BMCR 2010.05.51

Ars Didactica: Seneca’s 94th and 95th Letters. Hypomnemata Bd. 181

, Ars Didactica: Seneca's 94th and 95th Letters. Hypomnemata Bd. 181. Göttingen: Ruprecht, 2009. 125. ISBN 9783525252918 €39.90.

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

In this monograph, a revised version of his Ph.D. dissertation, John Schafer has produced a deep and thorough analysis and interpretation of Letters 94 and 95 of Seneca’s Epistulae Morales. He is taking the recent scholarship a step further, introducing an innovative theory — though his results may not be wholeheartedly welcome or even accepted — and providing inspiration for future research and analogous interpretations of and approaches to Senecan texts.

In his introduction (Chapter One) Schafer places his work within the relatively recent revival of interest in Seneca and Stoicism, explains the two major terms used in Letters 94 and 95 and continuously repeated throughout his monograph, decreta and praecepta, or technical/doctrinal and non-technical/non-doctrinal methods of moral guidance respectively, and how representatives of early Stoicism (Aristo of Chios, Cleanthes) interpreted and used these terms. He then delineates how his work contributes to the understanding of the two letters and how Seneca used the two terms in them.

In Chapter Two Schafer provides a very detailed presentation of Letters 94 and 95; yet he does not simply cite a dry translation of their content, but follows Seneca’s structured argumentation point by point and vividly illustrates how the Latin philosopher does not only respond to and refute Aristo’s arguments on praecepta, but also makes some positive remarks on the role of precept-giving in moral life (Letter 94). Schafer then moves on to Letter 95 and, following its structure, demonstrates how Seneca gradually proves that praecepta are not by themselves enough for moral guidance, which can benefit from decreta as well. The way in which Schafer has portrayed both the structure and content of the two Letters contributes to better understanding of where Seneca stands on the role of norms of action and philosophical doctrines in moral improvement.

This understanding is facilitated even further by Schafer’s outlining the historical background behind the terms praecepta and decreta (Chapter Three). After criticizing those who consider Letter 94 as a testimonium to Aristo’s ideas and early Stoic theories, he gives a short description of the development of Stoic doctrines, starting off with Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, following the debates that led to the school’s development (e.g., those between Aristo and Cleanthes or Chrysippus), stating the major similarities and (mostly) differences between the mainstream Stoics and Aristo, a rather extreme and marginal figure, and showing how Cicero attested to Stoic doctrines in his work. The chapter closes with the relationships among Aristo, Seneca, and Letter 94.

In Chapter Four Schafer studies the role of rules, if they even existed as such in Stoic philosophy and ethics; after critically approaching the recent scholarship on the issue,1 he makes some introductory remarks on rules in connection with the possible system of Stoic ethics: he attempts to answer to three basic questions (the definition of the term “rule”, the various kinds of rules and what it means to follow a rule). He then applies them to Stoicism and shows how the doctrines of this school define deliberation; he elaborates on the terms kathekon and oikeiosis, and comments on recent scholarship,2 partly agreeing with it and partly pointing to the gaps its interpretations show. Seneca’s Letters 94 and 95 are then placed within this context: Schafer examines how or even whether these letters intersect with the aspects examined previously in this chapter, concluding that Letter 94 has little to do with kathekon, since precepts cannot have any theoretical weight and cannot form a standard and official set of rules, while Letter 95 simply confirms these points. So, in his conclusion, Schafer clarifies that praecepta cannot be taken as a system of rules for correct moral action, but rather as an educational method, while decreta should be considered as teaching philosophical doctrines in general, and not as high-level moral principles. Schafer claims that his interpretation provides answers to questions that arise from Seneca’s letters and have remained unanswered in previous scholarship. He finally states that for Seneca what matters more is the activity of precept-giving than the precepts themselves that lead to moral improvement, and that his Letters are not meant to determine the kathekonta of the Stoic theory.

While in the preceding chapters Schafer has given some taste of his interpretation of Letters 94 and 95, it is only in Chapters Five and Six that he provides a full account of it. According to it, the two Letters are not about the role of rules in Stoic ethics, but they are a treatise on moral education and a defence of Seneca’s own praxis as a moral guide and as a teacher of philosophy. In supporting this, Schafer believes that the two Letters must be read in the context of Seneca’s Epistulae as a whole, that is why he examines the sequence of the Letters, proving that there is a gradual passing from the practical pieces of advice in the first letters to the philosophical maturation of Lucilius, the recipient of them, in the second half of the corpus. Schafer also takes into consideration the relationship between Seneca and his pupil/friend (a mutual teaching-learning relationship) and he perceives the whole corpus of the Epistulae as an exemplum of philosophical friendship and moral reform, while the letters are an attempt of one of the two to benefit the other. This beneficial attempt is proven by Lucilius’ progress which is attested in the Letters; deriving all the material he needs from Seneca’s Letters, he provides some biographical information about Lucilius as well as on his intellectual achievements and moral progress (shown in the frequency and sophistication of Lucilius’ questions to Seneca). Schafer then concludes that Letters 94 and 95 are addressed to someone who has completed the technical side of instruction and is already an advanced and highly sophisticated recipient; to prove this, he considers the length of the two letters, their thematic unity, and lack of epistolary connections, concluding that they are the most treatise-like of and the least similar to the other letters of the collection; the two letters are actually about how to read the entire collection). He insists that in these two letters Seneca addresses Lucilius not as a student any longer, but as a philosopher and a teacher himself.

In Chapter Six Schafer’s analysis of the pair of letters under discussion gets more detailed, as he combines in it what Seneca writes in them with references to other letters in his collection; he explains what praecepta and decreta are and their role in moral guidance. More interesting than this recycling of information and interpretation is Schafer’s reading of the way Seneca destabilizes the distinction of praecepta and decreta in these two letters (especially in 94), and through a gradual argumentation eventually brings the two notions closer until they ultimately converge into a unified conception of philosophy.

The monograph closes with a short conclusion about the results of Schafer’s research, and his contribution to the restoration of Seneca as an author and philosophical teacher, as well as to the evidence for early Stoicism. This is followed by a rather limited bibliography, the necessary acknowledgements, and two indices — one of proper names and philosophical terms, and another of passages cited in the book.

Schafer’s book is obviously addressed to readers familiar with Seneca’s Epistulae Morales (the general remarks on Stoicism definitely help non-specialists place the Senecan work in the right context) and certainly with good knowledge of Latin; since there are many quotations in the original language, it would be helpful (not to say useful) for understanding Seneca’s as well as Schafer’s arguments to include an English translation. Appearance-wise, there are many footnotes, too long to be presented as such; besides, the content of some of them could well have been incorporated into the text without causing any harm to it or the development of the argumentation.

Despite these two observations, Schafer’s book should be considered a valuable contribution to the investigation of Senecan and Stoic thought in general and to the interpretation of Seneca’s interest in pedagogy and philosophy and in philosophical pedagogy. Based on primary sources, it illuminates the way Seneca comprehends moral education and guidance, mutual friendship and self-improvement. It also sheds light on misconceptions and interpretative gaps in the study of early Stoicism. Overall, Schafer’s work will prove beneficial to a new reading of Seneca’s Epistulae as a whole and hopefully it will lead the way to a better understanding of them and Seneca as an author and a philosopher.


1. Introduction
1.1. Background and Aims
1.2. Conspectus of the Work
2. Letters 94 and 95: a map
2.1. General
2.2. Letter 94
2.3. Letter 95
3. Historical Background: Aristo of Chios and Other Stoics
3.1. Introduction
3.2. The Early Stoic Debate
3.3. Aristo, Seneca, and Letter 94
4. Rules?
4.1. Introduction
4.2. Recent Scholarship
4.3. Initial Remarks on Rules
4.4. Deliberation in Stoicism
4.5. Letters 94 and 95
4.6. Conclusions
5. Contextualizations
5.1. The Context of the Epistulae Morales
5.2. Tracing the Progress of Lucilius
5.3. Letters 94 and 95 in Context
5.4. Why This Debate?
5.5. Summary
6. Education
6.1. Praecepta
6.2. Decreta
6.3. Praecepta and Decreta : Destabilization and Convergence
6.4. Summary
7. Conclusion


1. Inwood, B. (1999) ‘Rules and Reasoning in Stoic Ethics’ in Ierodiakonou, K. (ed.) Topics in Stoic Philosophy, Oxford, 95-127; Mitsis, P. (1993) ‘Seneca on Reason, Rules, and Moral Development’ in Brunschwig and Nussbaum (eds.) Passions and Perceptions, Cambridge, 285-312; Annas, J. (1993) The Morality of Happiness, Oxford.

2. Brennan, T. (2005) The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties & Fate, Oxford; Barney, R. (2003) ‘A Puzzle in Stoic Ethics’ Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 24, 303-340.