How to Serve a Deranged Tyrant, Stoically

Rubens, “The Death of Seneca.”

In January 2017, I was offered a potential position inside the newly forming Trump administration: a job as communications director for a cabinet member. I had not supported Mr. Trump and so the offer was a surprise, and I surprised myself by even considering it.

While I didn’t pursue the opportunity very seriously and it did not come to pass, even the possibility of having worked in the Trump administration has colored my read on the news this past turbulent year. While others follow each new scandal and the dizzying parade of White House hirings and firings with glee or horror, I pause to consider a dangerous near miss. It has also given me a different perspective on a side of philosophy that is often ignored — its interaction and interplay with politics.

In the ancient world, as is true today, navigating political chaos was a pressing dilemma. Philosophers were forced to decide whether to participate in, resist or simply endure the political rulers of their time. Socrates, the incorrigible free spirit, was a soldier in the Peloponnesian War and a citizen who lived through Athens of the Thirty Tyrants. Aristotle, who wrote brilliant works on justice, happiness and government, worked for Alexander the Great, a murderous warmonger.

Or consider the case of Seneca, a man whose political life mirrors much of the chaos of the Trump administration. In A.D. 49, the well-known writer and Stoic philosopher was recalled from exile to tutor the successor of the emperor Claudius, a promising teenager named Nero. Like many people today, Seneca entered public service with ideals mitigated by a pragmatic understanding of the reality of the politics of his time.

Although just a few generations earlier, the Stoics had been ardent defenders of the republican ideals (Cato, Seneca’s hero, famously disemboweled himself rather than live under Julius Caesar), by Seneca’s time most of these objections had become futile. As Emily Wilson, a translator and biographer of Seneca, writes: “Cicero hoped that he really could bring down Caesar and Mark Antony. Seneca, by contrast, had no hope that he could achieve anything by direct opposition to any of the emperors under whom he lived. His best hope was to moderate some of Nero’s worst tendencies and to maximize his own sense of autonomy.”

We can imagine, too, that he saw the inexperienced Nero as an opportunity to advance his own interests and influence. Only time would reveal that fusing his fate to Nero was a Faustian bargain.

Though Nero had good qualities, he was obsessed with fame and had an endless need for validation. He was also unstable and paranoid, and began to eliminate his rivals — including murdering his own mother. Was Seneca personally involved in these decisions? We don’t know. But he helped legitimize the regime with his presence, and profited from it as well, becoming one of Rome’s richest men through his 13 years of service.

Seneca was torn. To the Stoics, contributing to public affairs was a critical duty of the philosopher. Could Seneca decline to serve because he disagreed with the emperor? Could he leave a deranged Nero unsupervised? In time, Seneca would also come to the conclusion that when “the state is so rotten as to be past helping, if evil has entire dominion over it, the wise man will not labor in vain or waste his strength in unprofitable efforts.”

As Nero worsened, Seneca attempted to leave. Joining Nero’s administration was easy, but an exit was not. Nero could not afford to lose his most influential adviser, or allow the perception that someone as well known as Seneca was cutting ties with him. Seneca was granted a quiet sabbatical at Nero’s whim — the modern equivalent of a jointly issued news release.

Seneca had finally come to experience the truth of the words of the Roman poet Horace, whose work had greatly influenced him: “To have a great man for a friend seems pleasant to those who have never tried it; those who have, fear it.”

In a larger sense, Seneca’s struggle has echoes into our time, especially in politics. Last year, Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican who has both criticized Donald Trump and supported many of his policies, tweeted a quote from Seneca about tyranny, prompting some to ask if he was subtweeting the president. Ken Kurson, the former editor in chief of The New York Observer and an informal adviser to Mr. Trump and Jared Kushner during the election, told me that the Stoics were an inspiration to him as he dealt with the ethical and personal challenges of his position.

My own early career involved some questionable service to businesspeople. Employed and paid by them, I planned and carried out controversial publicity stunts, and used dishonest tactics with the public and the media. When I finally left those roles, I found a knowledge of Stoic philosophy integral to my ability to assess my past actions, and set a more honorable course going forward.

In a remarkable essay titled “On Leisure,” published after Seneca retired, the philosopher wrote in an oblique way about his own experiences: “The duty of a man is to be useful to his fellow-men; if possible, to be useful to many of them; failing this, to be useful to a few; failing this, to be useful to his neighbors, and, failing them, to himself: for when he helps others, he advances the general interests of mankind.”

Removed from the day-to-day of Rome’s geopolitics (helping the many), he seemed to have a newfound appreciation for helping the few. Seneca seemed to realize only belatedly that one can contribute to his fellow citizens in ways other than through the state — for instance, by writing or simply by being a good man at home. There is some irony in the fact that as an individual, the famous letters and essays Seneca wrote would not only have a bigger impact than his work in politics but also in time would whitewash his contributions to a horrible regime.

In 65 A.D., Seneca would again find that philosophy did not exist only in the ethereal world. Conspirators began to plot against Nero’s life, and Seneca, finally accepting that the monster he had helped create needed to be stopped, appears to have participated — or covered for those who did.

The effort failed but provided Seneca an opportunity: His life up to that point had contradicted many of his own teachings, but now when Nero’s guards came and demanded his life, he would be brave and wise. The man who had written much about learning how to die and facing the end without fear would comfort his friends, finish an essay he was writing and distribute some finished pieces for safekeeping. Then, he slit his veins, took hemlock and succumbed to the suffocating steam of a bath.

Another Stoic politician, Thrasea Paetus, who had chosen to challenge Nero while Seneca had collaborated, would ironically outlive Seneca by a year. His last words before his own death sentence: “Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” This line had come from Socrates.

From these dark endings and from Seneca’s complicated but very real life, there are no clear or clean lessons. Few serving the current president fall into the category of philosopher, but still, members of the administration face wrenching dilemmas and the conflict between power and principle.

In some cases, now as in the ancient world, ordinary people will respond to these trials with almost inhuman courage, while in other cases they will show contemptible cowardice. And in other cases still, some will, as Seneca did, come to their senses and try to fix their mistakes before it’s too late.

Each serves a purpose to those of us on the sidelines, either as inspiration or as cautionary tale.

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