Stoic Therapy of Grief: A Prolegomenon to Seneca's "Ad Marciam, de Consolatione"

Dissertation, Cornell University (1999)

In this dissertation I offer an analysis and interpretation of the philosophical consolatio written by Seneca the Younger to Marcia, a member of the Roman nobility, on the death of her young son. Each chapter focuses---with some necessary overlap---on a different aspect of Seneca's complex synthesis of a wide range of consolatory elements within a single Stoic project. In my introductory chapter I look at the literary and philosophical background of the piece; challenging the idea that it can be read as a purely generic composition stemming from the Academic tradition of consolatio, I argue that Seneca is in fact working from a Stoic standpoint and that his philosophical affiliations inform every aspect of the piece. As the rest of the dissertation demonstrates, his goals and methods clearly reflect the preoccupations of the Stoic school: grief is treated as a vice ideally to be extirpated; Marcia is fully responsible for her suffering and morally independent of her external circumstances; the world is perfect, rational and benevolent. In Chapter 2, I investigate and challenge the assumption that Seneca has mitigated the Stoic ideal of apatheia, in recognition of the fact that his school's ideal is unrealistic in practice. In Chapter 3, I look at the way in which Seneca seeks to remove the underlying error behind Marcia's grief, namely the belief that her son's death is a bad thing, worthy of her extreme distress. He suggests instead that the young man's death is a blessing, as is only fitting in a providential world. In Chapter 4, I look at the method by which Seneca introduces Marcia to the complexity of Nature's---and Stoicism's---ethical demands. By revealing and reflecting the role played by perspective in creating the apparent paradox of evil within a providential world, Seneca shows his addressee the reason for her misunderstanding and persuades her of her ultimate capacity to relinquish her grief and pursue virtue's path of apatheia
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