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Cicero and Seneca as Aristotelians

Robin Weiss

Aristotle describes reason and desire as working so closely in tandem that one can hardly be separated from the other (De An. 433a9-12; 433b21-30). One might even speak of them, under ideal circumstances, as one and the same. Our task here is to show that, unlike for Aristotle—for whom desire is distinct enough from reason that it can sometimes move in the opposite direction—the unity or reason and desire is not just an ideal state of affairs for Seneca. It is as nature preordained that reason and desire should be inseparably joined. In order to understand this, we must understand Seneca, and Cicero, as in some sense more Aristotelian than Aristotle himself in seeing reason and desire in their fundamental unity.

More than previous scholarship has allowed, this will enable us to view late Stoic thought in continuity with Aristotle, and thus to understand how it enlarges upon an Aristotelian conception of practical knowledge already familiar to us. But we must first overcome the many obstacles which have so far prevented scholars from seeing Cicero and Seneca’s Stoicism as Aristotelian—or if Aristotelian, then legitimately so.

            One such obstacle is the common tendency to attribute to all “genuine” spokesmen for Stoicism—Cicero and Seneca’s Aristotelian leanings exclude them from this category—a brand of intellectualism according to which reason, ironically, subsists in effective independence from desire. Reason, according to this view, arrives at its own conclusions independently and then dictates to the desiring self what it is to desire. It will be argued that this reinscribes into the soul the very schism between reason and desire that Stoicism rejects. It thus reifies the very dualism which Cicero and Seneca understand Stoicism as overcoming. Further, it divides and establishes a hierarchy between theory and praxis: What is established theoretically by the intellect proceeds and determines practical action.

A further obstacle to the comparison is the assumption that Stoics cannot have an account of practical deliberation similar to Aristotle’s, since Aristotelian deliberation is premised upon the mutual cooperation of two separate things, reason and desire. It must be shown that the Stoics have something like an Aristotelian conception of deliberation, and that this is so because—not despite—their disinclination to partition the soul.

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Ancient Greek Philosophy

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