BMCR 2007.06.45

Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome

, Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. xvi, 376. $99.00.

Table of Contents

Inwood has given us a serious Seneca, a deeply learned philosopher whose allegiance to the Stoic school amounts to unflagging devotion and yet has room for creative development. Seneca’s lighter and more literary side, his pumpkinification farce, his mythological tragedies, his stylistic flourishes and fondness for storytelling, have no place in the twelve essays that constitute Reading Seneca. Instead, we find the Seneca of the major treatises, De Ira, De Beneficiis, Natural Questions, and of the Moral Epistles, a man deeply committed to rational inquiry and deserving at least a modicum of the critical attention we give to Aristotle or Augustine.

The volume collects under one cover a series of articles produced by the author over a period of fifteen years. Most have been published separately, although there are two new additions, together with a cumulative bibliography and indices. Given the format, it is to be expected that the presentation will be piecemeal rather than synthetic, and indeed it is Inwood’s preference to probe a series of specific problems in Seneca rather than attempting a unified presentation he did not himself envision. Nonetheless there is considerable unity to the volume, resulting from its author’s consistency of approach and from Seneca’s own habit of returning again and again to the issues, mainly ethical and psychological, that interest him most.

The value of these collected essays, coming from a recognized authority on Stoic philosophy, is so obvious as to require little comment. There has been very little quality work specifically on Seneca’s philosophical oeuvre, large as it is, and only a handful of items in English.1 This volume will therefore be indispensable for future work on anything having to do with Roman Stoicism, and holds great interest in several other areas as well, especially moral theory, psychology, and self-cultivation in antiquity. This is not to say that I agree with everything; that is hardly to be expected in a project of this complexity. As I review the contents here I will occasionally touch upon points where my own conception of Seneca’s philosophical accomplishment differs. These, as well as my overall assessment, should be understood as coming from someone who has been deeply informed and guided by Inwood’s scholarship and patient mentorship over the years in which the essays were written.

A welcome result of having these essays brought together is the cumulative sense they give of Inwood’s characteristics as a reader not only of Seneca but of a wide range of philosophical authors. His way of working with a text is exemplary in the patience, even meekness, with which he traces the outlines of a lengthy discussion, endeavoring to make the main direction clear but refusing to flatten out interesting variations on an idea. It is his practice to combine philosophical with philological methods: an issue is presented and analyzed, then followed up with careful documentation via terminological study and reading of statements in context. Linguistic sensitivity is a major concern. Inwood is responsive to features of Seneca’s Latinity and of his handling of the Greek tradition that set him apart from Cicero, and is capable of capturing subtle changes of conception that occur when Greek terms (e.g. ὁρμή, κανών, κρίσις) are replaced by their nearest Latin equivalents ( impetus, regula, iudicium).

More specifically literary sensibilities are sometimes brought to bear, notably in the reading of metaphor and analogy. For Seneca studies, as for readings of Plato, it is essential to draw some distinctions among the various types and uses of metaphor in philosophical explanation. The clarity with which Inwood’s typology is articulated (31-32) pays off immediately in his treatment of emotion’s supposed “disobedience” to reason. Similarly, in a later essay we learn that talk of “natural law” in Seneca is essentially metaphoric in its application: law is, after all, a product of human culture, and to say that there is something lawlike about nature is to project various associations of the terms into a novel sphere. Again, in “Moral Judgment in Seneca” the language of moral “judgment” is revealed to be at least sometimes a living metaphor drawn from the real-world experience of the Roman magistrate. This is not to say that every single use of iudicare or iudicium evokes the praetor’s bench, but that, when it does, a reader familiar with the administration of justice (as Seneca’s often were) would recognize a range of implications concerning mitigating factors and the judge’s own epistemic and moral limitations. Knowing when to read the metaphors—and when not to overread them—can sharpen our ears for implied content.

In addition, the collection gives evidence of what subjects have most interested Inwood as a philosopher over recent years. As in Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism (Oxford 1985), his principal concern is with the psychological determinants of ethically significant behavior in human beings, though now, of course, the field of inquiry is the continuous prose of Seneca, and occasionally of Cicero, rather than the fragmentary remains of the Hellenistic period. The springs of action are studied first in “Seneca and Psychological Dualism.” Seneca does not, as has sometimes been asserted, allow for two sources of motivation within agents (reason vs. emotion or ‘head’ vs. ‘heart’), not even in Moral Epistle 92, which seems to say something along those lines, and certainly not in the opening of De Ira Book 2. He is thus, at least in this respect, an ‘orthodox’ Stoic, who adds to but does not fundamentally alter the psychology of Chrysippus.

In a similar vein, “The Will in Seneca” investigates the possibility that Seneca may be in some sense the originator of a certain historically prominent notion of the will. Here his conclusions are largely negative: Seneca does employ velle and voluntas to refer to such ethically significant notions as desire, resolve, and second-order wanting, but none of these is voluntas in the sense that later appears in Augustine and medieval philosophy. There is no more than an “illusion of will” in his works (323), created by a cluster of interests which he explores without being committed to the existence of a specific internal faculty for generating volitions.

The interest in second-orderness in the form of talk about self-shaping and self-knowledge; the language of self-command; the focus on self-control, especially in the face of natural human proclivities to precipitate and passionate response; and the singling out of a movement of causally efficacious judgment or decision in the process of reacting to provocative stimuli; these are Seneca’s contributions to the development of the will. (155)

The notion that volitions are free of causal determination, for many people the prime motivation for positing a faculty of will, is notably absent here. The reason for that absence is explained more fully in a later chapter, “Seneca on Freedom and Autonomy,” which identifies no fewer than four kinds of individual freedom in Seneca but denies, surely correctly, that any of them amounts to an indeterminate free will. Also related in content to “The Will in Seneca” is the previously unpublished “Seneca and Self-Assertion,” which was originally conceived as part of the same project. Continuity between the two is to be found in an underlying principle of ontological restraint in accounting for the activities of the psyche. Unlike Michel Foucault, whose writings on Seneca give at least a strong impression that he finds in him a new emphasis on le soi as a distinct entity within persons, Inwood declines in the absence of compelling evidence to impute to Seneca any departure from the usual psychology of his school. He may be prone to language of self-management and to displays of authorial selfhood without being committed to anything new at the level of theory. Another of Inwood’s central interests is in questions of rule-following as a procedure in ethics. Here the seminal essay is Chapter 4, “Rules and Reasoning in Stoic Ethics,” with follow-up in Chapters 8 (“Natural Law in Seneca”) and 9 (“Reason, Rationalization, and Happiness”). It is his contention that both Seneca and his Stoic predecessors favor flexibility and situation-specificity in moral decision-making. True, there are some “rules of thumb” that may be employed, but any rules with content more specific than “behave virtuously” will be defeasible in at least a few situations. Indeed, an epistemically ideal agent will recognize some circumstances in which the appropriate action is not, for instance, to honor one’s parents (a rule of thumb) but actually to beget children upon one’s mother or to consume the flesh of family members or one’s own amputated limbs. Thus there are no absolute prohibitions on either incest or cannibalism, contrary to what subsequent natural law theory (whose origins are often credited to the Stoa) might lead us to expect. In practical terms, however, the broadly applicable rules of thumb do provide substantive guidance to ordinary agents: we are to pursue the preferred indifferents, though we do so in recognition that a reasoned approach to life will sometimes recommend otherwise.

Finally, the collected essays reveal Inwood’s long-term commitment to dealing with the entirety of Seneca’s philosophical output. The six books of the Natural Questions get an optimistic reading in one long chapter. It is a treatise that might easily be dismissed as a sterile résumé of outdated speculation on the causes of thunder, hail, earthquakes, and the like; Inwood, however, discovers in it a rich stratum of epistemological and theological reflection as well, as the Stoic author ponders our relation to the cosmic designer and our basis for knowledge outside the realm of direct observation. Concerning these themes I would register disagreement with him only at those points where he represents them as novel to the genre, for epistemological and theological reflection was at least implicit in rationalist meteorology from its pre-Socratic beginnings and was often explicit as well, especially in Epicurean versions.2

Another work too little read is the seven-book De Beneficiis on the ethics of doing favors, a topic that had a remarkably high profile in antiquity. As is the case with friendship, to which it is closely related, the giving and receiving of benefits is an area of considerable practical significance in ethics—think of the everyday life of any city politician, then as now—but also raises interesting issues in the more rarefied realm of ethical theory. Inwood follows Seneca through a series of creative solutions to puzzles and paradoxes that arise when the ethics of the wise and the non-wise are thus combined. The link between them, he argues, is often to be found in the intention (again voluntas) of the bestower of favors, a point which we might find to have been similarly emphasized in early Stoic treatises, if we had them available for examination.

No less neglected, and perhaps even more important for a full appreciation of Seneca’s intellectual achievement, are the later and longer Moral Epistles on a miscellany of specialized philosophical topics. Inwood engages with these letters repeatedly and in detail, especially with Letter 71 on moral decision-making, with Letter 81 on favors (a companion piece to De Beneficiis), and with Letters 94 and 95, which together amount to a full-length treatise on moral rules and principles.3 His most sustained attention is given to Letter 121, on the development of moral understanding. We know that in Stoic theory the only real goods are to be found in virtuous character and the activities that arise from it. But the standards for what counts as virtue are very high and historical instantiations hard to come by. How then does anyone even form a conception of this endpoint of human development? Seneca’s letter pursues this question against the backdrop of the Stoics’ fascinating account of concept formation in the absence of direct sense-examples: by similarity, by analogy, by expansion, by reduction, by composition, and, as one text tells us, “naturally.” Unpacking that “naturally” is the kind of task for which Inwood’s flexible manner of following a text through all its twistings and turnings is particularly well suited. At the end there is what I regard as a misstep, when Senecan concept-formation emerges as “astonishingly close” to Platonic recollection: the processes still seem to me crucially different. But the terrain we have covered along the way is exciting enough to more than justify Inwood’s main claim, that Seneca is “a serious philosophical presence in the Western tradition” (5).

Is he also an innovative philosopher, one who demonstrates his intellectual independence by taking the ideas inherited from his predecessors in unanticipated directions? The question is everywhere difficult, given the state of the surviving evidence for Stoics of the preceding three centuries. For many specific points in Seneca it is indeed unanswerable. Moreover it is to some extent ill-conceived, for the ancients seem to have put more emphasis than we do on the articulate elaboration of existing doctrine, and Seneca’s occasional remarks about having here and there abandoned his school allegiance are frequently disingenuous. Inwood knows all this, and mainly chooses to emphasize the harmony between Seneca’s views and the Stoic tradition: “Seneca’s core philosophical commitments are conservative” (352, emphasis mine). But he does also argue for Senecan innovation, not only as concerns the Natural Questions but also, more pervasively, in the area of what he calls Seneca’s “voluntarism.” As noted above, he does not find any commitment in Seneca to a strong notion of will such as appears in later European philosophy; he does, however, find a new emphasis on conscious decision-making as the key element in human behavior. Concerning this claim, which is defended either briefly or at length in a number of these essays, I would urge readers to proceed with caution: things may not be entirely as they seem.

In “Seneca and Psychological Dualism,” Inwood argues that while Seneca’s account of the psychic events leading up to anger in De Ira 2.1-4 is, in the main, orthodox, it also makes use of a new and specifically Senecan understanding of what it is for a passion to be rational and hence voluntary. Seneca’s examples of involuntary responses are “strikingly different from what one would expect of the Old Stoa” because he thinks of assent as a consciously chosen response, “voluntary in our and Seneca’s sense” (60, 59). This voluntarism, we learn in Chapter 5, can sometimes be traced in his usage of the specific terms voluntas and voluntarius —notably in this same portion of De Ira —but is not limited to it; it can be expressed in other ways as well. What matters is that Seneca has a particular way of thinking about agents exercising their capacity for moral judgment, a way that anticipates Epictetus’s concept of the prohairesis, the moral character of the individual. Inwood is so struck by the similarity that he even slips into using the Greek term to refer to Seneca’s linguistic habit (221) and early on ventures the opinion that in this instance it may be the Latin philosophical tradition that influences the Greek (21-22). Shared derivation from some Greek treatise of the Hellenistic period does not seem to him a possibility, for while the early Stoics did sometimes use the word prohairesis, there is no evidence that they assigned the concept any special significance.4

Well, surely it is a possibility. Seneca had studied in Greek the writings of, at least, Aristo, Athenodorus, Chrysippus, Cleanthes, Hecato, and Posidonius, none of whom we can now read in anything but bits and pieces. Any one of these could have supplied a key passage on the moral importance of intention, of being committed to a program for future behavior, and we need not shy away from thinking that prohairesis was the term a Greek-speaking Stoic would use to explain that idea. The evidence will even support speculation as to what one such passage must have been about, for voluntarius in De Ira 2.2.2 matches closely with Cicero’s use of the same word in Tusculan Disputations 3.83 and also with Origen, Comm. in Ps. 4:5, where the term is prohairetikos. As all three of these texts concern the role of volition in the emotions proper as opposed to quasi-emotional blushings, tremblings, and the like, it is a fair guess that this element, too, in Seneca’s discussion was inherited rather than invented by him. Of course, such dribs and drabs of terminological history are of limited significance; they do not give us any more text to read or ideas to think about, and they certainly should not alter our assessment of Seneca’s influence on the subsequent Latin tradition. But they should have some effect on our understanding of Epictetus’s intellectual development, where a Senecan component seems to me not very likely.


1. Continental scholars have done considerably better; the work of Karlhans Abel ( Bauformen in Senecas Dialogen, 1967) and Gregor Maurach ( Seneca als Philosoph, 1975) is especially important, and there has been substantial work done on the Natural Questions, mainly of a technical nature. In English, the most useful general work has long been Miriam Griffin’s biography ( Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, 1976 and 1992), which comments intelligently on the philosophical and other writings. The dearth of scholarly work specific to the treatises was extreme during the years Inwood’s essays were written—as one attempting a Seneca dissertation in those years can well attest. More recently the situation has been somewhat improved by the publication of Seeing Seneca Whole (Brill 2006) and by Inwood’s own Clarendon Later Ancient Philosophers commentary on selected Moral Epistles (Oxford, 2007). Work in preparation includes a Brill Companion and a complete set of translations commissioned by the University of Chicago Press. The only significant work I found omitted from Inwood’s bibliography is that of Aldo Setaioli ( Seneca e i greci, 1988; Facundus Seneca, 2000).

2. Gigon (in Grimal, ed., Sénèque et la prose Latine, (Geneva, 1991), 320) opines, perhaps correctly, that the handling of these themes in the Letter to Pythocles and Lucretius Book 6 had a seminal influence on Seneca’s project. His article is cited by Inwood, 165; see also 169. I argue the point further in a response to an earlier version of the essay ( Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium, 1999).

3. The more specialized letters 58 and 65, on points in metaphysics, are mentioned but not treated in detail; that is a project for a different sort of book. For these as well as several of the others mentioned it is now possible to consult his Clarendon commentary (above, note 1).

4. 22, 137, and see Inwood’s Ethics and Human Action, 240-42.