At Home with the Stoics
The writings of Seneca show how the model Stoic, relying on nothing but his own mind, can still be a loving family man.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, also known as Seneca the Younger, lived in the first half of the first century AD. He was tutor and then adviser to the emperor Nero. He also wrote across a range of genres, including tragedies, consolations, philosophical letters and ethical treatises. His writing and political activity were shaped by an adherence to Stoicism, one of several philosophical schools that emerged from Greece and was developed and practised in Rome. Its central tenet was that the way to become virtuous, and therefore happy, was to become fully rational. Stoicism was popular in imperial Rome because, unlike its rival school of Epicureanism, it did not discourage its adherents from holding political office. It thus complemented the goals of the senatorial class, who had the leisure for study. Seneca’s philosophical and political activities went hand in hand.
Seneca’s interest in the family has received comparatively little consideration, though his writing pays a lot of attention to kinship relationships and the way that they affect his readers. Two of his Consolations, for example, are meant to comfort their recipients on the loss of relatives: Marcia is mourning for her son, who has been dead for three years when Seneca writes and Polybius has recently lost his brother. Seneca’s fragmentary On Marriage was one of a long line of works asking how spouses should relate to each other and he wrote a now lost biography of his father. Yet Stoicism has a paradox to face: it argues that the sage, the perfect wise man, will be self-sufficient and happy without a family.