“All philosophers do not say how they live.
They say how one should live”.
Seneca, On the Happy Life
Seneca does not write as a philosopher who creates or expounds a philosophical theory from the ground up and he was not a Stoic orthodox. Rather, he writes within the Stoic system that he is largely in agreement with. Seneca emphasizes his independence as a thinker and his philosophical system is an interesting and systematic combination of different philosophical views. Like other late Stoics, Seneca is first and foremost interested in ethics which will guide people in their everyday life. In this paper we will discuss Seneca’s main philosophical and ethical views which may influence economic relationships in a society.
Life and Works
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in the year 4 B.C. in Corduba (todays Cordoba in Spain). The lawyer and philosopher Seneca, educated in Rome, lived under three Caesars, which caused difficulties with each of them during his live. The first difficulties appeared under Caligula, which wanted to sentence him to death, but could be hindered with arguments about his bad health and he would die anyway within a short time. Under Marcus Aurelius he was banned to Corsica and got back later from Nero’s mother to educate her son to prepare for Emperorship. Unfortunately the former student Nero sentenced Seneca to a death penalty by suicide, which was faced by the philosopher in a stoic way.
Seneca’s writings that we shall be primarily concerned with are: the Moral Letters to Lucilius, the Moral Essays, the Natural Questions, On Anger, On Mercy, On the Private Life, On Peace of Mind etc.
The term "stoic" derives from the Greek word "stoa," referring to a colonnade, such as those built outside or inside temples. They were also set up separately as ornaments of the streets and open places. The first stoic teacher Zeno of Citium taught in the stoa poikile in Athens, and his adherents accordingly obtained the name of Stoics.
Because of the different predominant tendencies, Stoicism may be divided into three periods:
- Early Stoicism, by which is meant the School of Zeno;
- Middle Stoicism, by which is meant the tendency of Stoicism to assume Eclecticism, in accordance with the thought of the times;
- Neo-Stoicism, who predominant tendency was interested in religion -- during this period, Stoics like Seneca and Epictetus were directors of the spiritual life, and under this form Stoicism was widely diffused throughout the Roman Empire.
The Stoic’s philosophy is divided in the three parts of logic, physics and ethics. The logic (logos = structure) describes the structured way, like in a rhetoric way. The part of physics covers the scientific part and tries to describe a picture of the world, which is monistic (reality is an organic whole without independent parts) and a purely material one. This view includes beside the corporeal aspects even the soul, virtues and emotion-driven affects. Furthermore the stoic view is a pantheistic view on the world, like the universe consists out of world-logos. This ethics demands “humanitas” or philanthropy and human kindness. This again demands the “vita active” to create a better world within the stoic ethics, e.g. political activities.
For the stoic ethic virtues are important to reach the stoic ideal of tranqulitiy at heart (tranquillitas animi). These cardinal virtues are wisdom (sapientia), temperance (modestia), justice (iustitia), courage (fortitude). The opposite of the virtues are stupidity (stultitia), intemperance (intemperantia), injustice (iniuria), cowardice (ignavia). Everything between those extremes is called “indifferent things” (adiaphora or indifferentia), like emotions, prestige, glory, wealth, individual appearance or death. To find an adequate way to deal with the indifferentia rationality and wisdom are needed.
Seneca's Cosmopolitanism (1 and 4)
Seneca said: “We need to live for others if we want to live for ourselves”. Seneca is cosmopolite. He speaks about mankind but not about some chosen nation. He said that the Nature creates us from one material and with the common purpose and we are all brothers.
In his version of Stoic cosmopolitanism Seneca tells us that there is a choice between three kinds of life—the life of theory, the life of politics (or practice), and the life of pleasure. The life of pleasure is useless since it does not bring any benefit for surrounding us people. That is why in On the Private Life and in On Peace of Mind, Seneca said that it has to be a right kind of balance between the active life of politics, and a life devoted to philosophy. Because both philosophy and politics are spheres in which we can benefit others. Philosophy and politics represent two worlds that we simultaneously belong to. The world of politics is our local world; the world of philosophy is the whole world. By pursuing an active career in politics, we aim to do good to the people in our locality. By studying, teaching, and writing philosophy, Seneca thinks, we help others who are not necessarily spatially close to us by promoting our philosophical views.
But the Seneca’s idea that it is good to benefit others does not mean that we have to help everyone. In On the Private Life, Seneca says: “What is required, you see, of any man is that he should be of use to other men—if possible, to many; failing that, to a few; failing that, to those nearest him; failing that, to himself.”
In the basis of Seneca’s idea about Cosmopolitanism lies the believe that there should be an ideal society in which everyone has his own job through which he benefits others and also receive a benefit for himself as a result of work of others. This type of economic relationships is very close to the economic relationships which where described by Adam Smith as a perfect market economy in spite of the fact that in the concept of Adam Smith the motivation of agent is only the fulfillment of his own interest.