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Abstract

Stoic ethics is widely presented by both ancient critics and modern readers as dogmatically intellectualist and antithetical to the emotions in any form. In this dissertation, I question this blanket assumption and argue that Seneca recognizes the pedagogical benefits of what we today would call moral emotions. In his Letters and Dialogues, Seneca repeatedly urges his addressees to feel ashamed about their missteps or inspires them to the pursuit of the moral good by means of incisive sententiae or vivid portrayals of exemplary men and women who embodied their truth. Most existing scholarship argues that such appeals to the emotions conflict with the intellectualism of the Stoic school and concludes that Seneca was an eclectic or pragmatic philosopher who either disregarded theoretical consistency or aligned himself with a supposedly anti-intellectualist tendency in later Stoicism. In this dissertation, I question this reading of Seneca and show that his approach does not reject Stoic intellectualism but in fact appropriates a key tenet of it, namely the recognition that all human beings possess “seeds of the virtues” from birth. Following the early Greek Stoics, Seneca argues that such “seeds” are implanted in us by Nature’s providence and serve as starting-points (aphormai) for our pursuit of the moral good. In each of my chapters, I show that key passages from the Letters in which Seneca recommends seemingly unorthodox forms of admonition, such as shaming his interlocutors, or confronting them with awe-inspiring exempla, explicitly refer to this Stoic concept of “seeds of the virtues”. When Seneca employs forms of admonition that elicit moral emotions such as shame or admiration, in other words, he is not eliciting misguided emotions but activating his addressees’ natural and inborn inclination towards the moral good.

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