In This Article Seneca the Younger's Philosophical Works

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Article Collections
  • Life and Education
  • Manner of Writing
  • Reception and Manuscript Tradition

Classics Seneca the Younger's Philosophical Works
by
Margaret Graver
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0224

Introduction

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman adherent of Stoicism with a particular interest in ethics, died in 65 CE after an extensive career as a writer and politician. His writings offer an engaging presentation of philosophical ideas and are an important source for earlier Stoic thought. Among Seneca’s most characteristic themes are the realignment of action-guiding values through rational reflection, the transformative power of friendship, and the management of destructive impulses and emotions through self-cultivation. The intention of Seneca’s philosophical works to represent the positions of the founders of Stoicism is not seriously in doubt; there is little to support the claims of an older generation of scholarship for a deliberate program of eclecticism. Nonetheless, doctrinal allegiance does not prevent Seneca from occasionally expressing ideas of Platonic and even Epicurean origin, as long as he finds them to be consistent with his Stoic commitments. The major works in prose include his Moral Epistles to Lucilius, the sizable treatises On Benefits and Natural Questions, and a series of shorter dialogues, among which the most important are On Anger and On Clemency. All these works are interconnected to a large degree by contiguity of philosophical perspective, close stylistic similarities, and internal references to known facts of Seneca’s life or to his family and friends. The same cannot be said of the verse tragedies that are also preserved under Seneca’s name. These offer no internal indication of authorship and are never referred to in Seneca’s prose works or in ancient accounts of his career. Although treatments of the philosophical Seneca’s life and work have often ignored the tragedies, a recent trend in interpretation has sought to trace connections between the two corpora. Readers should be aware that as manuscript attributions are notoriously unreliable for Seneca, the linking of the two corpora rests on one disputed phrase in Quintilian (see Thomas Kohn, “Who Wrote Seneca’s Plays?” Classical World 96 [2003], 271–280). Secondary works devoted primarily to the tragedies are not included here. This article does, however, include the brief prosimetric farce on the death of the emperor Claudius that is generally entitled Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii (“Pumpkinification of Claudius”), identifying it with a Senecan work mentioned by Cassius Dio. Here, too, the attribution to Seneca is far from secure, but the work is of interest in itself and its association with his literary circle can hardly be doubted.

General Overviews

This first section identifies several general works that attempt a balanced coverage of Seneca’s life and literary output. Helpful starting points include Mannering 2013, which is limited to the philosophical writings, and Ker 2006, which attempts a more holistic reading of Seneca’s literary production. More complete coverage is provided in Grimal 1991 and Maurach 2000, in French and German respectively, and to some extent in Veyne 2003, although Griffin 1992 (cited under Life and Education), remains the best single-author overview in English. Among the three handbook-style compendia, Bartsch and Schiesaro 2015 is the easiest to access and use, whereas Damschen and Heil 2014 gives more extensive coverage of some topics. Rodríguez-Pantoja 1997 (cited under Article Collections) offers a similar level of coverage in Spanish. Motto 1970 indexes topics and themes throughout the philosophical works. For comprehensive works specifically on Seneca’s philosophy, see Thought: Philosophical Overviews.

  • Albrecht, Michael von. 2004. Wort und Wandlung: Senecas Lebenskunst. Mnemosyne Supplementum 252. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    E-mail Citation »

    Close stylistic analysis of several of the Moral Epistles is combined here with themes of personal transformation in both the philosophical works and the tragedies. Closes with three chapters on Seneca’s reception in the Christian tradition, in Montaigne, and in German literature.

  • Bartsch, Shadi, and Alessandro Schiesaro, eds. 2015. Cambridge companion to Seneca. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Substantive chapters on many of the most important themes in Seneca’s literary production—his experiments with epistolary and dialogue form, his scientific writing, his language and style, his political thought, and his influence in later ages.

  • Damschen, Gregor, and Andreas Heil, eds. 2014. Brill’s companion to Seneca. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    E-mail Citation »

    Massive reference work giving systematic treatment to each of Seneca’s works, to main elements of his philosophy, and to his style and composition. Especially useful for minor works, which are accorded much more detailed treatment than the major treatises and letters.

  • Grimal, Pierre. 1991. Sénèque, ou la conscience de l’Empire. Paris: Fayard.

    E-mail Citation »

    A deeply learned work treating virtually all aspects of Seneca’s life and writings.

  • Ker, James. 2006. Seneca, man of many genres. In Seeing Seneca whole: Perspectives on philosophy, poetry, and politics. Edited by Katharina Volk and Gareth D. Williams, 19–41. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    E-mail Citation »

    Beginning from the assumption that all the works preserved under Seneca’s name are his (noting that Quintilian speaks of him as writing in every genre), this short piece ponders the breadth and heterogeneity of his output and seeks to view it holistically.

  • Mannering, Jonathan. 2013. Seneca’s philosophical writings. In A companion to the Neronian age. Edited by Emma Buckley and Martin Dinter, 188–203. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118316771.ch11E-mail Citation »

    A short but thoughtful overview of the philosophical corpus, situating it within its cultural and intellectual context. Useful for students.

  • Maurach, Gregor. 2000. Seneca: Leben und werk. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is the best short overview of Seneca’s life and writings, seeking not to go beyond the surviving evidence and generous in references to the older literature. Seneca’s works are grouped chronologically to the extent that the evidence will allow, with the tragedies treated separately at the end.

  • Motto, A. L. 1970. Seneca sourcebook: Guide to the thought of Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Amsterdam: Hakkert.

    E-mail Citation »

    Useful topical index to all the prose works (except Apocolocyntosis), including names, general terms (“Animals”) and ideas (“Constancy,” “Friendship,” and “Scorn”).

  • Veyne, Paul. 2003. Seneca: The life of a stoic. Translated by David Sullivan. New York: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    English translation of the first 184 pages of Veyne 1993 (cited under Works: Complete Editions). An energetic, though somewhat impressionistic, response to Seneca’s life and writings from a broadly humanistic perspective.

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