The ethics of the family in Seneca, I: model mothers

ethics of family in SenecaWhat did the Stoics think about the family? Good question, and it depends on which Stoics we are talking about. The early ones, Greek, and directly influenced by the Cynics, and thus of rather free customs? Or the late ones, Roman, and definitely more prudish? They certainly had widely different opinions about sex, for one. This new series of commentaries will focus on what Seneca had to say about the family, based on a delightful book by Liz Gloyn, from the University of London: The Ethics of the Family in Seneca (Cambridge Press, 2017). There are six chapters in the book, covering mothers, brothers, father vs sons, marriage, and even the imperfections of the Imperial family. Let’s get started with Gloyn’s treatment of the concept of motherhood, as exemplified in two of Seneca’s three letters of consolation: to his friend Marcia, and to his own mother, Helvia.

Perhaps the two most fundamental points made by Gloyn in her reading of the Consolatione ad Marciam and the Consolatione ad Helviam are that Seneca’s view of the role of mothers in the family diverges substantially from the standard Roman take at the time (in what we would today perhaps call a more progressive direction, though don’t think radical feminism); and that such divergence is the direct result of Seneca’s application of the fundamental Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, the “appropriation” of feelings toward others that is the basis for the Stoic notion of cosmopolitanism. Motherhood, then, becomes the starting point for the path toward virtue that characterizes the Stoic proficiens (the Latin term for prokopton, the one who makes progress).

In fact, both letters of consolation, according to Gloyn, depart radically from the well established genre: in ad Marciam, Seneca acknowledges the standard practice of giving precepts followed by examples, and then ignores it. In ad Helviam, since it addresses exile rather than death, he needs to deploy different kinds of arguments to console his mother. Seneca, it turns out, was far more radical and original than he is usually given credit for.

Contra common stereotype, Gloyn points out, Roman women had a significant amount of power and autonomy during the empire, since they could inherit and dispose of their inheritance, thus being financially independent. They were also expected to be of moral guidance to their children, indeed much more so than taking care of all the other mundane aspects of child care that modern parents engage in, because those were deputized to slaves. (Obviously, we are talking about patrician women, here.)

The mother-son bond in particular was very strong, even after the son had left the household, as he was expected to regularly pay visits to his mother, for instance. In return, a mother’s social status was heightened by her son’s achievements, so there was a lifelong collaboration between the two, in a sense.

I think Gloyn is right in applying the lens of oikeiôsis to Seneca’s analysis of the family, and in particular of motherhood, even though he does not mention the concept explicitly in the two letters of consolation we are examining now:

“Oikeiôsis describes the process which gives an individual the ability to care for others. This process starts at the very beginning of a being’s existence, with the awareness of self and a desire to preserve that self as best fits the constitution of the individual. … The initial realisation of concern for one’s own well-being then develops into a concern for the well-being of others, best exemplified by the devotion of parents to their offspring.” (p. 34)

Obviously, then, the process of oikeiôsis normally begins within the family, and makes the family — and, in the Roman context, mothers — a crucial engine for moral development toward virtue. Importantly, Seneca famously tells Marcia (at XVI.1) that women have the same capacity as men to be virtuous, as well as to endure grief and hardship. It is a rare statement, in antiquity, of the equal worth of women from an intellectual (since virtue is the result of applied reason) and moral perspectives.

Marcia had lost one of her sons, Metilius, and was still grieving after three years, which is what prompts Seneca to write to her (a politically dangerous move, by the way, since Marcia was the daughter of the historian Cremutius Cordus, who had committed suicide after being accused of treason). Seneca begins by acknowledging the usual pattern of consolation letters, whereby precepts precede examples, and then immediately announces that he will go about it the other way around.

The Stoics had a reputation, shall we say, for being frank about the human condition (especially Epictetus!), so it is no surprise that Seneca also reminds Marcia of the reality of the situation: death is part of life, even when it is unexpected, as in the case of a parent whose son dies. Still, it is natural for parents — mothers as well as fathers — to grieve for their offspring, a point he had made even about the wise man in Letters IC.18. In the specific case of Marcia, Seneca draws a parallel between the woman and Nature herself: she, like Nature, gives birth; but what is borne also must die, thus continuing the endless cycle and recycle that is a fundamental component of the cosmos.

“Marcia as mother figure in the consolation reveals two things about Stoic motherhood. First, she can take consolation from her similarity to Nature. Second, she demonstrates that mothers perform the role of Nature for their children — as Nature cares for us, so mothers care for their offspring.” (p. 42)

Interestingly, Gloyn points out that ad Marciam serves as a double consolation, as Seneca actually spends a significant amount of time talking about Marcia’s father, who as I said was prosecuted for treason (because in his historical writings he praised Brutus and Cassius, two of the conspirators against Julius Caesar). Seneca’s tone here is yet another strong hint that suicide is admissible for the Stoics, in order to escape intolerable situations.

The fascinating thing, which lends support to Gloyn’s interpretation of the letter of consolation, is that Seneca brings up earlier, and spends more time on, Marcia’s father than her son, who after all is the alleged reason for the letter in the first place. This is better understood, again, within the framework of oikeiôsis, as the mother-son relationship is just as important — from the point of view of virtue — as that of the mother to her own father:

“The parent–child relationship occupies the same circle of proximity as the child–parent relationship [in Hierocles’ famous metaphor]. Her reactions to the fortunes and deaths of her parents should be the same as her reactions to the fortunes and deaths of her children, for they stand in the same relation to her.” (p. 45)

Indeed, at XXV.3 Seneca explicitly directs Marcia to behave as if both her father and her son were watching over her, united by the same bond of family and virtue:

“So conduct yourself, Marcia, as if you were placed under the eyes of your father and son, not as you knew them, but so much more noble and stationed in the highest place.”

It is noticeable that Seneca departs significantly from the standard Roman view here. He does not agree with the idea that losing a son is far more tragic than losing a father because, as the Romans saw it, the mother’s prospects for social prestige would be hampered far more by the first than by the second loss. Rather, he puts the emphasis on the fact that a loss has occurred of two human beings toward whom Marcia had a similar relationship and bond. This is also a strategic move: instead of giving Marcia a lecture based on precepts, Seneca subtly draws her attention to the fact that she overcame her grief for the death of her father; similarly, she can do it with the death of her son.

The second letter of consolation, to his mother Helvia, is obviously very different, both because of who the recipient is, and because of the underlying theme: exile rather than death. That said, let us remember that for the Romans there was a close kinship between exile and death, where the former was perceived as a kind of living death, which is why to be punished by exile was far graver than it may sound to our modern ears.

Seneca starts out by assuring his mother that he is not suffering in exile, in great part because his study of philosophy prepared him for just such eventuality. He then goes on to praise his mother for having selflessly managed the interests of her sons over the years. While this may sound natural to us, Seneca stresses that she did so with no regard to her own advantage, which was not the Roman way. But it is, again, what one would expect on the basis of the principle of oikeiôsis, whereby the interests of others, especially when they are close to our direct circle of influence, are literally to be taken as if they were our own interests. Sure enough, Seneca points out that Helvia took pride in the achievements of her brother too, as if he were no different from her sons. Another departure from standard Roman attitude. And the picture is further reinforced by Seneca’s description of the relationship he and his brothers have with their mother: one of open intellectual dialogue, frequent association, and mutual trust. Seneca even regrets that Helvia’s husband did not allow her to pursue the study of philosophy, which would have further enriched their relationship, as well as helped Helvia in the current situation:

“Would that my father, the best of men, had been less given to the custom of the ancestors and had wanted you to be educated with the principles of wisdom rather than be introduced to them! You would not now have to obtain help against fortune but produce it.” (XVII.4)

In fact, he advises his mother to get back to such studies now. Moreover, as Gloyn says:

“Seneca requires Helvia to play an active role in her own consolation by putting the theory of oikeiôsis into practice: he encourages [her in her role of] grandmother to step into the shoes of a deceased mother [her daughter] and provide a young girl with moral guidance that would otherwise be absent.” (p. 56)

Another novel characteristic of ad Helviam is that Seneca doesn’t use examples of virtuous behavior from the past — as he does in ad Marciam — but rather from his own family, including, for instance, his aunt, who he describes as having stepped into the role of mother, when it was necessary. He attributes to his aunt the Stoic cardinal virtues of prudence, moderation, courage, and justice, thus stressing both the general message that the family is the locus where we learn the first steps in the lifelong process of oikeiôsis, and his unusual view of women as (at least potentially, and actually in some specific instances) equal to men when it comes to virtue:

“Virtus has multiple meanings, as it can refer either to the specific virtue of ‘manliness’ or courage, or to moral excellence more generally … For Seneca not only to attribute virtus to his aunt but to encourage his mother towards the same characteristic indicates a slippage of conventional gender boundaries.” (p. 61)

According to Gloyn, Seneca’s approach here is unique among extant Stoic sources. He sees the family — men and women — as a crucial source of moral education, from which it is particularly appropriate to draw examples to follow, as these examples will be far more effective than distant role models, like the classic one of Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi brothers.

(Next: a band of brothers, De Consolatione ad Polybium)

7 thoughts on “The ethics of the family in Seneca, I: model mothers

  1. Plutarch

    Well written post Massimo. I look forward to hearing more about Stoic attitudes towards family, given how central the family is in oikesos and becoming cosmopolitan.

    I feel like the friends and lovers side of Stoicism is usually more well covered today than the family side. That could just be a sample size issue on my part, but I have to strongly suspect the Stoics spilled more ink about family than they did about lovers and friends given how completely non optional having some kind of family is to being alive…


  2. Massimo Post author


    thanks for the link, I had not seen it! I’ll read it, but I’m sure there is room for more than book on the guy, particularly since mine will have a philosophical, more than historical or biographical, slant. And it will be several years before I can put it out anyway…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lizgloyn

    Hi Plutarch – the perception that the Stoics, and indeed ancient philosophers in general, didn’t have anything to say about the family is actually what made me want to write this book in the first place. You can more or less trace the cause back to Aristotle and his decision to focus on friendship as the key human relationship in the Nicomachean Ethics – this has meant that scholarship in subsequent centuries has treated friendship as somehow privileged, and has thus looked for it rather than anything else. But when you look at what the Stoics actually wrote, they have plenty to say about the family and how it operates in our moral development.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hilton H.

    Hello Professor Massimo ,

    I apologize for giving the impression that I was attempting to discourage you from writing the book . I’m looking forward to reading it someday !

    BTW : What is the best way to contact you personally ? I would like your advice regarding stoicism and living with a physical disability . ( Perhaps you would find my story of interest . ) Thanks in advance .


  5. Plutarch


    I will read your book because what you are saying is exactly what I had suspected, but was not able to well articulate.

    I might be remembering wrong but, I the way I encountered Aristotle, I was taught to see family relationships as a sub set of friendship because ‘philia’ has a sufficiently wide semantic range. Given the necessary hierarchical duties implicit in family roles, this seemed to distinctly clash with the ideal of equality among friends. Which is at least the way Aristotle is commonly glossed. Though I’m pretty sure he discusses in detail how inequality functions in friendship and doesn’t think it a priori a bad thing.

    Anyway, thank you so much for writing your work. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for for months now. And thank you Massimo for bringing it to my attention!


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