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Travel, the Vita Activa, and the Vita Contemplativa in Seneca’s De Otio and Thomas More’s Utopia

Harriet Fertik

University of New Hampshire

The main interlocutor in Thomas More’s Utopia is Raphael Hythloday, an explorer who prefers Greek to Latin “because his main interest is philosophy, and in that field he found that the Romans have left us nothing very valuable except certain works of Seneca and Cicero” (More 11). Critics of Utopia have long debated the conflict in this text between Roman commitments to politics, or the vita activa, and the vita contemplativa associated primarily with Greek philosophical traditions. By focusing on the motif of travel in Utopia and Seneca’s De Otio, an essay on retirement from public affairs, I take a new approach to the problem of choosing between the political life and the philosophical life in these texts. While the vita contemplativa seems to require withdrawal from politics, the connection between travel and learning in both works suggests that the vita contemplativa in fact depends on engagement with the broader community.

Both Seneca and the Utopians struggle with the ways that seclusion interferes with learning, even as it allows the leisure necessary for contemplation: Seneca seems to have left the city of Rome, and while the Utopians receive visitors, their island is difficult for outsiders to approach (More 39). Both also seek ways to counteract their seclusion. In the surviving fragment of De Otio, human beings travel great distances and seek out wonders in order to learn about the world, and this inquisitiveness and thirst for learning is essential to living in accordance with nature (Ot. 5.1-6). Just as Hythloday travels to learn about the best way of life and the best kind of polity, the Utopians prioritize intellectual pursuits in their daily lives and seek knowledge by studying with visitors and through travel and trade (More 53, 67-70). In both texts, the act of travel destabilizes the dichotomy between philosophy and politics, as the vita contemplativa requires the ability to meet and consult with others.

My exploration of More and Seneca contributes to two broader issues in early modern Classical reception. First, political theorists have established the significance of the Roman republican tradition for early modern thinkers, but they have not given similar attention to the influence of imperial political thought. I will show how Seneca’s assessment of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa in De Otio, precisely because he responds to limitations on civic life in the imperial period, is essential to understanding the conception of political engagement in Utopia. Second, in accordance with key trends in Classical reception studies, I consider how De Otio and Utopia illuminate each another: I examine not only More’s reception of Seneca but also how Utopia compels us to re-think Seneca’s account of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa.

Session/Panel Title

Imagining the Future through the Past: Classical and Early Modern Political Thought

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