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Rethinking Morality: A Senecan Shift in Stoic Sexual Ethics?

Joshua M Reno

University of Minnesota

The problematization of sexual activity in Senecan philosophy is marked by a notable discontinuity with Stoic tradition. Senecan sexual ethics were more stringent than their Zenoic or Chrysippean predecessors. This paper examines Seneca’s statements on the sexual use of slaves in order to argue that Senecan philosophy exhibits a retooling of Stoic evaluations of sex work. Seneca, I maintain, explicitly rejects the sort of classism that categorized slaves as unworthy of friendship, and therefore, reconsiders the ostensibly libertine sexual ethics of Stoic founders Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus. Sex workers are persons not only worthy but capable of wisdom, and so the Stoic sage must avoid sexual (ab)use of these persons. 

The significance of this thesis requires an important corrective of Gaca’s (2000) influential article on early Stoic erōs. Prior to Gaca a consensus emerged stressing that early Stoic erōs was a bond-making, friendship-inducing force (Boys-Stones 1998; Rist 1969; Babut 1963). Sex, according to these scholars, was a means to an end. Once friendship had manifested, sex was no longer necessary or permissible. Gaca, however, contended that didactic sex between Stoic sages and male or female prokoptontes, so long as consensual, was permissible. That is to say, contra Schofield (1991, 34), erōs is not consummated and supplanted by friendship (2000, 229-230). That friendship was the necessary and ultimate goal of sex did preclude intercourse between Stoic sages. Thus, Gaca maintains that the early Stoa would have condemned sex work, since, she insists, a client engaged in sexual intercourse merely for physical gratification not the induction of friendship (2000, 231). Gaca’s position, however, is untenable since textual evidence indicates that the early Stoa did not condemn sex workers’ male clientele. For instance, Chrysippus was reported to have taught that those who approach sex workers indifferently are not wholly beyond propriety in doing so (Fr. 756). Similar sentiments can be adduced from Cleanthes (Fr. 562) and this is consistent with Sextus Empiricus’s admittedly polemical statement: “And we see the Stoics claiming it is not foul to have sex with a courtesan (Pyrrh. 3.201). 

Seneca strikes a markedly different tone. Sex was, in Stoic philosophy, an indifferent; however, according to Seneca, sex was a locus particularly susceptible to passional corruption. Unsurprisingly, Seneca displays the same traditional prejudices against sex workers and their procurers found among Zeno and Chrysippus (Ep. 87.15; Nat. 1.16.6). However, unlike the Stoic founders, Seneca does not condone the clientele of sex workers. In Senecan prose, such men become models of incontinent, insatiate slaves of passion (Brev. vit. 16.2-4). Such men, we are told, mistakenly value things external and so are fraught with anguish at their loss (Ira 3.34.2). Elsewhere, Seneca makes it quite clear that union with sex workers comes at the great loss of pudor (Con. 6.7). For Seneca, pleasure comes at the expense of pudor precisely in the sphere of sex work, including men who proposition sex workers: “pleasure is base, servile, feeble, transitory, whose home and hearth are the brothel and the tavern” (Vit. beat. 7.7.3). Sex work has come to embody lechery, that offensive and excessive sexual desire indicative of misplaced attachment to externals.

What precipitated this shift? Seneca precedes by a generation the condemnations of Musonius (12.14-31) and Dio Chrysostom (7.133–139). I maintain that this unique Senecan contribution was the natural conclusion of Seneca’s appeals to humanitas (Clem. 1.18). Seneca famously disparages the master who abuses his slave for not recognizing the target of a natural friendship. While Seneca’s letter to Lucilius (Ep. 47) focuses on household slaves, elsewhere it is clear that Seneca considers even sex workers capable of some virtue (Nat. 1.16.6). Seneca, therefore, marks a significant stride toward greater sexual stringency. This position, however, need not be explained as Roman conservatism, but rather a genuine outgrowth of Seneca’s innovative approach to slave management. 

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Ethics and Morality in Latin Philosophy

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