Why Seneca Belongs in Stoic Cannon

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Despite reluctance on my part – I have come to understand why modern Stoics include the writings of Seneca in the Stoic cannon. Despite all the reasons why ancient Stoics who came after him had no reason to study Seneca’s works, a modern Stoic does.
Imagine a head of state who is characterized by a blatant disregard for the welfare of his own people – who would have no problem just sitting there entertaining himself if the center of his country were falling into destruction. Imagine that this chief of state had committed acts that violate the core ethical principles that his nation stands on.

Now imagine his right-hand man. Imagine that this right-hand man had a part in publicly defending this leader’s most despicable acts – maybe even wrote the speeches that strove to present these acts of depravity as being somehow acceptable. And imagine that this right-hand man also, in general, had a reputation of being miserly and mean-spirited.

Now imagine that this right-hand man was also responsible for a great deal of instructional texts available on Stoic philosophy. Would you take his writings seriously? Would you recommend his writings to someone who came to you for guidance in their effort to learn Stoicism?

Now I don’t know which head of state you thought I was describing – but the one whom I was describing was Nero, the last Emperor from the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Roman Emperors. And this right-hand man that I am referring to is none other than Seneca the Younger – Nero’s speech-writer and tutor, as well as a playwrite and, oh, the writer of a greater chunk of the ancient Stoic literature surviving till this day than anyone else.

I asked if you would take the writings of such a despotic ruler’s right-hand man seriously and if you would recommend it to one who is studying Stoicism. As far as I am aware, the answer given by the ancient Stoics who came after Seneca was “no”. As a matter of fact, they probably didn’t take him seriously as a philosopher at all.

Toward the end of part 24 of the Enchiridion, Epictetus tells his students, “[D]o not, like children, be now a philosopher, then a publican, then an orator, and then one of Caesar’s officers. These things are not consistent”. While I used to think that he was throwing out a random example of someone claiming to be a philosopher without actually being committed to the path, I have recently come to strongly suspect that this was a jab specifically aimed at Seneca – using him as an example of what not to do.

Stoic philosophers who lived during Nero’s reign were active in the resistance against the depraved Emperor. As a result, many of them suffered exile, imprisonment, even death. They were not deterred by these consequences, because they did not see them as truly being ill fates, but as merely being dispreferred indifferents. What would have been a truly ill fate in their eyes would be to allow themselves to be corrupted by vice – which is what they knew would happen to them if they remained complacent with regards to the Emperor’s actions. For that reason, they actively resisted Emperor Nero – and they weren’t about to take someone who cozied up to the him instead seriously as a Stoic philosopher.

For this reason, Seneca wasn’t really thought of as part of the Stoic cannon by ancient Stoic writers who came after him. On the other hand, modern Stoics tend to regard his writings as essential to the Stoic cannon. This stark contrast makes one wonder why it is that modern Stoics don’t seem to follow the example of the ancient predecessors in this regard.

It should be stated that the inclusion of Seneca in the Stoic cannon is not unanimous among modern Stoics. There are plenty who have written off Seneca altogether and prefer to study the philosophy based on the writings of more bona-fide Stoics of antiquity, from Epictetus to Marcus Aurelius. Still, among prominent voices in the community, Seneca’s writings tend to be regarded as essential. So, why this departure from the verdict of our ancient predecessors?

For some time, I myself did not understand the reason for this departure – and was myself in the dissenting camp that regarded Seneca as not being worthy of cannon. Then, a few days ago, a thought occurred to me. What if I thought of Seneca not as a Stoic, but as a historian who documented a lot of the teachings of the Stoics of his time?

This, of course, may not be an accurate description. Many people argue that while he clearly wasn’t all that successful in displaying Stoic virtue in his life, he still may have genuinely aimed for it. That would make him much farther from Sagehood than the more favorable Stoic philosophers – but still a legitimate prokopton. Still – even if we assume the worst about Seneca, that he really gave nothing but lip-service to Stoic philosophy, that would only reduce the value of his work to the level of something produced by a historian like the one I just hypothesized.

But if this is a compelling enough reason for us to include the works of Seneca in the Stoic cannon today – why was it not for the ancient Stoics who came after him? The answer is that they had better alternatives that we, today, do not.

Most ancient Stoics could study the works of Zeno of Citium, the actual founder of Stoicism, as well as other luminaries from the Early Stoa, such as Chrysippus and Cleanthes. For us, however, only fragments of their texts survive. The same holds for the literature that was no doubt produced by the philosophers of the Middle Stoa – which we, too, can not study like those of the Late Stoa of antiquity could.

Epictetus not only had access to the complete recorded lectures of Musonius Rufus, but was instructed in the philosophy by that lecturer himself. We, today, have some of those lectures — but beyond that, we only have fragments.

Marcus Aurelius could read all eight books of the Discourses of Epictetus. For us, only four of them survive in their entirety – and of the rest, we once again only have fragments.

Examples can go on and on – but in short, we modern Stoics have a gap in our record of the ancient philosophy as recorded by the respectable philosophers of the time. The late ancient Stoics, however, had no such gap – and as such, no need to fill that gap with the writings of someone who was a frequently-fumbling prokopton at best and the equal of an outside historian at worst.

So, if ancient Stoics who came after Seneca excluded his works from their cannon, that did not mean that they necessarily saw his works as worthless. Their verdict may have simply been that it was inferior to other works which they had access to and we don’t – and un-necessary to study in addition to those works.

Modern Stoics who include Seneca in the Stoic cannon are not contradicting this verdict. Rather, the inclusion of Seneca into the modern Stoic cannon is merely an assertion that it is better to use his works to supplement the gap we have in the writings of the more respectable ancient philosophers than it is to leave that gap entirely unsupplemented.

It is for this reason that the works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca do indeed properly belong in Stoic cannon – and Eric Scott is right in including them in his proposed Stoic Bible.

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