Classically Inclined

September 15, 2020

How did Seneca’s ideas relate to the world he lived in?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:53 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’m often asked what Seneca’s contemporaries thought about his philosophical ideas. Sadly, we don’t have any ancient sources which explicitly discuss this, so we have to make some educated guesses.

We know that some of the ideas he expressed would have been strongly counter-cultural. Arguing that one should base amor, and presumably one’s choice of marital partner, on virtue and the potential for virtue would have been odd in a world where the usual priorities for a spouse were about financial wealth, beauty, physical health (for child-bearing), or political alliance. All of these were Stoic indifferents, but not so much for Seneca’s non-Stoic acquaintances.

The implicit gender equality in the idea that all humans have the same potential for virtue on the one hand sounds pretty radical, but on the other hand, the Stoics didn’t advocate for an overhaul of social structures. Instead, they argued that people should exhibit virtue in the positions that they found themselves, meaning women should exercise virtue in their current social roles. Seneca thus did not challenge the idea of marriage, and marriage as traditionally expressed in Roman society. It’s also worth remembering that Roman women were pretty visible in Seneca’s period. They had big roles as civic patrons funding charitable works, as priestesses in city cults (particularly outside Rome), and as semi-discreet players in political life – not just the empresses, but the wives of significant politicians as well. The idea that Roman women had intellectual competence and autonomy is one that Seneca’s peers were very familiar with, even if they had particular ideas about where those abilities should be exercised.

The Roman idea of companionate marriage was well-established by Seneca’s time, so his development of that framework to philosophical ends does not come out of nowhere. The orientation of some of the language related to marriage in order to place virtue at the centre of a couple’s relationship is radical, but part of Seneca’s overall strategy is placing Stoic thought and conventional ideology next to each other and letting the moral lessons emerge from the comparison. While his contemporaries might superficially think that he is saying something quite conventional, the underpinnings of his overall argument are very different, and he constantly plays on the tension between conventional Roman ideas and the Stoic perspective on an issue.

That said, the critique of the sexual double standard in relationships is unusually explicit in his writing – other Roman authors play around with it, and other authors do suggest that it is a bad thing, but Seneca’s objection stands out as being particularly pointed.

Another important way that Seneca’s model of relationships works is that it runs counter to traditional Roman family structures. In a traditional Roman family, power lay with the paterfamilias, the most senior male; hypothetically he had the power of life and death over everyone who was under his legal control, even if we have very few examples of that power ever being exercised. The authority of the paterfamilias created a lot of restraints around what men could legally do before they were emancipated, and women technically always needed some kind of guardian or tutor (although there were lots of practical ways around these restrictions). Nonetheless, the Roman family was deeply hierarchical in terms of its operation.

By contrast, the Stoic model is based on a position of equality. All people have equal potential for virtue; nobody has inherently more or less power in any relationship. The family structure offered by Stoicism offers a reciprocal arrangement which respects and supports all the family members’ pursuit of virtue. Again, Seneca quite subtly presents his different model, but it is radically different to the way that Roman society was structured.

What about Seneca’s relationship to Stoicism? Some people have argued that he isn’t Stoic at all, labelling him as an eclectic thinking. However, Stoicism is by definition a fluid philosophy. Unlike Epicureanism, which follows the doctrines of a founding thinker, the Stoics emphasise the importance of using your own reason to react to the circumstances in which you find yourself. Rather than being eclectic, Seneca is part of the tradition of innovation and reflection that categorises Stoicism more broadly, working with and developing core theories in his own way.

Since ideas about love and relationships aren’t central to what we have that survives of Seneca’s writing, we have to unpick how it relates both to Stoicism and to the broader world. However, what he does say on the subject is steeped in Stoic philosophy and seeks to show his contemporaries that there is a different way to do things.

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