Seneca, Lucius Annaeus (4 BCE–65 CE)

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(4 BCE65 CE)

A Roman adherent of Stoicism with a particular interest in ethics, Seneca had an extensive career in politics and literature. His Moral Epistles, two major treatises, and a series of essays including On Anger offer an engaging presentation of philosophical ideas and are an important source for earlier Stoic thought. Also extant are eight plays and a political lampoon.

Seneca was of provincial origin, having been born at Córdoba in southern Spain, but was brought to Rome at an early age. There he received an extensive education in public speaking and literary composition. His knowledge of philosophy came from the lecturers Papirius Fabianus and Sotion (both adherents of Sextian moral philosophy), from the Cynic Demetrius, and from the Stoic Attalus. He won considerable repute as an advocate, but his health was poor and he was in disfavor with the emperors Gaius and Claudius. Exiled by Claudius to Corsica, he was recalled in 49 to become tutor in rhetoric to the boy Nero.

Following Nero's accession he held a position of considerable influence, restraining the young ruler's excesses and composing important speeches for him; as Miriam Griffin has shown, however, his influence on administrative policy was much less than accounts of his career by Tacitus and Dio Cassius would lead one to believe. Late in life he withdrew from politics, transferred his large fortune to the imperial treasury, and devoted himself to philosophical study and writing. His suicide, after being implicated in the Pisonian conspiracy of 65, followed the model of enforced self-execution typical under the Roman emperors.

The major prose works treat a range of topics in ethics, including the theory of value and the human good, character and moral development, moral psychology, self-care and the management of emotion, friendship and political engagement, and practical morality. Occasional forays into logic and metaphysics (primarily in the Epistles ) and physics (in the Natural Questions ) are treated as subordinate to ethics. The intention of the mature works to represent the positions of the Stoic founders Zeno of Citium and Chrysippus is not seriously in doubt; there is little to support the claims of an older generation of scholarship for a deliberate program of eclecticism.

While Seneca claims intellectual independence, such claims are themselves in the Stoic spirit of intellectual inquiry. Doctrinal allegiance does not prevent him from studying the writings of Platonists and Epicureans, and he will occasionally endorse a point of doctrine. Epicurus himself he admires for his disciplined personal habits and effective use of various instructional methods. But it would not be accurate to describe him as amalgamating Stoic with Epicurean philosophy, for his criticism of Epicurus's hedonist foundations is as sharp as Cicero's. He is eager to claim common ground among philosophers on such points as do not require him to reverse his Stoic commitments; where definite doctrinal commitments are in evidence, however, his sympathies are decidedly Stoic.

Seneca's major work, the Moral Epistles to Lucilius (written between 62 and 65 CE), makes creative use of the epistolary format to present a sustained course of philosophical instruction. Intended for a wide circle of readers rather than for the sole addressee, the collection mingles scenes of daily life with a variety of topics in ethics, psychology, and occasionally metaphysics. The arrangement of ideas is deliberately unsystematic, with some topics treated in cursory fashion and others developed to considerable length. Discussions of particular interest include the non-utilitarian basis of friendship, Platonic ontology, the responsibilities of philosophers to the state, the status of moral rules, and the initial orientation of the human. A more sustained theme is the moral development of the individual as illustrated by that of the author himself and his addressee.

The earlier of Seneca's two full-length treatises, On Benefits (written between 56 and 64), is a study of social transactions based on similar works by the Stoics Chrysippus and Hecato. The giving and receiving of various benefactions is analyzed with rigorous attention to the motivation of the giver; there is considerable casuistic elaboration. Very different in character is the Natural Questions (written between 62 and 65), which offers rational explanations for a list of phenomena regularly grouped in antiquity under the heading of meteorologyweather events, comets, earthquakes, and other events whose causes were not directly observable. Like Epicurus, Seneca treats such phenomena as admitting of multiple explanations; this enables him to incorporate a wide range of competing theories into his work. On the whole, however, he maintains the Stoic position on cosmic design, which he sees as having ethical significance: by pondering the regularity of the heavens and the causes of natural events, one can rise above one's ordinary objects of concern and adjust one's thought to the standard of universal reason.

Preeminent among the essays is On Anger (complete by 52), in the tradition of Hellenistic anger-management treatises. A careful treatment of the psychology of anger adheres to the Stoic theory of emotions generally: anger is dependent on the rational being's capacity for assent; it is intractable once begun, but can be forestalled by the techniques of cognitive therapy. Among the shorter essays, three are consolatory works of a conventional nature; the remainder treat single topics: the superiority of the virtuous person to suffering (On Providence ) and to injury and insult (On Constancy ); the moral end and the supposed hypocrisy of philosophers (On the Happy Life ); remedies for spiritual malaise (On Tranquility ); the productive use of time (On the Brevity of Life ); and the justification for scholarly retreat (On Leisure ).

The level of doctrinal commitment varies considerably in the shorter essays: Some restrict themselves to a Stoic viewpoint, whereas others, notably On the Brevity of Life, are in the spirit of generalized philosophical protreptic. Although the title Dialogi is given to the essays in the major manuscript, none is a dialogue in the sense that Plato's works are dialogues. A second speaker is sometimes made to voice an objection, but neither that voice nor the named addressee is developed into a genuine interlocutor. The essay On Tranquility does, however, represent its addressee as offering a confessional description of his own moral struggles. This unusual device presages the more extensive experimentation with literary form in the Moral Epistles.

The essay On Clemency has the greatest political significance of any of Seneca's works. Circulated early in Nero's reign, it celebrates what had become a watchword of the new regime and offers the essentials of a theory of good government based on the character of the ruler. Clemency, or the justifiable mitigation of justifiable penalties, is distinguished both from leniency, which is unjustifiable mitigation, and pity, which is emotional distress at another's misfortune. Seneca attempts, characteristically, to reform Nero's administration from within, preferring failure to immediate martyrdom; in this, he differs from the hard-line idealism of Thrasea Paetus and other philosophically-minded contemporaries.

Seneca's early rhetorical training manifests itself in his style of writing, which is enhanced with clever turns of phrase, metaphor, and wit. The narrative skills displayed in his eight tragedies and in his political farce, The Pumpkinification of Claudius, are put to use in the philosophical prose to give effectiveness to historical anecdotes and, especially in the Moral Epistles, to case studies from Seneca's own acquaintance. His interest in combining philosophical with literary achievement is evidenced in his decision to write in Latin rather than Greek, which was the usual language of philosophical discourse among educated Romans of the period. It has been argued by Nussbaum and others that his tragedies are themselves experiments in ethical suasion by literary means; there is some question whether, in that case, the values promoted could remain consistent with Stoic ethics, but certainly it is true that such elements of Stoic cosmology as the cyclical conflagration do appear with some regularity in those works.

See also Chrysippus; Epicurus; Eudaimonia; Hellenistic Thought; Kalon; Logos; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Stoicism; Zeno of Citium.


Barnes, Jonathan. Logic and the Imperial Stoa. Leiden; New York: Brill, 1997.

Griffin, Miriam. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Hine, Harry, ed. Naturales quaestiones. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1996.

Inwood, Brad. "Natural Law in Seneca." Studia Philonica 15 (2003): 8199.

Inwood, Brad. "Seneca and Psychological Dualism." In Passions and Perceptions, edited by J. Brunschwig and M. Nussbaum. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Inwood, Brad. "The Will in Seneca the Younger." Classical Philology 95 (2000): 4460.

Nussbaum, M.C. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Reynolds, L.D., ed. Dialogi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Reynolds, L.D., ed. Epistulae morales. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

Rosenmeyer, T.G. Senecan Drama and Stoic Cosmology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989.

Margaret Graver (2005)