Classically Inclined

March 20, 2019

Letter 104: an insight into Seneca’s marriage

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:06 am
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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.

I mentioned that places where Seneca talks about his own marriage can give us some insight into what he thinks about relationships. In this post, I’m going to take a close look at the start of Moral Epistle 104, which talks about this in some detail. Seneca has just arrived at his villa in Nomentum for the sake of his health; he has left his wife, here named as Pompeia Paulina, in Rome. While John Henderson reads this passage in light of the rest of the letter’s comments about the uselessness of travel, and sees Seneca actually running away from Paulina here, I think that we can draw out some significant strands of Seneca’s thought about marriage and relationships more broadly.

I said this to my Paulina, who tells me to pay attention to my health. For since I know that her spirit depends on mine, I begin to care for myself as I do to her. And although old age has rendered me braver for many things, I am losing this benefit of age; for it comes into my mind that in this old man there is also a youth who is spared. And since I do not ask her to love me more bravely, she asks that I love myself more carefully. For honest emotions must be allowed; sometimes, even if misfortunes press down, our breath must be recalled and held in the mouth itself, even if with torment, in honor of those who are ours, since the good man must live not as long as he wishes but as long as he should: he who does not think enough of his wife or his friend to linger longer in life, he who will persist in dying, is spoiled. The mind should also give itself this comment, when the advantage of its own people requires it; not only if it wishes, but even if it has begun, to die, it should pause and adapt itself to those dear to it. It is a sign of a great mind to return to live for someone else’s sake, which great men have often done; but I also judge this a sign of the greatest humanity, to take care of one’s old age (whose greatest delight is a more careless oversight of itself and a braver use of life) more carefully if you know that is sweet, useful and desirable for your own. What’s more, this business has to no small degree joy and profit in it: for what is more pleasing than to be so dear to your wife that you become dearer to yourself because of it? And so my Paulina is able to consider not only her own concern for me, but also my own.

One feature that jumps out of this passage is the reciprocity between Seneca and Paulina – because she cares about his well-being, he finds himself caring more about himself as a result. This is a cyclical reinforcement of care; caring begets more caring. The marital relationship creates a kind of intimacy and closeness which lets real care develop. The underlying principle here is that it is a sage’s job to remember that she does not just live for herself, but for others too – hence Seneca’s scorn about those who decide to die without bearing the impact on those around them in mind. (Remember that this is the world of Roman political suicide, and a world with a very different level of medical knowledge – suicide was sometimes a virtuous choice, although only under circumstances where choosing life was no longer the rational decision.)

The focus of this passage is this interconnectedness between each human being and ‘their own people’, or ‘people dear to them’ – the Latin is simply sui or suorum, which we translate literally as ‘their people’ but suggests everyone to whom a person is bound by ties of affection, obligation and biology. Paulina, as Seneca’s wife, is definitely one of these for him, but the way he thinks about relating to her becomes an example for how we think about all of our relationships. The idea that we are bound to consider the well-being and benefit of those we love as well as our own interests suggests we need to think of taking care of ourselves as an act of love and service for other people, not simply something we do for our own sake. The implications of understanding ourselves as part of a wider network of human society, not simply disconnected individuals, is at the core of how Seneca and the Stoics frame understanding our relationships with others.

Finally, I want to dwell on the shared sense of identity that Seneca suggests exists between himself and Paulina. She understands not only what she worries for, but also what he worries for; there’s a shared sense of understanding that exists between them. A sceptical reader might comment that Paulina is acting as Seneca’s handmaiden here, positioned simply as a supporting actor in her husband’s pursuit of virtue, and there are merits in that reading. However, look a little closer. Paulina is not simply facilitating her husband’s journey, she is shaping it. Seneca listens to her and changes his behaviour as a result. This suggests that he is taking her seriously as a moral actor in her own right, and indicates the way that marriage can serve as a location for the development of virtue.

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1 Comment »

  1. The likely timing of this letter is important for its interpretation. Seneca writes his Moral Letters around 63-4 while he has tacitly retired from court life (he requested retirement from Nero twice and was rejected but decided to retire in principle anyway by staying away as much as possible and focusing more on writing philosophy). So when he uses “health” as an excuse it may mean spiritual rather than physical health and may even mean avoiding prosecution. The “fever” he speaks of may be the foul behaviour of others at court who he feels he is being infected by. Recall that he was charged with licentious behaviour with Calpurnius Piso (a case he won) and that when he was forced to commit suicide in early 65 it was on the basis of a message he was said to have sent Piso (to paraphrase from memory) “It is better if we do not meet – for the health of both of us.” Also Seneca seems to have been suspicious of the death of his best friend Serenus (poisoned at a dinner along with a number of other Praetorians and Vigiles – suspicion was placed upon Nero and Tigellinus). Although Henderson’s focus upon villas is interesting I find the Letters to often be written while travelling or talk of travelling as a metaphor for reflecting upon and improving the self. Also the few comments Seneca makes about Paulina point to his seeing her as ineffectual and a hopeless romantic. He often comes across as a bit of a chauvinist and even misogynist – not when he talks of his mother and aunt but definitely when he talks of his wife. That may just be her personality. And also a sign of the times – virtue is equated with male virility and fire, while vice is equated with being womanly and weak as water (consider the criticisms of Maecenas). I hope you are right and Seneca’s commentary on his wife is respectful and a sign of recognising equality but the language used does not feel that way on my reading.

    Comment by maxbini — March 21, 2019 @ 3:43 am | Reply


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