Classically Inclined

January 3, 2019

Learning from Seneca’s own marriage

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:31 pm
Tags: , , ,

This is one of a series of posts designed to support students and teachers looking at the Love and Relationships unit of the OCR Classical Civilization A-level. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking on the OCR Seneca hashtag.

A major feature of Roman moral education was the use of exempla, from which we get our word ‘examples’. An exemplum was a biographical story which communicated some important moral lesson about what it meant to be a proper Roman – or, for Seneca’s purposes, an important Stoic truth. Seneca was very aware of the power of exempla, not least because of his father’s background in Roman controversiae and suasoriae, which relied heavily on the use of exempla as part of the fictitious cases that young men argued as part of their legal training. From the way that both Cassius Dio and Tacitus report his death, he seems to have deliberately framed his forced suicide in an effort to out-Socrates Socrates and make himself the go-to exemplum of a perfect philosophical death. (James Ker writes more about this in The Deaths of Seneca.)

Given that Seneca knows about the power of the exemplum, it’s not unreasonable to ask what he says about his own marriage and whether there are lessons here about what he thinks a good marriage should look like. One particularly moving passage comes from his description of his bedtime routine in On Anger 3.36.3-4:

I use this ability and every day I plead my case before myself. When the light has been taken away and my wife, my accomplice in my habit, becomes still, I examine my whole day, and I reflect upon my words and deeds; I hide nothing away from myself and pass nothing by. Why should I fear any of my mistakes, when I can say ‘take care that you don’t do this again; now I forgive you’?

As Seneca talks about his daily routine of scrutinising his conscience, he notes that his wife remains quiet so that he can concentrate on his process of reflection. She does this because she is familiar with her husband’s nightly ritual and respects it, presumably seeing in the value in it and supporting him in the process. Whether or not she is quiet because she is going through the same process, Seneca does not say; the word used, conscia, is usually translated to mean that she is aware of Seneca’s practice, but could also mean that she is a fellow participant in it.  The central point to draw from this vignette is that Seneca’s wife supports him in his pursuit of virtue. This links nicely back to the idea found in the fragments that the recognition of each other’s virtue and a shared journey towards reason is so important as the bedrock for marriage; what this passage of De Ira shows us is the way in which Seneca’s own relationship built on this critical principal.

 

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