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Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome (review)

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 36, Number 3, September 2006
pp. 449-456 | 10.1353/cjp.2006.0013

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Students of Stoicism often bewail the state of our sources. Of the works of Zeno and Chrysippus, the two major early Stoics, we have only fragments and later accounts whose distance from the original we can only guess. Our sources for early Stoic ethics are in better shape than our sources for Stoic metaphysics or logic, but they are still gappy and have the frustating feature that almost none of them are concerned to reveal the argumentative structure of the theory.


So we turn to the later sources, Stoics writing under the Roman Empire, where we at least have, if not the whole, a considerable part of the work in continuous original prose. But here again we find much to complain about. Our major sources, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus and Marcus Aurelius, write works which express Stoic ideas forcefully, but again we look in vain for concern with argument and theoretical structure.


In this situation, Seneca surely ought to be a central author for someone trying to understand Stoic ethics. While we lack some of his works, and have others only in part, we have a great deal, and across a variety of genres — essays, dramas, letters and a treatise on natural science. Seneca is thoroughly educated in Stoicism, yet writes in a non-technical way accessible to the non-specialist. Indeed a large amount of his philosophical work takes the form of letters to one Lucilius, whom he encourages on the path of learning to be a Stoic. Whether or not Lucilius is an actual person is irrelevant to Seneca’s educative (and, in the process, self-educative) project, one which we would expect to make him the ideal author from whom to learn about Stoicism, or at any rate his major focus, Stoic ethics. 


Yet Seneca is not a favoured source in contemporary discussion of Stoic ethics, neither the specialized secondary literature nor teaching collections (though he is beginning to make more of an appearance in the latter). Seneca is problematic. Why is this?


At all levels of studying ancient philosophy we are the (sometimes uneasy) heirs to a general received view of Seneca, a view on which he is interested only in ethics, not in the entire Stoic system in which ethics ultimately forms part of an organic unity with logic and physics. This supposed neglect of the more technical parts of Stoicism is taken to undermine his grasp of the ethics itself; he is taken to be indifferent to the arguments underpinning central Stoic ethical claims and structuring their interconnections. Being concerned only with ethical doctrines, not their theoretical basis, Seneca, the story goes, ends up preaching to us rather than either engaging with, or telling us much about, Stoic ethical theory. Seneca is accessible, then, because he is shallow; to get to the heart of Stoic theory we should return to the thorny texts of the earlier Greek heads of the school like Chrysippus. And once Seneca’s philosophical commitment is seen as shallow, it is tempting to many not to take him seriously as a philosopher (and his role as Nero’s tutor has certainly done him no good here).


On the received view Seneca is also 'unorthodox’ on various issues. He analyses the emotions in a way unmatched in earlier sources, a way which can appear to abandon the Stoic view of the soul as a rational unity and make concessions to a more Platonic position that emotions belong in a 'part’ of the soul distinct from and sometimes in opposition to reason. Seneca is also often taken to have modified Stoic psychology by introducing into it a new notion of 'the will,’ a mental event which brings about free action in a way unparalleled in Stoicism. And he is also taken, especially by disciples of Foucault, to have introduced an unprecedented view of the self. The received view in fact sometimes presents an unattractive combination: Seneca is unorthodox and unreliable as a presenter of Stoic theory because he is not interested in the technical structure and arguments of the theory; he innovates because of his shallow preference for preaching rather than arguing, which leads him to import, or not notice that he...



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