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Seneca often discusses mental illness in his philosophical prose, explaining it in physical terms by showing its detrimental effects on the individual’s suffering body (e.g., Tranq. 1.2, 2.1, 2.6). In his writings, ills of the mind and moral flaws are not clearly differentiated, with vices often portrayed as forms of mental illness. This is the case for Seneca’s approach to drunkenness (ebrietas), discussed at length in his Epistulae morales (Ep. 83; 59), and philosophical essays and dialogues (Tranq. 17; Ir. 1.13; Q. Nat. 3.20). While his general take on ebrietas has been previously examined (Motto and Clark 1990; Richardson-Hay 2001; Anagnostou- Laoutides and van Wassenhove 2020), the question of drunkenness as lack of self-control amounting to mental illness has not been systematically investigated.

Seneca describes inebriation as “nothing else but voluntary madness” (nihil aliud esse ebrietatem quam voluntariam insaniam, Ep. 83.18), a conceptualization that blurs the limits between mental illness as lack of self-control and the individual’s capacity of exercising free will. More specifically, if habitual drunkenness is for the philosopher a mental disease voluntarily indulged in, how is it differentiated from vice? This distinction appears unclear even to Seneca himself, who often delineates ebrietas as a vice, describing its corrupting, destructive and self-aggrandizing behavioral effects (Ep. 83.22; Ir. 1.13.3). Yet, he specifically notes that “drunkenness does not create vices but draws them out” (non facit ebrietas vitia, sed protrahit, Ep. 83.20; see also 83.17). He also attributes to the condition symptoms that lead to mental instability (described as insania in Ep. 59.15 and Ep. 83.18; dementia and furor in Q. Nat. 3.20.5) and are expressed at a corporal level (Ep. 95.16-17, Ep. 83.21; Migliorini 1997, 38-44). The key feature of the dichotomy between vice and illness is the ability to exercise self- control, seen by Seneca as being gradually relinquished during the process of intoxication, which takes over the individual’s mind and body (Ep. 83.19; Ep. 59.15). This apparent condemnation of drunkenness, however, is restricted to cases in which the individual exhibits a lack of moderation and establishes a habitual pattern of consumption. In De tranquillitate animi, for example, Seneca promotes moderate drinking as a healthy treatment, ita vini salubris moderatio est (Tranq. 17.9), to soothe mental anxieties, after clearly stating that this should only happen occasionally (non numquam, Tranq. 17.8). Therefore, recurrence and excess are paramount in Seneca’s judgment of inebriation.

This paper explores the importance of self-control, the impact of habit, and the behavioral and physiological consequences of drunkenness as described in Seneca, elucidating the ancient conception of ebrietas as a moral and medical issue at once, a view that remains relevant in the contemporary debates on the nature of addiction.