BMCR 2004.04.08

Die Vorstellung vom Willen in der Morallehre Senecas. BzA 173

, Die Vorstellung vom Willen in der Morallehre Senecas. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 173. München/Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2003. 273 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3598777221 €96.00.

[The reviewer would like to thank BMCR’s anonymous referee for insightful comments, particularly on Ep. 71.27 and 92.3.]

This book, the revised version of Zöller’s (hereafter Z.) 2001 Hamburg dissertation, offers a comprehensive investigation of the will (voluntas) in Seneca’s moral writings. It is the first sustained, book-length study specifically devoted to the subject, which has previously been treated in a series of important but limited contributions by Pohlenz, Gilbert, Rist, Voelke, Mantello, Dihle, Kahn and most recently Inwood.1 Such a book has long been desired, not least because of Seneca’s controversial, and still not well understood, role in the development of the notion of traditional will, to use Inwood’s convenient term.2 Given the need for such a synthesis, this book is welcome despite its flaws. Despite substantial difficulties in his reconstruction of Seneca’s psychology of the soul and the role of the will within it, the book nevertheless offers a thorough discussion of the supreme importance of voluntas (as an innate, desiderative and decisive force) in Seneca’s moral writings. While the book is not for the uninitiated classicist or layperson, those who specialize in Senecan ethics or more generally in ancient psychology will want to read this book, even if only to disagree with its conclusions.

Is there any topic in (ancient) philosophy as slippery and elusive as the will? Does it exist? If so, what is it? Do we have the tools to define it? Does it exist as a separate faculty of the soul? Or is it a convenient term used for a series of different functions of our minds? How does it relate to reason, emotion, action and moral progress? To answer just these questions, Z. divides the book into two roughly equivalent parts. The first (“Senecas Willenskonzeption”) treats Seneca’s psychological conception of the soul and the will; the second (“Senecas Willensmetaphysik”) covers the importance of the will in moral progress and the metaphysics of such a conception.

The first part is further subdivided into two subsections. The first of these (“Die Eigenart des römischen Willensbegriffs und Senecas Neuerung”), after the obligatory and exhaustive review of scholarly literature, surveys the use of voluntas within a purely Roman context. Z. concludes with what he sees as Seneca’s innovation, which, succinctly put, is this: Seneca, a purely Roman thinker (one is reminded here of Pohlenz), conceives of the will as a separate faculty of the soul, independent of both reason and emotion, located somewhere within the irrational part and decisive in controlling the emotions. This of course anticipates the second subsection (“Die Affektpsychologie Senecas”), which is devoted to reconstructing Seneca’s theory of impulses (impetus), the division of the soul, and the role of the will in controlling emotions (affectus). This last section is the least persuasive portion of the book. I shall return later to discuss in more detail some difficulties in Z.’s interpretation of three key passages.

The second half of the book also is subdivided into two subsections (“Konventionelle und universelle Werthaftigkeit” and “Metaphysik der Freiheit”). Presented here is a series of wide-ranging, speculative essays on the higher importance of voluntas in our moral lives and the degree to which we have free will. Z.’s view is this: according to Seneca, the Greek ideal of a moral life — to live in harmony with nature — is attainable only through different manifestations and powers of the will. The will, and not reason, is essential for moral progress, for humans can never hope to attain a full recognition of virtue owing to the inadequacy of their knowledge. Since full recognition of what is wanted is impossible (as required for Stoic/Aristotelian boulesis or Aristotelian prohairesis), it is the desire to be good, innate in every human being (insita voluntas), that is decisive for achieving moral perfection, that is, to be good according to the model of the gods. Thus far Z. closely mirrors Dihle’s assessment that traditional will was a function of the development of Christianity, whose adherents — who felt incapable of fathoming the depths of god’s powers — were simply to turn toward the will of god. In Z.’s analysis of Seneca, however, logos, the effective power that permeates the Stoic cosmos, plays the role that Dihle thought god had played for the Christians; it is the will of the universe, represented perfectly by the eternal regularity of the heavenly bodies, to which all must direct their own individual wills. Through cosmic sympathy all who strive for moral goodness (that is, all who “want the same as the gods”) have a share in this cosmic will. Finally, this shared sense of “good will” unites mankind in a sort of cosmic brotherhood; the more we strive with bona voluntas, the more the universe as a whole will be filled with goodness.

I now return to Z.’s reconstruction of Seneca’s psychology of the soul to point out some deficiencies in Z.’s interpretation of the evidence. Z.’s central thesis, and one that informs the whole book, is stated at the outset: despite the communis opinio, Seneca in fact had a cogent, well thought-out theory of the will. This is controversial enough, as we nowhere find in the extant writings of Seneca a sustained, contextualized account of voluntas. All we have are scattered references which do not (I concede) easily square with any Greek concept of the soul, be it Stoic or otherwise. Yet it is a bold venture to ascribe a consistent, completely fleshed-out philosophical theory to a writer who was criticized in antiquity for carelessness in philosophical matters (Quintilian), and in modern scholarship (until the last few decades) for a muddled eclecticism. This is not to say that Seneca was incapable of powerful, independent thought; but the fact that he could be criticized in such a way ought to make us pause before giving him credit for subtlety and completeness when the evidence is so ambiguous.

A specific example: Z. asserts that Seneca not only conceived of, but was also committed to, a tripartite soul based on Plato’s model, with an independent will located in the depths of the soul (specifically the irrational part where emotions reside) and having final say over the emotions. The evidence does not support his argument; in three key passages (Ep. 92.3, De Ira 2.4.1 and Ep. 71.27) Z. has pushed the evidence too far in support of his reconstruction of Seneca’s conception of the soul.

The first two passages are central to his argument that the will was an autonomous faculty of the soul. (“Faculty” is my translation of German “Kraft,” Z.’s preferred term and one that is enviably ambiguous.) The first passage Z. adduces (p. 9) for an autonomous voluntas is Ep. 92.3. The Latin is ad haec [tranquillitatem et securitatem] quomodo pervenitur? si Veritas tota perspecta est; si servatus est in rebus agendis ordo, modus, decor, innoxia voluntas ac benigna, intenta Rationi nec umquam ab illa recedens, amabilis simul mirabilisque [my caps]. Z. states “[a]uf die Selbständigkeit und Freiheit der voluntas in einer ihr eigentümlichen Dynamik weisen hier die Partizipien intenta und recedens in rahmender Stellung zur ratio hin…”. Later (p. 130) he unambiguously concludes from this passage that voluntas is an autonomous “Seelenorgan.” In other words, if voluntas can “withdraw” (recedens) from ratio, then it must function independently of it.

Does ratio here refer to the rational part of the soul at all? The context hardly supports this interpretation. More likely this Ratio is Stoic logos and must be interpreted in relation to Veritas: one must always be intent on the higher Truth or Reason of Nature (cf. 92.1, divina ratio). The passage makes far more sense if we keep in mind the Stoic dictum “to live in accordance with nature.” If the passage is interpreted in this way, the participles intenta and (numquam) recedens mean something completely different: only if one is firmly and constantly focused on the Truth (veritas) about Nature and how Nature works (ratio) can one achieve true peace of mind.

Even if Z. is right to take ratio as the rational faculty of the soul, this passage is only mildly suggestive of a desiderative facet of the soul and does not come close to proving a separate faculty (as is authoritatively asserted several times, pp. 9, 130, 255). Voluntas is hardly the focal point of the passage, being only one element in a series of items required for proper action (including ordo, modus and decor). Furthermore, Z. does not take into consideration the highly rhetorical nature of the passage, which is marked by a general tone of lyrical exhortation rather than by careful philosophical exegesis. Consider just the final three words (amabilis simul mirabilisque): we find assonance, alliteration and isocolon. Although rhetoric and philosophical subtlety can certainly coexist, this hardly seems to me to be the kind of passage one should squeeze to find underlying philosophical sophistication.

The second passage, De Ira 2.4.1, is from the famous account of the propatheiai. Leaving aside the long-debated question of sources,3 we will concentrate on the phrase voluntate non contumaci. Z. places great emphasis on this phrase, citing it several times (pp. 11, 26, 92, 133, 134, 146, 258) as evidence that the corollary voluntas contumax proves 1) voluntas is an autonomous faculty of the soul, and 2) that voluntas controls whether a first movement (motus) becomes a full-fledged emotion (adfectus). In other words, if voluntas can be contumax, then it must be the decisive faculty. But is it any more than a vivid metaphor? The Latin that follows decisively places the content of the passage within intellectualist Stoic discourse: tamquam oporteat me vindicari cum laesus sim, aut oporteat hunc poenas dare cum scelus fecerit, “as though I ought to get revenge when I have been hurt, or as though the one who committed the outrage ought to pay for it.” No independent organ of the soul acting independently of reason is required here. On the contrary, what we have here is merely the equation of voluntas with Stoic assent (sunkatathesis), and the emotion, in this case anger, arises not because of the weakness of the will (as Z. would have it), but because of the deficiency of our reasoning. The person who ‘assents’ to an erroneous belief (that one should repay an injury) has merely reasoned falsely, and it is precisely this false belief that Seneca is trying to eliminate in his exposition. In other words, voluntas here cannot be viewed separately from Stoic sunkatathesis any more than it can in De Ira 1.8.1 ( quoniam nihil rationis est ubi semel adfectus inductus est iusque illi aliquod voluntate nostra datum est, “because there is no rationality once emotion had been let in and been given some license with our assent”). Whether or not the equation has further implications leading to a voluntarist interpretation is debatable, although Z. never considers this possibility as he is firmly focused on proving his point. What cannot be gotten from these three words is that Seneca consciously departed from orthodox Stoic theory in favor of an independent will and a tripartite division of the soul.4

Z.’s interpretation of Ep. 71.27 is also open to question. I provide the full passage from chapters 26-27 for context:

Quid est in tormentis, quid est in aliis quae adversa appellamus mali? hoc, ut opinor, succidere mentem et incurvari et subcumbere. Quorum nihil sapienti viro potest evenire: stat rectus sub quolibet pondere. Nulla illum res minorem facit; nihil illi eorum quae ferenda sunt displicet. Nam quidquid cadere in hominem potest in se cecidisse non queritur. Vires suas novit; scit se esse oneri ferendo. Non educo sapientem ex hominum numero nec dolores ab illo sicut ab aliqua rupe nullum sensum admittente summoveo. Memini ex duabus illum partibus esse compositum: altera est inrationalis, haec mordetur, uritur, dolet; altera rationalis, haec inconcussas opiniones habet, intrepida est et indomita.

On p. 134 Z. argues that Seneca’s psychology of the soul diverges from the orthodox Stoic conception (monism) in favor of a tripartite division à la Plato. Z. cites this passage as evidence for the division of the soul into rational and irrational parts. Z. assumes, without discussion, that the antecedent of illum in the last sentence is not the obvious sapientem, but a latent animum (“ich erinnere daran, dass sie [= die Seele] aus zwei Teilen zusammengesetz ist” [my brackets]). This is a leap of faith; the entire passage is clearly centered on the figure of the sapiens (note illum, illi, ab illo in the preceding lines). It is true that here one could argue that by a sort of sleight of hand Seneca has shifted topics, but this is not clear from the Latin and Z. does not give us another reason to believe this is the case. Here Seneca is primarily concerned with the sapiens and distinction between the soul and body, and this is confirmed in a later passage (29): et tremet sapiens et dolebit [note repetition of this verb] et expallescet; hi enim omnes corporis sensus sunt. For Seneca, then, there are bodily reactions that are incapable of being overcome by reason, even in the perfect sapiens.

The real question — one that Seneca does not pose and Z. does not answer — is how bodily reactions like pain or trembling or tears (primus motus/ictus animi) relate to the soul at all. A stone does not feel pain, but a human does; the difference is, presumably, that man is animated with a soul. But how exactly does this process work? What is this connection, if any, between the soul and the body? Is there a separate part of the soul linked to bodily processes that feels pain? De Ira 2.3.1 clearly tells us that these (bodily) propatheiai affect the soul (ista, ut ita dicam, patitur magis animus quam facit), but how exactly? All of this ambiguity seems to deny a well-thought out theory of the soul on Seneca’s part, and the reader would like to see a sustained effort on Z.’s part to explain exactly what this pars inrationalis really means within the framework of the propatheiai. It should also be noted here that Z.’s other evidence for partition of the soul (Ep. 92.8) is not so clear-cut either; see Inwood (1993) 161-164.

Although the book has its merits, I do not recommend it to non-specialists looking for a lucid introduction to the will in Seneca. The prose is redundant and occasionally unfocused. The production leaves much to be desired. The lack of indices in such a dense book is deplorable. A final proofing of the text would have done wonders. One is led to the conclusion that it was rushed to press.5 Still, those engaged in the topic should be glad to have this book, as it elucidates the importance of desire for moral development in Seneca’s philosophical treatises. If nothing else, it provides common ground for further study into so rich and complex a field.


1. M. Pohlenz, “Philosophie und Erlebnis in Senecas Dialogen,” NAG, phil.-hist. Kl. 1.4.3 (1941) 112-118; N. W. Gilbert, “The Concept of the Will in Early Latin Philosophy,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 1 (1963) 17-35; J. M. Rist, “Knowing and Willing,” Stoic Philosophy (Cambridge 1969) 219-232; A.-J. Voelke, L’idée de volonté dans le stoicisme (Paris 1973) 161-190; A. Mantello, “Seneca: Dalla Ragione alla Volontà,” Labeo 26 (1980) 181-190; A. Dihle, The Theory of the Will in Classical Antiquity (Berkeley 1982) esp. 134-135; C. Kahn, “Discovering the Will: From Aristotle to Augustine,” in The Question of Eclecticism, ed. J. M. Dillon and A. A. Long (Berkeley 1988) 234-259; B. Inwood, “The Will in Seneca the Younger,” Classical Philology 95 (2000) 44-60.

2. Inwood (2000) 44-45 (see note 1) makes the useful distinction between “traditional will” (as a separate, conscious faculty of the soul responsible for volitions) and “summary will” (as a summary reference to a complex set of explanantia, i.e., that it stands for no single mental act or item). I should note here that Z. never discusses Seneca’s contribution in relation to Augustine or medieval philosophical traditions and is content with a descriptive account of Seneca’s psychology of the will (and potential sources).

3. See B. Inwood, “Seneca and psychological dualism,” in Passions and Perceptions, ed. J. Brunschwig and M. Nussbaum (Cambridge 1993) 150-183 and J. Fillion-Lahille, Le De ira de Sénèque et la philosophie stoïcienne des passions (Paris 1984).

4. One might consider this to be one of Seneca’s accidental achievements. See Kahn (1988) 246 (see note 1) for the importance of Stoic sunkatathesis in the development of medieval concepts of the will.

5. The production of the book is abysmal; mistakes misprints and misspellings occur at a rate of one every two pages. In addition to minor and merely irritating problems (e.g., extra spaces, missing italics, unclosed quotation marks, and a generally unattractive appearance), there are substantial mistakes that will cause the reader great trouble. Two quick examples: first, Z. gives the wrong citation twice on p. 12 (where read [line 6] “49,11” for “49,12” and [line 9] “16,1” for “16,5”) and once on p. 145 n. 138 (where read “1,10,3” for “1,10,1”). Secondly, the bibliography has a number of egregious errors. To take a single page (268): read “Augustine” for “Augustin”; read “Eclecticism” for “Eclectisism”; read “Berkeley” for “Berkely”; read “J. Mansfeld” for “F. Mansfeld”; read “Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium on Ancient Philosophy” for “Boston area colloquia on ancient philosophy series.” Furthermore, on pp. 250-1 Z. still uses the outdated edition of Haase for Seneca’s fragments, where Vottero’s more recent edition Lucio Anneo Seneca: I frammenti (Bologna 1998) should be preferred. In a book that discusses Aristotle’s theory of impulses a great deal, the absence of, e.g., A. Kenny, Aristotle’s Theory of the Will (New Haven 1979) or anything from Cooper is conspicuous. Further errors: p. 10, n. 9 read “Augustine” for “Augustin”; p. 14 read “Wert-vorstellungen” for “Wer-vorstellungen”; p. 19, n. 1 the year of B. Schönegg, Senecas Epistulae Morales als philosophisches Kunstwerk is 1999, not 1998 (although the year is correct in the bibliography); p. 21 insert “eius” between desperationem and non; p. 24 read “innoxia” for “inoxia”; p. 55 read “bezieht sich” for “b. sicht”; p. 58, n. 96 read “peregrine” for “pelegrine”; p. 68 read “Identifikation” for “Idendifikation”; p. 72 read “principium” for “pricipium”; p. 76, n. 140 read “epist.” for “epst.”; p. 78 read “übernimmt” for “übenimmt” (see also p. 91 n. 185); p. 87 read “libido vel” for “libidovel”; p. 92 read “voluntas” for “volunas”; p. 126 read “transit” for “tran sit”; p. 145 read “separatas” for “seperatas” (see also p. 250); p. 147 read “neglecti” for “neclecti”; p. 167 read “quidquid” for “quiquid”; p. 186 read “reasoning” for “reasening”; p. 205 read “nullum” for “nulla”, and insert “habent commune” between quidem and cum; p. 258 read “Seneca” for “Senecas”; p. 267 read “Panaetii” for “Panaitii”.