Seneca’s Stoic Role-Models
Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013. All rights reserved. An excerpt from Teach yourself Stoicism. Image of Zeno, copyright the trustees of the British Museum.
The followers of Epicurus placed importance on possessing portraits or rings bearing his likeness, which may perhaps have helped them imagine his salutary presence accompanying them in life (Hadot, 2002, p. 124). The British Museum actually possess an ornate gem from the Roman imperial period depicting Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, which possibly served a similar purpose. Seneca likewise says that Stoics should keep likenesses of great men and even celebrate their birthdays (Letters, 64). He lists his favourite philosophical role-models as:
- Plato – somewhat surprisingly for a Stoic!
- Zeno, the founder of Stoicism
- Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa
- Laelius the Wise, one of the first famous Roman Stoics
- Cato of Utica, the great Roman Stoic political hero
There are some notable things about this list:
- It begins with Socrates, whom most Stoics appear to treat as their supreme role model.
- It includes Plato. Zeno’s Republic, the founding text of Stoicism, was a scathing critique of Plato’s book of the same name. However, Panaetius and Posidonius reputedly integrated Stoicism and Platonism, so this may indicate that Seneca is more aligned with the Middle Stoa, which would arguably be consistent with the rest of his writings.
- It includes Zeno and Cleanthes, the first two Stoic scholarchs, although Seneca seldom mentions them in his writings. Yet it ignores Chrysippus, the third scholarch and most frequently cited of all Stoics.
- Seneca makes a point of including two famous Roman Stoics: Laelius and Cato.
- The inclusion of Laelius the Wise, a student of Panaetius, highlights his importance, and that of the Scipionic Circle to Stoicism.
- Epictetus, by comparison, most frequently cites Socrates, Diogenes the Cynic, and Zeno, as his influences, and he also quotes Pythagoras and mentions Heraclitus with admiration.
- Marcus Aurelius lists Socrates, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Epictetus, and Chrysippus, as philosophers he particularly admires.
- Seneca does not include any reference to Diogenes or other Cynics in this list, which perhaps suggests he aligned with a branch of (Middle) Stoicism that distanced itself from the Cynics and placed more emphasis on Platonism instead.
Elsewhere, he gives a beautiful account of this practice, drawing on Epicurean teachings:
‘We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.’ This, my dear Lucilius, is Epicurus’ advice, and in giving it he has given us a guardian and a moral tutor – and not without reason, either: misdeeds are greatly diminished if a witness is always standing near intending doers. The personality should be provided with someone it can revere, someone whose influence can make even its private, inner life more pure. Happy the man who improves other people not merely when he is in their presence but even when he is in their thoughts! And happy, too, is the person who can so revere another as to adjust and shape his own personality in the light of recollections, even, of that other. (Letters, 11)
The image of this exemplary person should therefore be recalled frequently “either as your guardian or as your model”, as someone observing us, and perhaps offering guidance, or as an ideal to emulate. Seneca puts it nicely when he says that we need the concept of a genuinely “wise and good” person as a standard against which to measure ourselves because “Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”