Category Archives: Seneca, other

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.


The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, V: the imperfect imperial family

Octavian Augustus

Octavian Augustus, the adoptive son of Julius Caesar, was the first Roman emperor. The battle of Actium of 31 BCE, where he defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, marked the end of the Hellenistic period and the rise of the new empire. While Octavian had hardly been a particularly ethical individual in his youth, as emperor he set up his family as a model of moral behavior, and — to his credit — oversaw a long period of Pax Romana, which is still today celebrated by that beautiful monument in Rome known as the Ara Pacis (the altar of peace).

But the imperial family was a human family, and thus obviously imperfect, sometimes more so, at other times less. Liz Gloyn, in the fifth chapter of her fascinating The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, takes a close look at how the Stoic philosopher portrayed the imperial families he was actually acquainted with, as well as those he head read about, reminding his readers that domestic happiness is elusive for anyone but the wise person. This was true especially for imperial families, since their obvious preoccupation with power set up a difficult tradeoff with what should have been their primary concern instead: virtue.

Octavian Augustus didn’t limit himself to build public monuments like the Ara Pacis to celebrate the new era, but promulgated laws to enforce a stricter view of morality, particularly when it came to the family. For instance, his Lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus made procreation an explicit part of the definition of marriage, with penalties for people who did not marry or have children. In 2 BCE he declared himself Pater Patriae, father of the nation, putting forth an explicit analogy between the family and the state.

The reality, of course, was complicated. For one thing, the Julio-Claudians, the first imperial dynasty, was plagued by internal power struggles between the two branches, the Julians and the Claudians, and that struggle very clearly undermined the image of pietas (devotion to gods and country) that Augustus wished to project (that, and the fact that his own youthful “indiscretions” were not so easily forgotten).

For his part, Seneca had a vantage point that included a close look at the inner workings of Nero’s family, including both the complicated, shall we say, relationship between Nero and his mother Agrippina, as well as the latter’s unusual marriage to her uncle, Claudius.

Seneca uses different imperial families as either good or bad examples for his pedagogical purposes. For instance, in De Ira, he refers to an episode involving Augustus, presenting it as a case of restrain and justice. The story goes that the emperor was dining at the house of the patrician Vedius Pollio, when one of Pollio’s slaves broke a glass. The angry master cruelly fed the slave to lampreys. In response, Augustus ordered every glass in the household to be smashed, had the lamprey pit filled, and gave a stern lecture to his host.

But Seneca also uses the imperial family in a series of exempla mala (bad examples), a standard Stoic tool for moral teaching, just as important as the exempla (positive examples) that are scattered throughout Seneca’s writings. The crucial point, again, is that there is a tension between the pursuit of power in politics and being virtuous. Seneca, however, also very clearly states that the wise person should be engaged in affairs of the state, so this isn’t a counsel for political disengagement. Rather, it advances the idea that only a virtuous person can be a good politician. Where “good” means virtuous and good for the state, not just successful at obtaining and wielding power. If only modern politicians were paying attention…

We have seen how Seneca uses his letter of consolation ad Marciam to talk about the relationship between mother and son, but it also includes a pair constituted by an exemplum and an anti-exemplum, both drawn from the imperial family. Specifically, he contrasts the measured grief of Livia after the death of her son Drusus with the immoderate grief displayed by Octavia following the death of her son Marcellus. Liz drily notes that it may not have been by chance that Livia was a Claudian while Octavia was a Julian, thus revealing Seneca’s own political leanings.

A crucial point made by Gloyn is that the fusion of the two branches of the dynasty often meant that a member of one branch would publicly grieve for the death of a member from the other branch, while secretly being relieved that a potential obstacle to advancement had been removed. This sort of attitude is entirely incompatible with the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, the appropriation of other’s concerns as if they were our own, a concept that Seneca repeatedly makes use of whenever he writes about family relations.

One of the problematic examples used often by Seneca is the relationship between Augustus and his daughter Julia. Julia’s adultery conflicts directly with the carefully constructed image of the ideal family that the emperor wants to project, and the father-daughter conflict couldn’t be, again, further away from the ideal of oikeiosis. In Augustus’ case, political expediency has overcome familial affection for his daughter. Interestingly:

“Seneca deploys Stoicised doublespeak in his use [in De Clementia] of the honorific civic title to which Augustus was entitled. Naming Augustus divus invokes a heavy Stoic irony, since that ascription is followed by a list of things that make him suffer.” (p. 221)

An imperial figure that appears an unexpectedly large number of times (sixteen!) in Seneca’s writings is Gaius Caligula, for whom Seneca reserves a particular tone of disgust and outrage. The most obvious example is found in another letter of consolation, ad Polybium, where Seneca attacks Caligula’s reaction to the death of his sister Drusilla:

“When his sister Drusilla died, Gaius Caesar, that man who could no more grieve than rejoice as befits a princeps, fled from the sight and society of his citizens; he did not attend his sister’s funeral rites, he did not make funeral offerings to his sister, but in his Alban home he made light of the evils of that most bitter funeral with dice, gaming board and other pastimes of this kind. … May this example be far off from every Roman man, either to divert his grief with ill-timed games, or to provoke it with the foulness of dirt and neglect, or to amuse it with the sufferings of others, not a human comfort at all.” (XVII.4-6)

This is a splendid example of Seneca’s humanity. Far from counseling suppression of emotions and enduring life with a stiff upper lip, he condemns Gaius for his lack of appropriate feelings given the occasion, not to mention the despicable example that he, the alleged pater familias of the nation, is giving to the Roman people.

Another graphic example is found in De Ira, where Caligula is condemned in no uncertain terms by Seneca for his cruelty:

“Why do I examine ancient matters? Only recently on a single day Gaius Caesar fell upon Sextus Papinius, whose father had been consul, and Betilienus Bassus, his own quaestor and son of his procurator, and others, both senators and knights, with whips, and tortured them, not for interrogation’s sake but for his mood’s; then he was so impatient of putting off pleasure, which his cruelty used to demand in great amount without delay, that while walking with matrons and other senators in the open promenade of his mother’s gardens, which separates the portico from the river bank, by lamp-light, he beheaded certain of them.” (III.18-3-4)

This can also be read as a not so subtle critique of the general Roman figure of the pater familias, not just the imperial one. According to Roman law, the head of the household had literal power of life and death on anyone living under his roof. Not just slaves, but his wife and children as well. On occasion, such power was horribly abused, just in the manner in which Caligula is abusing his powers as head of state, and doing so, of all places, in the garden of her recently deceased mother, Agrippina.

“Gaius represents the complete failure of the imperial family to provide ethical support. Seneca highlights this breakdown by showcasing Gaius’ degradation and moral failings in contexts where he is aided and abetted by his family. He demonstrates what happens when a family becomes concerned with power rather than virtue — it has catastrophic consequences both for individual members and for the unfortunate state in which they reside.” (p. 231)

While Seneca is often — rightly — criticized for having abetted some of Nero’s abuses, particularly the latter’s murder of his mother, Liz’s analysis in this chapter makes very clear that Seneca rather courageously and not at all subtly attacked the official model of the imperial family from the point of view of Stoic ethics, finding it woefully deficient. He should get credit for this achievement as much as for his failings.

(next: rewriting the family)

The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, IV: the desirable contest between fathers and sons

Aeneas and his son Ascanius

What is the best relationship between fathers and sons? Certainly not the one that was characteristic of ancient Roman society. The pater familias, the father of the family, had literal power of life and death over everyone in his household, including his sons and daughters. Although rarely fully deployed during the imperial period, such power was absolute, and backed by the law. It is against this cultural backdrop that Liz Gloyn — in the fourth chapter of her The Ethics of the Family in Seneca — discusses the Stoic approach to father-son relationships, through the work of the Roman Stoic. Indeed, Seneca wrote an entire book, De Vita Patris, specifically about his father, but it unfortunately has not survived. So Gloyn focuses on De Beneficiis (On Benefits) as her main source in this regard.

Despite their power within the household, Roman fathers were expected to take an interest in the moral development of their sons (daughters, of course, were hardly in the picture, with the due notable exceptions). One way of doing so was to write treatises on certain topics, addressed to the next generation. Seneca himself, together with his two brothers, received collections of legal writings from Seneca the Elder, which were meant as instructive for them. Fathers, Liz notes, were not simply expected to function as teachers, but also as moral role models, after whom their sons could pattern their own behavior. In fact, exempla, i.e. the examples offered by one’s ancestors, were meant to stimulate a sort of cross-generational competition, whereby young men would aspire to themselves become examples for future generations.

Now, the Stoics were big into role models, and so the idea of exempla should have fit nicely with their approach to moral development. The problem is that classic Roman exempla were focused on political achievement and service to the State, not on virtue. In Stoicism, of course, politics and service are preferred indifferents, to be pursued only if they bring about virtue. Moreover, the father-son relationship in ancient Rome was very much hierarchical, as mentioned above, which did not fit well with the Stoic conception of equality among moral agents. According to Gloyn, Seneca once again deploys the Stoic notion of oikeiosis (moral appropriation, concerns for others) in order to completely reinterpret how fathers and sons should relate to each other.

The starting point is an analogy between virtuous interactions and playing catch with a ball, introduced by Chrysippus, and which Seneca appropriates. In the game, players have to cooperate to keep the ball in play, and moreover they have to adjust their passes to the physical characteristics and abilities of their fellow players. In a similar fashion, “players” in the “game” of moral improvement have to adjust their interactions to the level of moral development of the people they interact with. Fathers, being naturally more advanced, will largely play a role of teachers to their sons, but the play is still reciprocal — both parties learn and improve — and the goal is to augment everyone’s proficiency, not just the student’s.

Why is the book called “on benefits”? Because according to Seneca major societal problems occur due to the fact that people don’t know how to give and receive benefits correctly to and from others:

“The majority of De Beneficiis considers questions of how to give benefits, to whom one should give benefits, and what state of mind and internal disposition should govern our attitude towards benefits.” (p. 172)

And the major problem is the internal disposition of the agent. One should accept benefits with gratitude, and should give them because he wants to help others, not because he is expecting a return, either directly or indirectly. In the latter case, we speak of a business transaction instead.

In the third book of De Beneficiis, Seneca discusses at length how father-son benefit interactions should work. The traditional view was that, since fathers create their sons, the relationship is unidirectional. Not so, responds Seneca, since a father can only claim responsibility for the birth of a son, but not for everything that the son will later accomplish in life:

“A mother and father’s lying together is a most insignificant benefit unless others are added which followup this gift’s beginning and make it firm with other obligations. It is not to live that is good, but to live well. But I live well. Yes, and I could have lived badly; and so this much is yours, that I live. … A father gave life to his son, yet there is something better than life; therefore the father can be surpassed, because he gave a benefit than which there is something better.” (III.31.3-4, III.35.1)

What is that “something better” than life? The phrase signals to the reader a switch to a Stoic perspective, since the answer is virtue. Seneca continues by making an analogy between the benefits given by a father to his son and those that the son may receive from a doctor (restored health), or a sailor (being brought somewhere). By the very fact that he makes the analogy, Seneca is radically undermining the traditional view, saying in effect that the father-son relationship is no different in kind from the relationships we have to all other people — a clear example of the principle of oikeiosis.

From the point of view of oikeiosis, with its concentric circles of concern made famous by Hierocles, the relationship between father and sons is special not in a qualitative sense, but only because it begins early on in life, and therefore plays an important role in our early moral development.

“If Seneca’s hypothetical father and son are guided by oikeiosis in their perfect performance of benefits, then the implication is that oikeiosis is at the core of any perfectly performed beneficia exchange – that is, those who give benefits correctly have expanded their sense of their own interests beyond themselves, at the very least to include those of their neighbours.” (p. 187)

Again, this is radical, even from a modern perspective. We still cling today, in a sense, to the old Roman idea that one of the most important things fathers give their sons is wealth, in the form of paying for their education, and eventually of inheritance. For Seneca, instead, those are just preferred indifferents, and the true legacy of a parent is bringing his son in an oikeiotic relationship with the parent and then with the rest of the world. Needless to say, everything we have seen above ought to be applied — in modern context — to the relationships between both mothers and fathers and their sons or daughters. The theory is precisely the same.

There is one more important thing noted by Liz in this chapter. There are two additional works by Seneca where he uses the father-son relationship for moral purposes within a Stoic framework, and they are rather surprising. De Clementia is a book dedicated to the young Nero. While it is often seen as yet another example of Seneca’s hypocrisy and support of the increasingly tyrannical regime, it is actually a thinly veiled threat to the emperor himself: Seneca uses the example of a good father as analogous to the role the emperor should play within the State. But he then contrasts this with the case of a tyrant, who will fear being killed by his own bodyguards.

The second relevant work other than De Beneficiis is De Ira (On Anger), where the figures of fathers and rulers are set in opposition to each other. Seneca goes through five exempla, in each of which a ruler kills the sons of some of their citizens, with the predictably ensuing consequences, when the fathers react to the deaths of their sons.

As I’ve written before, and as he himself admitted, Seneca was no sage. But one cannot help the feeling that he doesn’t get enough credit for just how bold he was in some of his writings in speaking truth to power, in an environment, remember, where plenty of others had lost their lives for doing the same.

(Next: the imperfect imperial family)

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)

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.)

Seneca on anger: the Medea


Medea played by Maria Callas in the homonimous movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969)

Medea is one of those perennially fascinating characters of Greco-Roman lore: a “barbarian” (i.e., non-Greek) who falls in love with the argonaut Jason, helps him steal the fabled golden fleece by betraying her father and killing her brother — on condition that Jason later marry her. Once back to safety, Jason decides that it is proper for him to marry a Greek princess, Glauce, the daughter of the king of Corinth. Blinded by furor at the betrayal, Medea kills Glauce, her father Creon, and then the two children she had had with Jason, in what she thought was “just” punishment for her former lover.

The classical tale is told by Euripides, who first produced it in 431 BCE. But Seneca rewrote the story (full text here), in a version that is both more sympathetic to the title character, and that is used to teach a dramatic lesson about Stoic precepts, especially concerned with the pathos (unhealthy emotion) of anger. I came across a fascinating paper by Rodrigo Sebastián Braicovich, published in the Journal of Ancient Philosophy in 2017, which analyzes Seneca’s Medea in light of the same author’s systematic treatment of anger in De Ira (which I have covered in three installments here).

Braicovich begins by suggesting that Medea is the fulfilment of a promise made by Seneca in De Ira, where he says:

“It’s necessary to prove [anger’s] disgusting and bestial character and to make you see how monstrous it is for one human being to rage against another, and how violently anger attacks, dealing destruction at the cost of its own destruction and seeking to sink those whom it can drown only if it drowns with them. … We’ll succeed in avoiding anger if we promptly lay out before us all of anger’s vices and form a sound estimation of it. It must be arraigned before us and condemned; its evils must be searched out and made plain; it must be set side by side with the worst vices, so the sort of thing it is becomes clear.” (III.3.2, III.5.3)

In other words, the Medea, according to Braicovich, is a didactic account of the content of De Ira, an example of philosophy explicated by way of drama. Braicovich presents a handy list of the basic elements of anger according to Seneca, which can guide us in reading both De Ira and Medea. The list includes:

(i) unlike other pathos, anger expresses itself in a multiplicity of guises;

(ii) anger attacks anything in sight, once it has been deprived of its original target;

(iii) a person under the spell of anger acts diametrically opposite to the way of the sage, with great emotional fluctuations;

(iv) the angry person is willing to sacrifice his own life or well being in the name of revenge, or what he perceives as “justice”;

(v) the angry person’s understanding of what counts as just reparation is entirely disproportionate to the original offense;

(vi) once unleashed, anger is not responsive to reason, and it cannot be controlled;

(vii) anger can be restrained, often temporarily, only by another passion.

Interestingly, Braicovich maintains that what we should be paying special attention while reading Seneca’s Medea is not so much the obvious, i.e., what Medea does, but the unstated: what she fails to do because she cannot bring herself to do it. Specifically, she is not able to let go of her hatred, to forgive Jason for his betrayal, to adopt Stoic indifference to the failure of another human being, which, after all, is not under her control, and should therefore not affect her eudaimonia.

An important point to highlight is that, contra to what the Chorus itself hints at in the play, Medea is actually not mad at all. Rather, her conclusion that the just way to avenge herself lies in killing the queen and her own two children is the result of careful reasoning she has with herself in a monologue, reasoning that includes two premises: (i) an injury has been committed; and (ii) revenge must be obtained. This is in accordance to the Stoic theory of psychology, according to which emotions are partly cognitive in nature, and the pathos are, therefore, the result of bad reasoning. (See the book by Margaret Graver on emotions in Stoicism; and also modern findings from cognitive science, in agreement with the basic Stoic notion.)

Medea does not want irrational revenge, she wants revenge that is informed by justice, proportioned to the crime committed by Jason (in her mind). This, according to Braicovich, makes the Medea more a play about justice, revenge, and punishment, than about irrationality and emotions:

“That her criteria of what constitutes due reparation is completely disproportionate is, incidentally, what Seneca intends to stress: angry people are — among other things — terrible judges of the actual relevance and consequences of (what they perceive) as injuries or injustices. … Medea is not unresponsive to every reason, she is just unresponsive to right-reason.” (p. 112)

In De Ira, Seneca describes precisely this unresponsiveness of anger to reason, by way of a three-step analysis:

“To make plain how passions begin or grow or get carried away: there’s the initial involuntary movement — a preparation for the passion, as it were, and a kind of threatening signal; there’s a second movement accompanied by an expression of will not stubbornly resolved, to the effect that ‘I should be avenged, since I’ve been harmed’ or ‘this man should be punished, since he’s committed a crime.’ The third movement’s already out of control, it desires vengeance not if it’s appropriate but come what may, having overthrown reason. We cannot avoid that first mental jolt with reason’s help […]. That second movement, which is born from deliberation, is eradicated by deliberation.” (II.4.1)

(Incidentally, I recommend, if one is so inclined, to read Braicovich’s full paper, particularly the citations from Seneca, which are given first in the original, beautiful Latin, then translated into English in footnotes.)

Braicovich points out that Seneca is able to do in the Medea something he could not quite achieve in De Ira: bring up, in dramatic fashion, the distance separating what anger actually is (to the reasonable external observer) and what the angry person (mistakenly) thinks it is. Not only Medea doesn’t think that what she is doing is irrational, she thinks it is moral!

The paper also discusses Seneca’s response to Aristotle, who famously argued that a bit of anger is a good thing, now and then. (See my take here.) There are, fundamentally, two classes of reasons why Seneca thinks the Aristotelian analysis fails: (i) anger is inadvisable on practical grounds, because the angry person ends up doing things that will likely injure herself or her loved ones (obviously, in the case of Medea); and (ii) anger is an illegitimate, because unjust, response to an offense, and therefore inadmissible on ethical grounds.

If not anger, then what? Seneca says we should replace that destructive emotion with a range of alternatives, which include: indifference, forgiveness, and repaying aggression with friendship (note that these are in order of increased commitment on the part of the injured party, and so more and more difficult to implement).

Braicovich rightly observes that Seneca’s deeper message is not just that anger is destructive for the individual, it undermines the very basis of a society based on reasoned discourse. In his time as in modern ones, it is politicians who often react in anger, or — worse, cynically exploit the anger of the masses — and create dangerous situations that easily bring about injustice, if not outright war.

But, a reasonable objection might go, isn’t Seneca approach dangerously close to letting people get away with an injustice? Aren’t indifference, forgiveness, and friendship to the offender ways in which we forgo the right to just redress? Not at all. One of the virtues of Stoicism is justice, but guided by reason. As the Roman writer eloquently put it:

“An objection: ‘Are you telling me that a good man doesn’t become angry if he sees his father being murdered, his mother raped?’ No, he will not become angry, but he’ll be their champion and defender. Why are you afraid that a proper sense of devotion won’t goad him sufficiently, even without anger? … A good man will follow up his obligations undisturbed and undeterred, and in doing the things worthy of a good man he will do nothing unworthy of a man.” (III.12.5-6)

And this ought to be a fortiori true in the case of a just state.

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)