Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Jula Wildberger, Marcia L. Colish (ed.), Seneca philosophus. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 27. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2014. Pp. vi, 512. ISBN 9783110349832. $154.00.

Reviewed by William O. Stephens, Creighton University (stoic@creighton.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Most of the papers in this collection were presented at an international conference at the American University of Paris in May 2011. The editors explain that while the contributors treat a wide range of themes, including epistemology, ethics, conception of the body, conception of gender roles, natural philosophy, psychology, and political theory, from various disciplinary and methodological perspectives, they share a common view of Seneca as "an author who draws with discrimination on other ancient traditions while developing an authentic, cogent, and original articulation of Roman Stoicism" (1). The seventeen essays, all in English, are arranged in three groups. The first six essays study Seneca's philosophical treatment of moral norms, moral decision-making, allaying irrational passions, and rejecting faulty judgments. The next four essays analyze various social and political topics. The last seven essays treat Seneca's use of imagery and literary strategies to bolster his self or authorial persona. Each essay has its own bibliography. The volume concludes with a list of abbreviations, a helpful index of passages cited, an index of modern authors, and a general index. Space allows me to discuss in depth only one essay from each of the three groups.

The first three essays are by Ilsetraut Hadot, Antonello Orlando and Jörn Müller. Hadot considers the Stoics' account of how we become morally good. She argues that Brad Inwood1 reduces this complex question to the narrow epistemological question of how ethical notions are formed and faults him for overly limiting his perspectives and unfairly reproaching Seneca for incoherencies of which he is not guilty. Orlando examines Seneca's appropriation of the term prolēpsis by comparing two of his references to this term with those of Cicero. Müller studies Seneca's Medea and how akrasia is handled by the Stoic's monistic psychology. He believes that Medea's mind rapidly oscillates between conflicting passions and that she resolves this akratic conflict by embracing the full madness of one passion alone.

Marcia Colish addresses a problem faced by all ancient eudaimonistic ethics, namely, how our moral choices can conflict with what we judge to be good and thus naturally seek. Colish adeptly compares Seneca's treatment of this conundrum with those of two other Roman Stoics, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. She argues that, for Seneca, while the sage always follows the advice of conscience—the set of values revealing what is morally right and wrong—non-sages can and do act in opposition to the norms of conscience. Colish notes that the Roman Stoics depict and exemplify self-examination is diverse ways (97). They propose the "premeditation of future evils" (praemeditatio futurorum malorum) to alert us to our daily problems and the principles with which to address them. Herein enters conscience. The Roman Stoics describe conscience with a wide range of metaphors, as judge, censor, interrogator, or helmsman piloting the soul through stormy seas. Self-examination they variously describe as an analgesic, an antibiotic, a palliative, a prophylactic, an upper, a downer, or a performance-enhancing drug (98).

While the fear of death and therapies to cure it is a common theme for all the Roman Stoics, Colish emphasizes Marcus Aurelius' lofty political office and his preoccupation with assassination as an occupational hazard. Epictetus' concern as a schoolmaster, in contrast, is to show his students how to fortify themselves against the temptations he expects them to encounter by cultivating their patience, abstinence, equanimity, cooperation with others, and the virtues of private citizens (100). Colish believes that Seneca enriches the Roman Stoics' treatment of praemeditatio futurorum malorum and conscience by asserting that the daily forecast of problems helps only the wise. When fools premeditate future evils, it only excites their irrational fears, moves them to make plans on the fatuous assumption that their present good fortune will last, or leads them to procrastinate. So, maxims like "Blows foreseen strike us the more feebly" empower only sages, not fools. But if so, then Colish wonders what effect they have on Seneca himself. If he believes these maxims sustain him, then Seneca would have to regard himself as a sage to save consistency. Yet how can he when he explicitly confesses his own faults?

Colish suggests that while Epictetus guides others and does not report his own self-scrutiny, and Marcus advises himself alone, Seneca offers a range of personal and interpersonal settings for the examination of conscience, including his epistolary correspondence with Lucilius (102). This is not quite true of Epictetus. In Disc. 2. 18. 15–18 he reports to his students how despite seeing a good-looking boy or girl, he didn't proceed to say to himself, "It would be nice have sex with her," or "Her husband is a lucky guy" and he stopped himself from fantasizing about the girl undressing and trying to seduce him. Epictetus describes this as an accomplishment deserving of greater pride than solving a logical paradox. Colish emphasizes that, among the Roman Stoics, Seneca's contribution is that acting against conscience is possible because the will can be divided against itself, we can lie to ourselves, or we can choose to portray ourselves authentically by holding true to our inner convictions.

David Kaufman ambitiously argues that (a) Seneca's method of consoling people experiencing violent emotions is to stimulate a rival emotion in them, (b) it is likely that Seneca was the first Stoic theorist to introduce this therapeutic method, which contrasts with the belief-based approaches of Cleanthes and Chrysippus, and (c) Seneca's theory of violent emotions is a Stoic interpretation of Epicurus' method of treating distress. The thematic interrelationship of the Epistles and the Naturales quaestiones is examined by Gareth Williams, who sees them not only as complementary aspects of Seneca's larger therapeutic agenda but as interdependent experiments that in a sense complete each other.

The essay by Rita Degl'Innocenti Pierini opens the second group. Pierini examines Seneca's idea of freedom in a few selected texts fromDe brevitate vitae, De providentia, De ira, De clementia, and Epistles. She thinks that Seneca is unduly harsh when he presents Cicero as "half free" (semiliber), bewailing his past, griping about the present, and despairing of the future. In sharp contrast, Seneca portrays Cato as a perfect Stoic sage who recognizes and embraces his destiny in choosing suicide instead of capitulating to Caesar. Pierini believes that Seneca fails to understand "a concept of freedom that is not abstract but fulfilled in certain political and social conditions" (174). She judges Seneca's idealization of the absolute freedom of the Stoic wise man to be conceptually inferior to Cicero's attempt to "bend the rigor of Stoic dogma to the requirements of the contemporary political elite" and the needs of the times (174). She explains that the freedom of the Senecan wise man consists in fearing neither human beings nor gods and being self-ruled, self-possessed, self-mastered, and above fortune. Yet this freedom is acquired, she notes, once the sage is free from the daily commitments of political life or once he liberates himself through suicide. Some of the textual parallels Pierini offers from non-philosophers2 seem strained and only marginally relevant juxtaposed with Seneca's texts, whereas Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius are omitted entirely. Her reliance on several dated English translations is disappointing.3

In the remaining chapters of this section, Jean-Christophe Courtil argues that, beyond socio-historical and literary reasons, Seneca's emphasis on the tortured body flows from his political and philosophical system of thought, and that his position on torture lies between justification and condemnation. Tommaso Gazzarri studies how Seneca connects medical pathologies caused by eating the wrong food with ethical and physical degenerations of women. This gender- coded philosophical and rhetorical strategy also presents suicide as a sign of the virtuous male's mental fitness, so that death appears as a manifestation of health. Finally, Elizabeth Gloyn offers the rather tame thesis that in the Epistles Seneca adopts a unified and developmental approach to the family, refining and complicating his presentation throughout the collection of letters.

The final section contains seven papers. Margaret Graver reads Seneca as envisioning a novel ontology of the self. Seneca describes writing as a means of externalizing one's locus of identity, making one's thoughts, reasonings, and reactions available to others in the future. Moreover, by writing his artistic achievement surpasses and replaces the unstable and fleeting sentience within his body with a more consistent, more stable, and more admirable externalized self. Linda Cermatori seeks to show that Seneca represents the teacher of philosophy as a craftsman who molds his disciple by education and uses terms of material art, thus alluding to the image of philosophy as a creative force and enhancing our understanding of philosophical teaching. Martin Dinter examines how, in Seneca's tragedies, sententiae make themselves indispensable for creating discourse, for characterizing the personae in the tragedies, and for showcasing both Seneca tragicus and Seneca philosophus. Dinter proposes reading Seneca's sententiae as the reader's digest of essential Seneca, and as his legacy to his text.

Matheus De Pietro regards the repeated unfolding and condensing of the concept of happiness in De vita beata 3.2–6.2 as Seneca's deliberate demonstration of his mastery of Stoic doctrine and standing as a philosopher. The example of Q. Aelius Tubero in two of Seneca's letters is the focus of Francesca Romana Berno. She argues that Seneca constructs a deliberate polemic against Cicero, his source of this historical example, and that Seneca's eulogy of Tubero becomes an apology of Stoic rigorism.

In an outstanding essay Madeleine Jones analyzes hypocrisy as an unavoidable way of life for Seneca—a Stoic who, in his letters to Lucilius, engages in moral teaching about Stoic virtue while simultaneously being all too aware that he himself, a non-sage, lacks virtue. Previous scholars charge, first, that Seneca advocates withdrawal from public life, yet he was deeply involved with imperial power, and second, that he advocates relinquishing attachment to material objects and wealth, and yet he amassed a vast fortune. Jones argues that the tradition of Seneca's hypocrisy derives not only from the contrast between his life and his writings, but also from his own thematization in the Epistles of such a contrast and of his failure to live up to his own standards. The double-bind gripping Seneca is this: Most, or virtually all, progressors (proficientes) will not become sages, and so their lives will have been as devoid of virtue as the lives of the most ignorant fools (stulti). Consequently, any Stoic writer will be describing a philosophical position to which he perpetually aspires but which he has not yet attained and most likely never will. This fact need not be a problem in impersonal tracts whose truth is not in the least affected by the author's flawed character. However, in choosing to write philosophical letters, the genre reconciles two generic exigencies: philosophical argument and a personal account of the writer's own efforts to walk his talk. These two exigencies commit Seneca to a sort of continual self-accusation of hypocrisy. As a Stoic theorist who holds that virtue does not admit of degrees but is rather a totalizing state of mind, Seneca fully recognizes that he will always fall short of virtue. Yet the genre of the philosophical letter obliges him, as he expounds the doctrine he believes is true, to point out the many discrepancies between his theory and his daily practice.

Honest self-reflection, Jones emphasizes, gives Seneca the opportunity to monitor his philosophical progress and incentivizes him to adhere to his philosophical principles. Yet this praxis of daily therapeutic meditatio splits the self in two: the scrutinizing subject self and the scrutinized object self, thus introducing the possibility of self- deceit. Seneca's remark to Lucilius: "You judge me kindly if you think that there isn't anything in them [sc. his days] that I would hide" she construes as hinting at the possibility that Seneca might be lying to Lucilius (407). I would more cautiously distinguish hiding a few things from lying. If there are some thoughts or sentiments one chooses not to share with a close friend, those voluntary omissions don't count as intentional deceptions. Perhaps Seneca is more innocently explaining to Lucilius that he is not (yet) comfortable sharing every aspect of his day with him.

Jones insightfully suggests that by admitting his own hypocrisy Seneca transforms it from a failure to live up to his own standards into the first step on the road to ridding himself of his shortcomings and approaching those standards. "Hypocrisy is simultaneously the inevitable condition of the Stoic and a vice whose acknowledgement is necessary for progress and a potential danger, which may prevent the author from being honest with himself and which forces the reader always to question the honesty of the authorial voice" (408). Closing the volume, Jula Wildberger argues that in the Epistles "engagement with Epicurus becomes a multifaceted stylistic device essential to the fabric of this epistolary Bildungsroman" (431–432). For her the Epicurus trope figures importantly in the corpus' overall structure and it marks turning points in the Letter Writer's methodology and mode of thinking.

A few scattered type-setting errors throughout scarcely detract from a rich variety of studies of Seneca the philosopher in this interesting, but expensive, volume.


1.   In his chapter "Getting to Goodness" in Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome, Oxford University Press, 2005.
2.   Accius, Lucan, Tacitus, Horace, Dio Chrysostom.
3.   Basore, John W., ed. and trans. 1928–1935. Seneca. Moral Essays. 3 vols. London; Heinemann. Gummere, Richard M., ed. and trans. 1917–1925. Seneca. Ad Lucilium epistulae morales. 3 vols. London; Heinemann. Ridley, Edward, trans. The Pharsalia of Lucan. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1905. Miller, Walter, ed. and trans. 1913. Cicero, De Officiis. London; Heinemann. Miller, Frank J., ed. and trans. 1917–1919. Seneca's Tragedies. 2 vols. London; Heinemann. For example, Pierini quotes from Miller's translation: "And other-whither than I strive to go am I borne away in thrall" (168–169). It is a pity that Orlando, Courtil, Gazzarri, Cermatori, Dinter, De Pietro, Berno, and Jones also use Basore, Gummere, or both, in lieu of their own translations.

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