The ethics of the family in Seneca, II: band of brothers

the Gracchi brothers

The Gracchi brothers

Last time we have examined Seneca’s treatment of motherhood as discussed in Liz Gloyn’s The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. The second type of family relationship we’ll look into is that between brothers, for which Gloyn mostly uses the third of Seneca’s letters of consolation, to Polybius. This is a somewhat controversial letter, as Seneca clearly had a personal motive to write it: Polybius had lost a brother, which is the manifest reason Seneca writes to him. But he was also magister a libellis, the magistrate in charge of petitions addressed to the emperor Claudius, who had sent Seneca into exile. Sure enough, the consolation also includes a good degree of praise for Claudius, obviously with the aim of ingratiating the emperor (whom Seneca later on criticizes harshly in his Apocolocyntosis). Liz finds a creative way to interpret Seneca’s words about Claudius in the letter to Polybium coherently with the alleged main purpose of the letter, consoling Polybium, and with Stoic philosophy more generally. I admire her attempt, though for once I have trouble sympathizing with Seneca. Nonetheless, the letter is interesting in its own regard for what it tells us about how Seneca conceived of the bond of brotherhood, and we shall discuss it from that angle.

To begin with, Seneca uses the word pietas to characterize the relationship between brothers. This is a reciprocal virtue that is supposed to hold between any family members, but the Romans idealized the relationship between brothers and made it the model for all other close relationships, including friendship. (This despite — or perhaps because — the fact that, ahem, Rome was founded on a fratricide…) Indeed, there were “fraternal” (from the Latin word for brother) orders, such as the Fratres Arvales, that were built on the idea that its members would behave as brothers toward other members, even though they did not have blood relations. Seneca himself had by all accounts an affectionate relationship with his brothers, who supported each other in private as well as political life.

As he did in his letter to Marcia, which we discussed last time, Seneca helps himself to the Stoic idea of a cosmopolis, framing familial brotherhood as part and parcel of the more general notion that we are all brothers and sisters. As he puts it elsewhere:

“Let us embrace two states in our minds — one great and truly shared in which gods and men are held together, in which we do not look to this or that corner, but measure the boundaries of our state with the sun; the other into which the circumstance of our birth enrols us.” (De Otio, IV.1)

Gloyn immediately makes a parallel with Epictetus’ well known conception of the different roles we play in society, which I have discussed when covering Brian Johnson’s book on that topic.

In the ad Polybium, Seneca draws his interlocutor’s attention to the idea of a cosmopolis inhabited by sages, not because he thinks he or Polybium are actually sages, but because they can both derive inspiration and consolation from the thought of a perfect society of wise people:

“Let tears flow, but let them stop as well; let growns be drawn out from your deepest soul, but let them be ended too; govern your mind so that you are able to commend yourself to wise men and to brothers.” (XVIII.6)

Philosophy, for Seneca, equips us to deal with adversity of any kind, but he says very explicitly that its point is not to turn us into unfeeling and caring robots, contra one of the most pernicious stereotypes about Stoicism:

“I would never demand from you that you do not grieve completely. I know that certain men can be found, with harsh rather than brave wisdom, who deny that the wise man will feel pain. To me, these men do not seem to ever have fallen into misfortune of this kind, or else fortune would have beaten arrogant reason out of them and forced them even unwillingly to admit the truth.” (XVIII.5)

Next is were Liz is very charitable (perhaps, as I said, too charitable) to Seneca. She suggests that Seneca portrays the emperor Claudius as a figure endowed with divine power within the Stoic universe, symbolizing reason itself, which makes possible the creation and continuation of the cosmopolis. Never mind that the actual Claudius — despite the magistral dramatic interpretation by Derek Jacobi — was nothing like a paragon of reason and virtue. Still, Claudius can offer consolation to Polybius because he too has lost his brother, Germanicus.

Gloyn then builds a good argument to the effect that Seneca is using both the concept of cosmopolis and that of oikeiôsis — again, as he did in the ad Marciam — to encourage Polybium to see things from a broader perspective, considering not just his actual brother, but to expand his circles of “appropriation” further and further from his immediate family. Seneca says that Polybius has an obligation to model good behavior, to be an exemplum, for everyone. Regardless of how much progress we have made toward virtue, unless we are sages we can all use good examples to imitate. But just as in the letter to his mother, ad Helviam, Seneca also stresses that our impact is greatest with people who are close to us, toward whom we have a special duty to model virtuous behavior. Because of his focus on brotherhood, incidentally, Seneca again flaunts standard Roman moral education, which relied on the almost mythical figure of the stern pater familias, more than on brothers and mothers.

Liz quotes Martha Nussbaum here, to the effect that for the Stoics, relationships that we normally think of as strongly asymmetrical and hierarchical were no such thing. For instance, the relationship between teacher and pupil, which in standard Roman conception was very much one way, is presented by the Stoics as far more symmetrical (thus anticipating modern pedagogical approaches), a situation in which the student has a duty to develop his own skills, not simply to absorb whatever the teacher tells him. (Note to self: must bring this up with my own students…)

Back to Seneca’s secondary motives for writing the letter, Gloyn points out that having established that virtue is a collaborative project, and that brothers have a duty to help each other, it makes sense that Seneca expects his cosmopolitan brother, Polybius, to intercede with Claudius (remember, bearer of reason and virtue!) in order to recall Seneca from exile. (As we know, historically Seneca was indeed recalled from Corsica, but through the influence of Agrippina, Nero’s mother, who in the meantime had married her uncle, Claudius.)

Interestingly, one of the approaches Seneca uses to plead his case with Polybius is the observation that he has been relegated to an awful place, surrounded by people whom he cannot engage in philosophical discourse. This sounds pretty snoddy, of course. And moreover, isn’t the place where one lives a preferred or dispreferred indifferent for the Stoics? Doesn’t Marcus say that one can live well “even in a palace,” if one has too? (Meditations, V.16) Yes, but Liz wants to read philosophy, and not just personal gain, in Seneca’s writings, so she points out that:

“From a Stoic perspective Seneca’s complaint is fully justified. One of the necessary conditions for maintaining his animus [mind], and thus his ability to engage with reason, is interaction with his spiritual brothers who help him continue to progress toward virtue; isolation actively hinders that process. Without his animus, Seneca is unable to access the broader network of the cosmopolis or to develop ‘the possibilities inherent in our rational nature’ in his journey toward sagehood.” (p. 107)

Perhaps, but it still smells more like special pleading to me than what a Stoic would coherently going to argue. (And, to be fair, Epictetus also warns us about the quality of the company we keep, in Enchiridion XXXIII.6) Then again, I made the point before that Seneca was no sage, and that he knew it very well. So let’s cut the fellow a bit of slack, shall we?

Gloyn uses Seneca’s Stoic plea with Polybium, together with similar references he makes in both the other two letters of consolation, to ask a serious question about Stoic philosophy in general: is Seneca implying that one cannot become virtuous unless one is nurtured by a family (mother, brothers, or, as we shall see soon in this series, father)? Her argument is that a family is not necessary, but the proficiens does need some sort of supportive network, of which a family is just the most common type, in order to develop virtue:

“Since the family is the first community we belong to, or even unknowingly or for a brief period of time, it serves as the paradigmatic community through which ideas of moral growth are articulated. Other forms of community can provide the support required for ethical development, as the Epistulae Morales demonstrate; however, the prominence of the biological family and its relationship to virtue in the consolation is caused by the comfort that the texts offer for the loss of family members.” (p. 108)

But hold on a minute! Doesn’t this make Stoicism pretty much indistinguishable from Aristotelianism? Aren’t the Peripatetics the one who argue that some externals are necessary for the eudaimonic life? Yes, but the Stoics never argued — and they couldn’t have, on penalty of absurdity — that virtue develops in a vacuum. At the very least one needs teachers or models, a functional developing brain, and language (without which there is no philosophy, only instinct).

What differentiate the Stoics, then, is what happens after the developmental stage: for Aristotle one cannot be eudaimon unless he continues to have at least some externals (wealth, health, good looks…) throughout his life. For the Stoics, only virtue is necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia, understood as the life worth living. The rest is preferred, but not required. (For more on this see here and here, as well as my detailed treatment of Larry Becker’s book.)

(Next: the mystery of marriage.)

9 thoughts on “The ethics of the family in Seneca, II: band of brothers

  1. Plutarch

    I’m just trying to make sure I’ve got this right.

    It seems the family is required for moral development (oikesos), or failing that, a person or series of persons who approximate family members or the family. Makes sense if that’s the case.

    Now here’s two questions.

    If once you mature sufficiently, does a Stoic imagine you no longer need your family as much as you did before for moral growth? Are families something you outgrow, like plants that initially rely on a trellis but eventually support themselves? This leads into 2.
    Are Stoics expected to start families? Yes yes, it’s all preferred indifferents, but there seems to be more of a nudge than usual with this preferred indifferent.

    Given the Stoic emphasis on the impact we have on those closest to us, isn’t there a bit of a positive nudge from Stoics to create a family yourself, whether biological or adopted? Sure, join the family of the human cosmopolis, but once again, the effect of our moral character and example is strongest to those closest to us. Who is closer than our biological or adopted child? Isn’t there an argument to be made its hard to be a pater or mater familias of the human cosmopolis unless you have some more practice at the more immediate and personal (and thus more morally influential levels?)

    Just thinking out loud. Wonderful post Massimo.


  2. Massimo Post author


    good questions, and I’d actually like to hear Liz’s take on them. My assessment based on readings of other Stoics and of Seneca himself is that the wise person does not need family or friends (though they are preferred). But we are not wise, and Seneca’s own preoccupation above (and Epictetus’ quote about the friendships we keep) seem to indicate that a network of virtuous interactions is either necessary or very very preferred.

    And yes, the Stoics are clear that the prokopton shoudl merry and have children. Epictetus says not to criticize those who don’t, but he clearly favors that course of action. So do Musonius, Seneca, and Hiercles. Exceptions, I should think, could be made for special circumstances, such as a teacher (Epictetus was not married).

    The Cynics, by contrast, explicitly did not get married and did not have children in order to follow their calling, which Epictetus says is justified. (There too, there are exceptions, going the other way: Crates was married to Hipparchia, but as Epictetus notes, they were both Cynics…)


  3. maxbini

    Some additional background information on Seneca which I think helps inform his motivations:
    In the consolation written to his mother Helvia written shortly after his exile he tells her to seek comfort from his brothers and there he also informs us that his two year old son died twenty days before he was accused of adultery with Julia Livilla (great-granddaughter of Augustus) and exiled (probably at the instigation of Claudius’ then wife Messalina).
    Soon after receiving this consolation from Seneca, Polybius was executed presumably at the behest of Messalina.
    Around this time there are also aphorisms said to be written by Seneca (I think likely as they also speak of how desolute living on Corsica is) seeking aid for recall from Crispus Passienus who was then consul for a second time and Agrippina’s husband (second husband, after Ahenobarbus and before Claudius). Crispus was also soon executed at the behest of Messalina.
    Also Ovid, a literary hero of Seneca’s and often quoted by him, also wrote sycophantic letters requesting recall from his exile by Augustus.

    Critics have been very hard on Seneca and for many reasons – calling him hypocrite and criticizing his writings (mainly for their popularity). I think it is wrong to add to this by ignoring context and seeing in the consolation to Polybius just snivelling pleadings for recall – if you were in exile (I would argue in Seneca’s case as a scapegoat) what would you do?


  4. Massimo Post author


    I don’t think I’m being unfair to Seneca. If you look at pretty much everything I’ve written about him on this blog, I have consistently taken a charitable view of his actions. For instance, people always criticize him for the way he handled Nero, but I’d like to see them being put in the position of tutor and then advisor to a nascissistic and progressively more and more unhinged tyrant.

    That said, Seneca professed Stoicism, so it is fair to compare his actions to his own words and draw reasonable consequences. As I said in a post linked from the one above, he was not a sage, and he knew it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. jimjamshazam


    As I see it, the apparent necessity of family stems from the need for some form of ‘moral education’, which comes directly from the cradle argument for moral development. In order to become properly developed moral agents, on the road to sagehood, you almost certainly need SOME form of guidance or a teacher, though the precise form of that guidance can vary.

    For Seneca, having the right sort of nurturing, virtue-supporting family, who provide guidance throughout that most vital and impressionable period of life, childhood, is an ideal situation – the value of which can hardly be overstated. Coupled with a proper education in logic, physics and ethics of the sort valued by the Romans, and you’ve got an upbringing which Seneca would likely judge to provide us the best possible chance of living a good life – provided one does not become complacent thereafter.

    That said, that’s not the only possible path to virtue/ moral development. Perhaps you were raised by an abusive family, or orphaned and left with no family at all. Perhaps you never developed any interest in developing character until well into adulthood. If you were to find a teacher then, could you still make progress? Seneca would surely respond with yes. But you could well expect progress to be slower and more difficult, since the progress you do make is against the grain of an entire lifetime’s worth of poor education and bad habits.

    You do need a couple things – namely the desire to improve, and a teacher of some form, whether an actual person or, say, the original texts. It would be hard to argue that armchair contemplation readily produces the gamut of stoic wisdom and philosophy (if it did, what’s the need for a moral education?). I’m sure many of your readers, myself included, didn’t have anything near a proper stoic moral upbringing, but we are still doing the best we can with the wisdom found in ancient texts, modern books, talks, stoic week, etc. We still make progress (or at least I hope we do!). But a preferred situation would involve the sort of family Seneca describes, and I think this is what he’s getting at.

    Such a family is to be heavily preferred, but not required per se. And more importantly, other indifferents like health, wealth and physical beauty don’t factor in anywhere here – so fret not about comparisons to Aristotle.


  6. Massimo Post author


    I’m on board with everything you write, and I’m certainly not fretting about differentiating Stoics from Aristotelians (others are, but that’s outisde of my control…). Still, the developmental phase is one thing, adulthood another. So, if Seneca is simply saying — as he does elsewhere — that it is preferable to have virtuous friends, no problem. If, however, he is saying that they are needed een by an adult, that would seem to blur the line between a preferred indifferent and a true good, which doesn’t sound very Stoic.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. maxbini

    Just my opinion on how Stoic Seneca is:
    Seneca is eclecic in his philosophy – taking good ideas from “enemy camps” as he says in the Moral Epistles – and so I never read him as feeling that he has to agree with other Stoics. The Stoa was a place to gather and discuss philosophy – unlike the Epicureans they never felt they had to refer to the teachings of a master as gospel. Also Seneca’s early ties were to Pythagoreanism and the school of the Sextii and although he calls himself a Stoic I do not believe that he ever let go of the teachings of those schools – rather I think he read them into his Stoicism.


  8. Massimo Post author

    This from Liz, the author of the book, it came in after comments window closed, but it is, of course, highly relevant:

    Hi, Plutarch! The issue on whether the family is fundamental to moral growth is one which I get back to at the end of the book, since I think the answer is found in the Moral Epistles.

    In answer to your two questions – the Stoic sage is notoriously self-sufficient, so at some stage they will have outgrown the need for a family, and be perfectly self-reliant. However, that has to be balanced with the idea of the cosmopolis, in that the wise have a particular kind of relationship with each other – so the sage might no longer need a family for moral growth per se, but will still wish to engage with other humans (wise and unwise) as a natural thing for humans to do.

    On whether families are natural – yes. They are preferred indifferents according to nature – if you look at nature and what animals do, they start families. It’s the ‘according to nature’/kata phusin element of this which I think gives the biggest nudge, as you put it.

    I think the final point you raise, about creating your own family, is really the key bit here – if you are born into a family which, for whatever reason, is unable to give you moral guidance, you should choose your own ancestors (ideally philosophers) and take the sort of guidance from them you’d otherwise take from family members. Again, Seneca comes back to this in the Moral Epistles, and this theme of moral education among the family is one that unfolds as the book progresses.


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