Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.20

Stefano Maso, Lo Sguardo della Verità: Cinque Studi su Seneca.   Padova:  Il Poligrafo, 1999.  Pp. 187.  ISBN 88-7115-209-3.  L.32.000 (pb).  

Reviewed by Margaret Graver, Dartmouth College (

Maso's is a pensive monograph that ranges over Seneca's entire oeuvre, but with concentration on the philosophical works, especially the Epistles. Its approach is thematic and meditative, rather than analytical; its interest not so much in argumentation as in exploration of a series of broadly-defined notions -- truth, consistency, self-realization -- to see in each case what Seneca has to offer to individual readers constructing their own lives in a historical and political context very different from his. Maso quotes Concetto Marchiesi's remark (of 1920!) that Seneca is "the most modern writer of Latin literature."1 His own endeavor, however, is not so much to show that Seneca's writings have contemporary significance as to demonstrate that their significance is timeless.

Classicists accustomed to problem-based, tightly reasoned studies may well find such an approach off-putting. But the book is worth our patient reading, not only for its thoughtful exposition of individual passages (easily located through a first-rate index locorum) but for a wealth of connections to earlier scholarship, especially continental scholarship, on Seneca and Roman philosophy.2

The five studies mentioned in the title are closely allied to one another. The first ponders the notion of self-realization and the living of a principled life. Stoic virtus is understood as "resistance" (constantia, stabilitas) both to adversity and to vice; its essence is not so much in political action (although political action remains an important possibility) as in recognizing the rational principle which informs the self and in reducing accordingly the role of contingency in one's life. The attribution of any event to chance is after all a misinterpretation, due to our epistemological limitations, of the designedness of the cosmos; hence to maintain a certain consistency of moral action is to manifest the reality of the natural order (what Maso calls "transparency") as against the appearance of randomness. It is characteristic of Maso's approach that he takes the same notion of self-realization to be operative also in the tragedies (citing Oedipus's suicide speech in the Phoenissae) and indeed in Seneca's own life -- for Tacitus's account of Seneca's suicide transmits the image of Seneca's life-project which Seneca himself intended to promote.

The second chapter takes up a series of issues arising from Seneca's use of exempla from Roman history and from the past generally. Seneca does not merely continue the Republican (especially Ciceronian) practice of valorizing the conduct of Roman ancestors in contrast to moral decay in the present: without making vice intrinsic to human nature, he insists that vice has in fact been present in every time period and considers the possibility of progress through legislative reform (the program undertaken with Burrus in Nero's early years3) or through moral education. His appeals to the maiores are creatively varied and involve careful critical evaluation.

Both the third and the fourth chapters are interested in locating points of contact between Seneca's Stoicism and the writings of Epicurus. If indeed Seneca is (or means to be) a committed Stoic, what are we to make of his regular practice of quoting and expanding upon maxims of Epicurus in the first three books of the Epistles? Chapter 3 responds to this question with a line-by-line examination of Epistle 33, in which Seneca offers a kind of justification for his earlier practice while still maintaining the superiority of Stoic thought and expression.4 It is precisely because the overall quality of Epicurean thought is weak that the few things Epicureans do say well have so much point and effect: tall trees in a short forest. Maso concludes, reasonably, that the Epicurean maxims function as propaideutic, rather like the situation-specific advice whose value is interrogated in Epistle 94. Grown-up philosophers are to work things out systematically and for themselves, not merely to parrot the words of a master: patet omnibus veritas; nondum est occupata; multum ex illa etiam futuris relictum est (Ep. 33.11). Interestingly, Epicurus himself turns out (101-2) to have expressed a similar openness to the possibility of future philosophical discovery, in Ep. Men. 127 "the future is neither wholly ours nor wholly not ours" and also in other passages whose intention is somewhat clearer.5

Actual doctrinal convergence is another matter. Chapter 4, in the course of a rather perfunctory account of Seneca's views on political involvement, suggests a number of possibilities for such convergence. These are not uniformly convincing. Maso is undoubtedly correct to treat the central contention of De Otio, that retirement from political activity is advantageous to the progressor, as having much in common with the Epicurean injunction to live unnoticed; there is far less justification, however, for supposing that Jove's retiring into himself during the cyclical conflagration (Ep. 9.16) suggests Epicurean as well as Stoic theology (113). Again, the lines in the Phaedra in which nature vindicat omnes sibi are correctly explicated as referring not to the rational structure of the universe but to the all-enveloping force of eros (112). But the latter conception can scarcely be identified as Epicurean: the opening lines of Lucretius's de Rerum Natura, which no doubt lie behind the identification, are far from Epicurus's real position on the role of eros in individual lives, and Phaedra, with her faith in the inevitability of her consuming passion, is as much deluded in terms of Epicurus as she is in terms of Chrysippus.6

The fifth chapter ranges rapidly over a number of topics generally important in Stoic logic: the assumption that reality ("truth") is absolute and subject to inquiry, the conventions of language, the difference between name-bearers and propositions, the infallibility of the wise. For Maso, Stoic logic and Stoic ethics operate on two different planes (132); this does not mean that logic is irrelevant to ethical inquiry -- since ethical claims ultimately depend upon one's means of access to the truth -- but it does mean that watertight argumentation may not be sufficient for moral discourse to produce its desired effect. Nonetheless, Maso sets out to give examples of syllogistic argumentation in the Epistles, notably at 76.10-16, 59.14, 67.5. To be sure, not all these passages offer real syllogisms (in fact only 67.5 qualifies as syllogistic in any usual sense of the word), but Maso suggests that they do at least show "traces of logical argumentative schemes" (147, emphasis original).

Those familiar with Jonathan Barnes' work on logic in Seneca will wonder why Maso does not take on the question more directly.7 Is not Seneca actually hostile to the study of logic and especially to the use of syllogisms in ethical discourse -- given that he regularly expresses such hostility?8 As Maso cites Barnes as having "cleared away" (rimuovere, 144) the passages in question, we may suppose that he feels the issue has been put to rest; well enough, but this element in Seneca's complex attitude may still have implications for Maso's own endeavor. From what Seneca says on the subject we are surely to infer that while formal argumentation has a role to play in undergirding ethical dicta (the decreta of Ep. 95), such arguments ought not to be spelled out in the sort of discourse which exhorts others to correct their behavior, not only because they are likely to be ineffective, but also because they run the risk of diverting the pupil's attention from the real issue toward intellectual puzzle-play. If this is right, then we should expect Seneca's own writings actively to avoid syllogistic formulations, replacing them with stirring rhetoric of a sort which is deliberately innocent of formal argumentation.9 In this case the point of importance about Ep. 76.10-16 and many similar passages is how far they do not resemble anything that can be called a syllogism, and those very few passage from which proper arguments can be extracted are actually lapses, Seneca's slip showing.


1.   Page 108; citing Marchiesi, Seneca (Milano-Messina: Principato, 1920, repr. 1944).
2.   Recent general works on Senecan philosophy are not numerous: the best resource in English is still Miriam Griffin's biography Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976); also G. Maurach, Seneca: Leben und Werk (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1991). Special topics are treated by T.G. Rosenmeyer, Senecan Drama and Stoic Cosmology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); A.L. Motto and J.R. Clark, Essays on Seneca (Frankfurt am Main; New York: P. Lang, 1993) and Further Essays on Seneca (2001); E. Hachmann, Die Führung des Lesers in Senecas Epistulae morales (Münster: Aschendorff, 1995), and my own doctoral dissertation ("Therapeutic Reading and Seneca's Moral Epistles," Brown University 1996). Seneca scholars may look forward also to the publication of an annotated selection of the Moral Epistles by Brad Inwood (Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters, in the Clarendon Later Ancient Philosophers series).
3.   Maso ignores the well-founded reservations of Griffin (Ch. 3) on this point.
4.   The letter is discussed in detail in my dissertation and in "The Manhandling Of Maecenas: Senecan Abstractions Of Masculinity," AJP 119 (1998), 607-32.
5.   Ep. Hdt. 78; VS 27, 48. It is left unclear whether the level of philosophical discovery envisioned consists in actual changes to a system or merely in the extension and embellishment of established principles. Interpretation of Ep. Men. 127 is especially difficult: Maso recognizes the difference of context, but defends the connection on the basis of the other passages.
6.   Phaedra 352-53. This is not to say that there is no Epicurean thought in the play: the nurse approaches Epicurus closely when she demythologizes Cupid in 195-203 and also in her appeal to the chastisements of conscience at 162-64.
7.   Barnes, Jonathan, Logic in the Imperial Stoa (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 12-22.
8.   Especially in the Epistles, e.g. at 45.5, 48.6-7, 82.8-9, 83.9-11 (all cited by Barnes).
9.   Epistle 87, noted by Barnes, is an egregious exception, meant perhaps to dramatize this very problem.

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