Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.10.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.10.43

Ilsetraut Hadot, Sénèque: direction spirituelle et pratique de la philosophie. Philosophie du présent​.   Paris:  Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2014.  Pp. 452.  ISBN 9782711625697.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Gretchen Reydams-Schils (

In 1969 Ilsetraut Hadot published a landmark study, Seneca und die griechish-römische Tradition der Seelenleitung (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1969), that has lost none of its relevance for our understanding of Seneca’s philosophical writings. The new study is partly a translation of that work and partly a reworking. Starting from the combination of philosophical teachings and precepts in Seneca’s Letters 94 and 95, the study focuses on Seneca’s role as ‘spiritual director,’ that is, as someone who guides others towards the interiorization of Stoic teachings (through the acquisition of the right disposition, habitus), and the right way of life.

The first part of the study locates this form of guidance in its broadest context, starting with Greek culture in the 7th c. BC, through the Hellenistic period and in the Early Stoa especially, and ending with Seneca’s position in Roman philosophy. The second part treats the goals of Seneca’s method of psychagogy, the obstacles it needs to overcome, and its chances of success. In this section Hadot’s analyses of the notions of securitas (as the absence of the passions fear and distress) and tranquillitas animi (as the equivalent of euthumia) are especially illuminating.

The study ends with an assessment of Seneca’s originality. Ilsetraut Hadot aligns herself with the strand in Seneca scholarship that sees his views as largely reflecting those of the Early Stoa. His contribution, she avers, lies in the arrangement of his material and his use of rhetorical tools to enhance his effectiveness. As in her scholarship on Neo- Platonism, here too (13) Hadot emphasizes the importance of taking into account the stage of moral and philosophical progress at which Seneca’s addressees find themselves, the level of discourse (a consolation versus, for instance, his Naturales Quaestiones), and the context of specific claims.

In the new version Hadot reassesses her earlier work in the light of more recent developments in scholarship. In some cases she adds some of her own new insights, as when she proposes that securus for Seneca is not the equivalent of ataraxia but is related to akindunos/-ôs (224-226). The section on the role of the will in Seneca’s psychology has been expanded considerably, with a literature overview (297-312). The author argues against the claim that Seneca’s notion of the will has a new function unattested in the preceding Stoic tradition. As an appendix, Hadot has added a French translation of a recently published paper on how one acquires goodness according to the Stoics and Seneca.1 In line with the argument of M. Jackson-McCabe,2 she argues for the existence of innate preconceptions of good and bad, which, she proposes, have to be seen as the equivalent of the ‘seeds’ of virtue mentioned in Stoic accounts.

The author also (re)assesses trends in the scholarship that she does not find helpful for a correct understanding of Seneca, such as (1) the socio-cultural approach of P. Veyne who, following in the footsteps of Foucault, focuses too much, she claims, on self-fashioning, at the detriment of other aspects of Stoicism; (2) an approach that is driven too much by a subjectivist and reductionist view of contemporary psychology (62-66; which now also draws on C. Gill’s work); (3) the older view that Seneca presents a watered-down version of Stoicism mediated by Middle-Stoicism (132- 140, including references to more recent scholarship, 137-137), with as corollaries that his works present mere popular moralizing, without any deep foundation in (Stoic) philosophy, or that it is is ‘eclectic’ (in the negative sense of that term, 181-194). (To the more recent literature from which the author draws, one could also add M. Graver’s work,3 J. Schafer’s,4 or more broadly construed monographs such as G. Roskam’s on moral progress.5)

But with these assessments of secondary literature that has been published in the period intervening between the initial study and this version, we run into a more problematic aspect of the new work, namely its highly polemical and apologetic tone: one of the purposes of this work is to reclaim the value of the earlier study. The author expresses irritation over the fact that her earlier publication has gone unnoticed, has not been sufficiently acknowledged in more recent scholarship (65), or has been misrepresented (299ff.). Brad Inwood, mentioned at the outset, appears to be the primary bête noire, and much of the polemic is directed at his work on Seneca.6

This being said, perhaps a grande dame has earned the right to bang her fist on the table, and there is a more general and, in this reviewer’s opinion at least, legitimate concern underlying the polemic. The author pleads for a rehabilitation not only of her own work but also of that of other scholars outside of the Anglo-American tradition whose publications have suffered relative neglect, such as A.-J. Voelke’s seminal study on the notion of the will in Stoicism.7 There is indeed a marked trend in Anglo-American scholarship (to which there are also some happy exceptions) to take over certain areas of research in ancient philosophy and then to push out, as much as possible, the older literature and alternative perspectives. This approach can only lead to an impoverished understanding, and it does considerable damage to the exchange of ideas among scholars in what is, after all, a small field in the humanities (which themselves are struggling). Ilsetraut Hadot’s original study was in German, and this one is in French. That should be no obstacle whatsoever to these ideas being taken seriously as an important part of the conversation about Seneca’s purpose in his philosophical writings. ​


1.   The English version, ‘Getting to goodness: Reflections on Chapter 10 of Brad Inwood, Reading Seneca’ was published in Seneca Philosophus, ed. by J. Wildberger and M. Colish (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014).
2.   Jackson-McCabe, M. “The Stoic theory of implanted preconceptions.” Phronesis 49.4, (2004): 323-347.
3.   In addition to her many publications on Seneca, this monograph is also highly relevant: M. Graver, Stoicism and Emotion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
4.   J. Schafer, Ars Didactica: Seneca's 94th and 95th Letters (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009).
5.   G. Roskam, On the Path to Virtue: The Stoic Doctrine of Moral progress and its Reception in (Middle-)Platonism (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2005).
6.   B. Inwood, Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005).
7.   A.-J. Voelke, L'Idée de volonté dans le Stoïcisme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1973). ​

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