The ethics of the family in Seneca, III: the mystery of marriage

How do the Stoics think of marriage (or, in modern terms, stable monogamous relationships)? That’s the topic of the third chapter of Liz Gloyn’s The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. It turns out that here, as in several other aspects when it comes to the conception of the family, Seneca is subtly subversive, if one reads him carefully. We will see just how subversive when we get to the chapter on the character of the imperial family, but for me this has so far been the most refreshing aspect of reading Gloyn’s book. Even modern practitioners tend to under-appreciate just how revolutionary Stoic ideas were in the ancient world.

Marriage was, of course, central to Roman society, and among the upper classes was perceived as an instrument to achieve political power and social influence. Contra common misconception, women were given a noteworthy degree of autonomy and power in the late Republic and especially during the empire, though of course Roman society was still fundamentally patriarchal. Seneca, however, reconceives marriage from a Stoic perspective, making it into a fundamental opportunity for both members of the couple to practice virtue and to help each other become more virtuous. This is radically at odds with marriage seen as a means to socio-political ends.

Earlier Stoics, Liz reminds us, held a variety of opinions about marriage. Zeno of Citium, for instance, said that women should be held in common in the ideal Republic (I suspect this is to be interpreted in terms of equality, as he also said that women should wear the same clothes as men, and that they should be instructed in philosophy). Cicero, on his part, has Cato the Younger say, in book III of De Finibus, that Stoics should not only engage in politics, but also marry and have children, a position held also by Musonius Rufus, Hierocles, and Epictetus.

What’s novel in Seneca is his focus on marriage as a reciprocally virtuous activity, and his clear positioning of women as active participants in the relationship:

“Seneca sees the ideal marriage as a state of stability that reciprocally leads to virtue.” (p. 122)

Gloyn’s analysis is mostly based on the partly preserved De Matrimonio, which we only know through secondary (Christian) sources, specifically Jerome of Stridon (347-420 CE). It needs, therefore, to be handled with care, as we cannot be certain of the extent to which we have Seneca’s own words or Jerome’s paraphrases of them. Liz’s book contains an appendix with the extant fragments and translation of De Matrimonio.

Marriage, for Seneca, is of course a preferred indifferent, meaning that it is neither good nor bad in and of itself:

“And just as riches, honours, the health of our bodies and other things which we call indifferents are neither good nor bad, but become either good or bad by use and by chance, as if placed in the middle, so too are wives placed on the border of good things and bad things; however, it is a serious matter for a wise man to be uncertain about whether he is about to marry a good or a bad woman.” (V.23)

It is a “serious matter” for the wise man because women are independent moral agents, and they therefore contribute equally to the virtuousness of the relationship.

Seneca then criticizes Chrysippus — thus showing that the Stoics engaged in healthy internal debates — for writing to the effect that marriage should be constrained by local religious traditions. On the contrary, for Seneca entering in that sort of relationship with another human being is part of what it means to “live according to nature,” and therefore transcends cultural norms and religious customs.

Seneca also has harsh words for those who marry for convenience, for instance to avoid financial penalties (the Romans since Octavian Augustus had enacted laws favoring marriage and procreation), or for political gain. Entering and exiting marriage too quickly is also not the Stoic thing to do:

“We read about certain women, divorced on the second day of the marriage, who married again at once: each husband should be rebuked, both he who was so quickly displeased and he who was pleased so quickly.” (V.36)

Notice here that Seneca is criticizing the husbands first: a quick divorce means that one is too easily displeased, and agreeing to marry someone who had just been divorced means one is too easily pleased. The problem being, of course, that many people are under the misguided impression that pleasure is a true good, and act accordingly.

Seneca also argues that the wise person loves by exercising the virtue of temperance. He says that to love someone else’s spouse is, obviously, disgraceful, but so is to display too much lust for one’s own spouse, as this may lead us to lose sight of the true value of marriage (virtue), and — as he puts it — treat instead our partner “as an adultress” (or adulterer).

Fine, I can hear the objection here: how unromantic! But we all know of dysfunctional relationships were people are driven by passion (in the unhealthy sense of the word), and otherwise abuse each other, and certainly do not model virtue for each other or for their children. As always, remember that Stoicism is not about suppressing one’s emotions, but rather about shifting our emotional spectrum from negative and destructive emotions to positive and constructive ones.

One of the virtues Seneca associates with a good marriage is that of pudicitia, a word later used by Christian writers to mean modesty, and usually associated with women’s inferior role within the relationship. Not so for our Stoic author:

“In one of the Epistulae Morales, [Seneca] includes two types of pudicitia in a list of virtues he needs to perfect the teachable character given to him by nature. He defines the two kinds as ‘that which is restraint from someone else’s body, and that which is care of one’s own body.’ Seneca has no difficulty in assuming he might demonstrate pudicitia as a man; he also shows awareness of the multifaceted nature of the virtue, articulating its concern with both outer activity and inward disposition.” (p. 132)

Seneca says that a major threat to pudicitia is what he calls “aliena libidine,” literally “another’s person’s lust,” but meaning that if we are so strongly attracted by someone who is not our partner we are dragged along by lust, in a sense captive of our own emotions. That’s why the right approach is not to practice pudicitia because we are afraid of repercussions (legal or otherwise), but genuinely because we think it is unvirtuous to feel (and act) otherwise.

So according to Gloyn, Seneca’s talk of pudicitia is not meant to downgrade women’s moral status, since he uses the same vocabulary for men as well. The very same mental state that leads to virtuous action can be attained by men and women alike. Indeed, he very clearly criticizes men for a double standard in terms of virtue (a double standard that persists to this days, unfortunately):

“The marriages of certain people adjoin adulteries and – what a shameful thing! – the same men who took away pudicitia taught it to those women.” (V.28)

And consider this passage, where Seneca mocks the Roman propensity for the husband to “guard” his wife, so that she does not engage in unacceptable behavior:

“What good is a careful watch when an impudica wife cannot be guarded and a pudica wife ought not to be? For the necessity of chastity is a treacherous guard, and only the woman who could do wrong if she wished to should be called pudica.” (V.54.6-7)

Liz remarks that this makes sense if Seneca saw women as active, independent moral agents, capable of seeking (and holding onto) virtue on their own, without their men “guarding” them. Indeed, she claims that Seneca is both making a strong (if implicit) case for the equality of women, and reminding us that without the possibility of choosing wrong, there is no virtue. Virtue is not the notion that we always do right by default, without effort. It’s the notion that we choose to do right, because we agree that that is the rational thing to do.

In a sense, Seneca’s take on marriage and love is no different from that of the early Stoics. As Gloyn reminds us:

“And the wise man will love those young people who, through their appearance, display a nature well-disposed to virtue, as Zeno says in the Republic and Chrysippus in the first book of On Lives, and Apollodoros in the Ethics.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.129)

This is the Stoic concept of eros, which is aroused not by the alluring appearance of the other person, but by the promise of virtue that is evident in the proficiens (the one who makes progress) that we elect as a partner to help us on our own path to virtue. (Incidentally, “young people” in the quote above is gender ambiguous, and it reinforces the idea that same-sex relationships were acceptable, if framed within a virtuous context.)

Liz then discusses what we know about Seneca’s own relationship with his wife. For instance, in De Ira, he describes a peaceful evening scene, where his wife knows of and respects his habit of taking a few minutes to go over his day, interrogating himself as to what he had done well and what he needs to improve. She does not do this because Seneca instructs her, but because she is his confidante, privy to this nightly ritual (“moris iam mei conscia”).

We get another glimpse of the relationship between Seneca and his wife Paulina thanks to Tacitus’ description of the scene of Seneca’s suicide (which is more sympathetic than the version we find in Cassius Dio, notoriously critical of Seneca), a suicide ordered by Nero because of Seneca’s alleged involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy:

“When he attempted to send away his friends after a farewell dinner, Paulina refused to leave and begged that she should be allowed to die with him. Although he tried to persuade her otherwise, she insisted, and eventually convinced him to allow her to join him in death. In the event, Nero’s soldiers saved her, to make sure that Nero did not come out of the incident looking any more of a villain than he already did. … He reasons with her but respects her choice as rational after articulating the opposing side of the argument. He balances the spouse’s duty to educate and clarify with respect for Paulina as an autonomous moral agent. Her decision is based upon her evaluation of life as an indifferent, and her preference for a death that has glory rather than an ignoble life.” (pp. 145-146)

Gloyn concludes her chapter by reiterating that Seneca’s treatment of marriage as a relationship of virtue between morally equal partners is in stark contrast with the standard utilitarian view of marriage in Roman society, and therefore strongly countercultural. Wealth and ancestry don’t matter (in the sense of being preferred indifferents), and they can positively get in the way of what does matter, the mutually reinforcing pursuit of virtue.

(Next: the desirable contest between fathers and sons)

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Categories: Seneca, other, Social living

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8 replies

  1. There really isn’t any kind of relationship you can have which would not help you develop virtue is there? The annoying idiot at work can help you hone your virtue by ignoring them, others who are willing you can teach, and family should always help you further yourself ideally. Anyway thanks for the article Massimo.

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  2. Michael,

    true, anything in life provides an opportunity to exercise virtue. But Seneca’s point is that marriage, or a committed relationship, is a very special kind of constructive opportunity.

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  3. Liz Gloyn has found much to work with in the subtle references to the family in the Moral Letters but I think there may be another avenue to revealing Seneca’s views on marriage and that is his many references to adultery in the tragedies. E.g. Phaedre – the classic tale of an innocent wrongly accused of adultery and wrongly punished – and probably written in the early period of his exile (circa 43 CE) (a likely sign of his own innocence).

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  4. Haha! I like this essay, thank you Massimo!

    I guess lust would be treated as a passion to be discouraged in marriage. But what about the new scientific research that demonstrates healthy sex life being part of a happy marriage? =)

    Could a small, controlled dose of lust for one’s own partner be good for the marriage?

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  5. Chuchu,

    I think sexual attraction for one’s partner is a normal and healthy part of a relationship, and it is, in fact, embedded in the Greek concept of eros. What is not healthy is lust for its own sake, liable to overwhelm everything else, and possibly leading us to use our partner rather than love her.

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  6. Thank you for the efforts you have taken to produce these. I find them thought provoking and they help me in my own rather staggering stoic journey…

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  7. Michael – the Stoics would indeed say that there is always scope for moral development, but what marriage offers is the opportunity for mutual improvement and growth between spouses rather than just inward-focused action.

    Maxbini – there is lots of material in the tragedies – looking at how Seenca uses the family in them is actually my next book project, because there’s such a rich range of resources there. I do think Seneca is doing something a bit different in his tragedy than he is in his ‘straight’ philosophy, but that’s a massive topic in its own right.

    Chuchu – Massimo has it exactly right, in that the Stoics are happy for there to be the right sort of eros in a marital relationship. The problem is when this kind of emotion becomes irrational, so loses its focus on virtue, and becomes obsessive. The problem here is that when we talk about ’emotions’, we are talking about something very different to the Stoics’ technical terminology of passions – a lot of what we would categorise as emotional inner life doesn’t fit into their understanding of moral psychology, which leads to this sort of issue.

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  8. Thanks to Massimo for the article and to Liz Gloyn for the book and the reply. I look forward to reading your future work Liz on the tragedies (hopefully not as expensive a text to purchase). As I believe that the tragedies were started during Seneca’s exile and that he finished writing tragedies in the mid fifties (many now argue that they were mainly written at the end of his life (62-65) but I believe that at that time he was fully committed to leaving a philosophical legacy (it would be strange if he was writing tragedies while being critical of Nero performing in public)), there is bound therefore to be fundamental differences in his views (although I would argue a shared Stoic perspective just not fleshed out or argued for in the tragedies). By the way, I have been working on a philosophical novel based on Seneca’s life (it is pretty much finished but I am not sure how to go about publishing it , so I having been sitting on it for the past year adding a little here and there to try and improve on it – it feels like I could go on doing that endlessly.

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