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  • Metadata

    • Document type
      Review (monograph)
      Author (review)
      • Asmis, Elizabeth
      Language (review)
      Language (monograph)
      Editor (monograph)
      • Wildberger, Jula
      • Colish, Marcia L.
      Seneca philosophus
      Year of publication
      Place of publication
      De Gruyter
      Trends in classics. Supplementary Volumes
      Series (vol.)
      Number of pages
      VI, 512
      Subject classification
      Intellectual History
      Time classification
      until 499 AD → 1st - 5th century AD
      Regional classification
      Ancient World → Roman Empire
      Subject headings
      Paris <2011>
      Seneca, Lucius Annaeus <Philosophus>
      Original source URL
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Jula Wildberger / Marcia L. Colish (eds.): Seneca philosophus (reviewed by Elizabeth Asmis)

sehepunkte 15 (2015), Nr. 7

Jula Wildberger / Marcia L. Colish (eds.): Seneca philosophus

This volume of collected essays is another contribution to the blossoming of studies on Seneca's philosophy in recent decades. It is one of several volumes of essays that have come out on Seneca in just the past 10 years. There are still some who think of Seneca as primarily a rhetorician, not a philosopher; but there is now a broad range of scholars whose conception of philosophy accommodates Seneca as a major contributor to ancient philosophy. This volume gives much attention to Seneca's Letters ; roughly half of the essays deal with the Letters . The topics on which the volume contributes the most are: Seneca's epistemology, his psychology, and his self-fashioning. The essays range from detailed studies to broad perspectives or brief surveys. Here I shall discuss just a selection of the essays, some of them only very briefly.

Among the detailed studies, Ilsetraut Hadot's "Getting to Goodness: Reflections on Chapter 10 of Brad Inwood, Reading Seneca " deals with a controversy that has persisted since the nineteenth century: to what extent did the Stoics endorse an empirical method of concept formation? At the end of the nineteenth century, Adolf Bonhöffer rebelled against the prevailing empiricist view by maintaining that Epictetus differed from the rest of the Stoics by positing innate moral concepts. In recent scholarship, the pendulum has swung to the view that not only Epictetus, but the Stoics in general posited innate moral concepts.

Hadot advocates this latter view in a sustained attack on Inwood's empiricist reading of Seneca''s view of the conception of the good in Letter 120. Both scholars advance the discussion by laying out the evidence clearly: Hadot does so by dissecting the evidence for and against an empiricist position; Inwood does so by showing difficulties in the way that Seneca argues for the formation of a conception of the good. According to Hadot, the difficulty of "getting to" a conception of goodness is solved by positing an innate concept. Inwood himself points in this direction by invoking Epictetus at the end of his chapter. As I see it, the controversy is far from solved. There is not nearly as much "incoherence" in Seneca's position as Hadot thinks Inwood ascribes to it. Rather, Inwood illuminates some inadequacies that need to be addressed. Whether innate concepts are the right way to supplement Seneca's arguments is open to debate. On the whole, there is much remaining unclarity, especially on the idea of an innate concept. Innatists such as Hadot tend to conflate a predisposition with an innate concept, identified as a prolepsis (translated as "anticipated grasp" by Hadot), while cautioning that the latter is not really a concept; but it is not at all clear how a predisposition can be the same as a prolepsis .

Another incisive detailed study is Jörn Müller's "Did Seneca Understand Medea? A contribution to the Stoic Account of Akrasia ." While focusing on Seneca's tragedy Medea , it throws considerable light on Stoic weakness of will in general by drawing a careful distinction between two possible models: a "persistence model", according to which a person is swept away by a particular passion; and an "oscillation model", according to which the mind swings from one passion to another. Müller ends up opting for an oscillation model for Medea's weakness of will. The clear-sighted way in which he lays out the two positions suggests that perhaps the solution consists in a combination of the two models.

Margaret Graver offers an intriguing contribution to the voluminous literature on Seneca's self-fashioning in "Honeybee Reading and Self-Scripting: Epistulae Morales 84." Taking Michel Foucault and Pierre Hadot as starting-points, she suggests that Seneca "writes himself" not merely by taking notes, but primarily through his philosophical compositions. Seneca creates in this way an "external self", thus "transcending" himself in such a way as to speak to future generations (270 and 288). Graver sees this act of transcendence as a process of "self-actualization" (287) and finding a voice of one's own (285). The essay raises the question of how this "external self" is related to a possible inner self (such as Seneca's aspiration as a philosopher), or other ways of "actualizing" oneself.

In addition to these three major studies, the volume contains other illuminating contributions. Jula Wildberger ("The Epicurus Trope and the Construction of a "Letter Writer" in Seneca's Epistulae Morales ") highlights another aspect of Seneca's self-fashioning by viewing the Letters as an "intellectual drama", composed by L. Annaeus and having as its protagonist Seneca the "Letter Writer" (442). The protagonist Seneca changes his mind, so as to become progressively more Stoic. Adapting Graver's study, one might view the protagonist as another externalization, though one that is intentionally fictional. Matheus De Pietro ("Having the Right to Philosophize: A New Reading of Seneca, De Vita beata 1.1-6.2") offers another perspective by arguing, clearly and convincingly, that Seneca asserts his philosophical authority by formulating a unique series of definitions of the good.

For the rest, I draw attention to Marcia Colish's succinct analysis of conscience in "Seneca on Acting against Conscience." Through an overview that includes Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, she highlights the importance of both good and bad conscience, and both good and bad will, in Seneca's psychology. Gareth Williams ("Double Vision and Cross-Reading in Seneca's Epistulae Morales and Naturales Quaestiones ") makes a strong case for reading the Letters against the background of Natural Questions . Other essays demarcate new areas of investigation. Thus, in a fresh perspective on the family, Elizabeth Gloyn ("My Family Tree goes back to the Romans: Seneca's Approach to the Family in the Epistulae Morales ") argues, on the basis of the increased mention of the family in the later Letters , that Seneca gradually develops an ethics of the family, as opposed to the individual, as he moves from the early to the later letters. Francesca Berno's "In praise of Tubero's Pottery: A Note on Seneca, Ep. 95.72-73 and 98.133" casts a new spotlight on the modest Tubero as an exemplar of Stoic virtue over against the much more dramatic Cato.

In sum, this volume illustrates the vigor of contemporary studies on Seneca's philosophy by shedding new light on much debated issues as well as directing attention to new topics. Some of the essays are much more highly developed than others, but all point in fruitful new directions.