Seneca was a man, not a Sage

Seneca (left) vs Pseudo-Seneca (right)

I spend a significant amount of time discussing all aspects of Stoicism over at the wonderful Facebook Stoicism Group, currently counting over 17,000 people, and one of those exceptional places on the Internet where there is little trolling and a lot of emphasis on civil and constructive discussion. (Of course the fact that Don Robertson is such a dedicated moderator surely helps…) One of the topics that never fails to come up is whether one should really read Seneca, considering his, shall we say mixed reputation as a politician and businessman. Seneca was indubitably sexist, unarguably failed to rein in Nero, and possibly triggered the bloody Boudica rebellion by suddenly calling in a vast amount of loans he had made to the Britannic aristocracy. How does that square with being a Stoic, let alone with someone at least aspiring to be a Sage?

Even what Seneca looked like has been a matter of dispute for quite some time, as I detailed previously. For centuries he was portrayed as the emaciated man you see in the right image, which I took at the National Roman Museum in Rome. But in fact, we now know that he looked more like the plump personage on the left (from the double herm preserved at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, which represents him, interestingly, opposite Socrates). The version known as Pseudo-Seneca, now suspected to actually represent either the playwright Aristophanes or the poet Hesiod, was more appealing because it simply fit much better with the idea of the philosopher-sage lost in thought and unconcerned with worldly goods, while the Pergamon version smacks of a well fed patrician who may have been talking the talk but not walking the walk.

Seneca’s figure is so fascinating that in the past few years two full fledged biographies of him have been published, both well worth reading: The Greatest Empire, by Emily Wilson (who was the keynote speaker at STOICON ’16 in London), and Dying Every Day, by James Romm (see my review here). And that’s without counting the 1920 classic The Stoic, by Francis Caldwell Holland, now freely available for Kindle. Clearly, there is a wealth of material to dig into for people interested in Seneca the historical figure. And you can read all of his works (plays, letters of consolation, philosophical essays, and letters to his friend Lucilius) either freely or in economic but well curated editions.

This post is not (much) about Seneca the writer and philosopher, as a number of other entries on this blog are dedicated to that purpose (and several more are in the workings). And of course I will refer the reader to the available biographies for in-depth knowledge about the facts of his life and time, as much as they can be known. The question here is more narrowly whether a modern Stoic should read Seneca for insight and inspiration, the way nobody questions both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius should be. Or whether, on the contrary, he should be expelled from the canon on account of the alleged massive inconsistency between his principles and the way he lived his life. Epictetus himself, after all, reminds us that Stoicism is about practice, not just theory: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35).

So let us focus with that subset of the bare facts that is of direct relevance to our project. To begin with, it is true that Seneca was very wealthy, indeed one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Rome. That in and of itself, however, does not constitute a contradiction with Stoic philosophy. It is true that Epictetus’ version of Stoicism leaned toward the rather minimalist and anti-materialist approach of the Cynics, but wealth does fall squarely under the “preferred indifferents,” i.e., the sort of externals that it is okay to pursue so long as they don’t get in the way of the only thing that truly matters for a Stoic, the practice of virtue.

Then again, Seneca repeatedly warns about the many temptations induced by wealth, almost as a reminder to himself: “He who craves riches feels fear on their account. No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. He collects his accounts, he wears out the pavement in the forum, he turns over his ledger — in short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward.” (Letter XIII, On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World, 17)

Let us not forget, of course, that Seneca had lost a great deal when he was exiled in 41 CE by the Senate, on likely trumped up charges of committing adultery with Julia Livilla, the sister of former emperor Calligula. The new emperor, Claudius (whose own record his rather mixed), commuted the original death penalty into exile, and the historian Cassius Dio suggests that Seneca was a victim of an attempt by Messalina, Claudius’ wife, to get rid of Julia. Seneca remained in exile on the island of Corsica (at the time not at all the resort destination that it is today) for eight years.

After Claudius’ death Seneca penned the shameful essay known as On the Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius, where he mocks an emperor that, after all, spared his life (and whom he had flattered in order to obtain pardon), all the while attempting to ingratiate the new kid on the block, Nero, whose mother, Agrippina, had managed to recall Seneca from exile. Definitely not the behavior of a good Stoic. Then again, even on this episode, there is a variety of opinions. Here, for instance, is Allan Presley Ball, who translated the Pumpkinification essay: “Seneca appears also to have been concerned with what he saw as an overuse of apotheosis writing as a political tool. [Apotheosis was the process by which dead Roman emperors were recognized as gods.] If an Emperor as flawed as Claudius could receive such treatment, he argued elsewhere, then people would cease to believe in the gods at all.”

Concerning the above mentioned calling in of loans that allegedly caused the rebellion in the British provinces, it is actually far from clear whether Seneca’s actions were a contributing factor at all, and even more doubtful that he was aware of the risk when he made the decision on financial grounds.

Also, in terms of his wealth, Seneca did try to use it as a way to buy himself retirement (and dedicate his time to philosophy) once things began to go south with Nero, an attempt that succeeded only partially (he got to spend more time in one of his country estates), and only temporarily, since Nero eventually ordered Seneca’s suicide because of the latter (again, alleged) involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy.

Seneca’s use of wealth, however, may have been most important — and also most difficult to disentangle from his political intentions and actions — during the first five years of Nero’s reign. In that period the philosopher advised the young emperor in cooperation with the Praetorian Prefect, Sextus Afrianus Burrus. Those years, according to most historians, were actually prosperous for Rome, so it is legitimate to infer that Seneca and Burrus did a good job under very precarious and difficult circumstances.

Nero, however, became more and more paranoid (or not: there actually were plots against his life), and eventually murdered his own mother, Agrippina in 59 CE. It is doubtful that either Seneca or Burrus had anything to do with it, since their influence on Nero was by then on the wane. It is, however, definitely the case that Seneca wrote a speech for the Senate essentially excusing the murder. While this is obviously not in line with Stoic principles, and in fact simply highly objectionable on general moral grounds, it is hard to know exactly what was going on in Seneca’s mind. He may, for instance, have calculated that by way of this move he was going to be able to rein in Nero some more, thus saving Rome from another bloody civil war. If that was his plan, it failed miserably. Three years later Burrus died, which further escalated the situation, leading to the Pisonian conspiracy in 65 CE and consequently to Seneca’s own commanded suicide. Whatever his political mistakes, he paid for them with his life.

Regarding his death, people sometimes comment that he staged things in order to appear as a Roman Socrates, though things didn’t go smoothly and it took several attempts to finally achieve the objective. Such accusation seems more than a bit uncharitable: surely Seneca did have Socrates, a role model for Stoics, in mind; and, likely, he was trying to do the best while performing the last act of his life. But he was going to die unjustly nonetheless, so cut the guy some slack.

When considering Seneca’s political influence and his behavior with Nero, we need to remember a few things. First, that we only have a few accounts of what happened, mostly from people who clearly and openly disliked Seneca. Second, that to control a sociopathic tyrant is a task not many would even attempt, let alone succeed at. And lastly, consider Thomas Nagel’s concept of “moral luck“: if we feel so smugly superior to Seneca (or anyone else who acted badly under extreme circumstances), that’s just because we got lucky enough not to be seriously morally tested ourselves.

What about Seneca’s sexism? There is no question at all that the charge clearly sticks. This modern reader cringes every time that Seneca refers to an unbecoming or unvirtuous behavior as “womanly,” for instance when he writes: “Anger, therefore, is a vice which for the most part affects women and children. ‘Yet it affects men also.’ Because many men, too, have womanish or childish intellects.” (On Anger, I.20) Aarrghh!

Then again, sometimes he did rise above such talk, sounding surprisingly modern: “I know what you will say, ‘You quote men as examples: you forget that it is a woman that you are trying to console.’ Yet who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honourable and generous action.” (To Marcia on Consolation, XV)

Other Stoics were definitely more progressive than Seneca about women. Zeno, in his Republic, wrote that men and women should live as equal in the ideal Stoic city; and Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, wrote that “women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men … a desire for virtue and an affinity for it belong by nature not only to men but also to women: no less than men are they disposed by nature to be pleased by noble and just deeds and to censure things opposite these … why would it be appropriate for men but not women to seek to live honorably and consider how to do so, which is what studying philosophy is?” (Lectures, III.1)

So sexism is definitely an area where Seneca mostly behaved as a regular Roman of the I century, failing to raise above the herd, as he should have. Again, though, to insist too much on this point is to engage in presentism, the attitude of uncompromisingly projecting our own values on different times (and cultures). We are allowed to do that, but be careful what you wish for, someone may do the same to us a couple of millennia down the road…

Seneca’s reputation has always experienced rather dramatic ups and downs, from his own time until now. The Roman historian Tacitus claims in The Annals that accusations against Seneca did not hold up to scrutiny and were likely the result of envy or political antagonism. The early Christian Fathers thought highly of Seneca, with Tertullian referring to him as “our Seneca.” Dante, in the Divine Comedy, puts him in Limbo, that is not quite into the depths of Hell, a high honor for a pagan. (Though the Italian poet gives a higher honor to another Stoic, Cato the Younger, whom he places at the entrance of Purgatory: “What man on earth was more worthy to signify God than Cato? Surely none.”) Several Renaissance authors celebrated Seneca the writer and philosopher, including Chaucer, Petrarch, Erasmus, John of Salisbury, and Montaigne.

In modern times, Anna Lydia Motto challenged the common negative portrait of Seneca, which she points out is based almost entirely on the account of Publius Suillius Rufus, a senatorial lieutenant under Claudius:

“We are therefore left with no contemporary record of Seneca’s life, save for the desperate opinion of Publius Suillius. Think of the barren image we should have of Socrates, had the works of Plato and Xenophon not come down to us and were we wholly dependent upon Aristophanes’ description of this Athenian philosopher. To be sure, we should have a highly distorted, misconstrued view. Such is the view left to us of Seneca, if we were to rely upon Suillius alone” (Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic. The Classic Journal 61, 257, 1966).

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum maintains that Seneca’s intellectual contributions are significantly more original than previously thought, on topics ranging from the role played by emotions in our lives (The Therapy of Desire, Princeton University Press, 1996) to political philosophy, to his concept of cosmopolitanism (Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, Harvard University Press, 1999).

Another contemporary scholar, Robert Wagoner, wrote this about the complex question of the relationship between Seneca’s life and his philosophy: “A number of views can be taken here. Perhaps Seneca simply fails to live the philosophical life he aspires to live. Perhaps his philosophical ambitions were really secondary to his political ambitions. While many scholars have noted the inconsistencies and many have rejected Seneca’s work on the grounds of hypocrisy, some scholars (notably Emily Wilson) have challenged this view. Wilson notes that, ‘The most interesting question is not why Seneca failed to practice what he preached, but why he preached what he did, so adamantly and so effectively, given the life he found himself leading.'”

Let me conclude by giving the last word to the man himself, who very clearly not only denied that he was wise, but also told his friend Lucilius that it was not a good idea to seek advice from him:

“What, then, am I myself doing with my leisure? I am trying to cure my own sores. If I were to show you a swollen foot, or an inflamed hand, or some shrivelled sinews in a withered leg, you would permit me to lie quiet in one place and to apply lotions to the diseased member. But my trouble is greater than any of these, and I cannot show it to you. The abscess, or ulcer, is deep within my breast. Pray, pray, do not commend me, do not say: ‘What a great man! He has learned to despise all things; condemning the madnesses of man’s life, he has made his escape!’ I have condemned nothing except myself. There is no reason why you should desire to come to me for the sake of making progress. You are mistaken if you think that you will get any assistance from this quarter; it is not a physician that dwells here, but a sick man. I would rather have you say, on leaving my presence: ‘I used to think him a happy man and a learned one, and I had pricked up my ears to hear him; but I have been defrauded. I have seen nothing, heard nothing which I craved and which I came back to hear.’ If you feel thus, and speak thus, some progress has been made. I prefer you to pardon rather than envy my retirement.” (Letters to Lucilius, CXVIII, 8-9)



44 thoughts on “Seneca was a man, not a Sage

  1. James E Lassiter

    Great esssy, Massimo. Just finished Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm. Outstanding! Seneca, what sort of man was he? Sent into exile on Corsica by emperor Claudius. Enjoys a modest but safe and healthy life of contemplation and letters. Is invited to Rome by empress Agrippina to tutor her son Nero, Claudius’ adoptive son, and provide him counsel. Accepts for reasons no ancient or modern scholars are certain of: accumulate wealth; acquire power; opportunity to use Stoicism to produce a philosopher king, if not himself become one; patriotically could not decline a call to serve the empire? All or some combination in degree of the above? Once there, he taught Nero the early teen and later counseled princeps Nero. Tried twice to withdraw after Nero broke bad. Nero refused his requests. Nero redirected his patronage elsewhere. New sycophants blamed Seneca for Nero’s problems. Nero orders Seneca’s death. To avoid humiliation of torture and execution, Seneca commits suicide. I cannot condemn Seneca for any combination of motives for leaving Corsica, including the pursuit of wealth. Stoics are not Cynics. Stoic personal virtues are not necessarily in conflict with the virtuous pursuit of wealth, power, or social justice through governance. I still like and admire Seneca, flaws and all. There is much in his thought, letters, and life we can all learn from for our betterment.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Massimo Post author


    Had we known of Seneca only from his writings we would have arrived at the same intellectual judgment we do have of him: as an original, deep thinker, who influenced everyone from Dante to Shakespeare. But we would have been left with the lingering question of what he was actually like in real life…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. labnut

    How does that square with being a Stoic, let alone with someone at least aspiring to be a Sage?

    we would have arrived at the same intellectual judgment we do have of him: as an original, deep thinker

    Then, as I understand it,
    1) He has made important intellectual contributions to Stoic thought.
    2) His behaviour as a Stoic was, in some respects, questionable.
    3) He fails to reach the standard we expect of a sage.

    He aspired to greatness, achieved intellectual renown and had moral failings. He was human, like all of us, but with a greater intellect. His moral failings are not a legacy. They only affected the people in his environment. But his intellectual contributions are a legacy that reach down through the ages. Therefore that is what should receive our attention.

    You qualified your judgement by saying that what is known of his life comes from biased sources. I would further qualify that by saying that we are all on a moral journey and that parts of our journey are often more than unsavoury. Mine certainly is, but I hope that I will be judged, not by the unsatisfactory parts of my journey but rather by where I have managed to arrive.

    We know, from his writings what destination Seneca had chosen. How far did he travel towards that destination? Perhaps the obstacles on his journey were far greater than any we face.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nancy McClernan

    If you threw out philosophers on the basis of sexism, prior to the middle of the 20th century, you would be left with nobody except John Stuart Mill. The issue isn’t whether fallible people have something worthwhile to say. The issue is whether or not we take them as role models.

    While different societies disagree with each other on values and ethics, you can only take cultural relativism so far. In the Stoics for Justice FB group (which I joined after I quit Robertson’s group because I think it is actually poorly moderated) the S4J moderator pointed out that “honor killing” was practiced in ancient Rome and no philosophers of the time are on record as mentioning the horrific injustice of the practice.

    It’s one thing for a culture to practice injustices – it’s another to say we can’t hold philosophers accountable for failing to even take notice of the injustice of their society. Under what possible ethics- and rationality-based system of thought could punishing the victim of a crime for the crime (as rape victims are punished for being raped under honor killing systems) be argued as justice?

    But the practice was apparently not thought interesting enough by the Stoics or other Hellenistic philosophers to even remark upon.

    And honor killing is NOT a long-dead ancient custom. It is still practiced in the present time in many places in the world. But if there are any philosophers who say we shouldn’t condemn the practice on the grounds of cultural relativism, I’d be curious to hear their argument.

    The fact that the practice of honor killing still exists indicates that our times are not so different from Roman times as some may wish to believe. And so why shouldn’t we judge the ancient philosophers for failing to condemn it?

    Or, if their ethics are so foreign from our own that we may not pass judgment because of some unbridgeable gap of time-span-induced incomprehension, why do we care what the ancients thought about morality?


  5. labnut

    The issue is whether or not we take them as role models.

    Is anyone making that argument?

    it’s another to say we can’t hold philosophers accountable for failing to even take notice of the injustice of their society.

    I fail to see how it is possible to hold a dead person accountable.

    But if there are any philosophers who say we shouldn’t condemn the practice on the grounds of cultural relativism, I’d be curious to hear their argument.

    So would I. But, as near as I can tell, no philosopher, in any manner, supports, justifies or defends honour killing.

    Moral outrage directed at long dead philosophers seems to be an extraordinary waste of energy. We have a host of present day issues that deserve our moral outrage. What about the Stoic principles of dichotomy of control and unchangeability of the past?


  6. Nancy McClernan

    That’s some serious sophistry there: “I fail to see how it is possible to hold a dead person accountable.”

    “Moral outrage directed at long dead philosophers seems to be an extraordinary waste of energy.”

    Pointing out that they found some of the most heinous injustice unremarkable, while some ARE indeed holding them up as role models, is not at all a wasted of energy and is a fine way to opposed the unquestioning hero-worship I’ve seen so often in discussions of philosophers – especially Stoics. Not to mention the obnoxious bullying and attempts to silence those who ask questions – which it appears to me you are doing right now.

    In any case, if you don’t approve of my commentary on the subject you are welcome to ignore everything I say on the subject and refrain from further communication with me.


  7. labnut

    you have strong feelings about the subject. I respect that even if I disagree with your arguments.

    In any case, if you don’t approve of my commentary on the subject you are welcome to ignore everything I say on the subject and refrain from further communication with me.

    I think disagree is a better word than disapprove. The most productive lines of thought often are the fruit of disagreements. It is in that spirit that I think we should pursue the conversation. We should welcome respectful disagreement as a powerful stimulus to clearer thought.


  8. Massimo Post author


    Thank you for your comments. I very clearly said that Seneca shouldn’t be taken as a role model. If you are talking of other Stoics, like Marcus or Epictetus, remember that a role model isn’t a morally perfect person (that would be a Sage), but rather someone who is doing much better than his peers. By that standards, some of the Stoics definitely deserve to be thought of as role models.

    Try a thought experiment: supposed that 2000 years from now everyone will be vegan, by choice, not imposition. They would think of almost everyone alive in the 21st century as condoning a morally repugnant practice — the exploitation of animals. And yet I know a lot of people who eat meat and wouldn’t call morally repugnant, by contemporary standards. That’s what I meant by “presentism.”

    On whether Don is a good moderator or not I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think he’s doing an excellent job under difficult circumstances (have you ever tried to moderate the contributions of 17,000 opinionated people?).

    Now to honors killings. First off, as labnut said, no philosopher I know of, including the Stoics, actually condone them (the only exception is a reference to Cicero in this article by Eric Scott:, but of course Cicero was not a Stoic.

    Second, we need to be careful about applying modern terminology, like “honors killing,” to what the ancients were doing, as despicable as the latter was. In ancient Rome, the paterfamilias, the head of the family (always a man) had complete power of life and death over anyone living in his house. That included women, slaves, but also his sons. And there are a number of sons who have falle victim to that cultural practice. So at the least in ancient Rome this wasn’t directed specifically at women. (That said, women were considered property during the Republic, though they became somewhat emancipated and could actually own property during the Empire.)

    All of the above notwithstanding, it is true, so far as I know, that no ancient philosopher (or medieval, or modern one, until very recently) explicitly condemned honors killing. And they should justly criticized for that. But, as you say, what are we going to do, throw out everything good that has come out of philosophy until Mill on that ground?

    Also, criticizing individuals is one thing, criticizing a philosophy is another. Properly understood, Stoicism not only doesn’t condone honors killing, it doesn’t condone discrimination against women. Zeno was clear about this, as I wrote in the OP.

    You are also absolutely right that honors killing are still carried out in plenty of places in the world, which is horrible. However, that has little to do with either Stoicism or Seneca specifically.

    I never advocated for any unbridgeable gap between our moral standards and those of the ancients, but simply for putting things in their proper historical and cultural perspective (see example of veganism above). The point of studying the ancients is to extract the best of their thoughts, not to sample indiscriminately. They had a remarkable, and really unparalleled in modern philosophy, insight into the human condition and psychology, which is why there is still so much to learn from them.

    Concerning labnut’s comments, I didn’t see any sophistry in there, juts a different point of view. With which, incidentally, I disagree. I don’t think it is a waste of time to criticize those people, if the goal is — obviously — not to somehow convince them to mend their ways, but rather to talk to our contemporaries about ethics, culture and history.

    And I’m sorry but I saw no “obnoxious bulling and attempts to silence” here. At all. Nor dis I see any scolding or disrespect, just the frank expression of a different opinion. I’ve “known” (via blog commentaries) labnut for years, and I know how he interacts on this sort of forums. He has the best intentions and argues well, regardless of whether one finds himself in agreement with him or not (in my case, sometimes yes, sometimes not).


    Liked by 4 people

  9. Massimo Post author


    Yes, both Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, clearly stated that women have the same capacities as men and that they should be equally educated. Which for the time was pretty far out.

    Hypatia was a Platonism. Plato too advocated parity for women, in his Republic.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. synred

    Musonius Rufus is the guy I was remembering from browsing in my big book of stoics (virtually free on my Kindle).


  11. Paul Braterman

    As far as I know, no stoic ever practised honour killing. A more challenging matter for the stiocs, as for much more recent luminaries, might be slave owning, which many stoics practised, and sexual exploitation of slaves which AFAIK no stoic condemned although I do not know if they practised it.


  12. Nancy McClernan

    My point about role models doesn’t only apply to Seneca. None of the Stoics so far as I am aware had objections to women as property, etc. And in fact someone on the Stoics for Justice board recently claimed that Zeno had advocated “sharing” women – not in a free love kind of arrangement but in the sense that all women were to be made available to wise men. There seems to be some scholarly disagreement on exactly what Zeno meant, but considering the general view of women as property in their society, it would not be at all surprising if Zeno wanted women to be considered common property.

    Stoics may have occasionally said positive things about women but on the whole they did not question their social arrangements and I expect a good thinker to do exactly that. And it’s not like citizens of the Roman empire were unaware of other cultures outside of their own. They knew not everybody believed exactly as Romans did.

    I suppose I will have to mention again that I think the Stoics had good ideas. But they are limited in value IMO to their insights into the use of a mental construct of virtues to filter and manage human emotions.

    I understand your point without the need for a vegan thought experiment. And incidentally when I had this discussion in the Stoics for Justice group, Eric Scott already floated animal rights/veganism as a thought experiment in just this context, which is an interesting (I assume) coincidence.

    But we are not talking about what the run-of-the-mill member of a society does. We are talking about philosophers. I would not expect an average Roman citizen to look at their culture with a critical eye, any more than I expect most of my contemporaries to look at their culture or people 2K years from now to look at theirs in an analytical, etic way. But I certainly do expect an etic perspective from a philosopher. If Mill could do it, there’s no reason why Stoics could not. And Victorian society was not so different from Roman in terms of how women were viewed so it would require little or no more heavy lifting from Stoics than was required from Mill.

    And I disagree that the term “honor killing” cannot be applied in exactly the same way to Roman or contemporary cultures. You claim ” the paterfamilias, the head of the family (always a man) had complete power of life and death over anyone living in his house.” as if that does not also apply to cultures that practice honor killing in the present time.

    It doesn’t matter what century you’re talking about, it matters how a culture is structured, socio-economically. What all cultures that practice honor killing have in common is extreme patriarchy. And that exists in Saudi Arabia today just as much as it existed in ancient Rome. And there is no difference in terms of practical effects – in all cases honor killing means that male family members have the power of life and death over female family members in response to females breaking social taboos.

    And Eric Scott over at Stoics for Justice pointed out that Augustine did criticize honor killing (or honor-based suicide to be exact) here –

    And so, since the term “honor killing” is applicable to all societies that perform certain common actions based on certain common attitudes, there is no reason why we can’t judge Roman society for permitting it as much as we judge contemporary societies that permitted it. Or more importantly – we can judge Roman philosophers who do not object to it as much as we can judge contemporary philosophers, if any exist, who do not object to it.

    On whether Don is a good moderator – yes he has a group of 17K and so it is understandable that he is not able to sufficiently moderate such a large number well. But just because it is understandable doesn’t make it untrue. It’s quite possible that there is an optimum number of FB discussion group members and 17K exceeds that number and it works better if the group is smaller than that, regardless of the skill-set of the moderator. In any case I quit that group and joined a smaller Stoics group and that has worked out better for me, so far.
    As far as labnut’s response: I took some time to lay out an argument and his response was to dismiss it as “Moral outrage directed at long dead philosophers” which is absurd hyperbole.

    And the turn of phrase “hold accountable” is absolutely fine when reviewing moral actions whether the actor was dead or not, although of course they can’t be held accountable in any legal way. That’s what I meant by sophistry.

    We judge people from the past all the time – the hypocrisy of Jefferson’s words of human equality while he owned – and raped – his own slaves is a perfect example. And I’ve heard plenty of people suggest we can’t judge Jefferson because he came from a slave-holding society. Except that there were already abolitionists, including other founding fathers, in Jefferson’s own time.

    This notion that it doesn’t matter what somebody does, as long as he writes well, is why the Marquis de Sade is now viewed by many (thanks in part to QUILLS) as a hero of free speech rather than an upper-class rapist of servants. This ongoing hero-worship of famous men such that their actions are discounted in favor of their literary reputations is repugnant to me.

    Either it’s OK to argue about whether Stoic philosophers behaved and wrote morally or it’s not. If it’s not, let’s stop here and I will go away. If it is OK, then there’s no reason why my laying out an argument on the subject should be characterized as some kind of hysterical screed.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. E. O. Scott


    Now that you and I have talked about this two or three different times—I must say that I find your argument a little more compelling each time you present it.

    The term “role model” is subject to too many interpretations for me to definitively say whether I completely agree with you or not. And I do think that Massimo’s mention of the concept of “moral luck” is significant.

    But, at the very least, I think you make a strong case that, rather than simply forgiving the Stoic authors we find value in for their myopia on important social justice topics—shrugging our shoulders and saying “well, I can’t say that I would do better if I were in their shoes”—we are better offer censuring them for failing to call out egregious wrongs. As you say, we might not expect much of just any 1st century Roman, but we ought to be able to expect quite a bit of an “etic” or otherwise critical perspective from philosophers!

    We should say that the Stoics went wrong in important ways, and take it as a warning that we, too, must be careful not to repeat similar errors in our own era.

    (Which is why I should probably finally get around to reading a good book on veganism. Recommendations, anyone?)


  14. labnut

    In the spirit of Stoicism I will brush off the unpleasant parts of the conversation. They have evaporated into the aether and are of no account, pure wasted effort 🙂

    Now lets move on.

    In the spirit of philosophy I think we should clarify your intent. What really are you trying to achieve in this conversation? Remembering that
    1) we can’t hold Seneca to account since dead people cannot give an accounting.
    2) we can’t hold Seneca responsible since dead people can’t take responsibility.
    3) we can perhaps judge him as morally blameworthy in some respects.

    So, OK, we judge him as morally blameworthy in some respects. Massimo has done that with great clarity and he has appropriately qualified his words, noting the incomplete and unreliable nature of the historical record. He has also noted Seneca’s importance to the development of Stoic thought. All of this is good, clear and accurate philosophy in action. Which is why I am here, to observe and learn.

    Given all this, what really is your intent in this conversation? Why have you invested so much effort and emotion in the issue(moral outrage)? What really are you trying to achieve? A nice, clear statement of intent would help the conversation along.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Massimo Post author


    Right, slavery is a much more obviously glaring problem for all ancient philosophers (and for a lot of modern ones as well, actually, until pretty recently).

    But that too is a bit more complicated than it appears to be. First off, the Greco-Roman concept of a slave was different from the one we inherited from European colonialism. The Brits, Americans. etc. truly thought of slaves as sub-human types (the infamous “3/5th” of a vote that helped establish the inanity we still today call the electoral college). The Greco-Romans, instead, simply thought of slaves as regular human beings that happened to be down on their lack, either by birth or by conquest. They knew very well that they themselves could (and indeed, at various times did) become slaves.

    That doesn’t excuse anything, but it does put things into perspective.

    The other complicating bit is this quote from Seneca: “‘They are slaves,’ people declare. Nay, rather they are men. … Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.” (Letter to Lucilius XLVII, On Master and Slave)

    Liked by 4 people

  16. Massimo Post author


    You are incorrect that none of the Stoics raised objections to treating women as property. First, there is Zeno’s idea that men and women should be equal in the Republic (yes, the “sharing” bit is open to interpretation, but given the context I’d go for the more charitable one). Second, women were no longer considered property, indeed they could own property, during the Empire — a period that includes Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus. So, it’s complicated.

    Stoics did question their social arrangement, that’s why both Zeno and Chrysippus wrote books entitled “The Republic.”

    Yes, the Romans knew about other cultures, but it’s not like the surrounding cultures were any more kind to women than the Romans were (indeed, they were often far less kind), so I’m not clear what the point of that particular remark is.

    You are obviously within your right to think that Stoics ideas have limited value. Indeed, all human ideas have limited value. I just happen to think these particular ones have more value than you grant them.

    Yes, it is fair to expect better from philosophers than from run of the mill individuals. But do you have a sense of what the run f the mill Roman actually thought? I wager that all the Stoics, including Seneca, were far above that kind of standard.

    But, crucially, they were not up to our standard. (Well, the standard that some of us in the Western world apply. Just read this morning of how women in Saudi Arabia are still not allowed to drive a car…)

    That, I suspect, is the chief problem I have with presentism. By all means, let us remark on the deficiencies of people and cultures in the past, but let us also focus on the stuff they got surprisingly right.

    I do think morality makes progress, so to criticize Seneca for not being anti-slavery, for instance, is a bit like criticizing Galileo for not appreciating that time is relative. I prefer instead to celebrate Galileo for his genius over his contemporaries, and Seneca for his incisive writings that have inspired people for two millennia.

    If you wish to apply the term honors killing to the Romans fine, though it seems a bit anachronistic. My point was simply that their practice emerged out of a very different view of family relations, one that was not simply aimed at women. (That, again, doesn’t make it right, but it doesn’t make it straightforwardly misogynist either.)

    Further, you keep using the term “judge,” a lot. I’m more interested in understanding and learning from past cultures than to judge them. Here I come close to labnut’s position: I see little value in criticizing dead people, and prefer to aim my criticism at live situations, like the above mentioned one in Saudi Arabia.

    And concerning again labnut’s comments, to characterize them as “absurd hyperbole” seems a bit, well, sorry, but hyperbolic. Same with the term sophistry. And “hysterical screed”? Really? C’mon. I get that you didn’t find anything valuable in his response, then just ignore it. There is no need to engage in labeling an name calling.

    Also, nobody here — and certainly not I — said that it doesn’t matter what people do as long as they write well. Of course it does, particularly in the case of Stoicism, which is supposed to be a lived philosophy.

    But then I have to ask you, sort of like labnut did: what’s your end game here? Are you suggesting we should not read Seneca because he didn’t rise to our standards of morality? If not, and given — I repeat — than nobody has suggested to adopt him as a role model, what are you suggesting, exactly?

    Liked by 3 people

  17. E. O. Scott

    “to criticize Seneca for not being anti-slavery, for instance, is a bit like criticizing Galileo for not appreciating that time is relative”

    Eheh—a few days ago I told Nancy that it would be like criticizing Archimedes for not inventing differential calculus.

    I swear Massimo and I are not in collusion on this, Nancy! 😉

    I do wonder, though, about how scientific innovation (which is clearly extremely difficult in some cases) and moral innovation differ from one another—and if the limits of the analogy aren’t important here.


  18. Massimo Post author


    Ah! No there definitely wasn’t any conspiracy between the two of us! and I actually think your analogy with math is better than mine with science. I published an entire book (freely available online: arguing that philosophy (and therefore also ethics) makes progress in a way that is intermediate between those of science on one side and math/logic on the other side, but closer to the latter.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. labnut

    The debate illustrates what I call the problem of reverse presentism.

    Should past wrongs shape present judgements? This problem presents itself in many ways. For example, can one appeal to the Galileo controversy, the Crusades, or to the Inquisition, to attack the present day Catholic Church? Does Aristotle’s tolerance of slavery mean that virtue ethics is today somehow flawed? Are Seneca’s putative moral failings an indictment of his writings? Or closer to home, does Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies mean that his work should not be taught? Or even more recently, does Colin Mcginn’s sexual impropriety mean that his works do not deserve consideration?

    Throughout G+, Facebook and other forums one sees examples of reverse presentism, both crude and sophisticated. What is going on? Why do we do it? There are two basic arguments. First, the argument against. The work(or organisation) deserves consideration on its own, intrinsic, present day merits. Second, the argument for. It is socially important to identify and ostracise moral pariahs as a service to society.

    For example, militant atheists consider the Catholic Church to be a moral pariah and thus fair game for the use of any technique to ostracise them and reverse presentism is commonly used. for this purpose.

    Shunning, ostracising or isolating moral pariahs is our most ancient moral response to wrongs. It is a crude, blunt tool that may cause as many wrongs as it addresses. It reinforces intolerance and prejudice. It discourages nuanced understanding. And yet some moral pariahs obviously deserve this treatment.

    On the other hand, society also works by signalling. We signal moral disapproval and this is a milder form of ostracism. This can be a valuable response.

    But this lends itself to a common form of hypocrisy, that of posturing. Posturing is the common-and-garden way of earning in-group status with little effort, understanding or sincerity.

    It is also commonly a facile response of ‘label and condemn’ that requires little thought, understanding or background. And yet, for reasons of economy, we are often compelled to do this.

    How should one handle the problem of reverse presentism? I am all in favour of considering a work on its intrinsic merits. I also like digging into the background to get an understanding of the circumstances that gave rise to the work. But my judgement of the work is based on its intrinsic merits, informed by background influences.

    On the other hand there can be people whose moral wrongs are sufficient to earn the status of moral pariah. These people we ring-fence with such strong opprobrium that we refuse to consider their work lest we seem to rehabilitate them.

    The argument comes down to the level we consider sufficient to earn moral pariah status. Essentially this is what we disagree about. This is complicated by the fact that labelling as a moral pariah is used as a tool of social activism, leading to overuse and being extended to increasingly minor infractions.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. bhargavramks

    Seneca himself tells how he’s not some sort of master lecturing a student but a sick man conversing with another sick person in a hospital ward.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Paul Braterman

    “For example, can one appeal to the Galileo controversy, the Crusades, or to the Inquisition, to attack the present day Catholic Church?” Or to witch burning to attack the present day Church of Scotland? This is a live issue for me, since I am involved in a challenge to the right of these Churches to seats on Local Authority Education Committees in Scotland, and one of the arguments used to defend this right is an appeal to “Christian values”.

    I would suggest that if evaluating specific arguments advanced by the Churches,, without appeal to any authority, these arguments must be judged on their merits and past misdeeds and even current misdeeds are irrelevant. However, if the Church claims to be the repository of some special wisdom, then the question arises as to the source of that wisdom. For example, if the claim derives from the apostolic succession (or from the reading of Scripture) then the religiously motivated misdeeds of the mediaeval and Renaissance Catholic Church (or the eighteenth century Church of Scotland) remain highly relevant, since the alleged sources of wisdom in operation at the relevant time.

    Incidentally, the challenge I refer to is a Petition to the Scottish Parliament; if anyone is interested in making a submission in support of (or opposition to) this Petition, please let me know.


  22. labnut

    Or to witch burning to attack the present day Church of Scotland? This is a live issue for me,

    I would call that a fiery issue 🙂

    But really, witch burning in the Church of Scotland? I avidly follow UK news but saw no mention of the burnings. I much enjoy reading Harry Potter but never took him this seriously. Nor should you.

    Are you sure you are not confusing this with Guy MacPherson’s plan to burn down the Scottish houses of parliament as a tribute to Guy Fawkes?


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