Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Seneca and Virtue: Four Political Virtues

LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA, known as Seneca the Younger (to distinguish him from his father, Seneca the Elder), was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and writer (ca. 4 B.C. to 65 A.D.). Famously, he was tutor and counselor to the emperor Nero, who, in his caprice, eventually sentenced the probably innocent Seneca to death (by forced suicide) for allegedly taken part in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate Nero.

Seneca, like Cicero, was not a markedly innovative thinker, so Stoicism cannot be said to have been developed as a result of his writings.  With respect to the Stoic doctrines on virtue, we find that he accepts the four-fold division of virtue.  Seneca also accepted the Chryssipian schema of have sub-virtues underneath  the cardinal virtues, sort of like children beneath the skirts of their mother.  

Seneca was highly favored by the early Christians. Tertullian referred to Seneca as "frequently our own," saepe noster, and St. Jerome referred to him as "our Seneca" in his Ad Jovinian I.49. He was even supposed (falsely) to have known and corresponded with St. Paul. Such correspondence is certainly apocryphal. Even the rigorist Tertullian calls Seneca "our Seneca."

His popularity was no less keen in the middle ages.  "His influence was paramount in the early middle ages and the most notable doctrine about the cardinal virtues that this favorite of emperors handed onto the medievals was the way he gave it a secular and political interpretation."*  Houser, 30.  The virtues as presented by Seneca were seen by the medieval ruler as essential in the recipe for governing.  From Seneca, rulers would have "learned that the four Stoic virtues were the best guides to practical life, that they come together as a 'package' of four virtues necessarily united together, that they involve other virtues connected with them, and above all that they are most fitting for emperors and princes."  Houser, 31.  Machiavelli, then, the consummate anti-medievalist, may be said to have been an anti-Seneca.  Machiavelli's virtù is something quite different from Seneca's virtue.

Seneca between Plato and Aristotle 
From and early 14th century manuscript

Seneca's Stoic virtues--with their political twist--can be distinguished from the Ambrosian Christianization of the Stoic virtues, where the virtues as seen as part of an entire way of life, and not simply limited to political circumstance.  The Senecan notion is secular; the Ambrosian notion is religious.  We see, therefore, two strands of virtue-thought: the Senecan political virtues and the Ambrosian personal or religious virtue. The Senecan teaching we find for example in Martin of Braga's (ca. 520- ca. 580 A.D.) treatise on virtue entitled Formula vitae honestae or in Isidore of Seville.  We find the Ambrosian notion adopted by Pope Gregory I (ca. 540-614 A.D.).  This dual strand of virtue thought continued well into the middle ages.

Seneca's treatment of the virtues is probably worth a series of posting, but at this juncture, we shall not focus on Seneca.  Instead, we shall view him as an interim figure between the pagan world and the Christian world, for we are leaving behind the pagan world and entering into the Christian.  From the philosophical sage, we enter into the world of the Christian saint.  From philosophi  to sancti.  And we will never be able to look at virtue from the vantage point of the man without grace.

But for all his popularity and his supposed tie to St. Paul and supposed conversion, Seneca was not a Christian saint; yet he was a Stoic, albeit one with a fine sense of style and dedication to Stoic principles and values, particularly that quality of apatheia, a sort of self-possession of emotions that allowed one to go through life entirely nonplussed by its vicissitudes.  He was perhaps, along with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, one of Stoicism's most famous advocates.  His 124 moral epistles to Lucilius were perhaps the most famous and popular of his works, though his works on constancy (De constantia) and mercy (De clementia) were also popular.

*It is perhaps not proper to call these virtues "cardinal," since as Houser says later on, the Stoic development of the virtues classified the four virtues through "prolonged meditation on Socrates and whose primary exponents were Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.  But as much as these three great ethical schools had done, they had not made the cardinal virtues 'cardinal.'  This innovation required the wholesale revolution in thought known as Christian wisdom."  Houser, 31.

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