Seneca’s Stoic Role-Models
Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013. All rights reserved. An excerpt from Teach yourself Stoicism. Image of Zeno, copyright the trustees of the British Museum.
The followers of Epicurus placed importance on possessing portraits or rings bearing his likeness, which may perhaps have helped them imagine his salutary presence accompanying them in life (Hadot, 2002, p. 124). The British Museum actually possess an ornate gem from the Roman imperial period depicting Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, which possibly served a similar purpose. Seneca likewise says that Stoics should keep likenesses of great men and even celebrate their birthdays (Letters, 65). He lists his favourite philosophical role-models as:
- Plato – somewhat surprisingly for a Stoic!
- Zeno, the founder of Stoicism
- Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa
- Laelius the Wise, one of the first famous Roman Stoics
- Cato of Utica, the great Roman Stoic political hero
Elsewhere, he gives a beautiful account of this practice, drawing on Epicurean teachings:
‘We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.’ This, my dear Lucilius, is Epicurus’ advice, and in giving it he has given us a guardian and a moral tutor – and not without reason, either: misdeeds are greatly diminished if a witness is always standing near intending doers. The personality should be provided with someone it can revere, someone whose influence can make even its private, inner life more pure. Happy the man who improves other people not merely when he is in their presence but even when he is in their thoughts! And happy, too, is the person who can so revere another as to adjust and shape his own personality in the light of recollections, even, of that other. (Letters, 11)
The image of this exemplary person should therefore be recalled frequently “either as your guardian or as your model”, as someone observing us, and perhaps offering guidance, or as an ideal to emulate. Seneca puts it nicely when he says that we need the concept of a genuinely “wise and good” person as a standard against which to measure ourselves because “Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”