How to Read Seneca Today

Ilsetraut Hadot’s “Preface” and “Introduction” to Sénèque. Direction spirituelle et pratique de la philosophie

Bringing them the plague

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As I explained in the opener, the purpose of these blog entries will be to provide sequenced commentaries on the sections of Ilsetraut Hadot’s magnificent book (in English), Seneca: Spiritual Direction and the Practice of Philosophy as I am able to find time to translate them across the next (I guess) 12–24 months [13 June 2022].

I start today with the “Preface” and “Introduction”. Later this week, or early next, I’ll look at the very brief opening two chapters, which see Hadot defining the key ideas of “spiritual direction” and “exhortation” or paranêsis, as they relate to Seneca’s philosophical writings.

The history of the text

Hadot’s “Preface” talks first of the history of the text. It was first conceived and achieved as Seneca und die griechish-romische Tradition der Seelenleitung, a dissertation completed in 1965, then published in German in 1969. From that time, the demands of life and her scholarly work kept Ilsetraut Hadot from returning to the text, and attempting a translation of it into French.

The present text is derived from the thesis. It adds material from several of Hadot’s later texts, including one I think would be of the greatest interest to the modern Stoic readership to translate, given time: “Tradition stoicienne et idées politiques au temps des Grecques” (“The Stoic Tradition and Political Ideas in the Time of the Greeks”).

Hadot notes that, because of the work of her husband Pierre, meanwhile, the idea of “an essay on philosophy as spiritual direction in Graeco-Roman antiquity” seems a lot less exotic than it had in the 1960s. With this in view, and also the continuing contest of interpretations around Seneca which we’ll speak about in a moment, Hadot was drawn to republish the work in French in 2014, nearly fifty years after its first publication.

Seneca and spiritual direction

The “Introduction” begins with a polemical edge which we will meet often enough as we work through the text:

No specialist on Seneca the Younger except Brad Inwood very recently, as far as I am aware, has ever doubted or contested that the direction and healing [guerison] of souls represents the central concern of this author…

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Bringing them the plague

Freud's response on arrival in America, some Camus; blogs of philosophy, psychology, culture and politics. (Formerly Castalian Stream, now less pretentious)