SENECA: The Closet Epicurean?

Here’s another sampling of my academic writing! This is a position paper based on Seneca’s essay, Consolation to His Mother Helvia:


Seneca: The Closet Epicurean?

            In Seneca’s essay, Consolation to His Mother Helvia, the author offers comfort to his grieving mother during his exile in Corsica. Many scholars view this writing as a continuation of Seneca’s Stoic beliefs, citing his references to living a life based on reason, a suppression of strong emotions/passion in excess, and living in accordance with nature. While there are certainly Stoic ideals contained within the essay, I argue this work actually reveals Seneca’s closet Epicurean mindset. In Consolation to His Mother Helvia, Seneca attempts to console his mother with application of Stoic principles, but instead reveals his tendencies toward Epicurean behavior and beliefs. Seneca demonstrates a propensity toward Epicurean tendencies, specifically when he discusses exile, his delay in writing, his concerns with the basic needs of life, and his mother’s fear of death, and I will point out textual evidence where Seneca’s writing is contrary to normal Stoic principles.

In accepting the circumstances surrounding his exile, Seneca used Stoic principles to reach an Epicurean end: avoiding the pain of his separation from family, friends, and comforts. According to Stoic philosophy, the world is providential and fatalistic, so one’s Fortune must be accepted in order to achieve happiness. While scholars would argue Seneca had accepted his exile and felt those who lamented their circumstances ignorant to the root source of happiness ­­–“ they fall and moan when their childish spirits, entirely ignorant of every true pleasure, are abandoned by those fake and fleeting delights”– I argue the very act of accepting his circumstances is an Epicurean feat (5.5). Finding pleasure, as defined by Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus, is not in seeking out physical or worldly pleasures, but rather the act of avoiding physical or mental pain. Through applying Stoic principles –finding happiness in oneself and not deriving happiness from one’s Fortune- he avoided pain in his exile, an Epicurean ideal.

Seneca was so intent on avoiding pain, in fact, he delayed reaching out to his mother until her grief had become publicly reproachable. In his essay he stated, “I have often, dearest mother, felt the urge to console you, and often I have held back,” and he claimed it was to avoid increasing her sorrow (1.2). I argue, though, that Seneca may not have wanted to inflame her grief, but he also did not wish to face her mourning, as it would also cause him additional pain. “So, one way or another, I kept crawling along, trying to bind your wounds while I used one hand to keep pressure on mine” (1.2). Seneca, by his own concession, avoided communications with his mother until it was socially necessary for her grief to abate in an effort to avoid causing additional pain for both of them. This decision to avoid pain is synonymous with an Epicurean, and not in accordance with his Stoic principles.

Seneca also displays Epicurean beliefs in his explanation of the basic needs of life. He acknowledges his situation, though impoverished, is a good one: “There’s nothing bad in poverty for anyone, as long as he isn’t too far gone with the diseases of greed and overconsumption, which corrupt. How little it takes to support a human life!” While some scholars may argue Seneca is speaking to a wholly Stoic ideal, this reflects both Epicurean and Stoic principles. Epicurus and Lucretius argue that true happiness comes from a simple life and a contented mind, and Seneca admits he has found comfort and fulfillment in his poverty: “It’ll take little to cover the body and nourish it. Nature didn’t make anything necessary for humans that was hard to acquire” (11.1).

In this case, Seneca infers that happiness is acquired through needs being met easily and that suffering or pain is avoidable if one only seeks to acquire those things necessary for life, an Epicurean ideal. While some would argue a true Stoic would believe the loss of material wealth is an indifferent, as Seneca appears initially in his essay, he later affirms he has found real happiness thanks to the ease of meeting his basic needs, saying to his mother, “poverty is not only safe, it is desirable” (12.7). This simplicity, and the avoidance of pain or struggle to acquire wealth, is an Epicurean ideal.

Addressing death, where there is a divide in the beliefs between the philosophies, Seneca takes an Epicurean approach. He instructs his mother to shed her fear of death, stating: “If you consider the end of your life to be a kind of natural law and not a punishment, and you cast from your heart the fear of death, you won’t be afraid of anything else” (13.2). Some Seneca scholars would argue this is a Stoic ideal, since most believed one should not be moved or manipulated by passions. However, I argue this is an Epicurean statement. Epicureans, who believe there is “nothing bad about death,” would insist it is wrong to fear death, both intrinsically and extrinsically, and would insist that fear of death’s repercussions, both on the person and their affairs, would be a pain best avoided (Olson 2015). By Seneca’s insistence that his mother’s cessation of fear for death would remove fear of everything else, he was embodying an Epicurean view on mortality.

Seneca’s exile was accompanied by a complete change of circumstances. Born to wealth, alongside a career working under the emperor(s), Seneca was accustomed to a higher standard of living compared to Corsica. Looking at Consolation for His Mother Helvia, written entirely during exile, most scholars would argue that the majority of the text is consistent with Stoic philosophy, and the Epicurean elements were coincidental, given some of their shared beliefs. However, Seneca’s avoidance of pain, his happiness in the ease of acquiring basic needs, and his view on death are in line with Epicurean ideals, and some are in direct contrast to traditional Stoic principles. While Seneca may have attempted to console his mother with Stoicism, he ultimately revealed himself as a closet Epicurean.

Works Cited

Seneca. Seneca: Selected Dialogues and Consolations (Hackett Classics). Translated      by Peter J. Anderson; Hackett, 2015

Epicurus. Letter to Menoeceus. Web. 06 Nov. 2015.

Olson, Eric T. The Epicurean View of Death. University of Sheffield. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.


Thank you for reading!

~ Victoria Elizabeth


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