BMCR 2021.11.07

Philosophy and community in Seneca’s prose

, Philosophy and community in Seneca's prose. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 224. ISBN 9780190493219 $74.00.

Early in his Epistulae Morales, Seneca describes certain hardcore philosophers of his time who would shun common food, hygiene, and social niceties in order to advertise their asceticism and commitment to the Stoic credo “to live according to nature” (secundum naturam vivere, Ep. 5.4). Seneca lambasts these showboating lone wolves because they are missing the point: “the first thing that philosophy promises is a sense of community, that is, humanity and society” (hoc primum philosophia promittit, sensum commune, humanitatem et congregationem, Ep. 5.4). Seal’s monograph aims to investigate further how Seneca defines himself and the philosophical life within the larger context of society. Can the Stoic triad of ethics, physics, and logic be practiced effectively in Rome while concomitantly working one’s way up the cursus honorum or living under an emperor? Chapters devoted to Seneca’s conception of social life vs. solitude, the philosophical schools, slavery, and the Roman res publica reveal that Seneca is reliant on the larger social and political structures of Rome for delineating the philosophical life. This is not a dry compilation of passages devoted to these topics, however: it stresses the way that Seneca encourages self-transformation and the vital role of ratio (“reason, rationality”) in his philosophical practice. Wisdom ought to be pursued, but that cannot occur in a vacuum; Seal demarcates how Seneca engages with the larger social, literary, and philosophical world to create his challenging and committed brand of Stoicism.

The introduction sets the scene for the book and provides the theoretical backdrop. Scholars such as Foucault, Nussbaum, Inwood, Habinek, and Roller inform Seal’s vision of Seneca’s philosophical project. Seal seeks to open up space for Seneca to create a work of philosophical literature that engages with Roman social and political values. Seneca counters those who would say that a return to nature is key: “Seneca’s response complicates the distinction between nature and culture in ways that vindicate the relevance and utility of philosophy as an art founded on the exercise of reason. By integrating history and culture into his account of how philosophy works, he does not compromise but rather bolsters its status as a comprehensive art of living” (21). The introduction works well to provide general information about previous critical stances and to situate his own views, but I would have liked to see more engagement with Seneca’s own words. Only one quotation of Seneca appears in the introduction, so, while we learn of the more expansive takes of Habinek and Roller, we see precious little of Seneca ipse.

 The second chapter concentrates on the solitude of the philosopher weighed against the advantages and disadvantages of social life or community involvement.[1] Should a Roman philosopher who is “making progress” (proficiens) have contact with others or practice philosophy alone (essentially, a choice between Socratic dialectic and Cynic self-sufficiency)? Will contact with others ultimately lead only to vice creeping in or rubbing off on the prospective philosopher (cf. Ep. 7)? Seal leads readers through sections of the Consolatio ad Marciam and select letters to investigate the larger question of nature vs culture and to clarify “the social character of philosophical investigation and analysis” (37). His close readings of Eps. 29 and 62 contrast Cynic independence from the more nuanced, erudite, and effective Stoicism that Seneca practices. Ep. 90 becomes important to Seal’s argument because of Seneca’s dual primitivist and progressivist conceptions of history in this letter, and his reflections on the role of philosophers in society. Early man may have lived in a natural state, but there were no sages among those innocent Neanderthals who could truly teach them to live well (ars est bonum fieri, Ep. 90.44). As Seal elucidates, “Human beings can make themselves virtuous, independently of the gods, but only human beings whose temporal and spatial position gives them access to the art of philosophy have this option. The independence that Seneca declares for humanity as a whole is thus in that very declaration qualified by a new dependence of the individual human being on his or her fellows” (55). Seal continues to reveal how Seneca aims to neuter Cynic ideas of independence in de Beneficiis and Ep. 95, where the philosophical life must be part of society and not cut off from it. Seal’s close reading of Ep. 95 is particularly assured and instructive: the spiritual advisor should be equipped with knowledge of physics, ethics, and logic, and not solely ethical precepts, in order to impart the art of living virtuously. Seal concludes this chapter with an investigation of Ep. 120 and the role of exemplain Stoic moral theory. This is a strong chapter in general, but I believe Seal should have stressed how the epistolary frame itself speaks to questions of solitude and independence.[2] The active teaching in the letters and the other works presume a small coterie of friends with whom to practice the teaching, discussion, reading, and other spiritual practices Stoicism encourages.

The following chapter places Seneca’s Stoicism in the larger context of philosophical schools and aims to show that “through engagement with the idea of the philosophical school…Seneca gave depth and precision to his arguments for the necessity of philosophical practice” (74-5). Epicureans maintained the most visible institutional community with the Garden, and Seneca’s comments on Epicureanism and their like-minded group helps to shape his ideas about how to progress toward wisdom. Seal begins with Eps. 33 and 64, two important missives that underscore differences between Stoics and Epicureans in terms of their reverence for their predecessors and their works. Seal reads these two letters in tandem in a way that might be jarring for some (what about the 31 letters between them?), but he persuasively shows how Seneca models philosophical predecessors on both the Roman family and the Roman political community. Seneca often mentions Epicurus and Epicureanism with varying degrees of respect or revilement, and Seal analyzes Ep. 21 and sections of De Vita Beata to clarify the teachings of the Epicurean school and possible parallels between Epicurean guidance and his own philosophical education (embodied especially in his relationship with Lucilius). A final treatment of Ep. 79 offers the promise of future glory to aspiring philosophers and contrasts the long-lasting glory of a philosophical community with transitory poetic accolades. Seal’s attention to the textual nature of the Stoic school for Seneca is attractive, especially if we can believe what Seneca says at the conclusion of NQ 7, where Seneca claims the Pythagorean, Academic, and Skeptic schools are shuttering their doors (7.32.2-3). If Seneca is living at a moment in which pantomime schools are flourishing but “no one cares about philosophy” (philosophiae nulla cura est, NQ 7.33), then it is all the more pressing for his teachings to reach a wider audience and for written education to be paramount to the endeavor.

Taking a page from McCarthy’s book on slavery in Plautus,[3] Seal next analyzes passages in Seneca’s prose works where slavery and philosophy appear in order to see how the language and imagery of slavery are “indispensable tools with which to explain [Seneca’s] vision of the philosophical life in a slave society” (109). Seal is less interested in what Seneca says about slavery than about his conceptual use of slavery as part of the larger call to living a philosophical life. If philosophy is the art of self-liberation and if, according to Stoicism, no man besides the sage is free, then the liberal arts (liberalia studia, Ep. 88.2) ought to be operative in the creation of the truly free (liber) man. Close readings of Eps. 88, 77, 27, and 80 scaffold this chapter and delineate Seneca’s therapeutic argument. While it admirably points out how Seneca utilizes slavery to lead to a more concise idea of his philosophical and literary self-definition, I missed any discussion of Seneca’s Troades, where we can see the process of becoming a slave and various poetic musings on captivity, libertas, suicide vs slavery (cf. Ep. 77), and the play of fortune, all issues that Seal investigates in this section.

The final chapter tackles how Seneca reifies the res publica and makes it emblematic for the philosophical life. Much like in the previous chapter, Seal is not interested in moments in which Seneca discusses the res publica per se as much as he is in “Roman politics as conceptual raw material” and “the ways in which Seneca’s use of Roman politics reconfigures that material in the process of building a picture of the life guided toward virtue by philosophy” (139). He begins by providing Cicero’s and Sallust’s view of the Roman republic as a hierarchy of obligations and ties of gratitude to the maiores, which Seneca subtly reconfigures in his De Beneficiis to touch upon philosophical practice. Seal moves on to Eps. 14 and 73 where Seneca explains some of the dangers of competition and hierarchy compared to the benefits of philosophical living. Ambition is shown to be anathema to the Stoic aspirant, and rulers would be well advised to let philosophers retreat from public affairs and political activity to pursue wisdom. In leisure, the philosopher can properly fulfil his duties to the larger cosmic city, as well as to the state, through his devotion to reason/virtus and his ability to impart his teachings to others. A short conclusion reiterates the main points of Seal’s book.

In sum, Philosophy and Community in Seneca’s Prose is a clearly written and cogently argued monograph; each chapter offers deep dives into select letters that will become necessary reading for scholars and students interested in those letters.[4] Certain chapters did not coalesce quite as well as they might have (e.g. Chap. 4 on slavery), but Seal convincingly places Seneca’s Stoicism in its larger social, political, and literary worlds and reveals how aspects of those worlds are marshalled by Seneca to push his philosophical agenda. Seal, however, frequently chooses not to engage with Seneca’s own highly problematic politics, complex literature, and tempestuous social position in his attempts to outline the overarching philosophical practices he chooses to highlight. While this can give us a smoother picture of the education and practices that Seneca touts, it takes away from some of the complexity and conflicting drives that make Seneca such a fascinating figure to study.


[1] For a parallel account but on a broader scale, see G. Reydams-Schils, The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection (Chicago 2005).

[2] Seal touches upon this in his introduction (17-18), but epistolarity could be fruitful to the larger question of the individual’s (Lucilius’? Seneca’s own?) moral development within the social environment of the epistolary world. Seal offered a nuanced view of Seneca’s practice of philosophy in his fine chapter “Theory and Practice in Seneca’s Writings” in S. Bartsch and A. Schiesaro, The Cambridge Companion to Seneca (Cambridge 2015) 212-23.

[3] K. McCarthy, Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy (Princeton 2002).

[4] While there is a helpful index there is no index locorum.