Third episode of my occasional live streaming chats, where listeners can chime in during the broadcast and, more importantly, ask whatever question they wish, so long as it is somewhat related to the topic at hand. Which in this case was Seneca’s famous letters to his friend Lucilius.
I begin with an obligatory introduction to Seneca, in which I tackle the perennial question: was he a hypocrite who talked wisdom but practiced vice, or was he a flawed man put by Fortune in a near impossible situation, trying to do his best and realizing just how short he was of the goal? I tend toward the second interpretation, though I most certainly agree that Seneca was no sage.
After that, I spend a few minutes talking about the Letters themselves (here is the best modern translation). There are 124 in total, and classic scholar Liz Gloyn has suggested that they represent not just Seneca’s philosophical testament (they were written near the end of his life), but an actual informal curriculum in Stoic philosophy. There are several reasons to think so, including the periodical repetition of certain themes, the fact that the letters get progressively longer and more technical, and the fact that Seneca abandons the Epicurean crutch, so to speak, after the initial letters.
Speaking of Epicurus, one of the first questions was precisely about why Seneca favorably mentions Epicurus in most of the early letters. He does so, as he explicitly tells Lucilius, not as a deserter, but as a scout wandering into enemy territory. He is willing to learn from other schools, as any sensible person should.
Does that mean, though, that Seneca’s philosophy is actually an eclectic combination of elements drawn from both Stoicism and Epicureanism? No, because the “Epicurean” bits, such as his treatment of death, or of friendship, can be coherently integrated into standard Stoicism, without friction with other Stoic doctrines. That’s the problem with eclecticism: it very likely ends up being a combination of ideas that don’t go well with each other and make one’s philosophy somewhat incoherent.
During the episode I touch on a number of other themes, such as the distinctions among Stoicism, Cynicism, and Aristotelianism; whether Seneca was sympathetic to the Cynics (not really); whether Epictetus went for a more minimalist approach than Seneca (yup!); and the so-called dichotomy of control, which — contra popular misconception — is not original with Epictetus, but is found both in Seneca and Cicero, and is therefore likely to date back to the beginning of Stoicism. Enjoy!