Susanna Braund‘s translation of Seneca’s De Clementia, is well worth the read.
Seneca addresses De Clementia to the young Roman emperor Nero, with the aim of depicting the ideal ruler. Braund goes to great lengths to establish the literary, philosophical, and political traditions that influenced the work but I’ll spare those details.
Here are some of the notes that interested me.
On when to spill blood, Seneca advises:
I am extremely sparing of even the cheapest blood.
On wearing a mask, Seneca offers:
No one, after all, can wear a mask for long. Pretence quickly lapses into its true nature.
On the two sides of happiness, Seneca writes:
It is a fact that an excess of happiness makes people greedy and that longings are never so well controlled that they fade away at the point of attainment. The ascent is made from great things to greater and once people have got the unhoped-for, they embrace the most extravagant hopes.
On clemency, Seneca advises:
Just as medicine is of use among the sick, yet is also prized among people who are well, so clemency, while it is invoked by people who deserve punishment, is also respected by the guiltless.
On the perpetual need to distinguish between the bad and the good, Seneca writes:
[W]hen the distinction between the bad and good is removed, the result is confusion and an outbreak of bad behaviour.
It’s easy to kill … sometimes it’s better to preserver a life.
To kill in defiance of the law is open to anyone. To preserve life is open to no one except for me.
Never do anything in anger.
Savage, implacable anger does not suit a king because he does not maintain much superiority over the person with whom he levels himself by getting angry.
And some timeless advice for those of us seeking petty avenges.
The person who renounces revenge when he can easily take it wins unqualified praise for his mercy.
On reputation, Seneca writes:
The actions and words of your and those like you are seized upon by rumour. For that reason, no group should take more care over their reputation than people who, whatever they actually deserve, are going to have an important reputation.
On Kings and Tyrants, Seneca advises:
Why does it happen that kings get to grow old and to hand on their kingdoms to their children and grandchildren, but that the power of tyrants is accursed and short-lived? When difference is there between a tyrant and a king—after all, the appearance of their position and the extent of their power are the same—except that tyrants are ferocious in accordance with their whims, but kings only for a reason and when they have no choice.
It’s not your title that matters, it’s how you behave.
What distinguishes a tyrant from a king is his behaviour, not his name.
Retribution normally brings two outcomes: it either provides compensation to the injured party or it provides immunity for the future. In the case of an emperor, his standing is too great for him to require compensation and his strength is too palpable for him to look for confirmation of his powers through hurting someone else.
On whether to tell the truth or to flatter, Seneca writes:
I would rather offend you with the truth than please you with flattery.
If you haven’t read De Clementia, Braund’s copy is a great place to start.