Seneca to Lucilius: the effective teaching of virtue

Scipio Africanus, Stoic role model

Is it possible to teach virtue? Opinions differed among the Greco-Roman philosophers, as I have discussed in an earlier post. The Stoics, of course, answered in the positive, but they were not blind to the difficulties inherent in the task, as is clear from letter XXV from Seneca to Lucilius, which in the wonderful Chicago Press edition carries the title “Effective teaching.”

Seneca recounts the situation of two mutual friends, who, he says, need to be treated differently because of where they are in their life stages. With one of them, Seneca thinks harsh measures ought to be put in place, adding that if he doesn’t offend his friend, then he doesnt’ love him. I suspect this sort of attitude is difficult to implement nowadays, given our culture’s current penchant for easy offense. Then again, Seneca was talking about a friend who he genuinely wanted to help, not a stranger he actually aimed at hurting.

Seneca anticipates Lucilius’ objection: are you seriously thinking of taking on a pupil who is 40 years old? He is set in his ways, and one can mold things only whey they are soft. To which comes the reply:

“I don’t know if I will succeed, but I would rather fail in my endeavor than in my duty to him. Nor should you give up hope: even long-term invalids can be cured if you take a stand against intemperance, and if you force them repeatedly to do things and put up with things against their will.” (XXV.2)

Notice the standard Stoic analogy between philosophical and physical health, but also the acknowledgment that, while it may be more difficult than if one starts earlier in life, it is still possible at any age to help people we care along the path of virtue.

The second friend needs a gentler treatment, continues Seneca, because he is still capable of blushing, which means he has retained a sense of right and wrong, and is concerned about it:

“We must nurture that sense of shame: once it has solidified in his mind, there will be some room for hope.” (XXV.2)

The second part of the letter turns to helping out Seneca himself, as well as Lucilius: just because they are conscious of the importance of virtue it doesn’t mean that they are ipso facto virtuous. As he often does in the early letters, Seneca quotes the rival Epicurus, not being shy to borrow from the latter’s philosophy, since the truth is public property. The quote is rather indicative of Epicurus’ own approach to things (recall that he was among the few ancients who actually went around claiming to be a sage): “do everything as though Epicurus were watching you.”

This is interesting because it’s a clear indication of an exercise that modern Stoics refer to as “the sage on the shoulder,” the idea — supported by empirical evidence in social psychology — that we behave better if we imagine that there is someone watching what we are doing. And Seneca is explicit in his instructions to Lucilius:

“Put yourself under the guardianship of men of authority. Let it be Cato, or Scipio, or Laelius, or someone else at whose coming even desperate characters would suppress their faults, while you go about making yourself the person in whose company you would not dare to do wrong.” (XXV.6)

Cato, of course, is Cato the Younger, the arch-enemy of Julius Caesar, and a frequent role model for Seneca. Scipio is the legendary Scipio Africanus, a Roman general and consul who defeated Hannibal at the battle of Zama in 202 BCE, during the Second Punic War. And Laelius was Gaius Laelius Sapiens (Laelius “the wise”), a Roman statesman of the II century BCE. The point is that all these people were known for their virtuous character, and are therefore apt to be role models for Lucilius (and the rest of us). Seneca even suggests that the choice of a role model depends on our own personality: for some a hardened soul like that of Cato will do, others might want to go with the gentler Laelius.

Role models play a huge part in Stoic ethical teaching, because — as Seneca says elsewhere — they provide us with a ruler against which to measure just how crooked our own character still is, as well as a pointer for the direction to take in order to further our self-improvement. So, pick your Cato, Scipio, or Laelius; or perhaps a modern role model, like Susan Fowler; or a fictional one, like Spider-Man (the ancients often used Odysseus); or simply look up to a friend or relative you think is doing the right thing for the right reasons. Role models don’t have to be perfect, no human being is. But it’s precisely because of their imperfection that their examples provide us with realistic goals, helping us to become better human beings here and now.

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Categories: Seneca to Lucilius

26 replies

  1. Oh woah! I didn’t know Scipio Africanus was a Stoic. I guess it would have taken a lot of temperance, courage and wisdom to defeat such a formidable enemy, Hannibal.

    Thank you for the interesting read! 😊

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  2. Chuchu,

    I’m not positive Scipio considered himself a Stoic (Cato, of course, certainly did). But one does not have to be a Stoic in order to be considered a role model by the Stoics, for instance, Socrates.

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  3. So helpful, as always. I would say that Spiderman would be a challenging role model – he is constantly buffeted by emotions, vexed at his oppression under J Jonah Jameson, etc. Personally I see Batman as a fine Stoic role model in the severe, Cato/Diogones vein (not the modern movie version, he …has issues), or Doctor Strange in the equanimitous/sage variety. Perhaps Bruce Banner is the most stoic of all; he’s mastered an ever-present rage in order to cage the beast inside him. Except when Hulk Smash, that is, but Cato unleashed fury as well when the time was right.

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  4. Very true!

    Scipio Africanus was already my role model the moment I learned about the punic wars. I often think of him whenever I’m facing something that seems rather impossible in life, like trying to fence off a bunch of war elephants charging at you, after the biggest defeat on your side. 😑 a bit like my advisor ignoring my asking for help after a paper being ruthlessly rejected by a journal!

    Thinking about being watched by Scipio does give me the chills though, but in a positive way. 😊

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  5. Speaking of role models, I’m very anxious to hear your thoughts on Jordan Petterson one day and his suitability as any sort of guide. I recall he has spoken favorably of Buddhism (the less mystical variety), which suggests he’s open to stoic ideas. I have listened to his lecture series on personality and found it insightful, although I suspect he goes astray when venturing too far into your field of biology. And of course his temper isn’t exactly a model of stoic temperance.

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  6. I don’t think there is any evidence for Scipio considering himself to be a Stoic (or an adherent of any particular school), but he does seem to have been interested in philosophy, being seen as a leader of the “hellenizing” faction of the time which was keen to import Greek culture. Interestingly, the opposing, “traditional values” school was led by the Stoic Cato’s ancestor, Cato the Censor. While they won in the short term, prompting Scipio’s self-imposed exile, their victory was obviously short-lived.

    I’m glad Scipio is an appropriate Stoic role model as he’s always been at the top of my pantheon of personal heroes.

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  7. J.,

    interesting. I think Spider-Man havign to constantly battle his emotions and keep them in check in order to do what he needs to do still makes him a good Stoic role model.

    As for Batman, who is one of my favorite, I usually think of him as a deontologist. Consider how he refuses to kill the Joker, even though he knows the bastards will be back and cause more deaths and mayhem. A Stoic, Seneca says, is not above killing an enemy, if it is absolutely necessary. (Of course, Spidey also tries really hard not to kill anyone.)

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  8. Chuchu,

    indeed, our everyday problems get put in perspective if we compare them to facing Hannibal and his elephants…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. J.,

    yeah, people keep asking, so one of these days I will have to write abotu Peterson. My take is almost entirely negative, I’m afraid, much along the lines of this (very long, very detailed) article:

    https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/03/the-intellectual-we-deserve

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  10. Good thought on Peter Parker – he IS always trying to work toward his best self.

    Interestingly, some writers have crafted stories that explain Batman’s restraint, not in deontological terms, but as a check on his savage impulses – because he’s Batman, he could very well kill almost anyone (he’s disabled every member of the Justice League at least once) and he’s simply afraid he’ll develop a taste for it. (This smacks dangerously of Petterson’s assertion that no one can be good unless they are acquainted with their inner “monster”). Again, Batman has issues.

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  11. Massimo, I greatly appreciate your on-going posts about Stoicism. When I look back at the history of your posts I see a major corpus of writings being developed. And so it is with regret that I must be critical of this post.

    I certainly agree that virtue can be taught. But how? The bulk of your essay deals with the contention that it can be taught. You discuss the difficulties of teaching virtue, especially to mature people(yes, it is difficult). But as to how it can be taught you merely point to role models, advising us to choose a suitable role model. You advise that we should have a ‘sage on the shoulder’, saying “ that we behave better if we imagine that there is someone watching what we are doing.“. A Catholic like myself of course nods wisely in agreement. But that is still thin advice for the effective teaching of virtue, the title of your post.

    You also made this point:
    “We must nurture that sense of shame: once it has solidified in his mind, there will be some room for hope.” (XXV.2)

    Yes, indeed, but how should we do it?. We call it sin but sin has become such an old fashioned concept that shame is now reserved for the discomfort felt at public revelations of wrongdoing. This was brought home to me by two posts on Dan-K’s blog that essentially argued that repugnant thoughts were not wrong. I argued strongly against this concept but to no avail. I used the third party argument and it was simply ignored, as if it was of no account. What was remarkable was that everyone one else believed that there was nothing wrong whatsoever with repugnant thoughts. Of course there is a subtle contradiction at work here. If that is the case why call them repugnant?

    I appreciate that you have confined yourself to analysing the contents of the letter from Seneca to Lucilius. But I think more is needed and this letter would have been a good starting point.

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  12. Please correct me if I am wrong but I have always considered virtue as very different from the modern conception of being morally good (Dudley Do-right). Virtue means excellence and the Romans often equated it with virility. Can one be excellent? Can one be a Stoic sage? The point is to try and to keep trying – but there has to be something wrong with someone who calls themselves excellent or a sage. I like the story about how Pythagoras first came to use the term “philosopher” – he refused to be called a sage as wisdom is something to be strived for not possessed (contra Plato).

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  13. Further to the subject of role models. The entertainment culture has created an entire pantheon of role models that dwarfs Greek mythology. These role models have gripped the public imagination in a way never seen before. These are role models of every possible type and morality, embedded in a confusing variety of narratives that make the Tower of Babel sound simple. In the face of this immense cacophony of tales, celebrating every possible variant of human behaviour, appealing to the power of role models is not useful.

    They already have a powerful hold on our imagination but it is mostly for the wrong reasons. What we need to do instead is displace the harmful narratives and their fractured role models with the beneficial. But how is that to be done without an overarching narrative-moral framework that supplies a persuasive rational and a persuasive alternative?

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  14. Comic book aficionados might consider the proto-superhero Doc Savage as a role model. Savage displayed his “character and worldview,” according to Wikipedia, “in his oath, which goes as follows: ‘Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.'”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doc_Savage

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  15. labnut,

    “I certainly agree that virtue can be taught. But how? The bulk of your essay deals with the contention that it can be taught.”

    Actually, half the essay is devoted to one of the standard Stoic methods, the choice of suitable role models.

    “But that is still thin advice for the effective teaching of virtue”

    How is it thin, especially when I even provide a list of role models, and link to more essays on the same topic?

    And as you note, this post is about a specific (short) letter by Seneca to Lucilius, there is a linked post on the broader question of whether virtue can be taught. Moreover, whether is a different question from how.

    “two posts on Dan-K’s blog that essentially argued that repugnant thoughts were not wrong”

    I do think they are, and an explicit component of Stoic training is to reduce their frequency. the Stoics didn’t just rely on the sage on the shoulder exercise. In How to Be a Stoic I list twelve different ones, all aimed at improving virtue. And Greg Lopez and I are working now at a new bbok that details 52 such exercises.

    maxibini,

    “Virtue means excellence and the Romans often equated it with virility.”

    That’s not quite right. Though the Latin root of the word does indeed mean “man,” the Stoics and others recognized that virtue is accessible by anyone, explicitly including women. Also, the Greek word is arete, which has the broader meaning of excellence. In the specific case of the Stoic virtues, it is excellence at prudence, courage, justice, and temperance.

    “there has to be something wrong with someone who calls themselves excellent or a sage”

    That’s why the Stoics never did, it was Epicurus that used that term applied to himself. (The post links to a series of entries on the concept of sagheood, by the way.)

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  16. I do think they are, and an explicit component of Stoic training is to reduce their frequency.

    That is good to know. I wish I had your support when this matter was being debated 🙂

    And Greg Lopez and I are working now at a new book that details 52 such exercises.

    I look forward to seeing it.

    How is it thin, especially when I even provide a list of role models

    I am immersed in a dense, immersive network of moral priming that strongly emphasises the virtues on an ongoing basis. I am judging it from that perspective.

    Not that it guarantees success. Far from it. Priests would not have to hear confession if that were the case 🙂 It is a simple fact the changing people’s moral behaviour is a very difficult process with many failures.

    The process you recommend may partially work with the small number of highly intelligent, highly motivated people who are actively seeking a better way of living. They need only to be pointed in the right direction and they will find the answer. I admire such people but they are a tiny minority. Broadening the appeal of Stoicism beyond this small base of self-selected people is the real challenge.

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  17. The concept of shame and it use in stoic writings has always confused me. I know that Greek and Roman stoics differed in ‘prudishness’, and concepts of shame are related to that. The Greek sense of near-Cynic shamelessness always struck me as the more reasonable approach, as when Crates calls after the fleeing Zeno, sodden with soup, “Why run away, my little Phoenician ? Nothing terrible has befallen you.”

    But then how to make sense of the reintroduction of shame as a positive in cases like these? I always understood it as being the difference between shame of things that actually matter (vice, things that have actual moral worth) and things that don’t, like one’s appearance or the opinions of others. Even the Roman stoics agree that the unwise are ashamed when they shouldn’t be, whereas those making progress are ashamed only of true evils, and the truly wise are ashamed of nothing at all. But then what of Seneca’s second man, whose sense of shame is described as being a last shred of hope? If the man is unwise (as he’s described as being), then shouldn’t we suspect that his sense of shame is largely misdirected at things that don’t matter? And if that’s the case, how is his sense of shame something that should be nurtured, as Seneca argues it should? The Greek stoics seemed to favor a totally different approach, that of essentially freeing ourselves from ordinary shame completely, so that we may better evaluate those things that are properly worth valuing.

    Which is the better approach?

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  18. Also, the Greek word is arete, which has the broader meaning of excellence.

    I wish this was emphasised more. I consider excellence to be the basis of all other virtues.

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  19. labnut,

    “The process you recommend may partially work with the small number of highly intelligent, highly motivated people who are actively seeking a better way of living.”

    Why is that? What high level of education is required to grasp the concept of a role model? Doesn’t Christianity offer Jesus as one? And the Saints?

    Also, for Stoicism, like for other traditions, a crucial locus of moral education is one’s family and friends. I will soon write about this in detail as part of my ongoing series on Liz Gloyn’s book on Seneca and the family.

    Jim,

    I think your analysis of shame is largely correct, but I don’t really see a major difference between the Greek and the Roman Stoics: it is good to be ashamed of one’s failure at virtue, not of going around with a pot of lentils. Seneca would have agreed.

    It is true that the Roman Stoics were more conservative in terms of customs, but again, when Seneca talks about shame he is referring to the same concept that Zeno employed, and for the same reasons.

    Seneca’s friend is not a wise man, obviously, but from the context I’m pretty sure that Seneca means to say that the friend is still capable to feel right shame, and is therefore still within grasp of virtuous education.

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  20. Why is that? What high level of education is required to grasp the concept of a role model?

    Because it is largely well educated, intelligent and highly motivated people who will act on your advice by searching for your references, studying them and drawing lessons from them. The vast majority of people will yawn and move on to the next movie on Netflix. Something else is required to extend the reach of your teaching and make it effective.

    Doesn’t Christianity offer Jesus as one? And the Saints?

    Indeed Christianity does. And it offers a great number of compelling examples. But there are crucial differences. Jesus is the example of the suffering and redemption of the common man. There is a deep authenticity that speaks to all people and all classes. This authenticity was so compelling that it mobilised a band of despairing and ordinary people, after Jesus’ death, to advocate for his ideas, extending them far and wide, with stunning success.

    It is this combination of authenticity and mobilisation which accounts for the success of Christianity. Stoicism is lacking on both accounts. It does not have such an authentic founder figure, thus has never been able to motivate self-perpetuating and enthusiastic mobilisation. It therefore depends on self-selection by people looking for alternative frameworks. They are largely on their own, with few supporting structures and the reading of the texts requires some intellectual sophistication.

    Remember the title of your essay is ‘effective teaching of virtue’. But you are not dealing with that subject. Instead you are pointing self-taught people to resources where they may continue their self education. Telling self-taught people to find role models simply does not count as ‘effective teaching of virtue’, except for a tiny fraction of people..

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  21. Also, for Stoicism, like for other traditions, a crucial locus of moral education is one’s family and friends.

    I agree and look forward to that essay. But we are talking about your present essay, which seems not to live up to the promise of its title.

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  22. labnut,

    “Because it is largely well educated, intelligent and highly motivated people who will act on your advice by searching for your references, studying them and drawing lessons from them. The vast majority of people will yawn and move on to the next movie on Netflix”

    You are talking about my blog, not Stoicism in general. Of course, but the same is true for the minority of people who will read Bob Wright’s excellent recent book on Buddhism. That doesn’t mean Buddhism has a small reach. There is nothing intrinsic in Stoicism that makes it elisist or difficult to grasp.

    “there are crucial differences. Jesus is the example of the suffering and redemption of the common man. There is a deep authenticity that speaks to all people and all classes”

    As opposed to the Stoic role models, who suffered and died for the sort of things that real human beings (as opposed to alleged gods) suffer and die?

    “It does not have such an authentic founder figure”

    Authentic in your mind, of course. An opinion I respect, but let’s not confuse it with a fact. Zeno of Citium has the advantage of very likely having actually existed.

    “Remember the title of your essay is ‘effective teaching of virtue”

    You really should not get so hang up on the title. It’s the one Chicago Press gave to their translation of this particular letter.

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  23. Authentic in your mind, of course. An opinion I respect, but let’s not confuse it with a fact. Zeno of Citium has the advantage of very likely having actually existed.

    The clear implication of your statement(please correct me if I have misread it) is that you believe that Jesus Christ did not exist.

    You are of course perfectly free to believe that, but it remains that, only a belief, in the face of the fact that the great majority of New Testament scholars, both atheist and Christian, believe that Jesus Christ was a real, historical figure, that he actually did exist.

    A particularly good example of this is Bart Ehrman. He is a rather prominent and highly esteemed New Testament scholar who is an atheist. He believes, unequivocally, that Jesus Christ existed and brings first class, detailed scholarship to back up his belief. He simply does not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Fair enough, different strokes for different folks 🙂

    See the following book in which he brings to bear his scholarship to support his contention that Jesus Christ is a real, historical figure. I strongly recommend that you read it. His style of writing is simple, direct, lucid and enjoyable.

    You are not a scholar of the New Testament, and as an academic yourself, you know that you are poorly equipped to adjudicate on matters far outside your field of expertise. In cases like that one can only defer to the well established opinion in the relevant academic field. It is exactly this failure which lies at the root of the harmful pseudo-knowledge problem, with all its many kinds of denialism.

    To quote the relevant Wikipedia article

    The Christ myth theory is a fringe theory, supported by few tenured or emeritus specialists in biblical criticism or cognate disciplines.[5][6][7][q 2] It deviates from the mainstream historical view, which is that while the gospels include many legendary elements, these are religious elaborations added to the accounts of a historical Jesus who was crucified in the 1st-century Roman province of Judea.[8][9]

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  24. no labnut, the clear implication of my statements is that I don’t believe Jesus was a god. Whether he existed or not is irrelevant to my argument.

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  25. I wonder why Alcibiades and Alexander were not mentioned. The two somehow do not seem to reflect either of their mentors. I am a pessimist regarding the topic – don’t do all that well regarding my own instructing.

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