty useful lesson from Seneca and Burrus.  They both colluded in, and probably actively participated in, a lot of things that they absolutely should have drawn the moral line about ­– such as, in Nero’s case, the murders of his step-brother and mother. I don’t need to spell out what I mean in the case of the Republican Party.  And even though they did so much fudging, they still lost power and influence eventually.  So….just something to think about.

Frankly I feel nervous at the idea of Mattis becoming even more hawkish, if he spends too much time with the militaristic Marcus Aurelius. Stoics and Stoic-ish writers aren’t always a good model to follow.  It depends how you use them.

Is there a particular lesson or quote from Seneca that you think of often? Have any of his Stoic teachings made way into your daily life?

“Let us say what we feel and feel what we say; let speech harmonize with life”.  I don’t think he managed it, but I like the idea.  I find helpful the Stoic notion of indifferent things, all the stuff that doesn’t matter or matters a relatively tiny amount, and of thinking through what ideas, including false ideas, my feelings might be based on.   It’s cognitive therapy but it’s also Stoicism.  I also find that reading Seneca can cheer me up, even apart from any ethical or psychological tips I might glean, because his style is so effective; it’s absorbing and fun, and it’s hard to feel angry or upset when you’re busy following a rhetorical avalanche.

A while ago, I re-read Seneca’s On Anger during a particularly difficult and enraging time in my personal life, and I did genuinely find it helpful.  It’s useful to have a reminder of how much being angry can hurt the person who is indulging in the feeling.  I try not to be angry, and also not to be passive or ignore what’s wrong; it’s a tough balance.  I like that Seneca and the other Stoic-influenced writers are so deeply interested in these essential daily questions of how to manage our feelings, and how feelings relate to action.  As a side note, I’ve been talking to my younger kids a lot recently about antonyms and synonyms — because we all enjoy thinking about language and it’s a fun game.  Yesterday I asked my 7 year old what she thinks the opposite of “happy” is, and she said “MAD”.  Great answer, and Seneca would have known what she meant.

Aside from Seneca, have you studied any of the other Stoics? Do you have a favorite?

My favorite is probably Musonius Rufus, even though we don’t have a lot of his work; I like the fact that he explicitly includes women among the people who should study philosophy — unlike all the other extant Stoics.  I also like Epictetus; I feel deep admiration for his courage, as a former slave.

You teach classes at both the graduate and undergraduate level at one of the best universities. What are some specific philosophical themes or lectures that you teach that you find have the biggest impact on your students? How would you recommend the Daily Stoic readers seek them out in their own lives?

It’s always hard to say what has an impact on students.  Sometimes people learn things that the teacher didn’t intend, and that can be a very successful class.

I think students partly make their own impact; it’s about the work they do, in grappling with the material, as much as anything I do.  I have to help them to insights they might already be on the brink of having.  Plato’s Socrates compares himself to a midwife, and I see that as a good metaphor for the teacher’s role.  I’m like the birth doula of the students’ thoughts — not having the baby for them.

Students often like making connections between antiquity and today.  I do too.  I try to nudge them to make sure those connections are done responsibly, so we’re not being simplistic either about the ancients or ourselves.

I try to teach my students to tell the truth, and that it’s hard to tell the truth.  You have to look hard at whatever you want to know about, and then see if the opposite might be true too — kind of like a Stoic logic exercise.  Look at everything from many different perspectives — like Seneca in Natural Questions, trying to find a cosmic point of view from which to contemplate earth.

Some of the things I’m trying to teach in an academic context apply in daily life too.  If you think you already understand something, try to turn it around and see if the opposite makes sense.  Stop and look and have fun in the journey.  Be immersed in stories.  But also know where you’re going.  If you start an essay writing about one thing, and you end up somewhere else — that’s a great first draft, and you can go back and rewrite it, and it will be ten times better because you changed your mind in the middle.  Life doesn’t have rewrites, but you can treat experience that you might want to undo as providing new levels of understanding.  That’s very helpful in attaining ataraxia.

Let’s talk about The Odyssey. You made headlines recently with your new, contemporary translation in multiple outlets, including The New York Times. Why did you decide to embark on this project? What was your aim? What were the challenges?

I was asked to do the project by my lovely Norton editor, Pete Simon.  I agreed to do it because I felt I could produce a translation that would be very different from any of the extent versions.  I don’t think you can ever say that one translation is absolutely “definitive”; every responsible translation is going to reflect the original in a different way.  But I did feel that I was frustrated by certain features of many of the translations that were out there.  Unlike most of those others, I wanted to write in a strict meter — echoing the regular rhythms of the original in my own, different, regular rhythm — and unlike most of them, I wanted to make my translation exactly the same number of lines as the original, to maintain narrative pace.  I wanted to write in a clear, contemporary style but with some poetic and literary range, conveying sense of wonder and magic, but without pomp; I wanted to avoid the tendency to be grandiose which I think is often tempting for people who want to make English sound like “real EPIC”, and I also wanted to avoid the temptation to be archaic, which is tempting to make modern English sound olde-worlde, like ancient Greek (even though archaic or awkward English is, to my ear, nothing like the fluent rhythms of Homeric Greek).   So, a lot of literary and stylistic and poetic ambitions.  I also felt that I had particular interpretative goals — most broadly, to think deeply about each of the characters, including those other than the protagonist — and bring out the ways that their stories might matter, and the ways that the narrative is rich enough to include contradictory points of view and a diverse array of characters, each imagined in a rounded, psychologically acute way.  As for the Stoics, so for Homer, the ancients knew a lot about human impulses and human feelings, and I wanted to be truthful to that.

Challenges are always infinite, in any big project, certainly in this one.  No two languages are alike; translation forces one to be constantly confronting linguistic and cultural difference.  It’s been hard for me, in recent weeks, to realize I can’t tinker with my translation any more; it’s out there in the world.  I’m proud of it, but I’m always aware that, if I had another five years or fifty years, I could and would keep going and keep unweaving and weaving it again, just like Penelope with the loom.

But that wouldn’t serve my main goals.  I wanted to create a translation that would touch a lot of different readers, that would engage people in this wonderful work of imaginative literature — including students and general readers, and including people who might fear it would be boring, unreadable, or predictably pompous or sexist or irrelevant.  So now that my deadline is up, I need to let go.   People may not like certain choices I’ve made in this translation, and for that kind of anxiety, I do find a quasi-Stoic approach very helpful.  I think through what matters and what doesn’t matter, and what false beliefs might make me anxious, and I let them go.

I’d like to end with a question you didn’t ask: what does the Odyssey have to do with Stoicism?  The answer is, quite a lot.  In antiquity, Odysseus was sometimes seen as a not-very-good model or prototype for the Stoic Sage — and in fact the first English translator, George Chapman, was a neo-Stoic (who might well have been a frequent contributor to Daily Stoic).  Like a good Stoic, Odysseus is patient and he resists at least some of his emotional impulses (for instance, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, gets kicked, and he doesn’t over-react; he hasn’t read Seneca’s On Anger, but he knows the score).  Also like an idealized version of the Stoic Sage, Odysseus seems to represent an idea that a person can remain the same, unmoved by time or circumstances — even though he’s been gone twenty years, he’s still himself. Odysseus isn’t really a very good Stoic; we’re shown his multiplicity, his competence and sneaky street smarts, his fear, his rage, his mistakes, and his emotional ups and downs.  But I do think that the Odyssey is a poem that’s deeply engaged with essential ethical choices — whether or not the characters always behave well.  It’s about pain and time and loss and being lost, and whether people can behave well and be themselves consistently, over time and in any place and to anyone; and what behaving well in all those circumstances would mean.  Those are very Stoic questions — and of course, the Greek founders of Stoicism knew the Odyssey backwards and forwards. So it’s a particularly interesting poem for modern Stoics or stoic-friendly people to read or re-read, and I hope some of you will!


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