Seneca is perhaps best known for his alleged hypocrisy: the wealthy equestrian who espoused the merits of asceticism. His philosophical output is often considered a refuge from, or a rejection of, his monetary wealth. And yet the language of commerce and debt pervades his letters. Drawing on the approaches of Habinek, Roller, and Wilcox, this paper examines the intersection between Senecan language and his creation of a new philosophical subject: it proposes that through the letters Seneca establishes a new economics that re-understands indebtedness not as negative fiscal value, but as a foundation for a way of life devoted to philosophy.
Recent discussions of debt in both the broader intellectual and public spheres (David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, the Occupy movement, student loan concerns) have asserted that throughout history debt has been invested with religious and moral weight such that a debtor is also branded, and—more crucially—brands himself, a sinner and a criminal. Thus debt is not simply a financial situation, but rather an entire subjectivity or consciousness, one that reduces a person to his insufficiency.
Seneca’s philosophical redefinition of indebtedness changes the dynamics by making debtors of us all. The language of economics in the Epistulae Morales proposes an alternate logic of accounting. Seneca’s ledger balances differently from the typical ledger: it rejects the fundamental principle of equilibrium by which revenues and debts must equal out. Rather, it promotes one of sufficiency in which the perpetually diminishing balance is always enough: one is always in debt, and that’s OK. At the outset of the correspondence Seneca metaphorizes his bank account: omnia, Lucili, aliena sunt, tempus tantum nostrum est (1.3). While all other assets in the account are on loan (aliena), the only commodity in Seneca’s possession is time. Moerover, time as a commodity is constantly diminishing: one begins life with a given amount of it, and it perpetually decreases. No deposits are ever posted to the account.
The metaphor of slavery, which I see as intertwined with the language of debt, is also prominent in the letters (Edwards). Indeed, the first three words of the first letter (and also the collection) exhort the addressee Lucilius to “free yourself, for yourself” (vindica te tibi). This, then, is the purpose of the Epistulae Morales: to manumit the reader from an understanding of selfhood founded upon debt-bondage to a creditor, and to view all of humanity as a community constituted of debtors. Being in debt, Seneca claims, is not so much a negative station, but rather the status quo.
The entire epistolary exchange is also itself an embodiment of the business of accounting, and indeed Seneca’s use of economic language encourages such an identification. Much like the commerce of time, similarly the commerce of correspondence presents with a perpetually diminishing balance: not only does Lucilius never respond, but the balance of remaining letters from Seneca constantly decreases as one progresses through the Epistulae Morales.
Thus Seneca constructs a new economics of sufficiency in the place of traditional zero-sum accountancy. Seneca introduces not only a philosophical ratio to the art of living, but also a new sort of ratio to the science of accounting, thereby redefining the identification of the debtor as a form of subjectivity.
Judgment and Obligation in Roman Intellectual History