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Topic #G60

Seneca on Philosophy

1 March 2002
Scribe: Mark Renneson


These minutes were spoken on 4 March; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



              After some brief housekeeping issues were addressed, the theme of our lecture was revealed: the life and philosophy of the Stoic philosopher Seneca.  There was a question raised about the relationship of the Stoic position on external objects with Plato’s conception of the outside world.  Professor Hutchinson answered that the two were not directly linked.  Plato understood external objects as having the potential to be good or bad depending on their context and proportion.  This he called Socratic Intellectualism.  For the Stoics, things do not require subjective evaluation, they are neither good nor bad.   This puts responsibility on oneself.


              Seneca was exiled to the island of Corsica, he was recalled eight years later to begin his private tutelage of Nero, the boy who would eventually become emperor of Rome.  While Nero took power, Seneca acted as an unofficial chief minister for eight years and helped govern the powerful empire superbly.  As the Emperor’s power grew, Seneca wanted out.  Unfortunately for him, Nero would accept neither his fortune nor his resignation.  This led to implications of Seneca defending the assassination of Nero’s mother.  Eventually, a compromise was arranged and Seneca took a hiatus from political life.  Later, however, Seneca committed suicide to escape being murdered by the thugs of Nero, who suspected him of involvement in a plot.  Seneca, Professor Hutchinson reminded us, is considered by many to be a hypocrite (see back cover of our text).  While his stoic beliefs may be admirable, many people have trouble reconciling the fact that Seneca’s wealth provided him an ivory tower from which to speak.  Some consider his idealism to be too lofty, and something that Seneca himself rejected in practice.


              Now, onto Seneca’s philosophy.  Seneca considered himself a Socratic philosopher.  As both he and Socrates spoke directly with people, issues of practical importance were paramount.  Seneca gives advice in his Letters, practical suggestions for how one should engage with life’s big and small matters.  There is also a relationship between Seneca and the Epicureans.  They used to employ short phrases that would remind one of their beliefs.  A short inscription on a ring or mirror was used to constantly remind oneself of how the true Epicurean should live.  Similarly, Seneca plants small, short gems of wisdom in his Letters, with the hope that his doctrine will be recalled by these aphorisms.  In this sense, one can see a “tipping of the hat” from Seneca to the Epicurean tradition.


              Professor Hutchinson then explained that one of his favourite authors is Michel de Montaigne.  This philosopher had the privilege of reading Seneca in its original Latin, with the ease and fluidity we read him in English.  However, it seems that Seneca is not widely read today.  A combination of lofty idealism, clear, unambiguous language and the fact that Seneca did not always practice what he preached, are reasons why many scholars today pass over Seneca.  Professor Hutchinson told the class that he found much value in Seneca’s work, and although he may have not followed the advice he gave in every detail, we should be sympathetic to the period of time he lived in and the enormous pressure he faced.


              Seneca used two models as his approach to philosophy.  Model 1: philosopher as therapist / spiritual advisor.  Like with the Epicureans and eventually the Cynics, Seneca thought that philosophy could and should have a high therapeutic value.  One could escape distress simply by reducing one’s zone of responsibility (a fundamental Stoic concept).  For example, if I am upset over my friend’s problem, my mother’s anxiety and my sister’s moral decisions, Stoicism can help.  By encouraging me to realize that I am not. and cannot be, responsible for these things that are beyond my control, I have no need to worry about them.  The inclination to live an unruffled and anxiety-free life (even under difficult circumstances) was what the Stoics taught.  This is the therapeutic side of philosophy.     


              Professor Hutchinson proceeded to give the class a personal example of how philosophy can have a calming effect.  He has trained himself and his children to utter the phrase “Oh well, it was only a material object” when he or they break something.  This has worked well, in his estimation, to curb the emotional attachment he has to inanimate objects.  This version of Stoicism works well for consoling himself, but he recognizes that his wife’s antique bowl is not just a “material thing” to his wife.  This puts the philosopher in a predicament, as he must respond to a loved one’s attachment to material things, though not to the material things themselves.


              It was at this point that Professor Hutchinson advocated a book called The Therapy of Desire.  This book investigated Hellenistic philosophy and how it was used as a remedy for the problems that human beings faced.  Professor Hutchinson considered it a good and worthwhile book to read.


              A student asked if Seneca offers practical advice about death, and relating to other people.  The answer was yes, quite a bit.  For Seneca, the death of a friend will be difficult.  Of course one will grieve, but Seneca suggests that the grieving period by short and swift so that one may get on with one’s life - with a new friend. 


              Professor Hutchinson then tried to explain the second model of philosophy: Philosophy is like a beautiful woman who has the ability to shake us out of the mundane.  The last few paragraphs of Letter 53 give this impression: “But only philosophy will wake us; only philosophy will shake us out of that heavy sleep.  However, this woman requires our full attention and devotion, or none at all: “Devote yourself entirely to her.  You’re worthy of her, she’s worthy of you - fall into each other’s arms.  Say a firm, plain no to every other occupation.  There’s no excuse for your pursuing philosophy merely in moments when occasion allows.” 


              It is this absolute devotion to philosophy - a sign of Seneca’s respect for it - that has brought forth calls that his expectations of others and himself were unrealistic.