There are quite a lot of things contributing to a sense of unreality around here at the moment. One of the more pleasant of these is that I am currently working through reviewing the proofs for my soon-to-be-published book, The Ethics of the Family in Seneca (available for pre-order now!). There’s something very surreal about seeing the words that I’ve agonised over for almost ten years in the font of Cambridge University Press, suddenly getting a whole new dose of authority in the process – are these really my words? In a way, the other surreal thing is that they aren’t my words any more. My job in checking the proofs isn’t to change anything, but to look for problems of presentation, spelling, referencing and so on. To use a natural metaphor, these are words in their chrysalis, waiting to become fully published words and spread their wings, not words that I’m nourishing on some kind of intellectual cabbage. (Alright, it’s an odd metaphor. I’m sticking with it.)
Starting to look at the proofs and working out a strategy for approaching everything that needs to be checked has reminded me that I’ve never really written about the book here. I started blogging just after defending my PhD thesis, so while I’ve grumbled a bit about the whole revising the thesis into a book thing and have talked about some of the spin-off work that’s come out of it in more detail (like the ad Polybium article), I’ve never done more about the thesis/book’s content than a plain English summary of the thesis early on. I guess this is one of the perils of living with a project for so long: it becomes utterly normal to you. I certainly know I’ve had days of wondering why I’m putting in all the effort, before reminding myself that the ideas that have become so familiar to me will be completely new to other people – which is why I’ve followed the long road that’s got me to these proofs and will, eventually, produce a real live book.
So I thought I’d take a moment to talk about the book and what you can look forward to when it comes off the presses and into your eagerly awaiting hands. My modest goal is to revolutionise how people think about ancient philosophy and the family. There’s a tendency for the family just to be ignored – to be treated as if it’s something that only those social historian types need to worry about, while we can read ancient philosophers as if they knew their Kant. This is a problem, particularly with Stoicism – Roman philosophy is about constructing a system of belief in which everything has a place and everything intersects. That is, if we can spend so much time talking about how various ancient philosophies think about friendship, we can surely give some attention to what they have to say about how we should relate to our family.
This may sound like common sense, but there’s very little out there that thinks about how familial ethics operates in the ancient world, or even if it’s a thing. I argue that it is – that Stoicism offers a framework through which to understand all parts of the world, and that through reading Seneca we see how Stoic concepts shape our relationship with family members. There are chapters on mothers, fathers, brothers and marriage; I have a look at how Seneca handles the imperial family, and close by running through Seneca’s Epistulae Morales or Moral Letters, which are written to someone with a serious commitment to becoming a better Stoic rather than the general audience Seneca is trying to attract to Stoicism in most of his other writing. All of them suggest that the family is a significant place for moral formation and education, and that when the family gets it wrong, bad things happen. Bad things like Caligula.
Why does this matter? Because looking at ancient philosophy as if it were something that doesn’t match up to the other bits of ancient society doesn’t make any sense. Because treating the family as if it doesn’t connect to the intellectual sphere doesn’t make any sense. Because seeing how these various layers of understanding the world interlock and inform each other matters if we are going to understand what Seneca thinks he’s saying, and what we might make of what he’s saying. Because, oddly enough, women and children feature in the lives of philosophers. The Romans didn’t see any distinction between their philosophical activity and the rest of their lives – neither should we.