Ethics of the Family in Seneca II: Band of Brothers

Last time we have examined Seneca’s treatment of motherhood as discussed in Liz Gloyn’s The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. The second type of family relationship we’ll look into is that between brothers, for which Gloyn mostly uses the third of Seneca’s letters of consolation, to Polybius. This is a somewhat controversial letter, as Seneca clearly had a personal motive to write it: Polybius had lost a brother, which is the manifest reason Seneca writes to him. But he was also magister a libellis, the magistrate in charge of petitions addressed to the emperor Claudius, who had sent Seneca into exile. Sure enough, the consolation also includes a good degree of praise for Claudius, obviously with the aim of ingratiating the emperor (whom Seneca later on criticizes harshly in his Apocolocyntosis). Liz finds a creative way to interpret Seneca’s words about Claudius in the letter to Polybium coherently with the alleged main purpose of the letter, consoling Polybium, and with Stoic philosophy more generally. I admire her attempt, though for once I have trouble sympathizing with Seneca. Nonetheless, the letter is interesting in its own regard for what it tells us about how Seneca conceived of the bond of brotherhood, and we shall discuss it from that angle.

To begin with, Seneca uses the word pietas to characterize the relationship between brothers. This is a reciprocal virtue that is supposed to hold between any family members, but the Romans idealized the relationship between brothers and made it the model for all other close relationships, including friendship. (This despite — or perhaps because — the fact that, ahem, Rome was founded on a fratricide…) Indeed, there were “fraternal” (from the Latin word for brother) orders, such as the Fratres Arvales, that were built on the idea that its members would behave as brothers toward other members, even though they did not have blood relations. Seneca himself had by all accounts an affectionate relationship with his brothers, who supported each other in private as well as political life.

As he did in his letter to Marcia, which we discussed last time, Seneca helps himself to the Stoic idea of a cosmopolis, framing familial brotherhood as part and parcel of the more general notion that we are all brothers and sisters. As he puts it elsewhere:

“Let us embrace two states in our minds — one great and truly shared in which gods and men are held together, in which we do not look to this or that corner, but measure the boundaries of our state with the sun; the other into which the circumstance of our birth enrols us.” (De Otio, IV.1)

Gloyn immediately makes a parallel with Epictetus’ well known conception of the different roles we play in society, which I have discussed when covering Brian Johnson’s book on that topic.

In the ad Polybium, Seneca draws his interlocutor’s attention to the idea of a cosmopolis inhabited by sages, not because he thinks he or Polybium are actually sages, but because they can both derive inspiration and consolation from the thought of a perfect society of wise people:

“Let tears flow, but let them stop as well; let growns be drawn out from your deepest soul, but let them be ended too; govern your mind so that you are able to commend yourself to wise men and to brothers.” (XVIII.6)

Philosophy, for Seneca, equips us to deal with adversity of any kind, but he says very explicitly that its point is not to turn us into unfeeling and caring robots, contra one of the most pernicious stereotypes about Stoicism:

“I would never demand from you that you do not grieve completely. I know that certain men can be found, with harsh rather than brave wisdom, who deny that the wise man will feel pain. To me, these men do not seem to ever have fallen into misfortune of this kind, or else fortune would have beaten arrogant reason out of them and forced them even unwillingly to admit the truth.” (XVIII.5)

Next is were Liz is very charitable (perhaps, as I said, too charitable) to Seneca. She suggests that Seneca portrays the emperor Claudius as a figure endowed with divine power within the Stoic universe, symbolizing reason itself, which makes possible the creation and continuation of the cosmopolis. Never mind that the actual Claudius — despite the magistral dramatic interpretation by Derek Jacobi— was nothing like a paragon of reason and virtue. Still, Claudius can offer consolation to Polybius because he too has lost his brother, Germanicus.

Gloyn then builds a good argument to the effect that Seneca is using both the concept of cosmopolis and that of oikeiôsis — again, as he did in the ad Marciam — to encourage Polybium to see things from a broader perspective, considering not just his actual brother, but to expand his circles of “appropriation” further and further from his immediate family. Seneca says that Polybius has an obligation to model good behavior, to be an exemplum, for everyone. Regardless of how much progress we have made toward virtue, unless we are sages we can all use good examples to imitate. But just as in the letter to his mother, ad Helviam, Seneca also stresses that our impact is greatest with people who are close to us, toward whom we have a special duty to model virtuous behavior. Because of his focus on brotherhood, incidentally, Seneca again flaunts standard Roman moral education, which relied on the almost mythical figure of the stern pater familias, more than on brothers and mothers.

Liz quotes Martha Nussbaum here, to the effect that for the Stoics, relationships that we normally think of as strongly asymmetrical and hierarchical were no such thing. For instance, the relationship between teacher and pupil, which in standard Roman conception was very much one way, is presented by the Stoics as far more symmetrical (thus anticipating modern pedagogical approaches), a situation in which the student has a duty to develop his own skills, not simply to absorb whatever the teacher tells him. (Note to self: must bring this up with my own students…)

Back to Seneca’s secondary motives for writing the letter, Gloyn points out that having established that virtue is a collaborative project, and that brothers have a duty to help each other, it makes sense that Seneca expects his cosmopolitan brother, Polybius, to intercede with Claudius (remember, bearer of reason and virtue!) in order to recall Seneca from exile. (As we know, historically Seneca was indeed recalled from Corsica, but through the influence of Agrippina, Nero’s mother, who in the meantime had married her uncle, Claudius.)

Interestingly, one of the approaches Seneca uses to plead his case with Polybius is the observation that he has been relegated to an awful place, surrounded by people whom he cannot engage in philosophical discourse. This sounds pretty snoddy, of course. And moreover, isn’t the place where one lives a preferred or dispreferred indifferent for the Stoics? Doesn’t Marcus say that one can live well “even in a palace,” if one has too? (Meditations, V.16) Yes, but Liz wants to read philosophy, and not just personal gain, in Seneca’s writings, so she points out that:

“From a Stoic perspective Seneca’s complaint is fully justified. One of the necessary conditions for maintaining his animus [mind], and thus his ability to engage with reason, is interaction with his spiritual brothers who help him continue to progress toward virtue; isolation actively hinders that process. Without his animus, Seneca is unable to access the broader network of the cosmopolis or to develop ‘the possibilities inherent in our rational nature’ in his journey toward sagehood.” (p. 107)

Perhaps, but it still smells more like special pleading to me than what a Stoic would coherently going to argue. (And, to be fair, Epictetus also warns us about the quality of the company we keep, in Enchiridion XXXIII.6) Then again, I made the point before that Seneca was no sage, and that he knew it very well. So let’s cut the fellow a bit of slack, shall we?

Gloyn uses Seneca’s Stoic plea with Polybium, together with similar references he makes in both the other two letters of consolation, to ask a serious question about Stoic philosophy in general: is Seneca implying that one cannot become virtuous unless one is nurtured by a family (mother, brothers, or, as we shall see soon in this series, father)? Her argument is that a family is not necessary, but the proficiens does need some sort of supportive network, of which a family is just the most common type, in order to develop virtue:

“Since the family is the first community we belong to, or even unknowingly or for a brief period of time, it serves as the paradigmatic community through which ideas of moral growth are articulated. Other forms of community can provide the support required for ethical development, as the Epistulae Morales demonstrate; however, the prominence of the biological family and its relationship to virtue in the consolation is caused by the comfort that the texts offer for the loss of family members.” (p. 108)

But hold on a minute! Doesn’t this make Stoicism pretty much indistinguishable from Aristotelianism? Aren’t the Peripatetics the one who argue that some externals are necessary for the eudaimonic life? Yes, but the Stoics never argued — and they couldn’t have, on penalty of absurdity — that virtue develops in a vacuum. At the very least one needs teachers or models, a functional developing brain, and language (without which there is no philosophy, only instinct).

What differentiate the Stoics, then, is what happens after the developmental stage: for Aristotle one cannot be eudaimon unless he continues to have at least some externals (wealth, health, good looks…) throughout his life. For the Stoics, only virtue is necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia, understood as the life worth living. The rest is preferred, but not required.

(Next: the mystery of marriage.)

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