The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, VI: rewriting the family

Seneca wrote his famous letters to Lucilius near the end of his life. They are not just philosophical letters to a friend, but a structured curriculum in Stoic philosophy, as the entries are meant to be read in sequence, with the reader assuming the role of Lucilius. Moreover, Seneca is careful not to alienate his readers by presenting himself as perfect. On the contrary, he is a flawed fellow proficiens. He has a headstart on us, but we can catch up.

This is the setting for the last chapter of Liz Gloyn’s excellent The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, which I have been commenting on for the past several weeks. In the course of the 124 letters, Seneca manages, among several other things, to redefine the role of the family in Roman society from a Stoic perspective, even though he never mentions any of Lucilius’ relatives, and his own family appears only rarely, for a total of four times.

The first twelve letters, on Liz’s reading, are essentially programmatic statements, orienting the reader and making him aware of what he is committing to. Letter IX is interesting, because there Seneca rebukes Epicurus, in response to a question posed by Lucilius. Epicurus had apparently criticized Stilbo (or Stilpo), who had lost his family, and yet seemed to think he could live on his own. Seneca explains the Stoic perspective by means of a treatment of the concept of apatheia (lack of negative passions), non-suffering, and self-sufficiency. Stilbo does experience the loss of his family as a loss, but he does not thereby lose his moral composure, despite his bereavement. Seneca summarizes the right Stoic attitude in this fashion:

“As long as he [the wise man] may order his own affairs by his own judgement, he is content in himself, and marries a wife; he is content in himself, and brings up children; he is content in himself, and yet would not live, if he were to live without a human being. No personal benefit brings him to friendship, but a natural stimulus; for as the enjoyment of other things is innate to us, so it is with friendship.” (IX.17)

This is an interesting point, which Gloyn analyzes in detail, even down to the specific Latin terms used by Seneca in describing the Stilbo episode. The rather surprising idea is that losing one’s family could provide, from a Stoic perspective, sufficient reason to commit suicide. But, as the example of Stilbo shows, it does not have to, as one can survive the loss and continue his pursuit of virtue. This is really fascinating to me, since it shows that according to Seneca even the wise person can be driven to “the open door” (as Epictetus calls it) by such a gigantic loss. And exiting through the door would be considerate acceptable, under certain circumstances, even though it is certainly not required. Love for one’s family is a positive emotion, and thus not to be curtailed by a Stoic.

To be unambiguously clear, though, the circumstances around the loss of one’s family would have to be right to make using “the open door” virtuous — there would have to be something in play which made the preferred indifferent of life cease to be the preferred option in an individual’s life. So it’s not that any familial loss at all allows us to consider suicide as a valid option, but that such a loss is categorised by the Stoics as one of the possible things which could create a situation where suicide became a rational option.

The next appearance of family in the Letters occurs in a tight sequence: XXXI, XXXII, and XXXIII. Here, however, Seneca warns Lucilius that one’s family can just as well become an obstacle to the practice of virtue. Lucilius’ parents are well meaning, and accordingly they pray so that he could achieve glory and gather honors. But of course these are externals, which are merely preferred indifferents, and should not be our main focus in life. Which means that Lucilius’ parents are praying for the wrong thing, even though out of good intentions. That’s why the proficiens should choose his own, philosophical, family, and chart his path independently of what society expects from him.

Letter XXXIII contains one of the clues that Liz focuses on for her contention that the entire collection is really a curriculum in disguise. In the early letters, Seneca often closes with a “gift” to his friend: a quote from a wise person, which turns out to be Epicurus, from the homonymous rival school. But around this time in the sequence Seneca stops quoting Epicurus, and Lucilius complains. Seneca then explains that it is time to move away from aphorisms and become more autonomous in our quest for wisdom. Too much reliance on the words of others means that one will never attain his own mental independence.

The notion that the proficiens should supplement (or even replace) her own family with one chosen on purpose on the basis of philosophical considerations is fleshed out in letter XLIV:

“Socrates was not of patrician rank. Cleanthes was a water carrier and hired himself out to water a garden. Philosophy did not receive Plato noble but made him so. Why then should you despair of becoming equal to these men? All these are your ancestors if you behave in a way that is worthy of them; and so you will behave, if you immediately convince yourself that you are surpassed in nobility by nobody.” (XLIV.3)

These people are our philosophical ancestors, and it doesn’t matter whether our biological family is of high rank or not. Socrates, Cleathes, Plato and all the others surely are, and all we have to do is to “adopt” them, so to speak.

Three letters later, Seneca clearly includes slaves within the family, and argues that they should be treated as human beings, with inherent worth:

“Do you not see even this, how our ancestors took away all spite from masters, and all indignity from slaves? They addressed a master as the ‘father of the family,’ and the slaves as ‘members of the household,’ which custom even continues in mimes up to the present day; they established a holiday not as the only day on which masters ate with slaves, but as the one on which they did so without fail; they allowed slaves to bear honours in the household and to administer justice, and considered that the household was a miniature state.” (XLVII.14)

This is by no means a rebellion against the institution of slavery (which was, by contrast, openly called an evil by Zeno of Citium), but it is nonetheless a rather remarkable passage for the time and cultural milieu.

Another letter dealing with the family is L, but there the passage I prefer is one in which Seneca engages in a bit of self deprecating humor:

“If I ever wish to be entertained by a fool, I do not have to look far — I laugh at myself.” (L.2)

We get a reference to the always present doctrine of oikeiosis, or natural affection guided and enlarged by reason, in letter LXVI, when Seneca tells Lucilius that a parent ought to treat all his children equally:

“Surely no one would make such an unjust appraisal of his own children so as to love a healthy son more than a sick son, or a tall and nobly built son more than a short or average-sized one?” (LXVI.26)

The idea is that we should try, as Gloyn puts it, to treat our children on the basis of their (potential) inner virtue, not based on external attributes, such as their looks, or their athletic prowess.

In Letter LXX, Seneca provides yet another contrast meant to highlight that family members sometimes can give good advice and sometimes they fail to do so. It’s the story of the young Drusus Libo, who was in the middle of a trial where he was expecting a death sentence. He was wondering whether to kill himself as many of the Roman aristocrats did before sentence was passed. His aunt Scribonia counseled against walking through “the open door,” but Libo followed his own free judgment instead, disregarding his relative’s advice. The episode can usefully be contrasted with the one pertaining Paetus and his wife Arria. Paetus was ordered by the emperor Claudius to commit suicide, but could not find the courage. So she provided the example for him to follow: she stabbed herself, handing him the dagger with the gentle words “Paete, non dolet” (Paetus, it doesn’t hurt). Arria then, considered by Pliny the epitome of Stoic womanhood, becomes Scribonia’s antithesis.

But one also has duties to one’s family, and sometimes those duties preclude us from walking through the open door. This is explicitly put forth by Seneca in Letter LXXVIII:

“I often entertained the impulse to break off my life; the old age of my most tender father restrained me. For I thought not about how bravely I could die, but how little he would have been able to miss me bravely. And so I ordered myself to live. Sometimes even to live is to act bravely.” (LXXVIII.1-2)

I love the beautiful phrasing, as is often the case in Seneca, but the bottom line, as Liz points out, is that we as moral agents need to consider our duties toward our families as factors in our decisions, so long as we don’t let us be misled by family members into making an ethically inadvisable choice, in terms of our Stoic framework. Again emphasizing her reading of the Letters as a curriculum, Gloyn comments that by now “readers are sufficiently far along the Epistulae Morales’ developmental path to engage with the family both as a constructive and destructive influence on the proficiens’ virtue.” (p. 271)

The next pertinent section of that curriculum is comprised of Letters LXXXVIII, XCIV and XCV, where Seneca discusses children’s moral education, once again putting the family at the center of early moral development, as he has done through several of his other writings, magistrally explored by Gloyn in the book. The central concept is that the only true liberal education is one that is centered on ethics, the idea being that if education does not allow one to live a meaningful life than it has failed its main purpose. How I wish we moderns would take such advice to heart, instead of squandering countless resources into “educating” people, by which we just mean putting them in a position to get a job as one of many cogs in a giant societal money-making and soul-crunching machine.

According to Seneca, it all begins with the family, who has the duty to lead the child through the early stages of her moral development. But the family also has a duty to then provide the child with the means for further instruction, and a major component of such instruction takes the form of philosophical precepts, which the child and then young adult can learn from tutors and philosophers.

In Letter XCIV Seneca first considers Aristo’s criticism of relying on precepts, and then explains how they ought to be used: they are not supposed to be rules to be followed blindly, without understanding. Rather, they are what we would call heuristic devices, quick reminders of how to act virtuously in specific situations, based, however, in a comprehension of the philosophy from which they stem. Liz explains: “Marriage offers the case study for how precepta can help us. As a rule of thumb, adultery by either spouse is always unacceptable. This precept acts as a prompt for the overarching rule that applies to all marriages, namely that humans need reminding that adultery is bad for both men and women regardless of the dynamics of individual relationships.” (p. 274) (On why the Stoics disapprove of cheating on one’s spouse, and why they were right despite some currently fashionable psychological advice, see here.)

“It will be of no benefit to give precepts unless first you have removed the things that will stand in the way of precepts.” (XCV.38)

In other words, people need to internalize the idea that cheating is unacceptable, not simply repeat the notion and yet deep down remain convinced that it is somehow okay, or not a big deal.

In Letter IC, Seneca returns to the topic of grief, using the specific example of Marullus, who had lost his son. Gloyn comments that this is yet another occasion that could superficially be read as a case of Stoic heartlessness, since Seneca is criticizing Marullus for grieving. But a closer look clearly shows that the target of Seneca’s reproach is not grief per se, but what we might call performative grief, i.e., indulging in emotional distress, either in order to cultivate self-pity or, worse, to elicit other people’s sympathy. Seneca instead advises Marullus to take comfort in the memory of his son, to recover the important distinction (to the Stoic) between self indulgent and virtuous grieving.

Letter CIV is particularly interesting because of Seneca’s description of the tender behavior of his wife Paulina, as he is about to depart for his villa at Nomentum. While he apparently needs a break from domesticity in order to focus on his work, he also describes in detail how her caring for him revitalizes his zest for life. In the same letter, Seneca argues that the best kind of travel, at any rate, is the one we do with our minds, when we read books and thus come closer to our philosophical meta-family, to Cato, Socrates, Zeno, Chrysippus, Posidonius, and all the others. I cannot emphasize how often I have taken refuge and comfort in such extended family, which I have been able to build over decades of my life, picking and choosing from two and a half millennia of great minds produced by humanity.

Near the end of his curriculum for Lucilius (and for the rest of us) Seneca returns to the concept of oikeiosis, in Letter CXXI. He focuses on what Liz labels personal, as distinct from social, oikeiosis (the latter being the concept famously embodied by Hierocles’ metaphor of contracting circles of concern). As living organisms, early on we acquire a sense of our physical selves and an urge to care for it. That inborn sense of self-preservation allows us to love ourselves, but it soon becomes the emotional source we build on in order to begin loving others.

Gloyn concludes her analysis with a useful summary of the main tenets of Seneca’s epistolary curriculum: “Each family member, whether sibling, spouse, parent, aunt or uncle, occupies the same relational position to the aspiring sage, and thus has the same potential to offer good (or indeed bad) advice. Similarly, every issue is of equal moral importance. While suicide may appear of greater consequence than dietary habits, both are equally valid fields for the exercise of virtue.” (p. 288)

Or to put it even more simply: we can and should learn from anyone, but not everyone will give us virtuous advice. And every aspect of our life is a manifestation of the cosmic gym in which we are constantly given the opportunity to exercise and improve our virtue.


3 thoughts on “The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, VI: rewriting the family

  1. Victoria

    Thank you Massimo. Some parts of this article has bought me to tears. I still remember vividly thinking about suicide just before listening to those words from my audio book : “living is a kind of bravery “.

    At the same time, I can’t help but wondering how Lucilius’ parents thought if they knew their son didn’t listen to them as to what to pursuit. I mean, say what if Lucilius’ mother made him promise when he was younger that he’d consult her for everything he did, wouldn’t they have a huge disagreement after Seneca’s letter? If Lucilius decided to not tell his mother what he was up to, because he was an adult who could look after himself, wouldn’t he be breaking his promise? Is breaking a promise against virtues?


  2. Massimo Post author


    I’m glad you found the essay useful.

    If Lucilius decided to not tell his mother what he was up to, because he was an adult who could look after himself, wouldn’t he be breaking his promise? Is breaking a promise against virtues?

    The Stoics maintained that moral developments begin, but does not end, with the family. The goal is to become mature, independent moral agents. So, yes, a promise Lucilius may have made to his mother when he was not mature may need to be broken. Generally speaking, keeping promises is virtuous, but virtuous ethics is also sensitive to circumstances, and if the circumstances change significantly, then the moral agent is bound to revise her position accordingly.

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