Stoicism and the Family by Liz Gloyn

The following is a summary of the presentation Dr. Liz Gloyn provided at Stoicon-X London in 2017.  Dr. Gloyn will also be presenting at Stoicon 2018 next month.

Stoicism argues that we are each responsible for our moral disposition and thus are fully in control of our own journey towards virtue. It is very much up to us to look at our failings and to seek to improve them by correcting any misunderstandings we might have about what virtue actually consists of; as such, a lot of Stoic activity involves frank introspection and asking ourselves hard questions about whether our conceits and affronts are in fact justified. That doesn’t mean that Stoicism never talks about how we, as individuals, should engage with other people. The Stoics have a lot to say about how the good Stoic disciple should be an active and engaged citizen, and also about how he should interact with other sages, or with non-sages whom he encounters. Yet one aspect of Stoic thought which tends to get overlooked is how the Stoic should interact with his family.

Much of the approach the Stoics advocate is based on their theory of oikeiōsis. The Stoics used this term to refer to two distinct processes which were clearly related to each other, but no surviving text explains the link. The first phase, what has been labelled personal oikeiōsis, happens when we are infants, and is when a child realises that the pink waving thing in front of her face is actually her hand. The second phase occurs once we have reached the age of reason – presumably somewhere around fourteen or fifteen – when we are able to start thinking about the relationship between us and other people.

To explain this process, the Stoic Hierocles used an image of concentric circles. He wrote that the smallest circle is the one that includes the individual and the individual alone; the second circle, which surrounds the first, contains immediate blood relatives; the third circle contains more distant relations, like grandparents, uncles and aunts; the fourth circle contains any remaining relatives. The circles continue, gradually expanding to include neighbours, then members of the same tribe, then inhabitants of the same city, until finally the circles encompass the whole human race.

The process of oikeiōsis is the way in which the aspiring Stoic begins to brings the interests of the people in each of the circles into the circle which contains the self, until ultimately the perfect sage thinks of the interests of all of humanity as being her own. Hierocles talks about the early stages of this process as being firmly rooted in the family. Indeed, the bond between a mother and her baby was often used to illustrate oikeiōsis at work, both in animals and in humans; the way that a mother immediately protects its offspring, often in self-sacrificing ways, was taken as evidence of stepping out of that first circle of the self, into the circle that includes children, and considering someone else’s best interests to be your own.

Hierocles constructs a very different model for understanding ancient family relationships to the conventional ones we might be more familiar with. The normal structure of the ancient Roman family was very strongly hierarchical. At the top of the structure was the paterfamilias, the oldest male in the bloodline; that could be your father, grandfather, uncle or great-uncle, or perhaps even your older brother. The paterfamilias had absolute authority, including the right of life and death, over everyone in his familia, which included everyone related by paternal bloodline, as well as any wives who had married into the familia and any slaves belonging to the household.

Hierocles’ model breaks that hierarchical structure down completely. The first circle beyond the self includes parents, siblings, your spouse and your children, in a subtle significant rearrangement of relationships. First of all, the father is taken down from his pedestal and put on the same level as the mother. Second, rather than simply reproducing the hierarchy with one’s parents at the top of the pile, the model completely abandons a top-down approach, and sees parents as standing in the same relation to us as our siblings, spouse and children. We might have seen our siblings and spouse as being vaguely equal, as they are more likely to belong to our age cohort, but Stoic theory challenges us to move away from thinking about our other family relationships in a vertical way.

Perhaps the easiest way to think about how this model changes our relationship to the family comes from thinking about the role that they are supposed to play in our lives, not just as authoritarian disciplinarians, but as ethical role models. The Romans generally expected fathers to be the benchmark by which their sons would measure themselves, and that mothers would police their sons’ more outrageous behaviour, but saw ethics as a fundamentally civil activity, concerned with producing good citizens, in contrast to the internal focus that Stoicism encourages in its adherents.

Marcus Aurelius puts the various qualities he’s inherited from his family at the front of the Meditations:

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally. (Meditations 1, trans. George Long)

That he chooses to open the work with a list of these moral legacies, rather than with (for instance) a family biography, signals that the influence of the family on his moral development has been significant and deserves to have pride of place in the story that he wants the Meditations to tell. If you only read the first page of the Meditations, you will know that he feels debts of gratitude not only to his grandfather and great-grandfather, and indirectly his father, but also to his mother.

Indeed, he says that his mother taught him by her example about not only avoiding evil deeds but even contemplating them – such things simply did not occur to her. To be so in tune with virtue that the opportunity for vicious behaviour never comes to mind is surely what the Stoics would consider one mark of the perfect sage. Equally, simplicity in living is another mark of sage-like behaviour, not to be too attached to the trappings of wealth – although Marcus Aurelius’ definition of a modest lifestyle might not have matched up to the modest lifestyles of his citizens.

Mothers might act not just as models for their sons, but also as companions along the moral journey, further illustrating the Stoic challenge to the assumption of hierarchy in family relationships. In his Consolation to Helvia, Seneca writes a short speech that he imagines his mother Helvia saying as she grieves over his absence in exile, outlining the various elements of their relationship that she misses:

Therefore I am without the embrace of my most dear son; I cannot enjoy the sight of him or his conversation. Where is he, at whose appearance I relaxed my sad face, in whom I lay all my worries down? Where are the conversations which I could not have enough of? Where are the studies in which I took part more happily than a woman, more intimately than a mother? Where is that encounter? Where is that always boyish cheerfulness at seeing his mother? (Consolation to Helvia 15.1, trans. Liz Gloyn)

Alongside missing his smile and his delight in seeing her, Helvia also misses her son’s conversation and their shared studies. As the rest of Seneca’s advice to Helvia makes clear, the subject in question is philosophical – he encourages her to continue with her study of philosophy in order to give her true comfort in her situation. The implication is that Seneca and his mother have been working together on reading and talking about Stoicism, as a shared and mutually enjoyable endeavour. Rather than the parent funnelling down moral knowledge to the child, in a supposedly infallible way, Helvia and Seneca have been partners in the question of ethical exploration; the rigid hierarchy of a relationship based on age has been abandoned.

In part, this is because of Seneca’s own maturation as a rational adult – I am not suggesting the Stoics think this is an appropriate way to parent an eight year old. But the challenge to unquestioned parental authority, and the call to operate through mutual enquiry, seems to be the underlying premise of the relationship here.

These are just snippets of the things that the Stoics have to say about the family. The issue is that the family can often get eclipsed by other things – by the focus on the individual, or by other theories and ideas. But if a Stoic disciple is serious about living a life which is fully consistent with Stoic principles, then she must always apply them consistently – and that includes in her dealings with her family.

Liz Gloyn is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. You can find her blog at Classically Inclined

Dear Seneca, Thanks for the Gratitude by Kevin Vost

Among the many and diverse errors of those who live reckless and thoughtless lives, almost nothing that I can mention, excellent Liberalis, is more disgraceful than the fact the we do not know how either to give or to receive benefits…Nor is it surprising that among all our many and great vices, none is so common as ingratitude. – Seneca, On Benefits[1]

Dear Seneca

Lucius Anneas Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) is among the Stoic authors I hold most dear. I love to read him over and over and particularly enjoy alternating immersion in his world of elegant style and pithy bon mots, with that of the gruff and earthy no-nonsense Epictetus in his Discourses, and the somber profundities of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.  Seneca’s extant philosophical writings consist mostly of a series of what are termed “Moral Essays,” in the Harvard’s Loeb Library edition, as well as his 124 Letters to his friend Lucilius. Seneca wrote on a vast number of interesting and important topics and here I’ll zoom in on his most noble musings on gratitude.

Seneca’s work De Beneficiis (On Benefits) is the longest of his moral essays, with 525 pages of text in Loeb’s Latin & English edition. Therein, he looks at the nature of and perfection of both giving and receiving, of the virtues of generosity and of gratitude. His Letter 81, “On Benefits,” summarizes the gist of his writing on gratitude in under a dozen pages.

Among the things for which I’m most grateful to Seneca is the way he so freely and frequently borrows from the sayings of other thinkers of other philosophical schools whenever he thought they spoke important truths about leading a virtuous life. I’ve also been a student of St. Thomas Aquinas for many years, and he was also famous for embracing truth wherever it might be found.  He would write in his famous little Letter of Saint Thomas to Brother John on how to study: “Do not place value on who says what, but rather, commit to your memory whatever true things are said.” (Though Thomas, like Seneca, was also very good about giving credit where credit was due, citing the sources for the truths he passed on to others.)

So, getting down to business, the little essay that follows is an excerpt from Unearthing Your Ten Talents, a book I wrote about Thomas Aquinas’s approach to ten virtues (the classical intellectual virtues of science, understanding, and wisdom; the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; and the Christian theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.) It is within his treatment of the virtue of justice, of “giving each person their rightful due,” that St. Thomas expounds on the related virtue of gratitude that helps perfect the virtue of justice.

It is also here, among a few other places in his Summa Theologica, that he freely and frequently makes use of the wisdom of Seneca. In the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologica, Questions 106 and 107, (ST, II-II, Qs.106 & 107) Thomas includes ten articles  addressing various aspects of the virtue of gratitude and the vice of ingratitude.

A quick perusing by eyeball yields at least 23 direct citations from Seneca along with their locations within his On Benefits. Indeed, he cites Seneca far more often than he does “The Philosopher” Aristotle on this topic. I’ve included some of these citations below. For readers who might like to track some of them down, the Summa Theologica is free and easily searchable online and it will provide the sources. (I am thankful to find that Seneca’s Letters and his On Benefits are also freely accessible online – though I cannot imagine not owning hard copies!)

Anyway, what follows is my excerpt from my Unearthing Your Ten Talents summarizing what Aquinas had to say about gratitude – and how thankful he was to Seneca for paving the way![2]  I think there are still lessons in there of use to all of us today.

 Thanks for the Gratitude

The individual with the talent for justice seeks to repay debts, debts to God through the virtue of religion, debts to parents and country through piety, debts to those excelling in dignity through observance, and debts to benefactors, to those who grant  particular and private favors or benefits, through the virtue of thankfulness or gratiarum actio – gratitude.  St. Thomas tells us that Cicero rightly placed gratitude as one of the virtues annexed to justice.

It was another ancient Roman philosopher, Lucius Anneas Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD), who literally wrote the book on gratitude (De Beneficiis – On Benefits). St. Thomas shares liberally from Seneca’s sliver-tongued words of counsel when analyzing this virtue.  I can barely do it justice here, but I’ll try to show a little gratitude for what these great men have shared on this subject by introducing some highlights and praying that you will seek out more, both in the Summa and in the writings of Seneca.

“Give thanks in all circumstances” counsels St. Paul (1 Thess. 5:18). Let us consider the ways to give these thanks.  First of all, note that we are to give thanks “in all circumstances.” Are you ever tempted to disregard a favor from someone?“Well, she was just nice because she wanted something.” “His wife told him he should do it.” “He didn’t really want to do it for me, but he felt pressure from the boss, his co-workers, or friends.” “He just gave them to me because he didn’t want them himself. (Why, everybody knows he can’t stand black jelly beans!)”  “He gave me the money. So what? He’s rich and it was nothing to him.”  “Sure he put in a good word to get me that promotion, but he just wanted to show his clout.”  (Again I’m reminded of Aristotle’s comment on virtue and how there are so many ways to miss the bull’s eye.)

Let’s hear Seneca on this one:

It is the height of malevolence to refuse to recognize a kindness, unless the giver has been the loser thereby.

And St. Thomas chimes in with his trademark profundity of wisdom and kindness:

It is the mark of a happy disposition to see good rather than evil. Wherefore, if someone has conferred a favor not as he ought have conferred it, the recipient should not for that reason withhold his thanks.

How then, do we show our gratitude to our benefactors in all circumstances?  Seneca says “Do you wish to repay a favor? Receive it graciously.” Even if we are benefited by someone so rich or powerful that we can never repay him in kind, we can still repay by our attitude, our facial expression, our words, and our deeds, or as Seneca notes with “good advice, frequent fellowship, affable and pleasant conversation without flattery.”

Further, the grateful “outpourings of one’s heart” should be heard, not only within the benefactors’ earshot, but within the hearing of others, repaying the benefactor with well earned honor.  Aristotle has noted after all, that honor is virtue’s reward. The benefactor who receives some well-earned esteem may then be all the more inspired to seek new ways to continue to benefit others.

When benefits are to be repaid, we should do so promptly and gladly, but we should not be in such a hurry to repay that we inconvenience the giver, or make him feel we have been made uncomfortable by the very favor he conferred.  And what then is the height of ingratitude?  It is not to fail to repay the favor, because we may not always be able to repay, though we would dearly like to. The height of ingratitude is to forget the favor or ignore the debt through negligence.

Surely we’ve all sinned through ingratitude at one time or another.  But how should the person who displays the virtue of gratitude treat the person who does not? We learn from the gospel of Luke, “the beloved physician,” that Jesus told us “lend, expect nothing in return.” (Luke 6:35).  Quite fittingly, St. Thomas advises us that:

he that bestows a favor must not at once act the part of a punisher of ingratitude, but rather that of a kindly physician, by healing the ingratitude with repeated favors.

To conclude in the words of old Seneca himself:

Is a man ungrateful for one benefit? Perhaps he will not be so for a second. Has he forgotten two benefits? Perhaps a third will recall to memory the others that have dropped from his mind…. In the presence of multiplied benefits the ingrate will not dare to lift his eyes: wherever he turns, fleeing his memory of them, there let him see you – encircle him with your benefits.[3]

[1] John W. Basore, trans., Seneca, Moral Essays, vol. iii, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001 [1938]), 8. (Seneca addressed this work to Aebutius Liberalis of Lyons, not to be confused with Lucilius, the close friend to whom Seneca addressed his Letters, Natural Questions, and On Providence.)

[2] The only thing not present in the original is the concluding quotation from Seneca.

[3] Ibid, 13.

Kevin Vost, Psy.D, is the author of eighteen books, including Unearthing Your Ten Talents: A Thomistic Approach to Spiritual Growth through the Virtues and the Gifts (Sophia Institute Press, 2009) and The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016).