Classically Inclined

April 13, 2011

My Ph.D. research in plain English

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:21 pm
Tags: , , , ,

One of the reasons I’m having a go at blogging is because of #phdchat over on Twitter. I feel a bit of the odd person out, what with being a classicist and also now having finished the Ph.D. process (!), but they are a lovely group of people who have great discussions, and if I were wrangling masters or doctoral students now, I would be recommending it left, right and centre.

The reason I mention it is that one of their recent chats spawned the idea of blogging about your research in plain English. No jargon, no technical terms, just straightforward language that the public would understand. I wanted to have a go at it, not least because I would quite like people to know what I do, but also because being able to explain your work in non-confusing terms is a sure way of showing that you’ve thought about it properly. If the only people who can understand what you’re doing and why it’s important are your committee, then you’re doing it wrong.

So, in the spirit of explaining What I Spent The Last Six Years Of My Life Working On, here is my go at outlining my thesis research in plain English. And, as it happens, rather chatty English as well!

Seneca and the ethics of the family

Studying the history of the Roman family has been a hot topic in classics lately. People look at archeological evidence, at how literature portrays families, at legal documents and tombstones, to find out as much as we can about how the Romans thought about their families. The Latin word for family is familia – it’s deceptively close to our word ‘family’, and it’s easy to assume that the Romans thought about their families just like we think about ours. The problem is that the word familia could, yes, refer to our nuclear family of mother, father and children – but could also refer to everyone, including slaves, living in a house; to just the slaves owned by a master; and to various varieties of extended family. It’s all rather complicated, and we need all the evidence we can get.

However, the place that people don’t tend to look for evidence is in ancient philosophy. This is understandable – philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, although they mention the family, tend to be keener on things like Justice and Piety. However, there is plenty of material that discusses the family in ancient philosophy that has so far gone under the radar.

Seneca, the author I worked on for my Ph.D., is a case in point. He’s a fascinating man in general, as he served as tutor and then advisor to the emperor Nero before being ordered to commit suicide after he was implicated in an assassination plot. But he also wrote a huge amount of philosophy (and tragedy, although that’s not what I studied). He subscribed to the Stoic philosophical school, which isn’t the same as our notion of a ‘stoic’ person (he endured the rain stoically, she took the news stoically) although that is where the word comes from. The Stoics had a well-defined system of how to think about the world, how it worked and how you interacted with it. It’s from inside this system that Seneca writes his various books.

So, what did I do? I looked at Seneca’s philosophical writing, and realised that family ethics, the question of how you interact with your family members and why, is a persistent and strong undercurrent that runs through his work. It’s not an outspokenly obvious theme – he never sits down and writes a handbook on how to be a good brother, husband or father, for example. But most of his works indirectly address those issues, which suggests that he was working according to a consistent understanding of the role family should play in your life. What I did was to study his writing and try to reconstruct that framework of thought.

Why does it matter? Well, it matters because it shows that Seneca actually had a consistent way of thinking about family relations that fitted into his wider Stoic system of thought. Families were important enough to be thought about in this kind of way. It also matters because it’s a way of reading texts that lets us see things that aren’t spelled out – as I say, Seneca never writes the handbook of Good Family Relations, but we can work out how he thought you got there without him needing to.

Finally, it matters because it shows Seneca thought that families influenced the development of our characters as we grow up – and that they could play a positive role in that process. This is especially important because of a Stoic idea that the ‘wise man’, the man who had developed perfectly, would be self-sufficient – that is, he wouldn’t need anyone else to be happy. The way that Seneca negotiates our need for our families with the wise man’s reliance on himself alone helps us understand how the Stoics navigated this tricky tension between the community and the individual.


  1. Very nice — I think every PhD candidate in the humanities ought to do this! — Now I am eager for examples.

    Comment by Tulletilsynet — April 14, 2011 @ 2:30 am | Reply

    • I’ve put a link in to other #phdchat-ters having a go at this – you can find their posts listed here!

      Comment by lizgloyn — April 14, 2011 @ 9:07 am | Reply

  2. What an interesting read! I couldn’t be in a more different field to this but I now feel I have a good understanding of your research. I like the style of writing as well, much less formal than the academic style, which makes your research all the more accessible. Thanks for sharing!

    @ Tulletilsynet – you can find more posts like this at

    Comment by Carly Tetley — April 14, 2011 @ 11:20 am | Reply

  3. That’s a fascinating summary. I want to read a book based on this!

    Comment by Naomi J. — April 14, 2011 @ 11:26 am | Reply

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I had doubts about the questions to open paragraphs such as so what did i do and why does this matter, nonetheless they work very well in this context. The questions worked because i needed persuading, overtly, of relevance. Well done.

    Comment by ailsa — April 14, 2011 @ 4:33 pm | Reply

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