Stoic Q&A: Seneca’s parting words to his wife?

Seneca Hardship and HappinessS. writes: I have read your post discussing Seneca’s life and among other topics his death, and to which extent it is to be understood as being deliberately directed or “theatrical.” Regardless of the authenticity, when I personally first came in contact with Stoicism, what has been ascribed to Seneca as his words to his wife before his death made an impression that has stuck with me since.

My first interpretation of the words, “What need is there to weep over parts of life, the whole of it calls for tears,” was that one needs to accept and anticipate the sufferings and harshness of life. And that this “regulating” of one’s expectations through reason is essential, and lets you remain composed when faced with (inevitable) adversities.

After having read up on Stoicism however, I have become unsure of how to look at Seneca’s words. The idea of acceptance of tragic events outside of our control resonates with me personally, and from my understanding, with Stoic philosophy in general. At the same time, the quote seems to imply that the hardships of life are not indifferent, but rather that they “call for tears.”

I have found a few potential interpretations (for example, being “accommodating,” as Epictetus puts it, toward non-Stoics, or simply the fact that Seneca was the less strict of the Roman Stoics regarding human emotional reaction), but it would be very interesting to read your take on this quote!

Good question. Let’s begin, however, by getting the record straight. Although the quote in question is a famous one, Seneca did not utter it to his wife before dying. Instead, it is found in the letter of consolation to Marcia, a friend of Seneca who lost one of her sons, and was still grieving inconsolably two years later. The broader quote is (in the Chicago Press translation):

“What need is there to shed tears over life’s individual stages? For the whole of life requires tears. New misfortunes will assail you before you have dealt with the old. … And then, why this forgetfulness about your own condition? You were born a mortal and you have given birth to mortals: though you yourself are a decaying, feeble body, repeatedly targeted by diseases, did you hope that from such a weak material you had carried in your womb something robust and everlasting?” (XI.1)

Given both the extended quote and the context — a letter of philosophical consolation to a bereaved friend — I’d say that your first explanation, that Seneca is being accommodating toward a non Stoic, is right. And he should be, since Stoicism is supposed to be practiced in order to improve oneself, not to beat others on the head with a metaphorical stick for being “bad Stoics.”

As you say, Epictetus puts the point explicitly:

“When you see anyone weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil, but discriminate and be ready to say, ‘What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself — for another man might not be hurt by it — but the view he chooses to take of it.’ As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him and, if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly, too.” (Enchiridion 16)

I hasten to say that this isn’t a matter of being condescending, but of recognizing that not everyone agrees with the Stoic precept that the only true good lies in one’s good judgments and the only true evil in one’s bad judgments. It is an example of Stoic compassion, not of Stoic arrogance.

That said, I think there is something also in your second explanation, that Seneca is a bit less strict than other Roman Stoics, particularly Epictetus. The reason I love Epictetus is because he is straightforwardly blunt in his pronouncements. He tells it like he sees it. Seneca, by contrast, is more nuanced, at times writing in ways that are remarkably close to Epictetus’ style, at other times showing more of a compassionate attitude toward fellow human beings. This was likely a result of their respective roles (teacher in one case, politician and writer in the other) as well as of the different settings (a Stoic school for Epictetus, a letter of consolation for a friend in the case of Seneca). They therefore can be positioned as interestingly different interpreters of the same Stoic doctrines, which reinforces the important point that Stoicism isn’t a monolithic thing, to be read as if it were scriptures.

Lest anyone think Seneca is treating Marcia differently because she is a woman (after all, he occasionally does indulge in cringeworthy comments on women), here he is actually at his best in this respect:

“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.” (Consolation to Marcia, XVI)

Let me finally address your observation that talk of life requiring tears seems to imply that there are other things that are bad, besides one’s own incorrect judgments. I think the Stoics here have good resources to deploy: the loss of a son is a highly dispreferred indifferent. The way I like to explain this is in terms of lexicographic preferences: there are certain goods that fall into the top category, others that belong a slightly lower category, and so forth, until things that are neutral. Then there are the sets of things that are mildly bad, worse, really worse, and finally truly evil.

The Stoics think that the top and the bottom categories in this series are occupied respectively by the only true good (virtue) and the only true bad (un-virtue). But a son’s life surely is in one of the high categories, definitely not far below the very top. Still, goods within a given category are not fungible with goods in another, higher, category. So while losing a son is “bad,” it is not the ultimate bad, which amounts to behaving unvirtously.

If one looks at things that way, it makes perfect sense for Seneca to agree with Marcia that what befell her is worthy of tears, and yet at the same time to maintain that the only intrinsic evil would be for her friend to act contrary to virtue.

1 thought on “Stoic Q&A: Seneca’s parting words to his wife?

  1. Max Bini

    Regarding what Seneca may have actually said to his wife prior to his enforced suicide, granted that Massimo has shown that the quote about tears actually comes from a much earlier dialogue (around 25 years earlier), all we have to go on are Tacitus’ reenactment and he was writing around 50 years later – thus mainly a fictitious account.
    Regarding the consolation to Marcia, there are good reasons to think (although I admit the major commentators do not see this) that this was written early in Seneca’s exile and is meant to be tacitly self-referential. Why do I say this? There are four references to exile. References to Socrates and Rutilius as philosophers who were wrongly persecuted. Seneca’s son died aged 2 20 days prior to his exile whereas he states that Marcia’s son was an adult and died 3 years prior to the writing of the consolation. There are also many references to Marcia’s father’s death, Cremutius Cordus, which would have been at least 15 years earlier, whereas Seneca’s father would have died only a couple of years earlier. Also there are striking similarities between this consolation and the consolation Seneca wrote to his mother Helvia on his exile (think about how surprising it is to have the victim writing the consolation). It is always helpful to think about the motivation for why a writer writes.

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