Classically Inclined

January 3, 2019

Learning from Seneca’s own marriage

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:31 pm
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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.

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.



November 27, 2018

What does a good marriage look like?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:17 pm
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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.

Seneca believes it’s possible to love another human being without giving in to irrationality; he also thinks that women have the same capacity for virtue as men, which means they are not automatically inferior to their husbands. This is worth pointing out as it wasn’t necessarily a shared belief in the ancient world; by contrast, Aristotle argues in his Politics that the husband should have what he calls ‘constitutional rule’ over his wife, since men are more fit for command because of their more mature intellect (1259b). Given the premises that Seneca is starting from, what does he think a good marriage looks like?

The first important thing to remember is that Seneca doesn’t think there are any hard and fast rules here – marriage is an indifferent, a thing that in and of itself does not affect our ability to be virtuous. Similarly, a spouse in the abstract is also an indifferent – but while there are no such thing as abstract spouses, there are people who we might be married to. The combination of individuals in a marriage will determine whether or not it is a positive or negative influence on the virtue of Stoic disciples.

One point Seneca is very strong on is that relationships between spouses should not be ruled by affectus or irrational passion; the relationship should be grounded in reason, although since individual circumstances vary so greatly it’s impossible to produce a handbook of suitable guidance. What should be at the heart of the relationship, though, is that sense that reason is important. This comes back to Stoic ideas about eros and the idea that it is generated through attraction to someone else’s potential for reason: if you’ve fallen in love with someone because of their inherent potential for virtue, then you are going to use the relationship as an opportunity for them to develop that potential. This means that the non-wise become wise because of the mutual relationship between spouses, as the wise person educates their spouse or two disciples support each other along the intellectual journey. A marriage based on virtue and reason thus produces more virtue and reason.

The really important thing about the Stoic belief in the equality of the sexes here is that this means that the wise person in the marriage doesn’t have to be the husband. It could be the wife who is wise, or who is further advanced along her intellectual journey towards virtue. This opens up the possibility of a wife guiding her husband towards virtue as well as vice versa.

A further important factor about Seneca’s expectations of married life is that he strongly disapproves of the sexual double standard, as we see from On Marriage V 28:

The marriages of certain people adjoin adulteries and – what a shameful thing! – the same men who took away pudicitia taught it to those women. Consequently, satiety quickly broke down the marriages in the same way. As soon as fear vanished from the charm of desire, what became allowed became worthless.

Seneca is not impressed with men who encourage women into adultery and then expect their own wives to remain faithful – they’ve lost the moral high ground. If a relationship has at its foundation this kind of confused belief, that it’s alright for one group of people to behave in a certain way and not alright for another group of people to behave similarly, then that’s a warning signal of a marriage based on irrationality.

October 30, 2018

Gender equality and Stoicism

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:24 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.

We’ve established that the Stoics believe it is possible to love another human without that leading to irrational behaviour. Now I want to think a little bit about why this matters in terms of gender equality.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Stoics proto-feminist, they do hold one quite important belief – namely, that all people have the same capacity for virtue and the same ability to achieve virtue, regardless of their circumstances. In some ways, this is quite a radical proposition – contrast, for instance, Aristotle, who makes the case that those who have to work for a living will never be able to make full use of their reason (Politics 1258b and 1260b). That Epictetus, one of the most prolific Roman Stoics, was originally enslaved speaks to the way that the philosophy could occasionally transcend some rigid class boundaries.

This belief in the common human capacity for reason, the seed of the divine logos inside each and every person, meant that the Stoics held both men and women had the same capacity for achieving virtue. There was a recognition that social convention could mean women did not get the same opportunities to pursue that reason. In one particularly dry treatise, Musonius Rufus observes that we train male and female dogs and horses the same way and get the same outcomes, so if we train male and female humans differently, we have only ourselves to blame if they turn out differently (Discourse 4, ‘Should daughters receive the same education as sons?’). Equally, although the Stoics recognised that men and women had the same potential for virtue, they seem to have remained within very traditionally gendered social frameworks for how they might use and demonstrate that virtue; while in the same treatise, Musonius talks about human tasks being common to everyone, he uses examples of physical labour rather than allowing the possibility that women might go into the law or politics. Indeed, he explicitly says that being good at arguments would be pointless for women, since it won’t be any use in their lives!

We know that Seneca took the Stoics’ claim for the equal capacity of all humans to be virtuous on board. Two of his three earliest consolations are written to women, one of whom is is mother Helvia; he talks of the enjoyment he took in engaging with philosophical study with her, and urges her to return to her work as consolation for his absence in exile (Consolation to Helvia 17).

So we’re looking at a philosophy where women are seen as having the same moral potential as men – which means that the goalposts significantly shift when we are discussing marriage. We’re now not talking about the union of a superior intellectual being to an inferior one (again, a model that turns up in Aristotle), but of two equally competent individuals, who are much more likely to be Stoic disciples rather than Stoic sages.

October 16, 2018

Can you be a Stoic and be in love?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:47 pm
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We’ve established how the Stoics thought emotions worked, and the problems they saw with the irrational passions. So where does love fit into all of this? Did the Stoics think that you should try and get rid of love?

This is where we get into the question of what precise words the Stoics use to talk about these kinds of emotions. Love, amor, does not fit into either the passions or the eupatheiai, so seems to be a bit betwixt and between. However, when the Roman Stoics talk about amor, they are not talking about the kind of romantic love you might find in the elegaic poets (or indeed in Sappho), but what the Greek Stoics called erōs. Our Greek sources are very clear that the Stoics did not think erōs was irrational, although the reasons they gave for this may not always have made a great deal of sense. They defined erōs as a wish to create a friendship with another person based on that person’s moral and physical attractiveness – so not inherently heterosexual, or indeed inherently sexual at all. The key element in erōs is that it is aroused by the promise of virtue (which is good for all of us proficientes, as otherwise we’d be stuck). The early Stoics also seem to have been very comfortable with same-sex erōs, provided of course that it came from a mutual appreciation of each other’s virtue.

By the time we get to Seneca, what was originally a quite queer position had been framed in terms of the heterosexual marriage relationship; Seneca talks, for instance, of married couples experiencing amor as a positive thing which draws on this idea of an affection grounded in appreciation for each other’s potential for virtue. However, another important word begins to appear, which is affectus. We get a bit of what this means in De Matrimonio V 26:

Furthermore, Seneca reports that he knew a certain distinguished man who used to bind up his chest with his wife’s fascea when he was about to go into public, and could not be without her presence for a moment; man and wife used to drink no drink except one touched by the lips of the other, performing other no less foolish actions in the same manner, in which the thoughtless strength of burning affectus used to burst out: the beginning of this love (amor) was indeed honourable, but its extent was shameful. Indeed, it makes no difference how honourable the reason is from which someone goes mad.

It’s the affectus which comes under fire here, and it’s the affectus that is the irrational drive or passion, drawing the couple into silly over-the-top romantic behaviour. The amor itself was originally quite rational and under control, but it has somehow lost its footing and spiraled into these kind of excessively sentimental antics.

What V26 tells us is that Seneca is quite happy with relationships which are based on a Stoic amor/erōs that takes as its foundation the beloved’s potential for virtue, but that he deplores those relationships where amor has turned to affectus, because reason (and a sense of perspective) has been lost. We come back again to the idea of the indifferents – love in and of itself is neither good nor bad; it’s how you use it that matters. In the case of affectus, where being in love becomes more important than the pursuit of virtue, things have gone pretty badly wrong – but that doesn’t mean that relationships based in grounded, rational amor can’t exist.

October 11, 2018

The irrationality of the Stoic passions and what they believe

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:38 am
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This post is one in a series designed to help students and teachers working with the OCR Classical Civilization A-level special subject Love and Relationships and its focus on Seneca. All these posts are tagged with OCR Seneca.

One reason that the Stoics thought that the passions were a problem for people, and needed to be replaced with the eupatheiai, was that they caused an irrational disturbance in the soul. This was grounded in the fact that the passions were caused by incorrect beliefs about what will make us happy.

A related Stoic theory that becomes relevant here is that of indifferents. The Stoics held that everything which wasn’t virtue or vice was an indifferent – that is, in and of itself, it was neither good nor bad. Health, wealth, poverty, sickness, fame, obscurity… these were neither things to chase after nor things to avoid per se. By Seneca’s time, the Stoics had modified this a bit to allow for the idea of preferred indifferents; that is, health was a preferred indifferent that you’d choose if all other things were equal, but it wasn’t in and of itself necessary for achieving virtue. The family and marriage falls into this same category: if the opportunity arises and all other things are equal, then marrying a spouse and starting a family are preferred indifferents, not least because they’re according to nature. (More on that in a future post.) But they’re not actually worth going for by themselves.

The problem with the passions is that they haven’t got to grips with this idea of indifferents. They arise from the false belief that, for instance, getting lots of money is going to make you happy, and so you behave in such a way that will get you lots of money, but not in a way that is in accordance with reason or is virtuous. Due to your irrational passion, you might cheat or swindle or bribe or take on degrading or immoral jobs or commit any one of a whole series of acts which are not virtuous and which are not in accordance with reason – all because of your mistaken belief that you will be happy if you have lots of money.

One immediate result of these passions is that you experience internal mental upheaval as a result of them. For instance, when you lose the large bet you’ve placed on the sure-fire tip in the chariot race, you will be distraught because of the money you have lost; if you win the bet, you will be excessively delighted, because you have got closer to your unattainable financial aims. The sage, by contrast, probably wouldn’t have placed a bet in the first place, since money is an indifferent and not to be chased after (not to mention that the sage would be fully aware that trusting anything to chance or fate has pretty good odds of losing what you’ve put down as a stake, and that that’s a game not really worth playing). The result of that internal upheaval, experienced on a daily basis, in various different ways and on the basis of multiple incorrect beliefs, is that you can never achieve internal balance or calm.

The significance of this is that the Stoics believe one of the things which characterises the sage is her equilibrium, or balance – she cannot be upset by things going wrong, from a train delay to being thrown in prison and worse, because she is in tune with perfect reason and thus understands either why what has just happened has no bearing on her virtue and her happiness, or why it is the most rational and suitable thing to have happened in the universal scheme of things. In order for the Stoic disciple to get closer to sagehood, he needs to correct some of his mistaken beliefs which generate the passions in him, so he stands a chance of achieving a balanced and calm inner state.

October 3, 2018

Understanding Stoic ideas about the emotions

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:31 am
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In order to understand the framework within which Seneca places human relationships, we need to do a bit of exploration into how he understands the emotional bonds between people working. The first, and most important, thing to say is that the Stoics do not think that all emotions, as we would describe them, are bad things. However, they do have a very particular set of beliefs about emotions and emotional states, which are easily misunderstood.

The Stoics argue that, as proficientes, we are gripped with passions (pathē). These are irrational impulses founded on irrational beliefs which guide our behaviour. They are movements of the soul over which we have no control, precisely because they are irrational. Since the Stoics think that acting in accordance with reason is the highest good, you can see why they think living under the control of the passions is suboptimal. The four passions are appetite, fear, distress and pleasure, each driven by misguided beliefs about what we should want, what we should worry about, what should upset us and what we should enjoy.

The Stoics don’t say that we should get away from feeling emotions altogether, but instead argue we should extirpate or remove these irrational beliefs and the passions that go with them, and replace them with the eupatheiai or ‘good emotions’. These are based on the correct beliefs about what will make us happy (that is, acting in accordance with perfect reason); they are caution, volition and joy. There’s no need for a fourth emotion since the Stoic sage doesn’t need any way to feel distress or pain – she will be perfectly content whatever happens because she will be in tune with reason. (This isn’t the same as saying she won’t go ‘ouch’ if she pricks her finger, but that she won’t be emotionally upset if she loses her wallet.)

As you can see, this is a very different framework to thinking about emotional responses than we usually use, and it’s firmly grounded on whether or not your underlying beliefs about how to value and respond to certain things are correct or incorrect.

September 26, 2018

The difference between the Stoic sage and the Stoic disciple

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:26 am
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One really important distinction to be aware of in Stoic theory is the line that the Stoics draw between the sage and the proficiens or disciple. This division has big knock-on effects for the practical application of Stoic ethics, and thus for how we read what Seneca says about relationships.

The Stoics saw the sage as someone who was living in perfect harmony with reason, and thus was perfectly happy. It’s worth noting that although you’ll often see references to the Stoic wise man, this should more accurately be translated as the wise person, since the Stoics believed women had exactly the same capacity as men to achieve virtue – more on this coming soon. The sage was the template for moral behaviour; they would always make the right decision and behave in the correct way because of the correct internal motivations whatever happened to them. This led to the rather odd position (which their rival school the Epicureans rather got at them for) that the sage would be happy even when being tortured, because physical pain would not affect her ability to be rational or virtuous.

The sage, being perfectly in control of their rational facilities, will always make the right decision and thus is morally perfect. However, the Stoics were realistic – the sage is also as rare as a phoenix (Alexander, De Fato 196.24–197.3, Long and Sedley 61N). They recognised that the likelihood of someone reaching sagehood was vanishingly small; although various people, including Socrates and Cato the Younger, were held up as examples of the Stoic sage, the Roman Stoics recognised that most people were not going to reach these levels of moral excellence.

The Stoics thus labelled the rest of us who are trying to live our lives according to the principles of Stoicism as proficientes, best translated as ‘tryers’ or ‘disciples’. The proficiens hasn’t got to grips with mastering their own reason yet, but they’re trying. They seek to clear their minds of anything that might draw them away from reason and clear it of irrational beliefs, but they’re still prone to making mistakes. The reassuring thing about this statement is that Seneca is quite clear that even the sage has to have gone through this process of making mistakes and getting it wrong in order to achieve sagehood; as he says in On Clemency 1.6.4, even in someone has reached the position of sagehood and is so secure that nothing can unbalance him, he has only got there through making mistakes.

So when Seneca is writing about relationships, he is writing with an audience of disciples in mind; he doesn’t need to write for the sage, because the sage’s own inner reason will always lead her to the correct decision. His writing is meant to help those striving towards virtue to identify the roadblocks in their journey and take action on them, fully in the knowledge that the overwhelming probability is that they’ll never get rid of all the obstacles between them and sagehood. The sage is an encouraging figure, a point of reference and a position to aspire to, and Seneca deploys him as an ideal in his writing. However, he never loses sight of the fact that the vast majority of people in relationships are actually going to be normal proficientes, each at their own stage on the path to virtue, struggling to make the best of things and act as rationally as their limited abilities will let them.


Long, A. A., and D. N. Sedley. 1987. The Hellenistic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

September 18, 2018

Seneca’s De Matrimonio or ‘On Marriage’ – The Fragments

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:47 pm
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I mentioned in my post about sources for Seneca on love and desire that our best chance of understanding Seneca’s views on marriage is the now fragmentary De Matrimonio. I’ve written elsewhere about the reason that this text is only known in fragments, but I thought it might also be useful to post my translations of the fragments which Fernand Delarue identified as being most likely to be genuine Seneca. The fragments are numbered according to the edition of Vottero. A cautionary note – because these are fragments, they cannot be used as absolutely certain evidence for Seneca arguing a particular point on their own, but they can be used in the broader framework of Stoicism and Seneca’s other writing to construct a likely position.



Although his pupil Metrodorus had Leontion as a wife, Epicurus, the champion of pleasure, seldom says that the wise man should take part in marriage, because many troublesome things are mixed up with marriage, and just as riches, honours, the health of our bodies and other things which we call indifferents are neither good nor bad, but become either good or bad by use and by chance, as if placed in the middle, so too are wives placed on the border of good things and bad things; however, it is a serious matter for a wise man to be uncertain about whether he is about to marry a good or a bad woman.


Chrysippus absurdly advises the wise man to marry in order not to outrage Jove Gamelius and Genethlius. Of course, according to this logic, among the Latins a wife must not be married, because they do not have a Nuptial Jove. But if the names of the gods, as he thinks, are prejudicial to the lives of men, accordingly the man who willingly sits off ends Jove Stator.


Furthermore, Seneca reports that he knew a certain distinguished man who used to bind up his chest with his wife’s fascea when he was about to go into public, and could not be without her presence for a moment; man and wife used to drink no drink except one touched by the lips of the other, performing other no less foolish actions in the same manner, in which the thoughtless strength of burning affectus used to burst out: the beginning of this love was indeed honourable, but its extent was shameful. Indeed, it makes no difference how honourable the reason is from which someone goes mad.


Of course, all love for somebody else’s wife is disgraceful, as is too much love for one’s own. The wise man should love his wife with discernment, not with passion; he controls the impulse of pleasure and is not carried headlong into sexual intercourse. Nothing is more vile than to love a wife as if she were an adulteress. (more…)

September 12, 2018

Sources for Seneca on love and desire

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 10:56 pm
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This is the first of a series of blog posts intended to support teachers and students studying the Love and Relationships topic as part of the OCR A-level in Classical Civilization. I expect it will be updated with more sources as the blog posts progress! 

As far as Plato on love and relationships is concerned, it’s fairly straightforward to know what to read – at the very least, you have a good look at the Symposium, and that will cover quite a lot of ground. It’s a lot more difficult to know what to read as far as Seneca is concerned – he has one of the broadest and best-preserved collections of texts from the ancient world, rivaled only by Cicero in terms of the breadth of the genres that he covers. He also doesn’t have a single text devoted to love and relationships in the way that Plato does, meaning that there has to be quite a bit of selective reading done to find helpful material.

The one massive loss to this particular question is Seneca’s De Matrimonio, or On Marriage – we only have it through quotations made in an extremely polemical text by Saint Jerome, where he uses it to argue in favour of celibacy rather than marriage. (I’ve written about the textual transmission of the De Matrimonio here if you want to find out more.) While there are a small group of fragments that we think we can identify as properly Senecan, they aren’t easily accessible (yet!), and their fragmentary nature makes it difficult to understand precisely what argument Seneca’s making in the text. They do, however, provide us with a useful set of ideas to work with in parallel with Seneca’s other writing. You can find translations of the fragments in this post.

Alongside the fragments, here’s a list of some other useful passages you should know about:

On Benefits 1.1.10 and 4.33.2 – notes that we should enter marriage even though we cannot guarantee perfect outcomes.

On Benefits 2.18.1 – alludes to advice exploring the duties that spouses have to each other.

On Benefits 3.16.2-4 – expresses disgust at the rising frequency of divorce.

On Constancy 7.4 – “if a man sleeps lies with his wife as if she were someone else’s, he will be an adulterer, although she will not be an adulteress.”

Moral Epistles 9 – on the Stoic sage and self-sufficiency; explores the sage’s attitude to relationships with others in general. 9.17 in particular notes the sage’s interest in starting a family.

Moral Epistles 95.37 – example of a man who knows keeping a concubine is an insult to his wife, but does it anyway.

Moral Epistles 104.1-5 – Seneca talks about his relationship with his wife Paulina.

Moral Epistles 122.7-8 – includes men who exchange their clothing with women and submit to other men in a list of things which are against nature, along with men who build warm baths in the sea.

Moral Epistles 114.4 – a portrait of Maecenas as a husband behaving irrationally because of desire for his wife (who is criticised in the same letter).

On Providence 3.10 – another poison pen portrait of Maecenas and his relationship with his wife.

On Anger 3.36.3-4 – Seneca describes his wife’s understanding of his nightly meditation routine.

On Clemency 1.9.1-12 – an extended narrative of an incident in the relationship between Augustus and Livia which demonstrates a laudable marital dynamic.

On Consolation to Helvia 17.4 – Seneca contradicts his father’s position on whether Helvia, Seneca’s mother, should study philosophy.

Natural Questions 1.16 – gives a disapproving account of the sexual habits of Hostius Quadra, who slept with both men and women whilst surrounded by mirrors.

Phaedra – a full-length tragedy which focuses around uncontrolled incestuous desire; however, there are complications to be aware of when reading the tragedies as evidence for Seneca’s thought (blog post on this to come!).


Tacitus, Annals 15.63.64 – Seneca’s forced political suicide, including the role his wife played.

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 4.33 and Plutarch On common conceptions against the Stoics 1072E – on why the Stoics saying erōs isn’t irrational is a bit odd.

Musonius Rufus, discourse 4, ‘Should daughters receive the same education as sons?’ – useful background for the Stoics’ belief that both men and women had the same capacity for virtue.

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