The kind of hero we've ceased to believe in

Tradition has it that Sts. Peter and Paul were killed in the pogrom Nero executed against the Christians after the fire that devastated Rome in AD 64. Nero needed a scapegoat; the people were inclined to blame him. The Christians, a queer minority, were to hand.

This was not the first outrage Nero committed, nor would it be the last. Yet for the first five or six years of his reign Nero kept his passions more or less under control, while Seneca, his philosopher-tutor, shaped and administered policy.

Who was Seneca? Villy Sorensen's book gives a full answer and, in doing so, provides a portrait of a kind of man we have almost ceased to believe in: the humanist hero.

Labels sometimes hide what they identify. It is said that Seneca was a Stoic philosopher. ''Stoicism,'' like all isms, would be a dogma, an ideology. Even that scrupulous man T. S. Eliot could write, ''The ethic of Seneca is a matter of postures.'' And yet Seneca, as he emerges in Sorensen's full-length portrait, lived and worked in the eye of the storm. The key to his flexibility and integrity was his growing awareness of the spiritual order at the center of every person. Since ''The difference between gods and men was one of degree rather than essence, it was up to men to know their limitations. . . .'' Differentiating fortune (the accidental) from fate (the necessary) involves distinguishing between material success and spiritual power, and it is the occupation of a lifetime.

Not every lifetime. Not Nero's.

Until Stoicism is better understood, it may be helpful to speak of Seneca's humanism. It is not, apparently, something one can learn from a book. Nero was exposed to Seneca's teaching for many years, and still he only learned to envy his tutor's oratorical and poetic powers. Seneca's humanism begins with the recognition: Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto - ''I am a human being, and I consider nothing human alien to me'' (Terence, 2nd century BC, after Menander). As Sorensen shows, once Nero had grown indifferent to Seneca's restraining influence, the emperor perverted this insight into an excuse to deny himself nothing. In the end, Nero considered nothing, even bestiality, alien.

Before Nero forced his ''retirement,'' Seneca, like many ancient thinkers and modern fundamentalists of several stripes, looked for a return of a reign of peace. He expected the emperor's good example to bring in a new age. After the fire of Rome and Nero's horrible use of Christian ''gladiators'' as scapegoats, Seneca redefined happiness in terms of a personal readiness for death. The letters to his lifelong friend Lucilius, which made extremely popular reading in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance and still are part of the canon studied in college Latin classes, show how fear can be reduced as we lose our attachment to material objects and live not according to ''fortune'' but according to ''fate,'' or nature. The pleasant life is not necessarily the happy one. But ''Every day is like a new year,'' Seneca wrote to Lucilius, if you live not for goods but for the Good.

Sorensen's ''Seneca'' is far more than a biography. It is an interpretation and presentation of Seneca's thought. As a presentation of an ancient author, perhaps only Eric Voegelin's ''Plato'' does as much to rediscover for the modern reader a lost classic in all his relevance.

By placing Seneca both in the context of Greek and Roman philosophy and in the context of Christianity (he astutely differentiates the thought of Jesus from some Christian traditions), as well as in the political and social context, Sorensen can be fairly said to have brought Seneca back to life. Page after page bears witness to the author's desire and ability to share Seneca with us.

The great theme of ''Seneca'' is Seneca's discovery that ''an individual is of value in himself.'' Sorensen shows just why Seneca, as a contemporary of Jesus, should seem ''modern in so many ways.''

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