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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


SENECA

(c. 4 B.C. — 65 A.D.)

 

LATE STOICISM

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in Cordoba, Spain, the son of a famous teacher of rhetoric, and studied philosophy and rhetoric in Rome, where he later practised law with great skill. He fell out with Caligula in the year 39 and was banished to Corsica two years later by Claudius. Recalled in 49 he was appointed tutor to the future Emperor Nero and in due course became one of his two chief advisors and administrators. He committed suicide at Nero's command after being accused of conspiring against him.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE/ KNOWLEDGE

[1] [See Natural Questions.] Broadly a Stoic philosopher Seneca yet combined a materialist account of the cosmos with the notion of God as a transcendent being identified with cosmic Reason [a]. Similarly, although he thought of the soul as material and 'fiery', he distinguished it from the body — which is but its covering; and he accepted limited immortality and some form of 'recycling' [b]: death is but an "intermission of a life which will return again". After the body's death the soul will "discover the secrets of nature" and "behold the divine light". [Of a Happy Life, ch. XXI]. Seneca does not really offer a theory of knowledge as such. Knowledge in the sense of understanding facts about Nature, although intrinsically interesting, is generally valued only to the extent it can contribute to man's practical life.

 

ETHICS

[2] [See Moral Essays and Moral Letters.] Man for Seneca is a rational self-determining being [a]. The virtuous man is he who is able to conquer his passions and follow a life-style which is in accordance with right reason and therefore in harmony with the divine will, or natural law. In this way he would become immune to the fortuitousness of life; virtue is its own reward and thus the highest good [b]. He recommended daily self-examination to enable us to move from a state in which we tend to fall away from the high standards we have set ourselves to a more perfect condition. He sees external goods as a servant not as a master. But in view of the temptations both of the corrupt society of his day and of the inner self (such as lust and avarice), Seneca recognised that the attainment of virtue would be neither easy nor quick. Consistently with his acceptance of cosmopolitanism he stressed the necessity for human beings to help each other in the moral struggle. His ethics are thus characterized by active benevolence [c]. But although he felt compassion for evil-doers he saw the need for punishment — though as reformative and not for retribution or revenge [d].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

As with many Roman thinkers, Seneca's aim were primarily practical. He was not strictly interested in philosophy for its own sake, though he did place some emphasis on knowledge of nature. Consequently he paid no attention to apparent inconsistencies in his writings. Rather he concerned himself more with presenting an acute psychological analysis of man's motives and behaviour. However, it might be said that exhortations to change oneself, to become virtuous, do not seem to be easily reconcilable with a commitment to Stoic determinism. A similar inconsistency might also be held to obtain between a general materialist philosophy of Nature and (1) a soul-body dualism, and (2) acceptance of a transcendent God.

 

READING

Seneca: Moral Essays, Epistulae morales (Moral Letters), Naturales quaestiones (Natural Questions); On the Shortness of Life (De Brevitate Vitae); Long and Sedley, op.cit., chs 56-67. Translations of Moral Essays and Moral Letters are available in the Loeb Classical Library edition; and many essays are also available in a Penguin edition. See further Forstater & Radin (eds), The Spiritual Teachings of Seneca.

General

E. V. Arnold, Roman Stoicism.

T. Brennan, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties and Fate.

J. M. Rist, Stoic Philosophy.

Collections of Articles

B. Inwood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics.

J. M. Rist (ed.), The Stoics.

 

CONNECTIONS

Seneca

 

[1a] God — transcendent and cosmic reason

   Chrysippus

   Posidonius

   Epictetus

   Aurelius

[3a b]

[1a b]

[2a]

[1a]

 

[1b] Soul — dualism and immortality

   Plato

   Chrysippus

   Posidonius

   Epictetus

   Aurelius

[9a b c]

[5a b]

[3a c]

[2b c]

[1b-d]

 

[2a] Freedom: man rational, self-determining

   Epicurus

   Chrysippus

   Posidonius

   Aurelius

[2b]

[4a]

[3b]

[2d]

 

[2b] Virtue; reason's control of emotion; harmony with divine will/ natural law; forbearance; perfection; virtue an end in itself — the highest good

   Plato

   Chrysippus

   Posidonius

   Epictetus

Boethius

Aquinas

   Spinoza

Diderot

Kant

[11a]

[3b 6a]

[4a]

[1b c]

[2b]

[8c]

[5d]

[3a]

[6a 8a]

 

[2c] Cosmopolitanism/ benevolence

   Chrysippus

   Posidonius

   Epictetus

   Aurelius

   Aquinas

Diderot

[6f]

[4b]

[1h]

[2b]

[10a]

[3b]

 

[2d] Punishment — for reform

   Kant

Mill

[6c]

[4d]