Friday, May 19, 2017


Liz Gloyn, The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xi, 249. ISBN 9781107145474. $99.99.

Reviewed by Brad Inwood, Yale University (

Version at BMCR home site


The philosopher Seneca says a lot about families and family members in his prose works. Until now there hasn't been a study devoted exclusively to the theme, although it plays a significant role in more general studies (for example, The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection by Gretchen Reydams-Schils [BMCR 2005.07.54]). In the book now under review, a development of her Rutgers PhD dissertation, Gloyn gives us a wide-ranging and deeply researched survey of the theme of family relations in Seneca's prose corpus. She engages predominantly with the three consolations, the fragmentary De Matrimonio, De Beneficiis, some of the dialogi, notably De Brevitate Vitae and De Ira, and the Epistulae Morales); the tragedies are set aside on the sensible grounds that understanding the theme in the philosophical works is prior to any attempt to analyse it in the tragedies (p. 7). In the case of the De Matrimonio Gloyn also provides an up-to-date treatment of the challenge of detaching Senecan material from Jerome's Adversus Jovianum. In an appendix (pp. 207-223) she prints a text and translation of the fragments identified by Delarue, to whose judgement she defers, along with the additional and less certain passages accepted by Vottero.

Throughout Gloyn presents her analysis in the framework of Roman social and legal history, which provides an essential context for the analysis of Seneca's own thought about the various family relations he focusses on. Similarly, she makes good use of the rich information we have about Seneca's own immediate family (his father, the Elder Seneca, his mother, to whom a consolation is dedicated, and his two brothers). A well contextualized analysis of these texts and themes is of great value in itself; when it comes to Seneca's own relationship with his family members, we get more discussion of relations with his mother than with his father, and perhaps less than we might have wanted about his brothers. Readers of Seneca and students of Roman social history and Julio-Claudian life will benefit greatly from the perspicacity and good judgement that Gloyn shows throughout.

The book is organized thus. Chapter 1 'Model Mothers' focusses on the consolations dedicated to Marcia, daughter of Cremutius Cordus, for the death of her son Metilius, and to Helvia, Seneca's own mother, for his own exile. Chapter 2 'A Band of Brothers' looks at fraternal relations through the lens of the consolation dedicated to Polybius, Claudius' freedman, for the death of his brother. In chapter 3 the marital relationship is studied through a close analysis of the De Matrimonio, while in chapter 4 the father-son relationship is studied in the De Beneficiis, where it is the topic of a lengthy discussion in book 3. Chapter 5's study of Seneca's treatment of the 'Imperfect Imperial Family' ranges more widely over various works as Gloyn explores the gap that Seneca opens up between the regime's ambition to present itself as a norm for family relations and the unsurprising fact that the Julio-Claudians are as imperfect as any family, in fact much more so. Chapter 6 'Rewriting the Family' tackles the Epistulae Morales, where the epistolary format and the dyadic relationship between Lucilius and Seneca rather complicate the way various family relations can be studied.

In addition to the analysis of these works and their significance for Roman social history, Gloyn argues for important claims about the role of Stoic philosophy in Seneca's thought about the family. And this raises a question about the title of the book. What, in fact, is an 'ethics of the family'? One thing it could mean would be a normative ethics governing family relations, dealing with questions such as how a family ought to be structured (patriarchal, matriarchal, nuclear, extended, etc.) Early Stoics did have some quite revisionist things to say along these lines, having followed the Cynics in exploring the Platonic notion that in an ideal state wives should be held in common and children educated by the state, at least in a utopian setting. Stoic theories about appropriate actions (kathēkonta) and general advice for behaviour (praecepta) provide guidelines for some family relations; in Ep. Mor. 94.1 Seneca mentions precepts for husbands on quomodo se gerat adversus uxorem and for fathers quomodo educet liberos. Gloyn briefly discusses the debate about precepts in letters 94 and 95, but we are not given an extensive discussion of how his 'ethics of the family' relate to this traditional feature of Stoic thought.

In general, Seneca didn't go very far down the revisionist road of the early school, nor did he go so far out on a limb as Musonius did, who argued that daughters and sons should be educated in the same way and that procreation is the only proper purpose of marital relations. Seneca did, however, express disappointment that his father hadn't cared enough about the education of his wife and advocated for symmetrical obligations for men and women in the area of chastity and marital fidelity. Gloyn shows how Seneca's mildly revisionist normative claims about family have a philosophical basis and provides a sensitive discussion of the role played by changing legal and social norms governing upper-class marriages in the Julio-Claudian period. In both of these areas there are clearly influences from philosophy, not always specifically Stoic, as well as from the wider cultural context. Seneca's exploration of father-son relations in the De Beneficiis is more revisionist and more distinctively Stoic in its basis, with its focus on the priority of virtuous behaviour and motivation over mere social and familial relationships.

Elsewhere Gloyn's focus in less on normative ethical positions that press for changes in the way family life is lived. In chapter 2, for example, she analyses the persuasive rhetoric of the consolation to Polybius, and shows how Seneca exploits Stoic ideas about cosmopolitanism to reinforce the argument he makes for being recalled from exile. In Stoicism we are all 'brothers in philosophy' since we are all of equal standing as rational beings, children of Zeus, in a way, and so worthy of equal consideration. But throughout the book, as its unifying theme, Gloyn focusses on a different sense of 'ethics of the family'. In light of the Stoic doctrine of oikeiōsis (a term which she sensibly chooses not to translate) she argues that Seneca takes a strong position on the way a proper family life contributes to ethics, by being an indispensable aspect of moral education. Other philosophers recognized the importance of family life to moral education – Aristotle in particular took a strong line on the importance to moral education of good early upbringing in a proper family, and in the Republic Plato held that his guardians needed to be removed from normal family life and raised by a philosophical elite if they were to have any chance of developing good values. Earlier Stoics are perhaps a little too close to Platonic thinking for Seneca's comfort. Though all humans are born with a natural inclination to virtue, we are corrupted almost immediately by the exposure to the distorted values of our family and our society. Whatever the value of ordinary family life, substantive philosophical values are not typically learned in that setting but rather from the disruptive experience of philosophical education. Loving parents who keep their children warm and well fed are at the same time teaching them that comfort is good and discomfort is bad – value claims anathema to a strict Stoic.

So we should expect Seneca to have views on this question: what is the contribution of family relationships to a proper ethical education? Gloyn argues that the doctrine of oikeiōsis, with its emphasis on the parent-child connection, plays a critical role in Seneca's thinking about this question, and it is here that I found myself wondering if her argument is fully successful. Gloyn rightly recognizes the complexity of oikeiōsis in Stoic thought. Stoics claimed that natural human sociability is rooted in a recognition that we are all akin and that the affection of parents for their children is the basis for this – we see our children as belonging to us (they are oikeioi) and we can and should generalize that to the rest of mankind. But at the same time the term oikeiōsis is also used to describe the initial attachment that every newborn animals has for its own personal survival and thriving – and this kind of oikeiōsis, when full rationality is attained, underpins our attachment to virtue. These two applications of the term oikeiōsis are clearly meant to converge, with the initial self-orientation leading to a commitment to virtue while the generalization from attachment to our children leads to a commitment to the interests of others. It isn't particularly clear how this convergence actually works, but Cicero's account of Stoic ethics in De Finibus 3 seems to reflect a deep Stoic commitment to the convergence (something we also see in Hierocles).

On the basis of this theory Gloyn holds that Seneca has a developed view about the critical role played by good family relationships in creating a Stoic commitment to virtuous living. The case for this is made first in chapter 1 ('Model Mothers') and it recurs in varying strengths throughout the book, though Seneca seldom uses the terminology of the Stoic theory (except in Letter 121, where in fact the familial aspect is quite submerged). One might wonder, then, whether Seneca's commitment to the idea that good family relations of various sorts are essential to developing virtue is tied as closely to technical Stoic thinking about moral development as Gloyn proposes. Aristotle, after all, managed to hold views of this general sort without being committed to something quite so precise as the Stoic theory, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Seneca's commitment to this view came as much from his own reflection and experience as it did from his reading of Stoic books. (If that proved to be the case, it would perhaps parallel another issue that comes up from time to time in the book. While recognizing that Seneca himself allows that the passion of grief has a legitimate role in life, providing one doesn't let it get out of control, Gloyn seems to think that this sensible acceptance of limited passions is something Seneca got from conventional Stoic theory. It may, perhaps, be more a sign of his independent-mindedness and openness to the influence of common sense and other philosophical theories.)

It would take a lengthy discussion to explore fully the question of how much Seneca's views on the contributions to ethics of family relationships flow from Stoic theory as he understood it and how much influence other factors had; this is not the place for that kind of enquiry. But in any case this is not a critical issue; Seneca prided himself on his own freedom of enquiry, not being tied to specific school doctrines and showing consistent interest in the variety of often divergent positions taken by various of his Stoic predecessors. It may be open to question whether Gloyn is right about the central role played by oikeiōsis in Seneca's thinking about ethics and family relations, but she is certainly right that there is a strong connection between the two. In this thorough and thought-provoking study, Gloyn reveals for us a Seneca whose thinking about important aspects of life, virtue and happiness was shaped profoundly by his philosophical engagement with the nature of family relationships in his social context. This is a significant achievement and will be warmly appreciated by students of Seneca's thought and of Roman social history alike.

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