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Seneca (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

First published Wed Oct 17, 2007; substantive revision Wed Jan 15, 2020

After several centuries of relative neglect, Seneca’s philosophy has been rediscovered in the last few decades, in what might be called a second revival of Senecan thought. In part, this renewed interest is the result of a general reappraisal of Roman culture. It is also fuelled by major progress that has been made in our understanding of Greek Hellenistic philosophy, and by recent developments in contemporary ethics, such as a renewed interest in the theory of emotions, roles and relationships, and the fellowship of all human beings. And finally, some influential scholars have found, in the wake of Foucault’s reading of Seneca, that Seneca speaks to some distinctively modern concerns.

Seneca is a major philosophical figure of the Roman Imperial Period. As a Stoic philosopher writing in Latin, Seneca makes a lasting contribution to Stoicism. He occupies a central place in the literature on Stoicism at the time, and shapes the understanding of Stoic thought that later generations were to have. Seneca’s philosophical works played a large role in the revival of Stoic ideas in the Renaissance. Until today, many readers approach Stoic philosophy through Seneca, rather than through the more fragmentary evidence that we have for earlier Stoics. Seneca’s writings are stunningly diverse in their generic range. More than that, Seneca develops further and shapes several philosophical genres, most important, the letter and so-called “consolations”; his essay On Mercy is considered the first example of what came to be known as the “mirror of the prince” literature.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 1 BCE – CE 65) was born in Corduba
(Spain) and educated—in rhetoric and philosophy—in Rome.
Seneca had a highly successful, and quite dramatic, political career.
Even a brief (and by necessity incomplete) list of events in his life
indicates that Seneca had ample occasion for reflection on violent
emotions, the dangers of ambition, and the ways in which the life of
politics differs from the life of philosophy—among the topics
pursued in his writings. He was accused of adultery with the Emperor
Caligula’s sister and therefore exiled to Corsica in 41; having
been Nero’s “tutor” in his adolescent years, he was
among Nero’s advisors after his accession in 54; Seneca
continued to be an advisor in times that became increasingly difficult
for anyone in the close proximity of Nero, in spite of requests from
his side to be granted permission to retire; he was charged with
complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy to murder Nero, and compelled to
commit suicide in 65 (on Seneca’s life, see Griffin 1992;
Maurach 2000; Veyne 2003; Wilson 2014; Romm 2014; on his perspective
on Nero, see Braund 2009).

Seneca’s philosophical writings have often been interpreted with
an eye to his biography: how could his discussions of the healing
powers of philosophy not reflect his own life? However, as personal as
Seneca’s style often is, his writings are not autobiographical
(Edwards 1997). Seneca creates a literary persona for himself. He
discusses the questions that occupy him in a way that invites his
readers to think about issues in their own life, rather than in
Seneca’s life.

The writings that we shall primarily be concerned with are: the
Moral Letters to Lucilius (Ad Lucilium epistulae
morales), the Moral Essays
(‘dialogi’ or dialogues is the somewhat
misleading title given in our principal manuscript, the Codex
Ambrosianus, to the twelve books making up ten of these works,
including three “consolatory” writings; among the
Essays are two further works that came down to us in other
manuscripts), and the Natural Questions (Naturales
quaestiones) (on the full range of Seneca’s writings, see
Volk and Williams 2006, “Introduction,” and Ker 2006; a
comprehensive overview, with individual chapters on specific writings
and themes, is offered in Heil and Damschen 2014).

A brief note is in order here on the relative chronology of
Seneca’s works, which is hard to establish given that we know so
little about Seneca’s life apart from his imperial service, as
noted above, and its consequences. The Consolation to Marcia
is probably the earliest surviving piece of Seneca’s work.
Similarly, the Consolation to His Mother Helvia and the
Consolation to Polybius are considered early (perhaps dating
to 43 or 44), the former actually being composed on the occasion of
Seneca’s banishment to Corsica. All other surviving works seem
to be written later, mostly after Seneca’s return to Rome in 49
from his Corsican exile. Among the Moral Essays, the only one
we can date with some certainty is On Mercy, an essay in
which Seneca directly addresses Nero in the early days of his reign
(55 or 56). The Moral Letters to Lucilius as well as the
Natural Questions are the product of the last years of
Seneca’s life, the brief period (62–65) that Seneca spent
in retirement before following Nero’s order to commit suicide
(on the dating of Seneca’s writings see the introductions in
Cooper/Procopé 1995, and Griffin 1992).

In the Imperial Period, Stoicism had significant influence on Roman
literature, and Seneca’s tragedies are of particular interest
here. In Seneca’s case, we do not see a poet appropriating or
integrating Stoic ideas, but actually a Stoic philosopher writing
poetry himself. The precise way in which Seneca’s Stoicism is
relevant to his tragedies is controversial. Traditionally scholars
debated whether and why a philosopher like Seneca would write poetry
at all—to some this seemed so unlikely that prior to Erasmus it
was thought that there were two ‘Senecas,’ the philosopher
and the tragedian (cf. Fantham 1982, 15). Today it is widely assumed
that some of the themes in Seneca’s tragedies are at least
related to his philosophical views. Seneca’s interest in ethics
and psychology—first and foremost perhaps the destructive
effects of excessive emotion—seems to figure in his plays, and
perhaps his natural philosophy plays an equally important role (cf.
Fantham 1982, 15–19; Fischer 2014; Gill 2003, 56–58;
Rosenmeyer 1989; Schiesaro 2003; Volk 2006; on the range of
Seneca’s writings, see Volk and Williams 2006). In this article,
we do not consider his tragedies, but only his prose writings. Some
recent work on Seneca suggests that one should see his prose writings
and his tragedies as complementary sides of his thought (Wray 2009).
The tragedies are arguably darker than the prose writings, and topics
on which Seneca seems to have a consoling philosophical view are
explored in rather less consoling ways. For example, death is seen as
a liberation in Seneca’s philosophical writings. But in the
tragedies, death can appear as a transition to even greater
sufferings, or, equally bad, the dead seem to demand ever new deaths,
to provide them with fresh companions in the underworld (Busch
2009).

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 tài khoản, 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. In On the Private
Life, he says: “Surely you can only want me to be like my
leaders? Well then, I shall not go where they send me but where they
lead” (1.5, tr. Cooper and Procopé). Seneca sees himself
as a philosopher like the older Stoics. He feels free, however, to
disagree with earlier Stoics, and is not concerned with keeping
Stoicism ‘pure’ from non-Stoic ideas. Seneca integrates
ideas from other philosophies if these seem helpful to him. As he
explains, he likes to think of philosophical views as if they were
motions made in a meeting. One often asks the proponent of the motion
to split it up in two motions, so that one can agree with one half,
and vote against the other (Letter 21.9). For example, Seneca
thinks that there is something salutary in Platonic metaphysics
(Boys-Stones 2013; Donini 1979, 179–199; Reydams-Schils 2010;
Sedley 2005; Setaioli 1988). While he dismisses the theory of Forms,
he still holds that studying it can make us better. It
acquaints us with the thought that the things which stimulate and
enflame the senses are not among the things that really are
(Letter 58.18 and 26). Seneca also adopts metaphors or images
that are associated with other philosophical schools, such as
Platonically inspired images of the body as prison of the soul (e.g.,
NQ I.4 and 11). But invoking such images need not commit
Seneca to holding the theories in which they originate.

Another side of Seneca’s independence has been emphasized by
Inwood (2005 [1], 18–22): Seneca, educated by Roman
philosophers, is genuinely thinking in Latin. In order to see
the force of this point, let us compare Seneca to Cicero. Cicero
conscientiously tells his readers which Greek term he translates by
which Latin term. It is thus possible to read Cicero’s Latin
philosophy with the Greek terminology in mind; at least for the most
part, we can think about his arguments in the terms of the Greek
debates. Seneca is, at many points, not interested in mapping his
terminology directly onto the Greek philosophical vocabulary. Rather,
he thinks in his own language (see Long 2003, who situates Seneca
vis-à-vis other Roman philosophers), and he expects to be read
by people who do their philosophizing in Latin, as well.

Like other late Stoics, Seneca is first and foremost interested in
ethics. Although he is well versed in the technical details of Stoic
logic, philosophy of language, epistemology, and ontology, he does not
devote any significant time to these fields (Barnes 1997, 12–23;
Cooper 2004). However, we should not let the old prejudices about
Roman versus Greek thought influence our interpretation of
Seneca’s interest in practical questions. As Veyne puts it,
“Seneca practiced neither a debased nor a vulgarized philosophy
aimed at the supposed ‘practical spirit’ of the
Romans” (2003, ix). Rather, it is Seneca’s very conception
of philosophy as a salutary practice that makes the ethical dimension
of his thought so prominent (on philosophy as therapy, see Nussbaum
1994; Setaioli 2014).

Seneca’s writings usually have an addressee—someone who is
plagued by a ‘sickness of the soul’ (On Peace of
Mind begins with a full diagnosis of the addressee’s state
of mind—first by the patient, and then by the insightful
therapist Seneca). Seneca steps back from a format in which a
philosopher justifies a theory in a step-by-step argument (Long 2003,
204; on the question of why Seneca chooses to write letters, see
Inwood 2007, xiv-xv). Discussion proceeds from a (perhaps merely
presumed) situation in the addressee’s life, meandering back and
forth between more general and more specific considerations,
arguments, side-issues, and sometimes consolation (see Wildberger 2020
for the view that Seneca’s Letters involve the creation of
a persona who, over the course of the Letters, gains
increasing interest in technical questions in philosophy). This
engaging style views the reader as a participant in philosophical
thought (Roller 2015; Schafer 2011). 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).

It has often been noted that later Stoics, including Seneca, seem to
lose interest in the ideal agent—the sage or wise
person—who figures so prominently in early Stoic ethics. Rather
than assume that the later Stoics are disillusioned or more realistic,
we should note that Seneca’s focus on the progressor
(proficiens)—the person who is seriously trying their
best to move forward in their way of life toward that ideal—is
part and parcel of his own, specific way of doing philosophy. The
early Stoics’ sage may, first and foremost, be a tool for
developing theories. The early Stoics spell out what knowledge or
wisdom is by explaining what a knowledgeable or wise person would do
(how she assents, how she acts, etc.). But Seneca’s philosophy
is a practice of training ourselves to appreciate to the fullest the
truths of Stoicism. In this practice, accounts of, for example, the
wise person’s assent, can only play a limited role. 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. We need
to learn how to overcome our own residual tendencies, despite our
better intentions, to suffer such failures.

Three of Seneca’s writings bear the title
‘consolatio’—consolation. They, too, are
letters, and, as Williams argues, Seneca in them transforms the genre
of philosophical consolation into his own mode of therapy (2006). In
the ad Heluiam (To His Mother Helvia), Seneca
consoles his mother for his absence and exile. Seneca uses his exile
as a metaphor, and ultimately addresses what he takes to be a
many-faceted condition in human life: any kind of alienation from
one’s immediate community, any enforced detachment from it,
raises the issues that political exile raises. As this example shows,
his consolations are thus rather independent of his particular
situation, and of the particular addressee. Still, we might want to
note that at times, in consoling his mother for his exile, or, in
ad Marciam (To Marcia), a woman for the loss of her
child, Seneca discusses virtue with a view to gender. In her life up
to now, he tells his mother, she has moved beyond the ordinary faults
of women; her virtue was her only ornament. In accordance with this,
she should now try not to fall into grief in the way women tend
to—excessively. By holding on to virtue, it seems, his mother
can transcend what Seneca considers typical, yet merely contingent
features of female life. (On Seneca’s depiction of female
virtue, cf. ad Heluiam 14–18 and ad Marciam 1
and 16; Harich 1993; Wilcox 2006).

Seneca tells us that there is a much-debated choice between three
kinds of life—the life of theory, the life of politics (or
practice), and the life of pleasure. This is not a Stoic distinction.
Rather, it is (by Seneca’s time) a conventional division, going
back, on the one hand, to Aristotle’s discussion of the life of
theoria (‘contemplation’) as compared to the life
of politics, and on the other hand to Plato’s and
Aristotle’s engagement with prominent views about the good (the
good is pleasure, the good is honor, the good is wisdom). Seneca is
not committed to the view that the life of theory is a different life
from the life of practice. But the Aristotelian way of framing the
question helps him describe choices which he and some of his
addressees face in life: whether to retire from an active role in
politics, or to single-mindedly pursue one’s political career
(for a discussion of traditional interpretations, which aim to explain
Seneca’s views on retirement in the context of his biography,
see Williams 2003).

In On the Private Life and in On Peace of Mind,
Seneca addresses this very question of how to choose between the
active life of politics, and a life devoted to philosophy. The choice
is, for Seneca, partly about the right kind of balance. How much do we
need to retreat in order to be at peace with ourselves? Philosophy has
two functions. We need philosophical insight on which to base our
actions. But we also need to devote time specifically to reflecting on
such truths as that only virtue is good, and thus restore our peace of
mind (cf. On Peace of Mind 2.4 for a description of
tranquility).

Both philosophy and politics are spheres in which we can benefit
others (On Peace of Mind 3.1–3). The contrast between
the life of theory and the life of politics helps Seneca spell out his
version of Stoic cosmopolitanism. We should not think of the choice
between philosophy and politics as a choice between theory and
practice. Rather, philosophy and politics represent two worlds that we
simultaneously belong to. The world of politics is our local world;
the world of philosophy is the whole world. By pursuing an active
career in politics, we aim to do good to the people in our vicinity.
By retreating into philosophy we choose to live, for a while,
predominantly in the world at large (Wildberger 2018a). By studying,
teaching, and writing philosophy, Seneca thinks, we help others who
are not necessarily spatially close to us. Philosophical study is
beneficial (or ‘of benefit’), it is of use to others, in
the world-wide community to which we all belong (On the Private
Life 3.4–4.2).

While Seneca takes it for granted that cosmopolitanism is concerned
with the idea that it is good to benefit others, he does not seem to
think that cosmopolitanism burdens us with the unfeasible task of
helping everyone. Rather, cosmopolitanism liberates us. As things may
play out in our individual lives, we may be in a better position to
benefit others as philosophers than as Roman senators; and since both
are good things to do, we can in fact be content with our lives either
way. Cosmopolitanism creates a beneficial form of life that a narrower
political picture may not accommodate: not only those who happen to be
appreciated in their own states can benefit others (cf.
Letter 68.2; cf. Williams 2003, 10–11 and 19–24).
In On the Private Life 3.5, Seneca says: “What is
required, you see, of any man is that he should be of use to other
men—if possible, to many; failing that, to a few; failing that,
to those nearest him; failing that, to himself.”

In Stoic philosophy, cosmopolitanism includes a view of the nature of
human beings: human beings are, by virtue of the kind of beings they
are, connected. Seneca at times explores fellowship among human beings
in terms of family relationships. The family in a conventional sense
is a place of ethical learning. Beyond this, there is an idealized and
broader familial relation among people and Seneca is open to the idea
that one chooses one’s intellectual ancestors independent of
biological relationships (Gloyn 2017). The Stoics see human beings as
parts of a whole, namely as parts of the cosmos (Vogt 2008, chapter
2). Seneca fully embraces this idea. In On Benefits, a
treatise concerned with beneficere as a social practice, but
also, more literally, with beneficere understood as
‘doing good,’ Seneca asks in which ways God benefits human
beings. His answer aims to explain why, though we do not have the
natural weapons other animals have and are in many ways weaker than
they are, human beings have the kind of standing in the world he takes
them to have, the standing of “masters.” “God has
granted two things that make this vulnerable creature the strongest of
all: reason and fellowship. […] Fellowship has given him power
over all animals […] Remove fellowship and you will destroy the
unity of mankind on which our life depends.” (tr. Griffin/Inwood
2011, 4.18.2–3). Seneca’s focus on fellowship is in line
with earlier Stoic thought about affiliation
(oikeiôsis) between human beings, as well as with the
Stoic view that the cosmos is a large animal with us as some of its
parts. Ideally, human beings relate as friends to each other. On the
orthodox Stoic conception of friendship, only wise and virtuous people
are friends (Vogt 2008, 148–160). Seneca endorses this ambitious
notion of friendship. In order to be a friend, one must first attain a
consistent mindset (Letter 35.2 and 4, cf. Wildberger 2018b).

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The two most prominent features of the Stoic tài khoản of the soul are
these: first, the soul is corporeal; second, the adult human soul is
rational (in the sense that all its operations involve the
use of reason) and one (psychological monism). Although
Seneca appreciates Platonic imagery that presents the soul as
‘loftier’ than bodily things, he is fully committed to the
Stoic view that the soul is a body. Discussion of this issue is, to
his mind, somewhat academic, and thus not as salutary as the elevating
themes about virtue that he often prefers. But Letter 106
explains why we must think of the soul as a body. Only bodies
act on anything, cause effects; therefore, the soul must be a
body (cf. Letter 117 on the good being a body).

Traditionally, Stoic philosophy is considered to have three phases:
early (Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, et al.), middle (Panaetius,
Posidonius, et al.), and late (Seneca, Epictetus, et al.). This
periodization importantly hangs on a possible development in the
philosophical psychology of the Stoics—the question of whether
Panaetius and Posidonius move away from so-called psychological
monism. According to psychological monism, there is no non-rational
part or power of the soul. Rather, the soul is one insofar as its
commanding faculty is one, and rational. According to psychological
monism, motivational conflict and irrational action do not result from
a ‘struggle’ between the rational and the non-rational
aspects of the soul; what we call irrational must be understood as
(bad) states of the rational soul. Psychological monism is thus a
counterposition to Plato’s and Aristotle’s tài khoản of the
soul, and has major implications for the theory of action, ethics, and
the theory of emotion. It is a difficult question whether middle
Stoicism departs from psychological monism. The view that it did was
for a long time widely accepted. However, this traditional picture has
recently been contested in influential studies (Cooper 1999; Tieleman
2003). Perhaps early and middle Stoicism are more in agreement than it
was previously thought. Accordingly, some recent studies of Seneca
proceed on the assumption that we need not attempt to figure out
whether Roman Stoicism agrees with monistic early or with pluralistic
middle Stoicism (Inwood 2005).

But Seneca may agree with psychological monism insofar as he does not
distinguish between rational and non-rational powers of the soul (as
in fact, arguably neither did the middle Stoics) and still modify a
related aspect of the early Stoic tài khoản of the soul. Psychological
monism implies that there is no distinction between practical and
theoretical reason. Knowledge bears directly on action. Indeed, all
philosophical knowledge is needed for good decision-making. There is
thus, according to Stoic “orthodoxy,” no real distinction
between theorizing and aiming to lead a good life (I. Hadot 1969,
101). Seneca brings to bear this aspect of Stoic thought in his own
way. For him, studying the arguments for a particular claim will not
bring us peace of mind. At the outset of Letter 85, Seneca
goes so far as to swear that he does not take pleasure in producing
proofs for a piece of doctrine that looms large in his
Letters: that virtue alone brings happiness (85.1). His
addressee, Lucilius, is presented as urging him to put forward all
arguments and objections that are relevant to this issue, and in
response, Seneca discusses some of them in Letter 85. But
ultimately—and this is evident throughout his
writings—this is not enough. Rather, 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 (Griffin 2007). 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.

But is not this conception of philosophy as a practice in tension with
the Stoic conception of reason? Strictly interpreted, this conception
might imply that whatever is once understood has become a piece of
knowledge, and thus guides our action (see I. Hadot 1969, 106).
Seneca, however, assumes that it is one thing to know something, and
another to “feel” its truth and relevance to one’s
own life. Here is one of his examples: he knows that it does not
matter whether he travels in a fashionable or in a humble carriage,
but he blushes if people see him in a humble one (Letter
87.4). Why should this be so? Why does Seneca suggest, in Platonic
fashion, that one’s desires for fame and money are going to
raise their heads if they are not constantly kept down? Second, why
should not the complete system of philosophical knowledge, including
the study of rigorous dialectical argument, be relevant to leading
one’s life well? In these respects, Seneca seems to weaken the
earlier Stoic identification of virtue and knowledge—or perhaps,
depending on the view we take, he remedies some of the starkness of
this identification (on Seneca’s dismissive attitude toward the
syllogisms of “dialecticians,” and on how this differs
from early Stoic thought on the value of knowledge for a good life,
see Cooper 2004, 314–320).

The Stoic understanding of the soul further involves core
epistemological ideas. Human beings have “impressions”
(imprints or alterations of the soul). We acquire the views we hold by
assenting to impressions; in every given case, we can assent to an
impression, negate it, or withhold judgment. Since this is in our
power, it is in our power to become wise (by assenting only to
cognitive impressions, which represent things precisely as they are).
Human action is generated through “assent” to practical
impressions; such assent sets off impulse (hormê). If
there is no external impediment, impulse leads to action. It is in our
power to become virtuous, because assent is in our control;
we decide how we act. Seneca discusses these and related
issues with the help of a term that has no equivalent in Greek
Stoicism: voluntas.

Traditionally, Seneca was seen either as the discoverer of the will,
or, at least, a major stepping-stone towards St. Augustine (for
detailed discussion of the literature, see Inwood 2005 [5]; key
contributions are: I. Hadot 1969, Voelke 1973, Dihle 1982, Donini
1982, Kahn 1988; for the view that already Aristotle has a conception
of the will, see Irwin 1992; for a critique of the traditional view
see Rist 1969, and, recently, Inwood 2005 [5]; for the view that
Epictetus, as opposed to Seneca, plays a major role in the development
of the conception of a will, see Frede 2011.).

It is a difficult question what precisely would count as the discovery
of the will. Clearly, voluntas and velle
(‘willing’, ‘wanting’) figure prominently in
many of Seneca’s arguments. Does Seneca think there is a
separate faculty of the will, thus modifying psychological monism? Or
is he interested in exploring the phenomenology of decision-making and
self-improvement, and this leads him to describe certain mental acts
as acts of willing (velle)? This second suggestion seems more
persuasive, and seems to capture much of what is important to the
traditional interpretation: that Seneca keeps discussing how we must
be continually committed to self-improvement (cf. Letters
34.3 and 71.36). Perhaps Seneca’s depictions of the mental act
that the Greek Stoics call assent appear in some sense richer than
those of the earlier Stoics (without changing the substance of the
theory), because Seneca likes to use metaphorical language. Rather
than stick with the abstract description that, in deciding what to do,
we assent to a practical impression, Seneca envisages us as judges,
passing judgment over what we should be doing, and issuing commands to
ourselves (cf. Inwood 2005, [5] and [7]; Star 2012, 23–52). With
respect to the emotions, Seneca distinguishes between involuntary
reactions (what earlier Stoics call “proto-emotions” or
propatheiai) and full-blown emotions, which involve assent
and thus are voluntary (On Anger II; see below). They are
voluntary in the sense that assent is in the agent’s power. This
is a key piece of Stoic doctrine—that, whether we are foolish or
wise, it is in our power to assent or not assent to impressions. But
at other times, Seneca employs a normative notion of voluntariness.
Only virtuous action is free in the sense of being fully reasonable,
while other actions spring from irrational movements of the mind such
as emotions; in this sense, only virtuous action is voluntary
(Letter 66.16).

Seneca’s discussions of self-improvement raise a further
question: Does Seneca discover the self (or, as Veyne puts this
question, “the I”; Veyne 2003)? In a famous passage of
On Anger (III 36.3–4) Seneca tells his readers how he,
every evening, examines himself. Does Seneca’s emphasis on
reflection involve a turn to the self, as it has seemed to many recent
readers inspired by Foucault’s discussions of these matters? Is
Seneca concerned with a practice of self-shaping? In order to think
about the question of whether Seneca discovers or even invents the
self, we might distinguish different versions of it. First, we may ask
whether Seneca modifies psychological monism, so as to make room for a
self reflecting upon itself (in a way which makes the self have a
complex structure that the Greek Stoics would not have envisaged for
the rational soul of human beings). Second, we might think that what
readers, in the wake of Foucault’s influential studies, have
found modern about Seneca is simply his therapeutic concern with
fashioning one’s own life. This second view is much weaker, and
is by now widely accepted (Long 2006, 362). The first view is
forcefully critiqued by Inwood (2005 [12]; cf. Bartsch and Wray 2009).
While Seneca invites us to engage reflectively with our lives, this
does not revise basic Stoic assumptions about the soul. But we might
also raise a third question: Can we acceptably, to borrow a term from
Veyne, “abuse” Seneca for our own purposes, knowing full
well that we are reading a certain kind of concern with the self into
his works which has more to do with our own times than with a precise
interpretation of his work? This is Veyne’s suggestion:
“Stoicism has thus become, for our use, a philosophy of the
active turning in on itself of the I […]. It was
nothing of the kind in its own day, but the Letters permit us
to view it as such.” (2003, x).

When Seneca discusses how we must hold on to the insight that only
virtue is good, in order to improve ourselves, it may sometimes seem
as if he blamed the world (competition, superficial
lifestyles, etc.) for the difficulty of the task. But ultimately,
Seneca argues that we are standing in our own way. He tells his
addressees that, by living in such-and-such a way, they weigh
themselves down (‘tibi gravis eris’; On Peace
of Mind 3.6), or become a problem to themselves (‘tu
tibi molestus es’; Letter 21.1). It is with a view
to this reflective engagement with one’s thought that Hadot
finds ‘spiritual exercises’ in Roman Stoic philosophy (P.
Hadot 1995, 79–144; cf. Letter 6.1 on
self-transformation).

Care for one’s soul involves the Socratic project of aiming to
know oneself. In the Natural Questions, Seneca says that
nature has given us mirrors so that we may know ourselves (ut homo
ipse se nosset). Even this external means of seeing
ourselves—which, Seneca deplores, is mostly put to less than
virtuous uses—serves a purpose; for example, the young see the
bloom of their youth, thus being reminded that this is the time for
study and bravery (NQ 1.16.1–17.10; cf. Williams 2005).
Ultimately, however, coming to know oneself is a matter of reflective
self-examination and philosophical study. At the same time, Seneca
argues that the private life and the public life are cures for each
other (On Peace of Mind 17.3; cf. Inwood 2005 [12]). This
balance may indicate that the project of improving the states of
one’s mind or soul (or ‘self’) might ultimately
involve what the Stoics call oikeiôsis,
‘affiliation.’ According to Stoic theory, one should fully
appreciate the way in which everything outside of one’s mind
‘belongs to one’ (one’s body, other human beings,
other parts of the world, the world as a whole). That is, in finding a
balance between retreat and philosophy on the one hand, and the life
of politics on the other, one is aiming to be a citizen of one’s
local community and of the world (cf. Gill 2009).

Like St. Augustine, whose “turn inside” is as much debated
by scholars as Seneca’s “turn to the self,” Seneca
seems to think that turning to one’s soul is not enough—we
need to further turn to God. However, for Seneca, the study of nature
and God seems to be motivated by care for one’s soul (rather
than, say, by love for God). In the Natural Questions, Seneca
suggests that the reflective engagement with our own soul is but the
first step. Even if we escape the violent emotions and disruptions of
a public life, we might not yet have escaped from ourselves,
that is, from an excessive concern with our own particular situation
and needs. We must turn into ourselves (in se recedendum),
but then we must also retreat from ourselves (a se
recedendum) (NQ 4.20). From a care of ourselves that
revolves around ethical questions, we must turn to the study of nature
and theology (NQ 1.1–8). How does such study liberate
us? By removing us from our localized concerns, and offering us a
distanced, disengaged perspective on them. The study of nature is an
attempt at overcoming one’s mortality (NQ 1.17). More
than that, the ideal of virtue that is at issue in taking care of
one’s soul is, ultimately, the ideal of becoming like
God (Russell 2004). This is a thought that perhaps is rather
foreign to modern psychotherapeutic techniques, and to Foucaultian
ideas about self-care.

Questions relating to Stoic psychological monism have been most widely
discussed with a view to the theory of the emotions—here, it
makes a great difference whether we think that irrational desires can
overcome reason, or are irrational acts of the rational soul.
Seneca’s treatment of the emotions has been scrutinized for
indications of both points of view. Sorabji interprets Seneca as
situating his tài khoản of the emotions vis-à-vis early and
middle Stoic theories that differ from his own (1989); Fillon-Lahille
studies On Anger with source-critical methods (1984).
According to others, On Anger can be studied as a treatise on
emotion that is basically in agreement with Stoic psychological
monism, and appreciated for the detailed treatment that Seneca devotes
to this, as he sees it, particularly violent emotion (Cooper 1999;
Vogt 2006).

According to the Stoics, the ideal agent has no emotions. Stoic theory
of the emotions does not aim at moderation or “adequate”
emotional responses. Rather, it aims at a life without emotions.
However, the Stoics do not suggest that the perfect agent is
affectively inert. Rational affective reactions and dispositions
replace emotion. The ideal agent has “good feelings” of
wishing (which replaces desire), caution (which replaces fear), and
joy (which replaces pleasure) (Cooper 2005; Graver 2007, 51–55;
Kamtekar 2005). Further, the ideal agent has proto-emotions, that is,
initial affective and physiological reactions that do not depend on
assent (On Anger 2.1–4; 1.16.7). These responses which,
for Seneca and early Stoics, do not count as emotions, have recently
been a starting point in comparing Stoic and Chinese philosophy, and
described in terms of self-emerging feelings (Machek 2015).

The conceptions of good or rational feelings (i.e., the affective
dispositions and reactions of the wise person) and proto-emotions
render Stoic thought on the emotions less implausible than it is
sometimes taken to be. But still, students of ancient theories of
emotion have often felt that one simply must side with an Aristotelian
position—with the view that there are adequate, measured
emotions. Suppose someone commits a crime; are we not justly angry,
and should we not react to the crime? As Seneca puts it, will the
ideal agent not be angry if he sees his father murdered and his mother
raped? Yes, he argues, we should react, but not with emotions and
emotional action (revenge), no matter how curbed they might be through
reflection. The idea of “moderate emotions,” says Seneca,
is about as absurd as the idea of “moderate insanity”
(Letter 85.9). Emotions are irrational (85.8); there is no
taming of the irrational, precisely because it is irrational. Emotions
thus cannot be moderated—they must be replaced with
rational responses. The ideal agent will avenge and defend others out
of duty (quia oportet) (On Anger 1.12), not out of
anger or lust for revenge. Scholars disagree, however, whether
Seneca’s consolatory writings are an exception. According to Konstan
(2015), Seneca’s consolations recommend metriopatheia,
moderate affection, instead of apatheia, the elimination of
grief. Alternatively, Fournier argues that Ad Marciam
displays a progression from the aim of moderate grief to the aim of
elimination of grief (2009). According to Machek (2015), moments where
Seneca seems to advocate metriopatheia can be interpreted as
invoking the ideal agent’s proto-emotions.

Seneca’s detailed analysis of anger adds in interesting ways to
our knowledge of how, precisely, the Stoic claim that emotions
are opinions plays out. According to the early Stoics, there
are four generic emotions: pleasure (in the sense of being pleased
about something), pain (in the sense of being distressed or feeling
displeased), desire, and fear. Pleasure is directed at a presumed good
that is present; pain at a presumed bad that is present; desire at a
presumed good in the future; fear at a presumed bad in the future.
Since emotions are impulses, they result in action (if there is no
external impediment). Anger counts as a kind of desire. In anger, the
agent assents to the impression that she should take revenge. But the
judgment that first generates anger is something like ‘He
wronged me’. On Anger thus helps shed light on the way
in which several judgments can figure in one emotion, and how emotion
is tied up with irrational action (Vogt 2006; Kaster 2010,
Introduction).

In recent years, scholars have increasingly turned to a topic that is
prominently discussed in the Aristotelian tradition, so-called
akrasia or lack of control (for discussion of Seneca’s
engagement with Aristotelian ideas in ethics and psychology, see
Inwood 2014, 73-104). On the Aristotelian tài khoản, the akratic agent
acts contrary to her correct reasoning and based on desire. This view
seems recognizable to many. It captures that desire can seem
overpowering, “winning” in a perceived struggle between
reason and desire. Stoic psychological monism can appear colorless and
unrealistic in comparison. It cannot accommodate the sense that reason
and desire are in conflict. For the Stoics, each motivational state is
a thought. What Aristotelians call akrasia is, on one early
Stoic tài khoản, an oscillation between opinions (Müller 2014). For
example, an agent thinks in quick succession “I’ll have
another cookie” and “I won’t have another cookie”;
her hand reaches out to take the cookie at a moment when she thinks
the former. Recent Seneca scholars have asked whether Seneca adheres
to the oscillation view of conflicted motivation, or whether his
tài khoản is closer to Aristotelian akrasia. Sorabji argues
that the Latin term “impotens” is Seneca’s
translation of the Greek “akrates” (lacking
control); he proposes that in Seneca all cases of anger are cases of
akrasia (2000, 61). According to Gartner (2015), on the other
hand, On Anger is fully in agreement with Stoic monism.
Seneca’s analysis of anger involves tumultuous states of mind,
but it does not involve the distinctive state of akrasia.
Within the framework of Aristotelian theory, akrasia is worse
than control (enkrateia) and much worse than virtue. Gartner
notes that Seneca also cannot accommodate control, because
control—just as akrasia—involves a distinction
between reason and desire that is alien to Seneca’s framework.
Other scholars pursue intermediate approaches. Rather than avoid the
Aristotelian term akrasia, Müller (2014) discusses
Seneca’s views on motivational conflict in terms of
akrasia; but he ascribes distinctively Stoic views to Seneca.
On his reading of Seneca’s tragedy Medea, Medea’s
conflicted motivations exemplify the oscillation model. Maso (2018)
emphasizes Seneca’s engagement with the corporeality of the
soul, as the Stoics conceive of it. On his reading, On Anger
develops a version of psychological monism that permits dualist
imagery and that explains motivational conflict in part in terms of
the physiology of inner turmoil (on the physiology of anger in On
Anger, see also Riggsby 2015).

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Next to anger, Seneca pays most attention to fear and grief, emotions
that tend to dominate human life due to human mortality (NQ
6.1.1–4.2; 32.1–12; on grief, see esp. Letters
26, 63, 77). Fear of death is paradoxical: It wants to preserve life,
but it spoils life (6.32.9). It is one of the key tasks for the
progressor to come to terms with death (Edwards 2014; Mann 2006;
Letters 1.2 and 4.3–9). Fear makes us “lose our
minds,” and thus literally removes rationality (NQ
6.29). It is through changing our views regarding the presumed badness
of death that we can overcome fear and grief. Death is a natural
sự kiện, and understanding death is part of the study of nature. We fear
most what we do not understand; knowledge cures fear (NQ
6.3.4). Seneca takes seriously two accounts of death: either death is
a transition to a better afterlife, or it is a genuine end. In his
tragedies, Seneca explores more troubling scenarios (see above). The
tragedies might illustrate irrational attitudes to death; or they
might be a testament to the fact that consolatory philosophy cannot
silence these darker visions (for a discussion of death in
Seneca’s prose writings and poetry, and a defense of the latter
view, see Busch 2009).

In On Peace of Mind 15.1, Seneca raises an interesting
question. Why does the ideal agent not deplore vice, and so feel in
some way bad about it? This question bears on a key aspect of the
Stoic theory. Although there are four generic emotions, there are only
three rational feelings; they replace pleasure, desire, and fear.
There is no rational correlate to pain or distress, i.e., to those
emotions in which we judge something bad to be present. Of course, the
wise person will not judge that illness or loss of money is bad; she
knows that only vice is bad. But why does she not make precisely this
judgment—that vice is bad—in such a way that an affective
stance of ‘rational deploring’ goes along with it? Seneca
gives an answer that is in agreement with the fundamental Stoic claim
that virtue benefits. The sage puts on a smile, rather than being
saddened, because his cheerfulness gives hope. This reply, brief as it
is, perhaps contains the core of an argument relevant to the Stoic
stance on (what we call) the ‘negative moral emotions’.
Part of this argument might be that virtue does not allow for rational
negative affective responses, since such responses would not
benefit.

In his discussion of how the virtuous person responds to weaknesses in
others, Seneca extends the Stoic spectrum of rational feelings to
include mercy (clementia). Seneca’s treatise On
Mercy has puzzled historians: by praising the goodness of the
young Nero as Emperor—his mercy, as opposed to cruelty,
severity, and pity—Seneca creates the prototype of “advice
to princes” literature (see Long 2003; cf. Kaster 2010 for a
brief introduction to the treatise). We cannot here enter into the
question of whether Seneca chooses to ignore or did not know of the
murder Nero had recently committed. Perhaps the answer is simply that
things look different in hindsight (see Braund 2009). The Latin term
for mercy, clementia, is difficult to translate; sometimes
scholars opt for clemency, thus signaling that Seneca discusses a
virtue that we are not immediately familiar with. In On
Mercy, clementia is a virtue of a superior. This is in
itself a novelty within Stoic ethics. Earlier Stoics did not conceive
of virtues for particular roles. Instead, virtue or wisdom is thought
to translate into role-specific kinds of expertise whenever a virtuous
person comes to have such a role. The notion of clemency, as Seneca
develops it, has its origin in Roman self-descriptions: clemency is a
virtue that Rome exercises vis-a-vis defeated peoples (on Seneca’s
conception of the state in On Mercy, see Wildberger 2018c,
169-171). That is, clemency is an attitude that was originally
displayed towards enemies, not towards one’s own citizens; with
Caesar, it becomes the virtue of an emperor (these are the outlines of
a highly instructive sketch of the concept’s history in Braund
2009).

In Seneca, clementia is a kind of restraint in a powerful
person who might otherwise lash out and act cruelly, and it is
something like equity (cf. Braund 2009). Arguably, the first kind of
clementia is not a Stoic virtue. A person whose savagery
needs to be contained cannot count as virtuous (Vogt 2011). Scholars
also raise the question of whether equity, understood as the ability
of a ruler to judge a case by all its particular characteristics
(rather than simply apply a rule) fits into Stoic philosophy (Braund
2009). ‘Equity’ is the standard translation of the Greek
epieikeia, which Aristotle discusses in Nicomachean
Ethics V.10. Aristotle discusses a well-known problem: the law is
general, but every case that needs to be judged is particular. Equity
is a juridical virtue; it aims to remedy an inevitable feature of the
law understood as a set of rules: its generality. According to two
doxographical passages, the Stoics do not ascribe equity to their wise
person (DL 7.123 and Stobaeus, 2.96.4–9). However, these texts
are plausibly understood as making the claim that the Stoics do not
ascribe Aristotelian equity —and that is, the equity
that aims to remedy the shortcomings of general rules—to the
wise person. The law, as the Stoics conceive of it, is not the
positive set of laws in a given political community. For them, the
only law worthy of the name ‘law’ is identical with
reason, and thus with what should be done (Vogt 2008, chapter 4).
Equity of a distinctively Stoic kind, understood as the ability to
judge every case by fully appreciating all particular circumstances,
fits perfectly into the larger framework of Stoic ethics (Vogt
2011).

The Stoic distinction between valuable and good things is at the
center of Seneca’s Letters. So-called preferred
indifferents—health, wealth, and so on—have value
(their opposites, dispreferred indifferents, have disvalue).
But only virtue is good. Again and again, Seneca discusses
how health and wealth do not contribute to our happiness. Seneca
approaches this issue not as an academic puzzle, as if we needed to be
compelled by intricate proof to accept this point. He speaks very
directly to his readers, and his examples grip us moderns as much as
they gripped his contemporaries. We tend to think that life would be
better if only we did not have to travel for the lowest fare, but in a
more comfortable fashion; we are disheartened when our provisions for
dinner are no better than stale bread. By addressing these very
concrete situations, Seneca keeps hammering home the core claim of
Stoic ethics: that virtue alone is sufficient for happiness, and
nothing else even makes a contribution. It is important to note that
preferred indifferents have value though they are not good in the
terminological sense of the Stoics. Scholars sometimes suggest that,
for Seneca, preferred indifferents are worthless and to be frowned
upon (for example, Braund 2009). In doing so, they pick up on the
metaphors and examples that Seneca employs. Seneca writes with an
acute awareness of how difficult it is not to see things like health
and wealth as good, and that is, as contributing to one’s
happiness. Accordingly, Seneca keeps giving vivid examples, aiming to
help his audience become less attached to things of mere value.
However, he does not suggest that things like health or wealth should
be regarded dismissively, or not taken care of.

A related and equally important aspect of Stoic ethics is the
distinction between appropriate and correct action.
Appropriate action takes indifferents adequately into tài khoản. Both
fools and the wise can act appropriately. But only the wise act
perfectly appropriately, or correctly: their action
is based on their perfect deliberation, and reflects the overall
consistency of their soul. Seneca explains matters in precisely this
fashion: while we should take indifferents (health, illness, wealth,
poverty, etc.) judiciously into tài khoản, as things of value or
disvalue to us, the good does not reside in getting or avoiding them.
What is good is that I choose well (Letter
92.11–12). In response to the question ‘What is
virtue?’, Seneca says “a true and immovable
judgment” (Letter 71.32; tr. Inwood). Attributing any
real importance to indifferents, Seneca argues, is like preferring,
among two good men, the one with the fancy haircut (Letter
66.25). This comparison is typical for Seneca’s tendency to
capture the standing of valuable indifferents in forceful, figurative
language. A nice haircut, one might think, could be seen as entirely
irrelevant. But this is not Seneca’s point. Compared to the
good, preferred indifferents pale, and appear as insignificant as a
fashionable haircut when compared with genuine virtue. But preferred
indifferents are valuable. In deliberation, we do not compare them
with the good; we consider them next to dispreferred indifferents.

In appropriate action, the agent takes things of value into tài khoản.
This, however, does not happen in the abstract—she does not
weigh the value of wealth against the value of health in a general
fashion. Rather, she thinks about the way in which a specific
situation and the courses of action available in it involve
indifferents—for example, putting on the appropriate clothes for
a given occasion (Letter 92.11). Since the features of the
situation in which one acts thus matter to appropriate action, the
Stoics apparently wrote treatises (now lost) in which they discussed
at length how this or that feature may bear on what one should be
doing (Sedley 2001). Seneca’s Letters 94 and 95 seem to
be examples of this kind of treatise. The very fact that such
treatises are written testifies to the fact that indifferents are not
simply irrelevant: they are the material of deliberation.

Since Kidd (1978), Letters 94 and 95 have been read with a
view to the question of whether rules figure in Stoic ethics (for a
discussion of the letters that is not framed by this question, see I.
Hadot 1969, 8–9). This question, in turn, is relevant to our
interpretation of the Stoic conception of law. The Stoics have long
been considered the ancestors of the natural law tradition (Striker
1987). If the Stoics formulate rule-like precepts, then perhaps this
means that the law, as the Stoics understand it, consists of a set of
laws.

In Letters 94 and 95, Seneca discusses two notions,
praecepta and decreta, usually translated as
‘precepts’ and ‘principles’. The topic of
Seneca’s discussion is this. If we seek a good life by studying
philosophy, do we need to study only decreta, or also
praecepta? According to the first position, the only thing
needed to achieve virtue is to immerse oneself in the core tenets of
Stoic philosophy. It is these that Seneca calls decreta;
decreta thus are not practical principles or rules. They are
principles of philosophy, in the sense of being the most abstract and
fundamental teachings of the Stoics.

According to the second position, which Seneca seems to endorse,
studying the first principles of Stoic philosophy is not sufficient;
we should also think in detail about the demands that specific
situations in life might make on us (and so, we should study
praecepta relating to them). It may seem that these
lower-level considerations involve rules: in such-and-such a
situation, one should act in such-and-such a way (Annas 1993, 98-105;
Mitsis 2001). However, it is not clear whether Seneca indeed envisages
such rules. 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. Seneca’s ‘case studies’ (e.g., a
previously married wife should be treated differently from a
previously unmarried wife) perhaps only hone the students’
appreciation for the kinds of issues that matter to appropriate
action, where different things of value or disvalue impinge case by
case, rather than providing them with rules for specific situations.
Further, Seneca envisages an advisor who reminds us of insights such
as ‘money does not bring happiness’. Such almost
proverbial sayings, however, do not appear to be rules. Finally, the
advisor is someone who can come up with specific advice for a given
occasion, such as ‘walk in such-and-such a way’ (see
On Favors 15.2; Inwood 2005 [4]; Schafer 2009, esp. regarding
Letters 94 and 95; Vogt 2007, 189–198). As Seneca
emphasizes in Letter 71.1, advice is adjusted to situations,
and situations are in flux. If one needs advice, one is not asking to
be told the correct rule to cover the situation; one is asking how to
balance various considerations.

Although the Stoics are, with respect to the good, most famous for the
claim that only virtue is good, they define the good as benefit.
Seneca agrees with the early Stoic view that the good benefits. As we
have seen, Seneca thinks that both public life and philosophy are good
forms of life, if conducted right, precisely because both are of
benefit to others. When discussing the benefit that a philosophical
life brings to others, he claims that the virtuous person’s life
is beneficial even if she performs no public function whatsoever. Her
gait, her silent persistence, and the expression of her eyes, benefit.
Just as some medication works merely through its smell, virtue has its
good effects even from a distance (On Peace of Mind
4.6–7).

Seneca devotes an entire treatise to the question of how one should
benefit others, and how one should receive benefits, On
Benefits (or: On Favors, lat. De beneficiis).
On Benefits is the longest extant Senecan treatise on one
specific ethical topic. Though the treatise is firmly situated in the
Roman social context, its detailed analysis and richness of examples
make it more than an historical document. Seneca discusses good deeds
and badly performed favors, graceful and ungraceful receiving, the joy
or burden of returning favors, as well as gratitude and envy.
Seneca’s topic is a hybrid of the kind of phenomena
anthropologists discuss in terms of gift exchange, the specific
configuration of these phenomena studied in ancient Rome, and Stoic
views to the effect that only the good person benefits others. This
mix makes for a rather difficult text. It is no surprise, then, that
there used to be almost no helpful literature. This state, however, is
ameliorated by recent translations with philosophical introductions,
by John Cooper and J.F. Procopé (1995; Books 1–4) and by
Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood (featuring also an Introduction by the
series editors E. Asmis, S. Bartsch and M. Nussbaum, 2011), as well as
Griffin’s new “guide” to On Benefits
(2013)

What, then, are benefits or favors as Seneca uses the term? Roughly
speaking, one can think of beneficia as any kind of help a
person might offer to another person qua thành viên of a group, such that
this strengthens the cohesion of the group and affirms or creates
social bonds. Examples include: to give money or other material
assistance, to use one’s influence in someone’s favor or
in favor of someone’s family thành viên, to advance someone’s
health or personal safety, to save someone (her child, etc.) from
calamity, to get someone out of prison, to console, to speak on
someone’s behalf, to further someone’s career, to teach
and educate someone, to instruct or advise someone.

Benefits are given largely between those who do not belong to the same
household. They thus differ from the responsibilities that attach to
the roles of son or wife and from the services that slaves or
employees are expected to perform (3.18.1). What parents do for their
children, however, counts as benefit and not as role-specific
responsibilities. Sons are returning what they owe, thus fulfilling
the obligations that attach to their role. But it is important to
Seneca that sons can also genuinely benefit their parents
(3.29.1–38.3), for example, if through their outstanding
achievements they put the parents into the spotlight, in
Seneca’s eyes a priceless benefit (3.32.2). Moreover, Seneca
spends much of Book 3 arguing that slaves can benefit their masters,
namely when they do more than they are compelled to do. Seneca thinks
that, given how hateful compulsion is for anyone, benefits conferred
by slaves reflect an admirable ability to overcome resentment for
being in the position they are in (3.19.4).

Lending (as opposed to giving) money is not a beneficium. If
money or wealth is involved in a favor, it must be freely given.
Indeed, if one does not want to stand in the kind of social
relationship that the giving and receiving of benefits creates, one
can accept money only as a loan. If, say, a person whom you did not
want in your life were to free you from captivity through paying the
ransom, you might accept this, but you should quickly raise the money
to repay her. That way, no bond is established (2.21.1–2). The
distinction between lending and giving runs through the treatise as a
whole. It connects to two further ideas. First, that the right
attitudes of giving, receiving, and returning a benefit involve
freedom (1.4.3; on the kind of freedom that, according to Seneca,
masters and slaves share, to the effect that slaves too can confer
benefits, see Gianella 2019). The addressee of On benefits is
called Liberalis, a name that drives home a point that Seneca wants to
emphasize. For something to count as a benefit it must not be given
slowly, grudgingly, or in some other reluctant way; it must be given
freely. To be rightly received, the good deed should not be perceived
by the recipient as a burden; it must be accepted freely. Indeed, the
kind of emotion that reflects the appropriate attitudes on both parts
is joy. Anything else would be suggestive of hesitations, concerns
about undesired ties, and so on. Second, the distinction between
lending and giving is reflected in a distinction between justice and
beneficence (3.14.3–15.3). Justice appears inferior to Seneca
insofar as, in that sphere, we are putting faith in seals rather than
souls (3.15.3). If the tên miền of ‘good deeds’ was invaded
by attitudes appropriate to lending and contractual obligations,
Seneca thinks that something of great value would be lost.

Throughout the treatise, Seneca’s focus is on attitudes, not on
de facto performed actions. It is not the transfer of an
object, or the return of a favor, that ultimately counts. Strictly
speaking, a favor consists in the relevant state of mind of the giver
(that he wants to benefit someone) and similarly in the grateful state
of mind of the receiver. What we might call the intention to benefit,
and the intention to gratefully repay the favor are the relevant
actions of giving and receiving correctly. As some scholars put it, it
is the act of willing which counts as a correct action (Inwood, 2005
[3]; cf. Letter 81.10–13). These arguments reflect core
intuitions of Stoic ethics. Scholars traditionally judge Book 4 to be
the part of the treatise that addresses more abstract philosophical
questions, thus aiming to integrate a discussion about the norms
pertaining to a historical practice in Rome with Stoic tenets in
ethics. However, this assessment is best seen as making a comparative
judgment. There is more explicit Stoic theory in Book 4 than in the
other books. Seneca discusses the benefits conveyed by God, drawing on
Stoic theology and philosophy of nature (see 5.3 below on Stoic
theology).

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Otherwise, one might argue that Book 4 is not all that different from
the rest of the treatise. In particular, Seneca’s question
whether benefits ought to be given for their own sake or for the sake
of some advantage to the giver does not employ any quintessentially
Stoic assumptions. Indeed, one might even say that it is in
considerable tension with central intuitions of earlier Stoic ethics.
For the Stoics, the good and the advantageous really are one and the
same. Moreover, Book 4 does not, as one might expect, address the
subtleties of the Stoic conception of the good, which would be a way
of pushing the discussion to a more theoretical level. Seneca’s
arguments about good deeds are essentially already laid out in Books 1
to 3. The claim that what matters are intentions and attitudes was
already established in ways that are relatively independent of Stoic
premises about the good: by distinguishing benefits from obligations;
by pointing to the dangers of burdening others with expectations they
shall not be able to meet; by elaborating on the fact that there must
be a way of repaying even for those who are without material means;
and so on. Seneca addresses in rather concrete ways the problems that
are likely to arise in a society that is held together by the exchange
of favors. As a result of imperfect giving, recipients easily become
dependents and feel enslaved by their donors.

Much of On Benefits is normative, aiming to lay down “a
law of life” (1.4.2.) about giving, receiving, and returning.
Seneca’s recommendations, however, are based on what he
perceives to be facts about human psychology. For example, he thinks
that the negative aspects of how others conduct themselves towards us
shall stick more firmly in our minds than the positive aspects
(1.1.8), and that we tend to have ever new desires, so that we are
inevitably less aware of benefactions received in the past than we are
of what we want for the present and future (3.3.1.). To give well
involves recognition of such facts. Often, Seneca observes, we are
evasive and assist only grudgingly. No wonder that our reticence
sticks out more in people’s minds than the fact that we
eventually relented; no wonder that we are not held in esteem for such
ungracious giving (1.1.8).

Assuming that Seneca is right, and that it is difficult to be good at
helping, the focus of an ethical discussion about helping should not
be in the first instance on how much help should be given (as it often
is today). Rather, it should be on how one achieves something rare and
difficult, namely to help in such a way that the recipient does not
end up being worse off for having been helped. Among works in modern
moral philosophy, the treatise that perhaps bears most resemblance
with On Benefits is Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue,
a book that contains so-called “casuistical” sections
where Kant discusses such matters as how certain ways of helping might
lower the recipient in her own eyes and the eyes of others, thus
making the receiver appear more manifestly inferior than she should be
(Vogt 2008). Indeed, Kant and Seneca agree on the following point
(though of course much of the background reasoning differs): good
giving may even require leaving the recipient of help in the dark,
because otherwise the negative effects (the social positioning of
someone as recipient and ultimately dependent) can outweigh the
benefit (2.10.1). Seneca’s tone suggests that he agrees with a
popular sentiment when he says that ungratefulness is an extremely
grave and widespread vice. And yet, he thinks that bad giving is prior
to and often directly responsible for bad receiving or lack of
repaying; Book 1 and Book 2 both begin with this idea.

In Letter 120, Seneca explains how we arrive at the notion of
the good. This question is a much-discussed topic in Stoic ethics. The
Stoics hold that, in the process of growing up, human beings acquire
rationality, which importantly consists in acquiring preconceptions
(prolêpseis). Once a human being has reason in this
minimal sense, she can improve and eventually perfect her rationality.
As part of this process she comes to acquire the concept of the good.
The transitional moment in which a human being finally and fully
recognizes that only virtue (consistency) is good is momentous: this
is the moment in which a fool becomes a wise person (Cicero, De
fin. 3.20–22). At that point, a human being acquires what
we might call the scientific concept of the good. She now masters a
concept of the good that gets things right—once one has this
concept, one is not going to fall back on misguided ideas such as
‘money brings happiness’. But does it not seem that we
have a notion of the good before, eventually, turning into wise
people, if we do? We here must distinguish two notions. First, human
beings have a preconception of the good—we call things good
before understanding any of the truths of Stoic philosophy. But
second, we might, as progressors, also come to see the point of the
Stoic claim that only virtue is good, without yet being fully able to
consistently appreciate its truth in our lives. As we have seen, it is
this condition of the progressor that Seneca has in mind as the
objective he hopes to achieve in many of his writings.

Letter 120 seems to contribute to Stoic thought about the
acquisition of the concept of the good in precisely this fashion.
Unlike Cicero, Seneca does not discuss the transitional moment in
which an agent becomes wise. Rather, he discusses how we come to
understand what the Stoics are talking about when they say that only
virtue is good (supposing that neither we nor those we live with
are virtuous). When reading about great deeds, we magnify the
virtuous features of the agents, and minimize their negative features
(Inwood, 2005 [10]; Hadot 2014 replies to Inwood). By these and
similar cognitive operations, we arrive at an understanding of what
virtue would actually be. This realization enables us to see
virtue’s goodness without having encountered a real-life
instance of virtue (for the Stoics, the fully wise are rarely or never
encountered).

Seneca’s Natural Questions consist of eight books on
meteorology. Two recent publications argue forcefully for a revised
order to the books: 3, 4a, 4b, 5, 6, 7, 1 and 2. Harry Hine’s
translation is the first edition to print the books in this order
(2010), and Gareth Williams argues that this is the most likely
intended sequence in which the books should be read (2012).

Today’s readers tend to show little enthusiasm when they turn to
the Natural Questions. What are we to think of long
discussions about clouds, rain, lights in the sky, lightning and
thunder, wind, comets, and earthquakes, combined with detailed
treatments of terrestrial waters and, specifically, the Nile? Why does
Seneca devote so much time to these phenomena? Scholars read the
Natural Questions against the background of the
meteorological tradition, a long-standing genre. Seneca, it is argued,
engages in a project that is rather well established (Graver 2000, 45
and 51). Different contributions to this genre share a common goal.
The rational explanation of natural phenomena will change the way we
live in the world. To take a simple example: a person who understands
the workings of thunder and lightning is not going to think that Zeus
is sending her the message that he is angry. As Graver points out, at
the time when Seneca writes the Natural Questions, this kind
of concern is most prominently associated with Epicurean philosophy
(2000, 51). Epicurean physics is in the business of fighting
superstition and fear. The person who thinks that Zeus is speaking to
her through the weather is in turmoil; the person who understands how
the elements interact can live a more rational and better life. Now, a
Stoic philosopher writing on these matters faces a challenge.
Epicureans argue that God does not concern himself with the
particulars of human life to the extent of signaling to us that a
certain action of ours did not meet his approval. The Stoic God,
however, is caring, benevolent, and concerned with the details of
human life. Thus, the fear that easily attaches to meteorological
phenomena must be fought with nothing but the detail of physical
analysis. The argument that God would not care to send us signs is
unavailable: the Stoic God, and Seneca agrees on this, is in principle
such as to send us signs, which is why divination counts as a science
(cf. 2.32–51 on lightning and divination; Williams 2012, chapter
8; on Seneca’s reaction to Epicureanism, see Graver 2015).

Ultimately, the project of the Natural Questions is to
“take measure of God” (1.17), to “walk through the
universe” (mundum circuire; 3.1), to celebrate the
works of the gods (3.5), and to free us from fear induced by natural
events (6.4). The study of clouds or thunderstorms is interesting
because we want to understand how clouds or thunderstorms
arise—but more than that, it must be salutary (2.59.2), and it
helps us achieve human excellence (3.10–18) (Inwood, 2005 [8];
on the relationship of ethics and physics, cf. I. Hadot, 1969,
111–117). Seneca pursues a long-standing concern with making
nature less scary, thus approaching meteorology partly from an ethical
perspective. Moreover, the Natural Questions contain a number
of discussions of human beings who act in what Seneca sees as
particularly sordid and depraved ways. These passages are often
described as digressions. Another reading, put forward by Williams
(2012, Chapter 2), characterizes the Natural Questions as
going beyond the meteorological tradition precisely because the text
is in this particular way colorful, imaginative, and dramatic.
Williams argues that Seneca’s treatise is importantly an
artistic engagement with nature. Seneca aims to make some of his
points by contrasting the beauty of nature’s workings with the
ugliness of vicious action.

Seneca’s study of nature is importantly about a human
being’s place and standing within the world. How could a person
not investigate nature, knowing that ‘all this’—the
world—pertains to her (ad se pertinere; Natural
Questions 1.13)? Seneca’s cosmopolitanism is integral to
the way he leads his readers into the study of nature. Only when we
view our local lives from the perspective of the stars do we come to
see the insignificance of riches, borders, and so on (NQ
1.9–13). In an influential phrase, Pierre Hadot calls this
perspective the ‘view from above’ (1995)—a view that
liberates us insofar as we come to see many seemingly important issues
as mere trifles. We need the study of nature in order to reach the
kind of distance from our everyday concerns that eventually frees us
from unreasonable concern for them. And we investigate nature as
something that we are a part of. In agreement with early Stoic thought
about the universe as a large living being with parts, Seneca thinks
that we are rightly motivated to study nature—nature is the
large entity of which we are parts. Natural philosophy thus is
necessary for fully engaging with one’s life. We might note that
Seneca contrasts the study of nature with the study of history; for
him, it is the seemingly more theoretical field of physics that has
greater practical value. It is better to praise the gods than to
praise the conquests of Philip or Alexander (NQ 3.5).
Further, the study of nature is particularly valuable because it is
the study of what should happen (quid faciendum
sit), as opposed to the study of what in fact did happen
(quid factum) (NQ 3.7).

The Stoics are considered ancestors of the natural law tradition. The
standard epithet of the law, in early Stoicism, is
‘common’ (koinos), not ‘natural’.
Seneca, however, characterizes laws or the law as natural and talks of
the lex naturae (“law of nature”). Early Stoic
thought about the law is partly rooted in the theory of appropriate
action, and partly in a physical tài khoản of how
reason—Zeus—pervades the world.

It is this physical notion of the law that is most prominent in
Seneca. In his discussion of earthquakes and human fear, Seneca points
out that we err by assuming that in some places, there is no danger of
earthquakes; all places are subject to the same law (lex)
(6.1.12). In another context, Seneca points out that the natural laws
(iura) govern events under the earth as much as above
(3.16.4). The world is constituted so that everything that is going to
happen, including the conflagration of the world when it comes to an
end, is from the very beginning part of it. Natural events like
earthquakes, and in fact all events, help nature go through with the
natural statutes (naturae constituta) (3.29.4). Since nature
(or Zeus) decided in the beginning what was going to happen,
everything is easy for nature (3.30.1). The study of nature aims at
accepting facts of nature, first and foremost the fact that human
beings are mortal. Seneca refers to the necessity of death as a
natural law (NQ 6.32.12: mors naturae lex est).
Death is a “done deal” already at conception (On Peace
of Mind 11.6; cf. NQ 2.59.6). It is the task of science
to understand why death need not be feared, that the philosophical
life is particularly indispensable because it prepares us for death,
and that the kinds of death that we are prone to fear particularly,
such as death through an earthquake, are really not much different
from more usual kinds of death. To be free according to the law of
nature is to be prepared to die any minute (3.16). That we are all
equals in death reflects the justice of nature (6.1.8).

A theme that is equally present in Seneca’s natural philosophy
and in his therapeutic practice is time. Book 3 of the
Natural Questions is entitled On the waters of the
earth and begins with reflections on the enormous time which the
task of natural philosophy may consume; on time that has been wasted
with worldly concerns; and the claim that it can be regained if we
make diligent use of the present. The fact that human life is finite
is thus present from the very first lines of the book. Seneca then
turns to the way in which the world’s life-cycle is as finite as
that of a human being. Just as a human foetus already contains the
seed of its death, the beginnings of the world contain its end
(3.28.2–3). It is precisely for this reason that things are easy
for nature. Its death does not, as it were, come as a
surprise—nature is well-prepared. Nature does what it initially
determined; nothing in nature’s doings is ad hoc
(3.30.1). Seneca points to examples: Look at the way the waves roll
onto the beaches; the oceans are trained in how to flood the earth
(3.30.2). The world’s preparedness for its death seems to be the
perfect analogue of how, for Seneca, we ought to spend our lives. In
Letter 12.6–8, Seneca says that everything, light
and darkness, is contained in a single day. To use the
present well is to be aware of this completeness. More days, and
months, and years, will (or at least may) trang điểm our lives. But we
should not think of them as stretching out into the future; rather,
they are concentric circles surrounding the day which, right now, is
present. And since even this very day stretches out, from its
beginning to its end, we can appreciate it as containing
everything—there can be more such days, but they will be more of
the same. Thus, on every such day, if it is lived well, we can be
fully prepared to die.

The study of nature—of the heavens—eventually leads to
knowledge of God (or at least, to the beginnings of such an
understanding; NQ 1.13). Seneca characterizes God in a number
of ways: (i) God is everything one sees and everything one does not
see. Nothing greater than his magnitude is conceivable
(magnitudo […] qua nihil maius cogitari
potest); he alone is everything—he keeps together his work
from the inside and the outside (NQ 1.13). (ii) God is
completely soul (animus) and reason (ratio) (1.14),
or, as Seneca puts it in Letter 65.12, “reason in
action” (ratio faciens). (iii) Like earlier Stoics,
Seneca emphasizes that God (‘Jupiter’) can be referred to
by many names: fate, the cause of causes (causa causarum),
providence, nature, universe (NQ 2.45.2). (iv) Seneca agrees
with the orthodox Stoic view that God is corporeal. God is a part of
the world (pars mundi; NQ 7.30.4). At the same time,
he emphasizes that it is in thought that we have to see
God—he flees human eyes. The study of God is thus not the study
of a visible entity (7.30.3–5). (v) God, or nature, is
beneficial (5.18.13–15). Two of these ideas are
particularly important to Seneca’s ethics. Much of Book 4 of
On Benefits is devoted to the fact that God is beneficial
(4.3.3–4.9.1). It is through the example of God’s goodness
that Seneca aims to explain why giving should really not be done with
a view to one’s own advantage: there is no advantage that God
could possibly gain from us, and yet God benefits all of us (4.3.3).
Indeed, God is the ultimate source of benefits; as cause of all
causes, God is also the cause of everything that is good for us, and
that includes the sun, the seasons, and so on. This connects to the
point that God is referred to by many names. Seneca envisages the
objection that these gifts do not come from God, but from nature; but
whoever makes this objection fails to understand that nature is but
another name for God (4.7.1).

Earlier Stoic theology is partly developed in conversation with and
contradistinction from Epicurean theology. The central point of
contention in this debate is whether God concerns himself with us,
whether he is caring in the sense of attending to the details of how
our lives are going. Seneca clearly shares the orthodox Stoic view
that God is supremely caring. For example, Seneca describes the way in
which God made the world as if he had built a wonderfully stable and
beautiful house to present to us as a gift (4.6.2). In response to the
question of how we know that there are gods, the earlier Stoics argued
that every human being has a preconception of God. Seneca offers a
version of this. The common practice of praying would be
“insane” if there were no caring God. People would be
addressing deities who are deaf (4.4.2). The fact that people
everywhere seem to turn to God in prayer indicates for Seneca that
there must be a caring God.

Seneca further agrees with earlier Stoic physics in taking divination
seriously. In his discussions of thunder and lightning in the
Natural Questions, Seneca explains that, while every natural
sự kiện is a sign, we should not think of God busying himself
with sending us, as it were, a sign at every particular occasion.
Rather, we should explain natural events by seeking out their natural
causes, and at the same time understand that the order of things as a
whole is established by God. Since there is this order, divination is
possible (NQ 2.32.1–4). Fate is the necessity of all
events and actions, which no power can disrupt (2.36). Prayer cannot
change fate; but since the gods have left some things unresolved,
prayer can be effective (2.37.2).

Like other ancient philosophers, Seneca discusses virtue as the ideal
of “becoming like God.” This is, however, not an
otherworldly ideal—rather, it is the ideal of perfecting our
rationality, as agents living in this world (Russell 2004). We are
a part of God; to perfect our reason is to achieve the perfect
rationality of divinity. In agreement with earlier Stoics, Seneca
thinks that the virtuous man is an equal to the gods (Letter
92.30–31; 87.19). Seneca’s natural philosophy and his
theology are thus closely related to his ethics and philosophical
psychology. Ultimately, he is concerned with how we can perfect our
soul, and he pursues this question in a variety of ways—by
discussing virtue, the soul, nature, and theology.

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