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Precept(or), Example, and Politics in Seneca

Matthew Roller

This paper investigates the politics of Seneca’s stoic engagement with traditional Roman exemplary discourse.  In the Epistulae, Seneca develops the argument that past social actors cannot provide usable models for action in the present, because our knowledge of such actors’ moral states is insufficient.  He endorses, instead, a radically presentist, ahistorical model of moral education, in which a model for action is found in the figure of the praeceptor: a living, breathing proficiens whose observable behavior provides an exemplary model for the earnest moral agent.  This shift entails reconceptualizing moral virtues in Stoic terms, and associates these reconceptualized virtues with new forms of social performance carried out by a specific array of social actors—with potential enhancement in the symbolic capital, hence political power, of this newly valorized group.

I open by reviewing the basic form of traditional Roman exemplary discourse: a four-stage cycle of action, moral evaluation, commemoration, and imitation / norm-setting (Roller 2004: 1-7).  Seneca’s Stoic critique of this discourse focuses on the second stage, where a judging audience evaluates an action performed under its gaze.  In a discussion of concept formation in Ep. 120, Seneca adduces two traditional Roman examples of military valor, Horatius Cocles and C. Fabricius.  His purpose is not “first-order”—urging us to manifest such valor ourselves— but “second-order,” i.e., to illustrate how we develop a concept of the good in the first place (see Bartsch 2006: 230-43 on second-order phenomena).  According to his analysis, our observation of spectacular military performances gives us an inkling of the underlying virtue that motivates them.  But there is a problem: single actions, he says, do not reliably externalize the moral condition of an actor’s soul (§§5, 8-9; Inwood 2005: 275-301, 2007: 324-26).  Any single glorious deed may have been motivated by a vice; a virtuous condition of soul can be inferred only from observing many actions over time, and finding unwavering consistency—that characteristic quality of the Stoic sapiens (§§10-11).  Traditional exemplary discourse cannot meet this standard, given its focus on the single great deed (Roller 2001: 92-95).

Seneca elaborates a key facet of this argument in Ep. 94, when discussing how precepts are a form of moral “reminding.”  In §§62-67 he adduces four exemplary figures whom “the many” deem blessed, but whose great deeds were in fact (he contends) motivated by vices, not virtues.  His moral reanalysis of these figures, which he calls “unweaving” (retexere, §68), tars traditional Roman exemplary discourse as the unfounded value discourse of “the many.”  To assist us in “unweaving” traditional exempla and installing Stoic standards of evaluation in their stead, Seneca invokes a figure called praeceptor or monitor: a Stoic who, though not a sapiens, is further advanced than we.  His job is twofold.  First, as his name suggests, he issues precepts and “reminds” us of what constitutes proper behavior (§§50-60).  Second, he potentially serves as a model for our own conduct, in place of the (now devalued) traditional exemplum.  For, being alive and present before our eyes, he can be observed over time and scrutinized for consistency, as traditional exemplary figures cannot (Epp. 6.5-5, 52.7-10, 95.66-72, 108.35-36).  The epistolary exchange with Lucilius itself manifests precisely such a relationship, with Seneca as (exemplary) praeceptor and Lucilius as earnest progressor (Bellincioni ad loc.; Schafer 67-71, 87-96; Hachmann 55-62).

The politics of this regime are easy enough to spot.  The social prestige attached to high moral status resides with those who advance as Stoics, i.e., with those aristocrats willing to undergo the appropriate philosophical disciplining.  Meanwhile the forms of military glory to which aristocrats once had access, but which were in Seneca’s day were monopolized by the Imperial household, are devalued, along with the exemplary discourse through which the prestige of such deeds had long been maintained.  Thus Senecan Stoicism opens a new competitive arena in which contemporary aristocrats in general can seek to reassert their traditional moral and social preeminence.

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Politics by Other Means? Ethics and Aesthetics in Roman Stoicism

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