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Seneca's nausea: "Existential" experiences and Julio-Claudian literature.

A proper commentary, however, never understands the text better than its author understood it, though it certainly understands it differently. Only this difference in understanding must be such that it encounters the same thing which the explicated text is meditating.

--Martin Heidegger. "Nietzsche's Word: God Is Dead"


Persius's third satire begins with the question, "Oh, this still?" (nempe haec adsidue, 3.1), and proceeds to show us a poet reluctant to wake up, then yelling at his slave and complaining about the recalcitrance of his ink and reed, much like (the narrator observes) a "tender dove" or "the royal brats," refusing to let himself be lullabied away from his crankiness (failure recusas, 3.18). Horace, in his Epistles, dictates a notice to Celsus that "I am living neither rightly nor pleasantly ... because I am less healthy in mind than in the rest of my body, and don't want to hear or learn anything to relieve my illness" (1.8.1-8). After giving further details about this lethargy (veternus), but saying nothing about how it could be cured, he simply moves on to asking Celsus how he is. Seneca, finally, ends his twenty-fourth letter to Lucilius with the warning that "at the impulsion of philosophy itself" (ipsa inpellente philosophia) we may despairingly ask, "How much longer [must we endure] the same things?" (Quo usque eadem?). Speaking in the persona of such a questioner, "I do nothing new," he perorates, "1 see nothing new. Eventually there's a nausea even of this [fit aliquando et huius rei nausea]" (24.26).

We are tempted to ask ourselves, What is wrong with these people?(1) In Persius's satire, at least, an answer is given (though the exposition is far from pellucid). As Cynthia Dessen (1968, 53-7), following a long tradition, has outlined, the poem offers a Stoic criticism of the protagonist as being of "unhealthy" mind, but either unaware of his "illness" or unwilling to seek a cure.(2) For Stoics, the cure for this ill health is the wisdom gained through philosophy (see Persius 3.66-72). Of course, modern theorists have taught us that we can enter this text from infinitely many angles: if a reader finds here a meditation on the use and abuse of alcohol, or asserts that the angry Stoic really just needs to be loved, we shall not invalidate those readings. However, if, by asking "What is wrong?," we choose to imply that there is some experience being expressed in the text (at least for some group of presumed, even if not explicitly posited, likeminded readers), then we may want to restrict this "polysemy." Since we are aiming at an initial consensus, we might begin from the broadly--though certainly not universally--accepted methodology of investigating, against the appropriate historical and generic backgrounds, the conceptual and narrative frameworks in which that experience is situated. Thus, we would acknowledge the structure outlined by Dessen, for example, before beginning to speak of "depressive melancholia, of an essentially existentialist sort" (Toohey 2004, 54) in Persius's satire.

Now that "existentialism" has made its way into this paper, perhaps I had better add that a certain consensus will be helpful here as well. Although the general interest of the topic may be well indicated by Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, for ease of handling I shall turn to somewhat less humorous sources. In this article, when speaking of "existentialist" theories or "existential" ennui (nausea, angst, boredom, etc.), I denote those representations that make ennui an inescapable concomitant of the human condition. This need not entail that our actions cannot mitigate the problem. I have in mind, for example, the theories put forward by Sartre and Camus,(3) for whom differing susceptibilities to "nausea" or the feeling of "absurdity" are certainly conceivable (see further below). If we weigh the narrative framework of Persius's third satire against these stipulations, then we should not use the term "existen-tial(ist)" to express what his protagonist experiences: the narrative appears to describe a problem and a solution, we would say, not a problem without a solution.

Horace and Seneca, however, seem neither to provide their readers with a critical framework for the malaise they express nor to foresee a definite cure. Is this more promising soil for existentialist seeds? I think it is, but salutary caution might be elicited by the remarks of Giorgio Pasquali, a Horatian scholar of tremendous erudition, but one who worked within the assumptions and associations of the early twentieth century. Speaking of Odes 2.16.17-20,4 with which he associates many of the passages that appear in this article, Pasquali (1964, 661) remarks, "Questa specie di spleen, propria di civilta sature e gia un po' stanche, compare, per quanto so, la prima volta nella Roma nell'ultimo secolo della Repubblica." Pondering a collection of passages in Lucretius, Horace, and Seneca, Pasquali--who, originally writing in J 920, could not yet think in terms of French existentialism--has recourse to the notion of decadence and decline. To this paradigm he links the image of "spleen," thinking perhaps of the second section ("Spleen et ideal") of Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal (published 1861) and the hookah-smoking personification of l'Ennui in the dedicatory "Au lecteur."5 This allegorical character cap--tures the decadent Zeitgeist to which Pasquali refers, but modern scholars

are both wary of the sources of this paradigm (it seems dangerously like a naive acceptance of the Romans' own self-idealizing6) and unconvinced of its explanatory power. When Ovid's Medea says, "I see what's better and approve of it, but I pursue what's worse" (Met, 7.20-1), modern interpreters readily impose critical filters in their readings: not only do we remark that Ovid nmsi imagine Medea's experience, but we add that con--ventions about love and gender help constitute this imagining. Although Horace's similar expression in Epistles 1.8 ("I pursue what has harmed me, and avoid what I think will help") issues from a less markedly fic--tional persona, still we should keep in mind the structuring effects of societal, philosophical, and literary expectations.

One relevant framework in ancient thought is the theorization of the "passions" or negative emotions, the subject of numerous recent studies.7 While ancient philosophers differed on the degree to which even the wisest among us can eliminate passions, all agreed that our beliefs play a substantial role in these phenomena. Those following Aristotle and Plato allowed for an irrational part of the soul, which they called, inter alia, the "passionate" (pathetikon) aspect.8 A well-ordered soul is one in which this passionate aspect is habituated to obey the rational element. For most Stoics, by contrast, the soul is entirely rational, and the causes of emo--tion are wholly cognitive: harmful beliefs, especially when they become fixed, are like "illnesses" causing emotional symptoms.9 It is this Stoic theory that underlies Persius's third satire, though the exhaustive Stoic catalogues of passions do not seem to comprehend anything like what we call "ennui."10 Horace was probably also familiar with Stoic theory, and may have intended some reference to it in his poem, although Epistles 1.8 is significantly more elusive than Persius's long and firmly Stoic narra--tive.11

Horace's lethargy thus opens onto a broad vista of interpretive obsta-cles and opportunities, a landscape made even more complex by his eclectic philosophical apparatus and his use of humor. This is not a land--scape 1 shall attempt to chart here. Rather, my intention has been to raise the difficulties to he faced if we wish to speak about the "ennui" expressed in late republican and early imperial writers. Before we com--pare Heidegger's Angst and das Unheimliche or the nausec of Sartre or l'ab--surds of Camus, we will surely enrich our analyses by first placing the phe--nomena within the structure and conceptual language of the text. To these we will inevitably add something, as my opening quotation sug--gests, inasmuch as these parameters are insufficient to determine even the most punctilious reading. Between the Scylla of positivism and the Charybdis of relativism, however, the specifics of the text at hand will help us to chart a path.


The end of Seneca's twenty-fourth letter appears, at first glance, to be a very promising candidate for an expression of existential ennui in Roman literature. Like Horace's verse epistle (1.8), it offers a problem without a (stated) solution. With Seneca, moreover, we have a less variable set of "faces" than that employed by Horace:12 his letters and dialogues gener--ally issue from the same position of authoritative Stoic philosophizing, and recent literature has even minimized the "eclecticism" with which earlier generations characterized his use of non-Stoic philosophers (e.g., Plato and Epicurus).13 We ought still to keep in mind the coloration sometimes borrowed from his declamatory training, but on the whole his persona--if we restrict ourselves to the letters and dialogues--and its conceptual framework display a great deal of consistency. Nevertheless, a sensitive investigation of the contexts for this passage will suggest a rather different causa! history and moralizing framework than we might at first supply ourselves. Not only is the devil, as they say, in the details, but even these details take on anachronistic shapes unless we bring to bear the focalizing power of Stoic philosophy generally and Senecan usage specifically.

The text runs as follows (my sentence numbering):

(1) Est enim, mi Lucili, ut ad alia, sic etiam ad moriendum inconsulta animi inclinatio, quae saepe generosos atque acerrimae indolis viros corripit, saepe ignavos iacentesque; illi contemnunt vitam, hi gra-vantur. (2) Quosdam subit eadem faciendi et videndi satietas et vitaenon odium sed fastidium, in quod prolabimur ipsa inpellente philosophia, dum dicimus: (3) 'Quousque eadem? nempe expergiscar dormiam, [edam] esuriam, algebo aestuabo. (4) Nullius rei finis est, sed in orbem nexa sunt omnia, fugiunt ac secuuntur. (5) Diem nox premit, dies noctem, aestas in autumnum desinit, autumno hiemps instat, quae vere compescitur; omnia sic transeunt ut revertantur. (6) Nihil novi facio, nihil novi video: fit aliquando et huius rei nausia.' (7) Multi sunt, qui non acerbum iudicent vivere, sed supervacuum. Vale. (Ep. 24.25-6)

(1) As there is a hasty inclination of the mind toward other things, my dear Lucilius, so too is there one toward death. This has often seized upon noble men of fierce dispositions, often too upon the cowardly and humble: the former disdain life, the latter are weighed down by it. (2) Some people experience a certain satiety of doing and seeing the same things, not a hatred of life, but a distaste for it, into which we slip due to the impulse of philosophy itself, when we say, (3) "How long [shall we endure] these same things? I'll get up and go to sleep, I'll eat and I'll be hungry, I'll be cold and be warm. (4) There's an end to nothing: all things are connected in a circle, they flee and follow. (5) Night presses on day day on night, summer ends in autumn, winter is right behind autumn, and is itself suppressed by spring. Everything passes only to return. (6) I do nothing new, I see nothing new: eventually there's a nausea even of this." (7) There are many people who think that living is, not harsh, but superfluous. Farewell.

The prima facie case for some kind of existentialist reading is not negligible. Thematically, the weariness of a seemingly meaningless repetition, the consequent "nausea" (nausia) and "distaste" (fastidium), and the observation that life may be "superfluous" (supafluum) find striking parallels in Camus and Sartre. For example, take the following passage from the former's Myth of Sisyphus:

It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, street-car, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, street-car, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm--this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the 'why' arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. (1942, 27; translation in O'Brien 1955,12)

A similar passage occurs in Sartre's novel Nausee, when the protagonist laments the fact that life, unlike narratives, has no beginnings, endings, or meaningful order (1938, 54-6). Seneca's choice of vocabulary may reinforce this initial impression. His fastidium and nausia remind us of Sartre's "nausee," which is theorized in Being and Nothingness as the inescapable, "insipid taste" of our contingency, generally manifested as the basic awareness of our body qua "flesh" (1966, 444-5). Further, Seneca's suggestion that living may be supenmcuum reminds us of the repeated assertion that beings are de trap and "unjustifiable" in Sartre's Nausee (1938, 158-71; cf. 1966, 132). Finally, the question Quo usque eadem? has a certain vague resemblance to this issue of "justifying" one's existence and the question "why" asked in the Camus passage.

In Camus and Sartre, these symptoms of illness are situated in theories about the "human condition," and some scholars have postulated a similar background for the ennui in Seneca's letter. In Camus, the problem may be summarized as the incompatibility of the human desire for unity, the absolute, comprehension, and happiness with the "irrational" silence of the universe (1942, 28-37). In Sartre's much more elaborate Being and Nothingness, the problem is basically the troubled relation of the human desire to be (absolutely, as a stone is a stone) with our desire to retain our self-fashioning freedom.14 For the philosophers of letter 24, too, Gianfranco Lotito (200I) has provided a thoughtful reconstruction of what may underlie such ennui. He prepares the ground for this reconstruction with a lengthy analysis of a related Senecan work, De tranquillitate, to which I now turn.

Seneca's De tranquillitate--the only other work in which he asks the question Quo usque eadem?--has provoked several existentialist readings. For example, Jackie Pigeaud (198I, S14) says that "C'est au malaise, au mal de l'etre, au mal de vivre que s'adresse ce discours." Pigeaud's work covers a vast number of texts, however, and leaves unclear just what she means by "le mal de l'etre" in Seneca's dialogue. Similar positions are developed against the backdrop of Stoic philosophy by Gianfranco Lotito (2001) and Karlhans Abel (1995), both of whom base their readings on acute analyses of the psychological condition depicted in De tranquillitate.(15) In this dialogue, Seneca suggests that all vice (vitium) and stupidity (stultitia) are founded on the incorrect use of desire. The result is distaste for the world and for oneself, which intensify over time, gradually becoming suicidal Weltschmerz:
Innumberabiles deinceps proprietates sunt sed unus effectus vitii,
sibi displicere. Hoc oritur ab intemperie animi et cupiditatibus
timidis aut
parum prosperis, ubi aut non audent quantum concupiscunt aut non
consequuntur. (Tranq. 2.2)  There are innumerable properties of vice,
but only one outcome, to be displeasing to oneself. This arises from
incontinence of the soul and desires that are timid or insufficiently
fulfilled, when [people] are either less daring or less successful
than they are full of desires.

We shall return later to explain why a Stoic believes that stupidity entails vice and that either is entailed by incorrect desideration; but for now, note the prognosis Seneca gives for this condition:
Tunc illos et paenitentia coepti tenet et incipiendi timor
subrepitque illa animi iactatio non invenientis exitum, quia nec
imperare cupiditat-ibus suis nec obsequi possunt, et cunctatio vitae
parum se cxplicantis et inter destituta vota torpentis animi situs.
(Tranq. 2.8)
Then they are possessed by regret for what they've begun and fear of
new beginnings. Their minds, unable to find a way out, begin to toss
and turn, because they can neither command their desires nor obey
them; their lives, which cannot untangle themselves, are caught in
hesitation; and their minds are left languid amid abandoned

The result is the fickle restlessness depicted also in the Horatian epistle with which we began, although in this case the syndrome goes rather further:
Quod proposita saepe mutando in eadem revolvebantur et non
reli-querant novitati locum, fastidio esse illis coepit vita et ipse
mundus, et subiit illud tabidarum deliciarum: 'Quo usque eadem?'
(Tranq. 2.15)
Because, by frequently changing their plans, they [nevertheless]
ended up in the same situation, and left no place for novelty, life
and the world became distasteful to them, and that [question] of
decadent delicacies came upon them: "How much longer [shall we
endure] the same things?"(16)

The analyses of Lotito and Abel both appear to base their existential terminology on the detection of a problem of "meaning" or "value" inthis dialogue. Lotito concentrates on the loss of distinction between satisfaction and disappointment in the buildup to what he calls "noia esistenziale." He describes this leveling of affect as the "sempre-uguale."'' Abel (1995, 132), meanwhile, sees here a fight against "nihilism," which he calls "die scharfste Form des Lebens- und Weituber-drusses." This "world-weariness," in turn, is first introduced as "Unglauben an die Zweckhaftigkeit von Sein, Seienden, und Dasein," in which phrase we see both the problem of meaning (Zweckhaftigkeit) and its relation to existentialism (Sein, Seienden, und Dasein).18 Of course, the progression from meaninglessness to existential anxiety is entirely reasonable: Heidegger and Sartre are deeply concerned with the creation of meaning or value, and Camus makes the "meaning of life" a fundamental problem.19 Moreover, Seneca's description of the "languid mind amid its abandoned intentions" answers fairly well to these analyses. Thus, it is not perhaps implausible to claim that Seneca's dialogue addresses something similar to what we call existential problems, provided that we recall (as do Lotito and Abel) that Seneca does not speak in fact in those terms and sees the problem as moral (one of vitium) or intellectual (one of stul-titia), rather than as one pertaining necessarily to the human condition. It will then appear to be a corollary of this moralizing viewpoint that just as vice and stupidity are (at least, on the Stoic account, in some individuals) eradicable, so is this condition escapable.

This comparison brings existentialist thought to bear on Seneca's dialogue in a manner that remains sensitive to its conceptual universe and argumentative structure, even as it allows us to qualify our reading with the proviso that Seneca thinks in other terms and does not see a "human condition" problem here. Although the passage appears more robustly existentialist than Persius's satire, it remains excluded by the outline definition I proposed in section 1 above. Letter 24, however, might appear to elicit what would be, even by this exacting definition, a full-blooded existentialist interpretation, since the moralizing distance between the virtuous, intelligent Stoic admonisher and the despairing addressee seems to have collapsed. This could be the implication of ipsa inpellente philosophia in sentence 2, as well as the repeated and vivid use of the first person (first in the plural, then in the singular) in sentences 2-6. Spoken by a committed Stoic, this passage might seem to describe a properly inescapable "nausea," since philosophy not only does not prevent it but even seems to encourage it.

This is roughly the reading offered by Lotito, who appends some provocative thoughts on this passage to his chapter on De tranauillitate 2.The complaint of nihil novi (nothing new) in sentence 6 is now referred, not to the fickle restlessness that motivated the search for novelty in De tranquillitate, but rather to Stoic cosmology:
La massiccia visione di un cosmo determinato dalla rete della
necessitia universale, la sua terribile razionalita c perfezione, la
sua rigidezza, la teoria del ciclo cosmico, il ritorno cioe, dopo
ogni distruzione del cosmo, dell'identico (perche perfetto), si
traduce alla fine in un annien-tamento della liberta del singolo.
(2001, 68)

Here Lotito refers to the Stoic doctrine that god is immanent in the world as ail-containing nature (phusis, natura) and the reason (logos, ratio) that optimizes it as the active principle (to poioun), providence (pronoia, providentia), and fate (heimarmene, fatum).(20) This ubiquitous god/reason/ nature/fate produces universal determinism, as Seneca happily accepts in the Quaestiones naturales {Natural Questions).(21) Moreover, the Stoic model includes the periodical conflagration and rebirth of the world in identical form, in which the same fatal sequences will recur ad infinitum. This notion, too, is accepted by Seneca (although he seems to be more interested in inundation than in conflagration).(22) There is thus thought-provoking evidence for Lotito's position, but we might stop to ask whether there is any indication, here or elsewhere, that Seneca ever perceived all this "rationality and perfection" as bearing an "overload of meaning" (sovraccarico di senso), as Lotito puts it. The discussion in Natural Questions betrays no obvious discomfort, and, looking back to the repetitions mentioned in letter 24 (sentences 3-4), we find the tedium of the daily grind (eating and being hungry sleeping and waking, etc.) rather than Lotito's "annihilation of the liberty of the individual" ("annientamento della lib-erta del singolo").

In order to move beneath the surface of letter 24, and thus to assess the plausibility of an existentialist reading, let us begin by returning to Seneca's choice of diction. A good starting point is the complaint, "I do nothing new, I see nothing new" in sentence 6. Although we may find this connection of sameness with tedium "only natural," we should recall that novelty did not have the same value for the Romans that it often does today. Not only were the Romans enormously deferential to mos maiorum (the way of the ancestors), but they also tended to be wary of anything they qualified as novus (new)- For example, studium rerum novarum usually signifies, not the eagerness for adventure, but desire to overturn the state (e.g., Cicero, Cal. 1.1.3; Sallust, Cat. 37.1). This preference for the status quo explains why Seneca often employs the "nothing is new" topes for consolatory purposes. Here he follows his philosophical predecessors in general and Lucretius in particular, who has the personified Nature object, "There is, besides, nothing which I could devise or invent to please you; everything is the same, always" (3.944-5). Lucretius aims to mitigate the fear of death, as does Seneca in letter 36:

I'll show you that everything which appears to perish actually changes. If someone is going to return, he should leave calmly. Observe the world of things cycling back through one another: you'll see that nothing in this universe is extinguished, but rather falls and rises in turn. Summer's gone, but another year will bring it back. Winter has fallen, but its months will return it. The night has overwhelmed the sun, but the day will drive off the night. (Ep. 36.1 I)

The suggestion here, as in Lucretius 3.944-5, is that we should find solace in our common subjection to the law of nature; to this Seneca adds that no departure is, in any event, permanent (see note 22 below). We might also recall that the repetitions here (the circadian and annual cycles) are very similar to those in letter 24. This is not promising for the existentialist reading: if, from the Roman perspective, sameness is often comforting rather than nauseating, then we must be cautious in attributing an inevitability to the perception of tedium.

Other prominent terms in Ep. 24.25-6 increase the burden of proof for anyone seeking to distinguish sharply the tone of this passage from that in De tranquillitate 2. Resides words expressing novelty (nov-) and sameness (eadem), others express distaste (faslidi-, nausi/e-) and satiety (sati-). In letter 24 we have an initial description (sentence 2) of the "satiety of acting and seeing" (faciendi et videndi satietas), also described as a "distaste for life" [vitae ... fastidium). After the plaintive question and listing of iterations, there follow a regretful denial of novelty (nihil novi facio, nihil novi video) and a stronger statement of distaste (fit aliquando et huius rei nausia, sentence 6). These same words, which evince the moralizing tone of De tranquillitate, frequently appear together in Seneca's prose works. For example, in the De tranquillitate, we read quod ... non reli-querant novitati locum, fastidio esse illis coepit vita (2.15), while elsewhere the reference may be to corporeal consumption and satiety, as in Seneca's description of the conveyors of delicacies, "who have a fine knowledge of the master's palate. They know ... what novelty can awaken him when he's rather nauseous, and what he now finds distasteful, simply due tosatiety" (sciunt ... cuius novitate nauseabundus erigi possit, quid iam ipsa satietatcfastidiat, Ep. 47.8). These descriptions are never value-neutral, however. In context, the gluttonous master of letter 47 forms part of an attack on those who look down on their slaves, failing to recognize that they too are slaves--to their stomachs! Intemperance with food turns out to be a paradigmatic bete noire for Seneca's ethical program. In letter 95, for example, the expansion of philosophical therapy is compared with that of medicine. As diets have become less healthy, Seneca asserts, medicine has become more sophisticated; just so, philosophy has developed new weapons to combat new depravities. But the boundaries between medicine and philosophy soon blur: immediately after implying that the number of infirmities keeps pace with that of cooks, Seneca goes on to say "The schools of orators and philosophers are deserted, but how crowded the kitchens are!" (95.23). Further on, when he is explicitly discussing the spread of depravity combated by philosophy, he begins from the simple vices of those who "indulge in wine and look for more delicate food" (95.32).

The connecting thread between these small "indulgences" and both the homicidal vitia with which letter 95 concludes (95.33) and the suicidal "results of vice" in De tranquillitate is intemperance. Gluttony not only serves as a fundamental example of intemperance, but also supplies most of the vocabulary to describe the effects of indulgence we have been examining (e.g., distaste, satiety nausea). The basic pattern is that in the Consolation to Helvia: "They bring everything known [to man] from everywhere to the fastidious throat [fastidienti gulae\. What the stomach, made dissolute with delicacies, can barely admit, they bring from the far reaches of the ocean. The}' vomit so they can eat, and eat so they can vomit" (10.3). Here, the act of vomiting to make room is only the consummation of a disorder already indicated by the pickiness attributed to the "fastidious throat" and its need for exotic novelties. In the beneficently providential Stoic cosmos, there are natural limits set on desire, transgression of which leads to discomfort. Rules on limiting desire apply far beyond the glutton's table, as indicated by Epictetus's educational topos on orexis (desire) and ekklisis (aversion). Although the orthodoxy of Epictetus's use of these technical terms is dubious, his substantial point is clearly in the mainstream of Stoicism,23 namely that the person who mistakes the proper field of application for desire and aversion will be miserable. Epietetus asks, "I want something and it doesn't happen. What is more miserable than I?" [TEXT NOT PERRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Disc. 2.17.18). This pithy rule generalizes Stoic theories on negative emotions, according to which incorrect value judgments cause the discomfort of grief, yearning, or fear (see notes 8-11 below). To avoid this, Epictetus repeatedly advises restriction of desire and aversion only to those things in our power (eph' hemin; see, especially, Disc. 1.4, Erich. 1-2; also Disc. 2.5.6, 3.23.9, 3.12.7, 3.22.13, 3.23.35, 4.4.1-5, Ench. 48.3). It is this view of desire as something that should be adapted to the order of nature which allows Seneca to reduce the problem of De tranquillitate to "intemperance of soul" (intemperies animi), that is, the failure to moderate "concupiscence" (quantum concupiscunt); further, it is the paradigmatic role of gluttony as intemperate desire that elicits the language of satiety and distaste. For Seneca, distaste with oneself and the world is an affect central to the human condition (arising in all the domains of desire).24 However, this syndrome is curable: Seneca agrees with Epictetus that we can educate our desires, inasmuch as all desires and passions are based on judgments, and all judgments are within our power.

Let us now return to letter 24. The words we first took to express existential ennui (distaste, satiety, lack of novelty) now appear situated in rather different patterns. The consolatory pattern (which does not employ distaste or satiety) gives little purchase for existentialist readings. The moralizing pattern also fails to meet our definition for an "existentialist" theory, because this pattern does not describe an inescapable part of the human condition but is given as a reason to study Stoic philosophy and put it into practice. Yet we must still reckon with the appearance of just that philosophy (ipsa inpellente philosophia) in sentence 2 of the Ep. 24 passage, where it appears to contribute to the problem. The key to fitting this remark within Seneca's Stoic framework is to realize that "philosophy," unlike "wisdom" or "virtue," is not an all-or-nothing concept for the Stoics. To say that "philosophy itself" contributes to ennui is not necessarily to imply that this philosophy is being understood and applied correctly Zeno himself, the founder of the Stoa, reportedly said: "Those who heard his words incorrectly and did not understand would be rude and illiberal" [TEXT NOT PEPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Athenaeus 565d). In letter 2, Seneca warns Lucilius against reading too many books, to which he imagines that Lucilius may respond, "But at one time I want to open this book, at another time, that book." To this Seneca answers, "It's the mark of a picky stomach [fustidientis stomachi est] to taste many things; when these things are various and different, they harm rather than nourish" (2.4). Thus, in the very practice of philosophical education, we find the danger of incorrect desire already coiled in wait. As there are limits to what foods we should reach for, so there are limits to our philosophical reading. Seneca consequently invites Lucilius to gather a small library of trusted books and pick one tiling each day "to digest." (unum excerpe quod illo die concoquas, 2.2).(25) In reading habits, as in listening to a lecture, there emerge the possibilities of "correct" and "incorrect" philosophizing. Stoic philosophy is a tricky complex of receiving precepts, drawing connections in systematic understanding, and habituating oneself to apply the doctrines.(26) This leaves abundant room for practitioners of philosophy to err (indeed, the Stoic "sage" is proverbially as rare as the phoenix), so we need not assume that the "philosophy" of letter 24 refers to Stoic cosmology in the grasp of one who understands it. As Seneca says in letter 78.26, "For the person reviewing the nature of things, the truth will never lead to distaste. It is false things that will cause satiety" (rerum naturam peragranti numquam in fastidium veritas veniet: falsa satiabunt.).(27)

We have come some way in qualifying our first existentialist reading of letter 24, but the fact remains that this letter ends with the enigmatic statement of the condition--Multi sunt, qui non acerbum iudicent vivere, sed supervacuum (sentence 7)--and without the moralizing corrective that Seneca applies in De tranquillitate and elsewhere. Even if no explicit moral follows, however, we shall not say that we find no relevant context for the passage. This is the third letter in the second book, in which the first two end as follows:
No one worries about how well they live [quam bene vivat], but how
long, although all may live well, but none may live long, (Ep. 22.17)
We should see to it that we have lived enough [ut satis vixerimus]:
no one provides for this, if he is just beginning life Indeed, some
start just when they must finish. If you think that's remarkable,
I'll add something you'll find more amazing: some have finished
living before they began. (Ep. 23.10-1)

Set against this inquiry into living "well" or "enough," the concern expressed in letter 24 (that living is "superfluous") begins to seem more like a variation on a theme. Yet the point of letters 22 and 23 is precisely that most people's worries over living, over its duration, are incorrect; they should rather strive to live "enough," where "enough" is proclaimed just by those individuals who have learned to live "well." Perhaps, then, the bored sufferers of letter 24 are a negative example, much like those who strain for longer life in letters 22 and 23.

The internal progression of letter 24 also suggests that we should read its conclusion critically. The letter's leitmotif is "anxiety" (sollicitudo), beginning with its opening line: "You write that you are anxious ... " (sol-licitum esse te scribis). Although the initial source of this anxiety is a trial, the letter encompasses many other worries, such as poverty, exile, imprisonment (1 6-7), and everywhere, as the ultimate concerns, physical pain (dolor) and death. Seneca offers a variety of consolations for these worries, ranging from the repeated (but unattributed) Epicurean assertion that pains are either brief and intense or long and mild (3, 14) to the examples of such role models as Cato, Socrates, and Mucius Scaevola. Finally, he adds his usual quotations from another author (as often, from Epicurus) in section 22: "It is laughable to run after death because you're tired of life [taedio vitae], when it is by your manner of living [genere vitae] that you've made it necessary to run after death." The desire to die, then, is just one more sollicitudo that Seneca means to lay to rest in this letter. He gives another variation on this thought in section 23 and then says: "Whichever of these you take up, you'll strengthen your mind for enduring either life or death. We require admonition on both counts, in order neither to love nor to hate life excessively [et ne nimis amemus vitam et ne nimis oderimus]" (24.24). Loving life (that is, fearing death) and hating it are thus represented as parallel anxieties, so that we have good reason to be skeptical of the "philosophical" weariness of living (vitae non odium sed fastidium, sentence 2). Of course, Seneca does allow that suicide may be an option in unusual conditions,(28) but he does not encourage us to think that those conditions are being met here. "A brave and wise man should depart from life, not flee from it," he says, "and let this passion also, which has seized many men, be avoided above all: the longing to die [libido moriendi]" (Ep. 24.25). Here he reminds us of his repeated assertion that suicide must be a choice made by reason, which comprehends by various signs that divine providence has released us.(29) It is for this reason that he prefaces this remark by saying, "Even when reason persuades you to put an end to yourself, this impulse should not be taken up rashly or hastily." Suicide is an option adopted after one has considered the ratio of the cosmos and where one fits. Such "ultimate necessities" as a painful illness may make it impossible to continue living "according to nature," as a Stoic ought,(30) but there is no evidence that weariness of life-is one of these necessities. To the contrary, in the light of Seneca's conceptual framework and the context of this letter, the sufferers appear rather to be themselves responsible for this ennui due to their "incorrect" thoughts and desires. Inasmuch, then, as this "longing to the" is opposedto "brave" and reasoned self-termination, and as such is something to be avoided (vitunda), we again find that the very parameters we imposed to create a foundation for existentialist explorations have in fact induced us to substantially weaken this particular reading.


The foregoing analysis is certainly not intended to foreclose the possibility of discovering existential ennui (angst, anxiety, etc.) in Roman literature, but rather to clear the ground for a historically, literarify, and philosophically sensitive encounter between these extremely different manners of constructing human experience. I prioritized lexical and thematic unities precisely in order to avoid what might be characterized either as anachronism (if we located a certain sort of ennui somehow in the ancient works) or as irreducible relativism (if we allowed that anyone might discover ennui anywhere). Yet these unities still allow for multiple readings. Not surprisingly, a Senecan passage that appears anxiously existentialist may come to seem comfortingly Stoic, if we allow our critical vision to be entirely determined by Seneca's conceptual universe. Perhaps we might find other passages without such subtle moralizing undertones. Perhaps no Roman author had the concepts, beliefs, and reader-ship that would allow them to generate a stream of consciousness such as appears to meet us in Hume's Treatise of Human Nature: "The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning..." ( Much less may the Romans have formulated a problem such as that outlined by Nietzsche: "What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; 'why?' finds no answer" (1968, aph. 2). However, using the Romans' conceptual machinery for orientation does not entail wholly buying into it. Regardless of the words through which we express existential dilemmas, Sartre might say, we are all at least "nonthetically" aware of them. Hence, we should ask, not where Seneca "puts his finger" on existential problems, but rather how and where those problems correspond to his conceptual schemes, argumentative and rhetorical frames, etc. I will outline just one such point of correspondence.

Instead of asking whether Seneca (or his textual persona) openly confronts an existential problem in letter 24, we might inquire instead how the paired Stoic absolutes of wisdom (correct philosophy, virtue) and folly (vice) relate to the existentialist problem of being. After all, whenthe Stoics say "there is nothing between virtue and vice" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Arius Didymus, Epit. of Stoic Ethics 5b8 [Pomeroy 1998]; cf. Diogenes Laertius 7.127), we could, with Heidegger and Sartre, probe further into the nature of this "nothing." Of course we should not be captivated by sophisms: there is rather an excess than a dearth of qualitative differentia between wisdom/virtue and vice/folly (the Stoic "paradox" states that all sages are healthy, free, successful, and friendly, while all fools are mad, enslaved, unsuccessful, and hostile), and we can also outline the educational and ascetic program by which Zeno's "covered fist" of knowledge, or Epictetus's "good faculty of choice," might eventually replace folly and vice.31 In these qualitative and developmental terms, there is plenty between virtue and vice. However, the very absolutism of the excluded middle--the fact that the existence of "progress" does not make wisdom or folly gradable qualities32---could be related to the human necessity, in Heidegger or Sartre, to "transcend" the given by "nihilating" it.33 Thus, we might re-inspect the totalizing concern in Seneca that links desire, temperance, and affect. On the one hand, this is the domain of progress; but on the other, as it is idealized in the pursuit of sagedom, or panoramically glimpsed in the meditation on death, it is the crossing of an infinite gap and the appropriation of a new, inalienable totality34 Does this not bear comparison with the Sartrean drive toward being "in-itself-for-itself" (1966, 704-6)? If so, it is not the desperation of De tranquillitate 2 that represents Stoic ennui but the uncertain grasp on progress--the fluctuatio (Tranq. 1.17)--that Serenus articulates at the beginning of the dialogue. Sartre uses "vertigo" as an image of "anguish" before our nihilating freedom (What stops me from choosing to throw myself over the railing? Nothing), while Serenus, speaking of his weak virtue [bonae mentis infirmitas), worries "that I shall always be leaning over like someone about to fall."35 Similarly, the "philosophical" restlessness of letter 24, rather than being a reaction to the oppressive perfection of the cosmos, might arise from, inter alia, a premonition that no quantity of daily actions will add up to the quiescent plenum of being a perfected member of that ideal cosmos (that is, a sage).36

Of course, I should now proceed to deepen the correspondence I have just adumbrated by supporting it with a renewed analysis of letter 24 or of other, perhaps less superficially "existential" passages. I would also want to develop further a theoretical apparatus for relating the non-thetic existential concerns, which I have just posited, to Seneca's reflectively Stoic program. According to the relation I have begun to outline, existential ennui would find expression in the incompletely integrated margins of that program (e.g., Serenus's uneasiness). This is one place a committed Stoic might explore the anxiety that, even granted the soundness of his theory and sincerity of his practice, nevertheless something makes itself felt as lacking. There could certainly be other places as well, which we might elucidate through a subtler appropriation of existentialist theory, a more careful survey of Seneca's writings, or both. Whatever the details of any such approach, its methodological presupposition would remain the same: if we want to apply an alien conceptual system to Roman texts, the results will interest a larger interpretive community insofar as we acknowledge the literary, doctrinal, and argumentative or narrative structures around which we usually take those texts to be built.

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1 So Toohey 2004, 49: "What is wrong with Persius? In his magnificent Satires 3 he seems to suffer a strange psychological illness...." This article began life in a panel on post-Hellenistic philosophy at the 2006 meeting of the American Philological Associa tion. I would like to thank the chair (Brad Inwood) and participants in that meeting, as well as the editor and anonymous reader at Helios, for their helpful comments. All translations from classical texts are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

2 Hooley's (1997, 202-29) much more complex treatment still presumes this basic narrative structure. On the multivalence of the concept of "disease" in Greek thought, see Lloyd 2003, esp. chs. 1 and 8; on mental disease particularly, Pigeaud 1981.

3 Camus wished to distance himself from what he called "1' attitude existentielle" (1942, 61-9), but the position of The Myth of Sisyphus is "existentialist" in my sense because an ineluctable dissatisfaction with the human condition is one of its funda mental elements. See further below.

4 Odes 2.16.17-20: quid brevi fortes iaculamur aevo / multa? quid terras alio calentis /sole inutamus? patriae quis exsul./ se quoque fugit?

5 I owe this suggestion to David Konstan.

6 Two famous examples are the prologues to Livy and to Sallust's Bellum Catilinac.

7 General studies include Nussbaum 1994, Sihvola and Engberg-Pedersen 1998, and Sorabji 2000. For more detailed studies, see notes 8-1 1 below.

8 Of course Plato more famously divides, in the Republic, the soul into three parts-appetitive, spirited, and rational--but Fortenbaugh (1975, 9-44) argues cogently that the Laws anticipate the bipartition of Aristotle's ethical psychology. Plato does not use pathetikon to refer to an "affective" aspect/part of the soul, and Aristotle uses the word in this way only in the Politics (e.g., 1254b8); however, a middle Platonist like Plutarch frequently speaks of "the irrational and affective/passive part".(to pathetikon kai alogon; see, e.g., passim in De prof. virt. mor.; De tranq. anim. 465b, 475c), apparently unde the influence of the physical psychology of Plato's Timaeus.

9 See Long and Sedley 1987, [section]65 for a selection of texts with basic commentary. Inwood's (1985, 127-81) clearheaded treatment remains among the best but already takes stances on the controversial issues that are differently developed by Nussbaum 1994, 316-401; Sorabji 2000; Tieleman 2003; and Brennan 2005, 82-114.

10 The "master catalogue" is pseudo-Andronicus (Thirry 1977), but lists also appear at Arms Didymus, Epitome of Stoic Ethics 10B-C (Pomeroy 1 998) and Diogenes Laertius 7.111-4.

11. On Horace and philosophy, see Moles 2002. On Unman thinking about the emotions, see Braund and Gill 1997. On Romans and Stoic emotional theory particularly, see Cicero, Tusc. 3-4, with Graver's (2002) translation and commentary.

12 On Horatian "face," see Schrijvers 1992 and Oliensis 1998.

13 See Inwood 2005, esp. chs. 2 and 5 (23-64 and 132-56, respectively) and Veyne 2003,31-155.

14 To this we should at least add that this troubled relation is inescapable: humans must be both factitious and contingent (as symbolized by our births and deaths) and free (as experienced in our anxious responsibility for our being), and the two are inex tricable: Sartre 1966, 618-29.

15 Lotito 2001, 41-67 and Abel 1995, 104-32; cf. also Foucault 2005, 130-5,

16 Cf. Horace, Ep. 1.8.12: Romae Tibur amem ventosus, Tibure Romam. As has been noted, Lucretius 3.1053-70 is another parallel (Seneca cites Lucretius 3.1068 at Tranq. 2.14 and discusses Epicurus's remarks on the same topic at Ep. 24.22-3).

17 Lotito 2001, 64: "Dolore e piacere si intricano, in qualche modo si perde il senso della loro distinzione. Si prepara cosi lo stadio finale: quello arvestetico della noia esistenziale, del sempre-uguale."

18 Abel 1995, 104. Abel's language frequently recalls the terminology of Nietzsche and Heidegger. For example, he speaks of the malaise in De tranquillitate as as "pure Langeweile" (107) or "blasierte Langeweile" (116), and portrays the project of Stoic tranquility as the "vornehmste Daseinsaufgabe" (132).

19 For Camus (1942, 16), this is very clear: Je juge done que le sens de la vie est la plus pressante des questions." Heidegger and Sartre make "being" rather than "meaning" or "value" the primary concern for every individual, but for each it turns out that the being of the "self" either is, or is defined, in terms of value/meaning (this cannot he fully grasped in any short passage of their work, but see Sartre 1966, 143-6 and Heidegger 1962, 192-4, 364-70 = [section][section]32 and 64).

20 For convenience of reference, see Long and Sedley 1987, [section]54B, although [section]54U records disputes about the relation of fate to providence. At greater length, sec Dufour 2004, frags. 307-40, 542, 915,1130-4.

21 Seneca, Q Nat. 3.29.2-3: Ah initio eius [mundi] usque ad exitum quidquid facere quidquid puti debeat inclusum est. Cf. Dufour 2004, frags. 95 1-5. On Seneca and providential nature, cf. Veyne 2003, 41-6.

22.At Nat. 3.29.2, Seneca mentions the conflagratio (in Greek, ekpurosis), but his extended discussion there pertains to the periodical inundation that brings a terminus or exitus to humankind (Nat. 3.29.5, 7). Thereafter humans are reborn "uncivilized and innocent" (rudes innoxiique,, 3.29.5), only again to decline, be eradicated, and reborn. Seneca even seems to accept that individual humans will be reborn in each world cycle (mors, quam pertimescimus ac recusamus, intermittit vitam, non eripit: veniet iterum, qui nos in lucem reponat dies. quern multi recusarent, nisi oblitos reduceret, Ep. 36. 10-1).

23 See Bonhoffer 1890, 256; Inwood 1985, 117-9;Hadot 1998,73-100.

24 In addition to the statement in De tranquil01!"date that, all vice leads to "displeasure with oneself" (2.2), see also Ep. 9.22: Omnis siultitia fustidio sui.

25 On this letter, cf. Albrecht 2004, 26-9.

2b On the interrelation of precepts and habituation in Stoicism of this period, see Seneca, Ep. 95 and Musonius Rufus, frags. 5-6 (Hense 1905). On the systematicity of understanding [katalepsis and epistane) in Stoic theory, see Long and Sedley 1987, [section]40 (with commentary).

27 Note that "truth," contrary to English tisage, may also refer to systematic understanding in Stoic theory (Scxtus Empiricus, Pyr. 2,81-3).

28 See Griffin 1976, 367-88. Seneca's actual suicide is situated against )ulio-Clau-dian mores in Griffin 1986a and 1986b. Wyllie (1973, 15-6, 25-8) compares the Stoic position with that of Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, though his interpretation of Seneca is refuted by Griffin's work.

29 Ep. 14.2; Vit. Beat. 20.5 (cited in Griffin 1976, 374 note 3).

'30 Ep. I 7.9: Sed si necessitates ultimae inciderint, iamdudum exihit e vita et molestus esse sibi desinet. See Griffin 1976, 374-7, who notes that although Seneca elsewhere speaks of "departing" before the "ultimate necessity" arrives (e.g., Ep. 70.5, 117.21), these departures arc still represented as justified by reason.

31 On the "paradoxes" associated with the Stoic sage, see Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta [= SVF] 1.216-29, 3.544-684. Zeno likened assent (assensus or sunkatathesis) to an open hand, "comprehension" (comprensio or katalepsis) to a fist, and "knowledge" (scientia or episteme) to that fist grasped tightly by the other: Cicero, Acad. 2.145 (= Long and Sedley 1987, [section]41A). For Epictetus's definition of the good (ouoia tou ayaGou; raid), see his Disc. 1.29.1.

32 Concisely explained in Brennan 2005, 36-45.

33 Heidegger 1962, 228-35 (= [section]40) and Sartre 1966, 33-85, 125-6.

34 Some Stoics held that sagedom (i.e., virtue) could never be lost (it was anapobletos), while Chrysippus and others apparently admitted a small qualification: it could be lost through altered states (inebriation or medicine) or madness {SVF 3.237-44). On meditation on death, see Foucault 2005, 504-5 and Hadot 2002, ] 90-8.

35 Seneca, Tranq. 1.15: Vereor ... ne semper casuro similis pandeam. Cf. Sartre 1966, 65-9 and Heidegger's (1962, 232) characterization of "Being free for" as an anxious propensio in ...

36 Of course, even an existentialist reading need not insist that the analysis of the wisdom-ideal is exhausted in these categories. For an excellent discussion of the sage from the perspective of various traditions, see Veyne 2003, 66-81.
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