‘Asthma’ by Seneca

Story Title: ‘Asthma’ by Seneca.
Source: The Art of the Personal Essay (Anchor Books)
Date Read: 17th September 2011
Afterthoughts: In this second entry from Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger, Lopate offers us another example of Seneca’s early essayistic form, as he describes a recent asthma attack and his reaction to that attack. And if I’m being honest then I see nothing much different from the modern personal essay, and with no reference to the time in which he is writing, this one almost reads as though it were a modern essay, albeit with less structure and polish.

Stating that he has been visited by ‘all the troublesome or dangerous complaints there are’ Seneca tells us that there are none more unpleasant in his mind, than asthma. Would it surprise you however, given his philosophical stance, that Seneca remains as stoic as ever, ‘never failing to find comfort in cheerful and courageous reflection’ during an attack? Ever the quiet suffering hero, eh? 🙂

What I found most remarkable about this piece (as I did while reading his other entry in this anthology, On Noise) is how closely Seneca writes in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way. Seneca’s writing is chatty. He blurts out random thoughts in mid-flow, challenging and countering them before moving on. I like this style of writing and it helps to make it sound all the more contemporary and timeless.

In his introduction to Seneca, Lopate tells us that everything about the modern personal essay goes back to this man, and reading Asthma and the former piece, On Noise, I can really see why. Montaigne may be tirelessly touted as the father of the modern essay, but in Seneca I can definitely see a distant seed sower.

Notable Quote: “This is why the doctors have nicknamed it [asthma] “rehearsing death” since sooner or later the breath does just what it has been trying to do all those times.”

Rating: ★★★★☆

This story was read as part of a review of Philip Lopate’s personal essay anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay. If you want to find out more about this collection then I invite you to head on over and read my ‘forethoughts’ post for the book, and/or visit the the publisher’s website.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn’t bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


  1. Duncan S. Mackenzie says:

    Michel de Montaigne’s essays are in a similar vein (and definitely worth a read).