Does Seneca have a system of philosophy?

Seneca’s epistles to Lucilius in Letters from a Stoic represent a huge contribution to Stoic philosophy, filled with examples and aphorisms that illuminate both common life situations and a consistent “Stoic” attitude towards them. Can we say more than this? Is Seneca fundamentally an aphorist, or is he a philosopher with deep and extended theories and ideas? Is it fortune cookies or a tractatus, a mantra or a rich, textured, and open-ended philosophical program?

I’m tempted to think that it’s closer to the former rather than the latter of these pairs of dichotomies. There are flashes of insight on many aspects of ordinary life throughout the epistles, but they all reflect a fairly simple and consistent set of maxims: live simply, gain clarity about the values you truly espouse, don’t expect life to be kind, face adversity with equanimity and courage. These are simple ideas, perhaps not requiring the kinds of long and difficult debate and analysis familiar from philosophers like Plato, Hume, or Rousseau.

Consider a few topics that Seneca addresses — all topics that almost every human being must confront one day. Does Seneca offer “philosophy” with respect to these difficult existential moments?

Illness and hardship:

3. You ask me whether every good is desirable. You say: “If it is a good to be brave under torture, to go to the stake with a stout heart, to endure illness with resignation, it follows that these things are desirable. But I do not see that any of them is worth praying for. At any rate I have as yet known of no man who has paid a vow by reason of having been cut to pieces by the rod, or twisted out of shape by the gout, or made taller by the rack.” 4. My dear Lucilius, you must distinguish between these cases; you will then comprehend that there is something in them that is to be desired. I should prefer to be free from torture; but if the time comes when it must be endured, I shall desire that I may conduct myself therein with bravery, honour, and courage. Of course I prefer that war should not occur; but if war does occur, I shall desire that I may nobly endure the wounds, the starvation, and all that the exigency of war brings. Nor am I so mad as to crave illness; but if I must suffer illness, I shall desire that I may do nothing which shows lack of restraint, and nothing that is unmanly. The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships. (book 67)

On planning:

There is an old adage about gladiators,—that they plan their fight in the ring; as they intently watch, something in the adversary’s glance, some movement of his hand, even some slight bending of his body, gives a warning. 2. We can formulate general rules and commit them to writing, as to what is usually done, or ought to be done; such advice may be given, not only to our absent friends, but also to succeeding generations. In regard, however, to that second question,—when or how your plan is to be carried out,—no one will advise at long range; we must take counsel in the presence of the actual situation. 3. You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity. (book 22)

Personal loss:

1. You desire to know whether Epicurus is right when, in one of his letters, he rebukes those who hold that the wise man is self-sufficient and for that reason does not stand in need of friendships. This is the objection raised by Epicurus against Stilbo and those who believe that the Supreme Good is a soul which is insensible to feeling. 2. We are bound to meet with a double meaning if we try to express the Greek term “lack of feeling” summarily, in a single word, rendering it by the Latin word impatientia. For it may be understood in the meaning the opposite to that which we wish it to have. What we mean to express is, a soul which rejects any sensation of evil; but people will interpret the idea as that of a soul which can endure no evil. Consider, therefore, whether it is not better to say “a soul that cannot be harmed,” or “a soul entirely beyond the realm of suffering.” 3. There is this difference between ourselves and the other school: our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them. But we and they alike hold this idea,—that the wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself. 4. And mark how self-sufficient he is; for on occasion he can be content with a part of himself. If he lose a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left, taking as much pleasure in his impaired and maimed body as he took when it was sound. But while he does not pine for these parts if they are missing, he prefers not to lose them. 5. In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say “can,” I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity. (book 9)

The loss of friends by death:

4. Let us see to it that the recollection of those whom we have lost becomes a pleasant memory to us. No man reverts with pleasure to any subject which he will not be able to reflect upon without pain. So too it cannot but be that the names of those whom we have loved and lost come back to us with a sort of sting; but there is a pleasure even in this sting. 5. For, as my friend Attalus used to say: “The remembrance of lost friends is pleasant in the same way that certain fruits have an agreeably acid taste, or as in extremely old wines it is their very bitterness that pleases us. Indeed, after a certain lapse of time, every thought that gave pain is quenched, and the pleasure comes to us unalloyed.” 6. If we take the word of Attalus for it, “to think of friends who are alive and well is like enjoying a meal of cakes and honey; the recollection of friends who have passed away gives a pleasure that is not without a touch of bitterness. Yet who will deny that even these things, which are bitter and contain an element of sourness, do serve to arouse the stomach?” 7. For my part, I do not agree with him. To me, the thought of my dead friends is sweet and appealing. For I have had them as if I should one day lose them; I have lost them as if I have them still. (book 58)

Rational suicide:

Few have lasted through extreme old age to death without impairment, and many have lain inert, making no use of themselves. How much more cruel, then, do you suppose it really is to have lost a portion of your life, than to have lost your right to end that life? 35. Do not hear me with reluctance, as if my statement applied directly to you, but weigh what I have to say. It is this, that I shall not abandon old age, if old age preserves me intact for myself, and intact as regards the better part of myself; but if old age begins to shatter my mind, and to pull its various faculties to pieces, if it leaves me, not life, but only the breath of life, I shall rush out of a house that is crumbling and tottering. 36. I shall not avoid illness by seeking death, as long as the illness is curable and does not impede my soul. I shall not lay violent hands upon myself just because I am in pain; for death under such circumstances is defeat. But if I find out that the pain must always be endured, I shall depart, not because of the pain but because it will be a hindrance to me as regards all my reasons for living. He who dies just because he is in pain is a weakling, a coward; but he who lives merely to brave out this pain, is a fool. (book 58)

What are the threads raised by these short passages? Here are several: the priority of virtue over other desirable things; the propriety in preferring health over disease and affluence over penury, while recognizing that these goods are inconsequential in relation to virtue; the self-sufficiency of the soul; the rationality of endurance and equanimity; the lack of terror we should feel for death; the need for reflection about one’s reasons for living. And we might say that Seneca’s views on these questions add up to a philosophy of ethics, a philosophy of a life lived well, a contribution to phronesis (link). At the same time, it is striking that Seneca illustrates his philosophy through examples and discussion of hard cases, rather than a systematic exposition with labelled headings, principles, antinomies, unresolved issues, and sustained arguments. It more closely resembles the method of the sailing master who teaches his pupil about sailing by taking him or her on many trips, exposing the student to the hazards of the sea and the wind, than the method of a writer of handbooks on handling radioactive materials or washing machine repairs.

Katja Vogt has contributed an excellent article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Seneca that addresses the question of Seneca’s philosophical contributions squarely; link. She offers some sympathy for the idea that it is hard to identify an explicit philosophical theory in Seneca; but she suggests that this reflects a misunderstanding and misreading of Seneca.

Readers who approach Seneca as students of ancient philosophy—having acquired a certain idea of what philosophy is by studying Plato, Aristotle, or Chrysippus—often feel at a loss. To them, Seneca’s writings can appear lengthy and merely admonitory. Partly, this reaction may reflect prejudices of our training. The remnants of a Hegelian (and Nietzschean, and Heideggerean) narrative for philosophy are deeply ingrained in influential works of scholarship. On this account, the history of ancient philosophy is a history of decline, the Roman thinkers are mediocre imitators of their Greek predecessors, and so on (Long 2006; see Griffin 2018 for a collection of Griffin’s work on politics and philosophy in Rome). Such prejudices are hard to shake off; for many centuries watered-down versions of them have shaped the way students learnt Latin and Greek. In recent years, however, many scholars have come to adopt a different view. They find in Seneca a subtle author who speaks very directly to modern concerns of shaping ourselves and our lives.

Seneca does not write as a philosopher who creates or expounds a philosophical theory from the ground up. Rather, he writes within the track of an existing system that he is largely in agreement with. A reconstruction of Seneca’s philosophy, if it aimed at some kind of completeness, would have to be many-layered. At several points, it would have to include accounts of earlier Stoic philosophy, and discuss which aspects of these earlier theories become more or less prominent in Seneca’s thought. At times Seneca’s own contribution consists in developing further a Stoic theory and adding detail to it. At other times, Seneca dismisses certain technicalities and emphasizes the therapeutic, practical side of philosophy.

Seneca thinks of himself as the adherent of a philosophical system—Stoicism—and speaks in the first person plural (‘we’) in order to refer to the Stoics. Rather than call Seneca an orthodox Stoic, however, we might want to say that he writes within the Stoic system. Seneca emphasizes his independence as a thinker. He holds Stoic views, but he does not see himself as anyone’s disciple or chronicler.

Thus Vogt is unambiguous: Seneca is a fully-fledged philosopher; but he approaches the task of philosophy differently from the systematic theorizing found in other ancient philosophers. Nonetheless, she finds a developed philosophy in Seneca’s writings.

Vogt proposes that Seneca’s approach is more akin to therapy than to analytical theory-building: Seneca’s letters appear to be designed to help the reader recognize his own situation, his own virtues, the temptations of ordinary life that get in the way of good choices, and the navigation of impulse and self-direction that leads to “stoic” living in the face of challenges and misfortune. Vogt writes, “We need precisely what Seneca offers: someone who takes us through the various situations in life in which we tend to lose sight of our own insights, and fall victim to the allurements of money and fame, or to the violence of emotions evoked by the adversities of life.” And rather than providing didactic proofs of Stoic ethical principles, Vogt suggests that Seneca prefers that his friends and readers should “live and practice” those principles to make them their own: “it is important to think through the implications of the Stoic thesis in a variety of practical contexts, so as then to be able to live by it, for example, when one is or is not elected to office, has more or less money than others, and so on. One needs to think one’s way through these issues repeatedly—and ultimately, thinking about them in the right way must become a way of life.” And her implication is that Seneca advocates this “practical” stance towards ethics, not simply because it creates good habits, but because it ultimately validates and vindicates the rules or principles that are adopted.

Vogt spends a good deal of effort on the question of the classic Stoic doctrine of the “monism of the soul” and their dissolution of the emotions. Is the soul a unity or are there contending parts of the soul? Is there a non-rational component of the soul (e.g. the emotions) that opposes reason? Vogt tries to show that Seneca defends the idea that there is nothing in the soul but reason. But here is an interesting realization: when Seneca’s thought turns to this kind of highly abstract topic, it is substantially less compelling and interesting. The question of the unity of the soul seems like a scholastic question, leading to dogmatic philosophy. It is tempting to say that Aristotle’s view of psychology and the self is more immediate and “phenomenologically” accurate than the Stoic view: that the emotions are real, that they incline us to do things that reason would oppose, and that “self-control” is a real psychological state, requiring the person to recognize and manage his or her emotional impulses. So this element of Stoic philosophy perhaps fails the test of “offering genuine insight into the circumstances of human life”.

Another issue that Vogt finds to be both deep and crucial in Seneca’s philosophy is the distinction between the valuable and the good (mentioned in the first quotation above). In the category of the valuable she holds that Seneca includes health and wealth — these she characterizes as “preferred indifferents”; but only virtue is good. Further, according to Vogt, the attainment of “valuable” states such as good health, comfortable living circumstances, and accumulated wealth is completely irrelevant to happiness; only the pursuit of virtue contributes to happiness. Vogt doesn’t make this point, but it seems clear that this position stands in striking contradiction to the philosophy of Epicurus, for whom good health, friendships, decent conditions of life, and leisure are all components of a happy life. Here is Epicurus on prudence, the art of wise choices among desirable things (The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia):

Prudence is the principle of all these things and is the greatest good. That is why prudence is a more valuable thing than philosophy. For prudence is the source of all the other virtues, teaching that it is impossible to live pleasantly without living prudently, honourably, and justly, and impossible to live prudently, honourably, and justly without living pleasantly. For the virtues are natural adjuncts of the pleasant life and the pleasant life is inseparable from them. (31)

Running throughout Seneca’s epistles — and throughout Vogt’s treatment of his philosophy — is the theme of the importance of “case studies” and practical application of moral ideas, the application of philosophical ideas to complex situations. The implication is that it is the examination of cases rather than the discovery of convoluted principles that constitutes wisdom or insight, dissection of complexity rather than discovery of new moral laws. Seneca appears to believe that the hard work of philosophy is in the task of sorting out the details of particular life situations, and how to behave. Vogt writes, “As students of virtue, we will benefit from thinking our way through a variety of situations that one might encounter in life, contemplating how the different features of these situations matter to appropriate action, and so developing a sharpened sense of the particular value of the various things that do have value or disvalue for a human being.”

Parenthetically, there is an interesting convergence in Seneca’s philosophical style of exposition and some of John Dewey’s ideas about learning that were discussed in an earlier post (link). According to Vogt, Seneca wants to draw the reader along in the process of philosophical thinking — not to merely absorb a set of doctrines:

Seneca thinks that in order to benefit from philosophy, one cannot passively adopt insights. One must appropriate them as an active reader, thinking through the issues for oneself, so as then to genuinely assent to them (Letter 84.5–10; Wildberger 2006).

So what about the question posed above: does Seneca have a system of philosophy? I’m inclined to give a mixed answer. Seneca does in fact have a developed view of phronesis — a conception of what is involved in living a good human life. The opening paragraph above captures this conception reasonably well: live simply, gain clarity about the values you truly espouse, value virtue over other goods, don’t expect life to be kind, face adversity with equanimity and courage, do not fear death. This is indeed a philosophy of living. But it is a simple view of the human condition that doesn’t require elaborate philosophical theories and arguments. 

Second, I’m persuaded by Vogt’s splendid analysis that Seneca also shared a theory of metaphysics and theology with earlier Stoics, and this theory has many of the features of abstraction and logical analysis that we associate with philosophical theories. But those theories, to this reader anyway, do not seem especially important or consequential, and they have only a minor relationship to the theory of living well that Seneca advocates.

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