Friday, October 25, 2013

Roman Stoic Philosophy and Seneca the Younger

I presented The Roman Stoic Philosophy of Seneca the Younger (ca 4 BC - 65 AD) to The Villages Philosophy Club, The Villages, FL, today, 25 October, 2013. You may download a copy of my PowerPoint show here:

As an undergraduate at City College of New York I was exposed to the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus (ca 55 AD - 135 AD) via a slim booklet called The Enchiridion (Manual or Handbook) of the philosophy of Epictetus, published by his student Flavius Arrian.

I have carried that booklet on all my travels since (as did Frederick the Great :^) and I credit Epictetus for moderating my Jewish atheism. I accepted his opinion that "the essence of piety towards the Gods is thinking rightly concerning them – as existing and governing the Universe  justly and well.”

Nearly all scientists accept the basic Truth that the Laws of Nature and of Evolution and Natural Selection promote general progress towards superior levels of biological organization. Human (Artificial) Selection yields superior cultural organization. So, let that fact be our "GOD" - the "General (or Genetic) Optimizing Device". Thus defined, GOD exists and governs the Universe justly and well!

I was Bar Mitzvah and married in a Jewish ceremony and our three daughters were Bat Mitzvah. We are founding members of Temple Shalom near The Villages, FL, and are pleased that our triplet grand-daughters were Bat Mitzvah in 2011 in Andover, MA. For me, it is not about literal belief in Jewish religious doctrine, but of ethnic solidarity and duty.

I inherited an unbroken chain from Abraham through Moses and through Solomon's Temple at Jerusalem, and via the Pale of Jewish Settlement in Europe (Austria, Russia), and the immigrant experience of my grandparents in the Lower East Side of New York City and then Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where I was Bar Mitzvah. WHO DO I THINK I AM TO BREAK THIS CHAIN?


Epictetus was born to a slave in Hierapolis (Turkey) and brought to Rome as a slave to Nero’s secretary. He was freed and became a respected Roman Stoic philosopher. After banishment from Rome (along with other philosophers who were considered nuances to the leadership), he lived in Greece. The Enchiridion begins as follows:
Some things are in our control and others not.
Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.
Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men.
But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you.
Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed. …
There is much more from The Enchiridion in my PowerPoint show. Download it! Here:


Last month I attended a DVD lecture by Prof. J. Rufus Fears (at Freedom Pointe, an Independent Living facility here in The Villages) titled "Life Lessons from the Great Books". That DVD included a session on Seneca the Younger, based in his book "On Providence". I was impressed and, due to my long-term interest in Roman Stoicism, I downloaded Seneca's book "On Benefits", and read it through. I also researched Seneca on Wikipedia.

As the figure above shows, Seneca lived from about 4 BC to 68 AD in interesting times. While Epictetus was born near the eastern end of the Roman Empire, and brought to Rome as a slave, Seneca was born near the western end of the Roman Empire to a prominent family and brought to Rome as a student. Seneca also travelled to Egypt to stay with his Aunt, so he saw and experienced a considerable part of the Roman Empire and the higher classes of rulers and leaders.

Seneca rose to become a Magistrate in Rome, and survived a scrape with Emperor Caligula. However, Emperor Claudius banished him for eight years to Corsica. Upon request of Agrippina, Claudius's wife, Seneca returned to Rome to become tutor to her son Nero. When Nero became Emperor, perhaps due to Agrippina poisoning Claudius and pushing him into power over rivals, Seneca became his advisor for some eight years. Seneca lost that position and became tied up in palace intrigue and, in 65 AD, Seneca was ordered by Nero to commit suicide, which he did.

Meanwhile, Seneca wrote many books, among them the above-mentioned "On Providence: and "On Benefits".

"On Benefits" begins as follows:
AMONG the many and diverse errors of those who live reckless and thoughtless lives, almost nothing that I can mention, excellent Liberalis, is more disgraceful than the fact that we do not know how either to give or to receive benefits. 
For it follows that, if they are ill placed, they are ill acknowledged, and, when we complain of their not being returned, it is too late for they were lost at the time they were given.
Nor is it surprising that among all our many and great vices, none is so common as ingratitude. …
Seneca distinguishes between a loan and a benefit. A loan is granted carefully, after checking the credit-worthiness of the recipient. A loan is a formal agreement that obligates the borrower to pay back in accordance with the terms, and also provides for legal action if the loan in not repaid. A benefit, on the other hand, is given freely, with the only expectation being that the recipient express thankfulness to the benefactor. Seneca goes into quite a bit of detail on considerations related to giving and receiving benefits, some of which I include in my PowerPoint show, download it here:


As the graphic above indicates, Seneca lived from ca 4 BC to 68 AD, which overlapped the very early years of  Epictetus lifetime (ca 55 - 135 AD). This was also the time when Jesus lived (ca 2 - 33 AD) and when Saul of Tarsus (ca 5 - 67 AD) first persecuted Christians and then, taking the name "Paul" (and later being recognized as a Saint), spread Christianity in parts of the Roman Empire. I did not find any mention of Paul or Christianity in the Seneca book or the Wikipedia articles I read.

Seneca lived in the period immediately preceding the destruction of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem (70 AD). Prior to and around this time, Judeans (Jews) were spreading throughout the Roman Empire. After the destruction of the Temple, and the loss of the associated priestly class, the Rabbinic period of Judaism was initiated, where regional and local Jewish institutions became the main face of our religion. I did not find any mention of Judaism in the materials I read about Seneca or Epictetus.

Ira Glickstein 


Ira Glickstein said...

During my presentation at The Villages Philosophy Club, someone asked if the Seneca Tribe of Native Americans, which has a reservation in western New York, were the source of the name for the western New York city of Seneca, or was the city merely named after the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca the Younger?

I joked that there was another "Indian" tribe in western New York that were sometimes called "the Italian Indians" but I could not recall their name. So, I researched both issues and they are related!


It turns out that "...The Seneca nation's own name [for themselves] is Onöndowága, meaning 'People of the Great Hill.' It is identical to the endonym used by the ONONDAGA people." [The latter name which I have heard joking stretched to "Onan-dago" where "dago" is an apparently offensive term for an Italian, Spanish, or Portugese speaking person.]

More seriously, from Wikipedia:

"Other nations called them Seneca after their principal village of Osininka. ..."

OK, dropping the initial "O", we get "SININKA" which, to an English or American ear, becomes "SENECA", the current name accepted by the "Seneca Nation" organization.

"The similarity to the name of the Roman statesman Seneca is entirely coincidental."

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Ira commented during his presentation that Epipictetus' Enchiridian states that " Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another's.
In the question period this quote was challenged in the case that one was born into the "welfare class." Ira then suggested how someone born into poverty might still rise within the constraints of stoicism. I suggest a different and more stoic and more radical response. A stoic should accentuate what he is. For example, if he has a murderous spirit, he should exercise it to the highest degree possible and accept the consequences. A stoic does not emphasize "good: or "evil." The stoic philosophy is actually in harmony with our view of The Theory of Evolution. Only by testing each possible set of genes against the environment does nature give us the opportunity to the best successor. Therefore, play your roll and resolve to be thyself to the maximum and let nature worry about right and wrong in a grander context.

Ira Glickstein said...

Joel, thanks for your insightful comment.

It is said that "Nature is red and raw, of tooth and claw." All life, be it bacteria, plants, insects, or animals are assigned their particular roles by the Author of the great epic, the Struggle for Life. (Of course the Author is known as GOD - the Genetic Optimizing Device Who utilizes evolution and natural selection to generally improve the survival and reproduction "fitness" of each species).

It is not our business to choose our particular character, but rather to play our part to the hilt. In the case of the "higher" animals, and particularly of the primates, and more specifically of humans, the Author has given us intelligence that we may use in addition to the natural raw "tooth and claw" to play our part with both greater compassionate cooperation and more terrible competition than our "lower" animal relations may muster.

"Good" and "Evil" are relative to a stoic. A person with what Joel calls a "murderous spirit" may, if he of she is on our side in a war and is properly managed, do things we call "Good".

Further answering the challenge that someone born to the "welfare class" might interpret stoicism as a recommendation to play that role more effectively by sloughing off at school, refusing to work, and voting for "nanny state" politicos to get more free stuff - yes, that could happen.

On the other hand, such a person might be shown a different path if inspired by the example of someone who escaped the welfare trap via working hard in school. Or perhaps a more stoic school board might support dedicated teachers via better pay and stronger discipline to help people surmount the welfare trap.


joel said...

I don't mean to be stubborn about this, but I would say that the only logical interpretation is that a stoic plays himself to the hilt no matter what. Any effort to follow a different path because of so-called material advancement of another or inspiration from a non-stoic is treason to his natural being. Stoics in what we call the "welfare class" might be heroes by accepting their evolutionary success and rejecting the condemnation of others. For example, impregnating as many females as possible while allowing the state to support them is the a formula for evolutionary success despite the condemnation of the rest of us.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks, Joel, for your latest comment.

I agree that, for someone born into the welfare trap, whether he or she is a stoic or not, the most likely outcome (assuming the social workers and politicos who live off the welfare state for their jobs and votes keep their power and the free things coming) is for that person to play that role to the hilt and seek and get as much as possible, while doing as little study or work as necessary, and passing this evolutionarily successful culture on to as many as possible in the next generation.

On the other hand, a common theme of stage plays is for the underdog to have a revelation and pull him- or herself up by their bootstraps and overcome the odds. The reason that is a common theme is due to its rarity in real life, but it does happen. So, playing our assigned role to the hilt may include breaking out of the comfort of the nanny state and becoming a full-function productive adult.

What is the most humane and effective way for a modern society to encourage such activity? I think you would agree that it is tougher administration of welfare so only those who really need it can get it!

I think a stoic teacher and a stoic school board and a stoic city council is more likely to foster or demand that those capable of studying and working actually do so.

The stoic knows that there ARE things that ARE under our control. We are not helpless flotsam on the sea of life. The Enchiridion recommends a productive life of self-discipline and hard work, while recognizing that there are some things that are not under our control. The key idea is that if there is a battle or goal that is worth fighting for, and is reasonably achievable, a stoic should go for it.