On this day in the year 54 AD, young Nero—just 16 years old—succeeds Claudius as Roman Emperor. Claudius had died after eating poisoned mushrooms at the hands of his wife, the Empress Agrippina. It was an inauspicious but fitting beginning for Nero, who would go on to be one of the cruelest and most deranged of the Roman Emperors.
What is particularly strange about his reign is who stood beside him during it, who had taken over his education and was in many ways the regent responsible for him: Seneca. Having been assigned the role by Agrippina, the responsibilities of tutoring this clearly flawed young man would test all of Seneca’s philosophical principles (some would say break them). Particularly when Nero followed in the family tradition and started murdering people. According to James Romm, Seneca’s biographer, critics used the word tyrannodidaskalos to describe Seneca—tyrant teacher because they believed he enabled this evil man.
So why did Seneca stay on the job? For the same reason many people continue to work on Wall Street despite their reservations, or why people who didn’t vote for a certain president nevertheless take jobs with (or stay in) the incoming administration. That is to say, the reasons are complicated—some good and some bad. It is easy to judge these people, to call Seneca a hypocrite or a villain. But the truth is that life is complicated and what might seem like avarice or greed to an outsider might just as easily be genuine selflessness and sacrifice. One can imagine Seneca saying to himself, “Nero is a monster but I seem to be able to keep some of his impulses contained. If I leave, things might actually get worse.” The same logic is what keeps a tobacco executive on the job, just as it keeps the workaholic parent on the road and away from their family. What looks terrible on the outside often has its logic, not all of it right and not all of it wrong.
The point is: Don’t waste your time judging others. “Is Seneca a true Stoic?” “How can the people in the Trump White House sleep at night?” Because you don’t know. Maybe they’re heroes. Maybe they do have trouble sleeping at night. In any case, focus on yourself. On your own moral dilemmas. There is plenty there to keep you busy.
P.S. This email was originally sent on October 13, 2017. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.