In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Seneca

  • Introduction
  • Seneca in His Time
  • Value, Virtue, and Human Nature
  • Moral Progress and Exhortation
  • Self
  • Emotions
  • Death
  • Nature, God, Fate
  • Logic and Ontology
  • The Literary Expression of Philosophy
  • Aesthetics and the Tragedies

Philosophy Seneca
Ermanno Malaspina, Jula Wildberger, Veronica Revello
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0264


The Stoic Seneca (b. c. 4 BCE–d. 65 CE), mentor to Emperor Nero and one of the wealthiest men of his time, has been studied as the brilliant and enigmatic father of Silver Latin prose and, together with his nephew Lucan, as an outstanding representative of the rhetorical, gory baroque of 1st-century CE Latin poetry. The latter subject is covered in the parallel bibliography on Seneca’s tragedies; the present article is dedicated to Seneca as a philosopher. This very fact, that we now regard his philosophy as a research subject by itself, reflects a fundamental change in his reception. For a long time, the majority of scholars saw in Seneca a wielder of edifying words rather than a serious thinker, a moralizer and eclectic, who would not hesitate to mix disparate ingredients from competing schools into a hotchpotch of sparkling, sententious diatribe. At the beginning of the 20th century, those interested in philosophy mined his works for traces of his Greek models, the “real” philosophers whom they deemed worthy of study, in particular the Stoic Posidonius (b. c. 135–d. 51 BCE). In the 1960s and 1970s, attention to Seneca himself increased significantly in anglophone scholarship. While Italian scholars have always insisted on an holistic approach, refusing to detach stylistic considerations from an analysis of conceptual content and never separating his political thought from his life as an active politician, scholars in Germany and France followed the lead of Paul Rabbow’s famous research on Seelenheilung (“psychotherapy”) and Seelenführung (“psychagogy”) and read Seneca as a spiritual guide. All these approaches continue to play an important role in international Seneca scholarship, but two recent tendencies deserve special attention. Inspired by Michel Foucault’s readings of Seneca as a representative of “the care of the self” in ancient philosophy, study of Senecan therapy and psychagogy has resulted in increasingly sophisticated explorations of what one might call his philosophy of authorship. What is more, considerable improvements in our understanding of Stoicism, Seneca’s professed school, have revealed his well-informed commitment to his predecessors. Against the more clearly defined backdrop of Hellenistic and Imperial Stoicism, it has also become easier to recognize and illustrate facets of Seneca’s originality, a work that is still ongoing or rather, one may dare say, has only just begun.

Texts and Research Tools

Seneca’s philosophical masterpiece is his latest work, the Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, letters on ethics to a close friend, Lucilius. Still extant are 124 letters, which appear to have been written starting from winter 63 CE. Roughly at the same time, he also wrote a lost multivolume treatise on ethics (Libri moralis philosophiae) and the Naturales quaestiones, several books of scientific inquisition mainly about phenomena of the sublunary cosmos, begun in 62. Sometime between 56 and 64, he completed another large treatise, De beneficiis, in which he applies Stoic conceptions of reciprocity and gift-exchange to contemporary Roman society. The extant minor works comprise De clementia, a mirror for a prince explaining the Stoic understanding of mercy to Nero sometime between 54 and 56, not long after the young emperor’s accession, and ten so-called Dialogi, composed throughout Seneca’s literary career: The nature and therapy of emotions is the thematic focus of the three consolations (Ad Marciam = Dial. 6, Ad Helviam = Dial. 12, and Ad Polybium = Dial. 11), of the three-volume treatise on anger (De ira = Dial. 3–5), and of De tranquillitate animi = Dial. 9 with advice for attaining serenity of mind. Two Dialogi serve to prove that no harm ever befalls the virtuous person, so that there is no reason why he should ever suffer from unhealthy passions: De providentia = Dial. 1 and De constantia sapientis = Dial. 2. The first refutes an assumption of theodicy: that bad things happen to good people; the latter argues that a sage cannot be hurt or treated unjustly by anyone. Happiness and the good life are the theme of De vita beata = Dial. 7, while the fragmentary De otio = Dial. 8 as well as De brevitate vitae = Dial. 10 clarify that the Stoic imperative to live an active life does not preclude retirement from public affairs. Like the Epistulae morales, Dialogi 8 and 10 highlight the value of time taken for philosophy and reflection. Quite a number of further works are known from ancient citations but lost to us with the exception of a few fragments, on which see Vottero 1998. Seneca is also the author of several tragedies, whose relation to the philosophical ideas expressed in his prose is a matter of lively debate (see the section Aesthetics and the Tragedies), and he wrote a satire Ludus de morte Claudii or Apocolocyntosis, a nasty invective against Emperor Claudius, Nero’s predecessor, on the occasion of Claudius’s recent death.

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