Excerpt(s) #20 — Seneca, Letters 58 & 65 on the Scale of Nature, and on the Ideas and on Form: Stoicism Compared & Contrasted with Aristotle & Plato

In recent excerpts, we have looked at passages relating to what is meant by the language about form, first from Plato, then Aristotle on Plato, and then Cicero on the path from Socrates through Aristotle, have been cited. There is nothing exhaustive about this inventory of excerpts, though they are helpful. Here, we look at Seneca.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. — A.D. 65, usually simply known as “Seneca”, or else “Seneca the Younger” to distinguish him from his father, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Elder) usually follows after Cicero (106 B.C. — 43 B.C.) in modern histories of Roman Stoic philosophy. Stoicism is, of course, Greek in its origins, but became a Latin inheritance, and was, perhaps, better suited to the temperament of Latin culture than was Platonism. The chronological priority Cicero enjoys in the Latin Stoic tradition, however, is overshadowed by the priority of influence that Seneca enjoys as a source for our knowledge of Stoic ethics [1], if not Stoicism itself. (Sadly, some significant sections of Cicero have been lost.) Stoicism is often touted as more practical, more pragmatic, than Platonism; perhaps accordingly, it may not come as a surprise to learn that the Stoic Seneca was, as is often noted, a senior advisor to the emperor Nero. He was forced to commit suicide in A.D. 65 because of his suspected involvement in plotting against the emperor; his Letters were likely written during retirement after A.D. 62.

Seneca was a rather eclectic Stoic, however. Arguments have been made to include him in the history of the Platonic tradition. [2] Certainly both his familiarity and engagement with the larger Greco-Roman philosophical tradition makes him fit to be included in this series of excerpts, which largely focus on Plato, and which are largely preparatory for other work here.

The texts are found in Brad Inwood’s Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Here, Seneca is interested in substance or being in its many senses, particularly in what he claims are the six senses that Plato gives to “being”. I make no claim that Seneca is being faithful to Plato; scholars usually categorize the Platonism on display here as “Middle Platonism”. The reading of Platonic themes through the Categories of Aristotle will be immediately apparent to the informed reader. Of interest to specialists: it is not clear whether a genus shares an essence in a strong sense in Seneca. Seneca starts by gathering things up into larger and larger categories, until he comes to the all-encompassing category of being. He then looks at the process of division, and then looks at what he claims are the six sense of being in Plato.

In the Introduction to this volume, Inwood specifically cautions against excerpting passages from Seneca’s Letters and separating them from their literary context within the corpus of letters. The Letters were not meant to be read as isolated arguments, but as literary wholes. I concede that he is likely correct, but I proceed knowing that we gain more than we lose, dear reader, by at least excerpting. Without further introduction, our excerpts from Letter 58:

8. Our friend, a very learned person, was saying today that this term [vi&., “being”] has six senses in Plato. I will be able to explain all of them to you, if I first point out that there is such a thing as a genus and so too a species. But we are now looking for that primary genus on which other species depend and which is the source of every division and in which all things are included. It will be found if we start to pick things out, one by one, starting in reverse order. We will thus be brought to the primary [genus].

9. Human is a species, as Aristotle says, horse is a species, dog is a species. So we have to look for something common to them all, a linkage which contains them and is ranged above them. What is this? Animal. So there starts to be a genus for all those things I just mentioned (human, horse, dog), vi&., animal.

10. But some things have a soul but are not animals. For it is generally agreed that plants too have a soul, and so we say that they live and die. Therefore ‘ensouled [living] things’ will have a higher rank because both animals and plants are in this category. But some things lack soul (rocks, e.g.). Therefore there will be something more basic than ensouled things, vi&. body. I will divide it in such a way as to claim that all bodies are either ensouled or soulless.

11. Furthermore, there is something superior to body; for we say that some things are corporeal and some are incorporeal. So what will the source of these things be? That to which we just now assigned the inappropriate name ‘what is’. For it will be divided into species in such a way that we can say: ‘what is’ is either corporeal or incorporeal.

12. This, therefore, is the primary and most basic genus — the generic genus, so to speak. The others are genera, to be sure, but specific genera. For example, human is a genus, since it contains within itself as a species nationalities (Greeks, Romans, Parthians) and colors (white, black, blond-haired); it also contains individuals (Cato, Cicero, Lucretius). So in so far as it contains many, it is classified as a genus; in so far as it falls under some other, it is classified as a species. The generic genus ‘what is’ has nothing above itself; it is the starting point for things; everything falls under it.


14. I divide ‘what is’ into these species: things are corporeal or incorporeal; there is no third possibility. How do I divide body? So that I can say: they are either ensouled [vi&., alive] or soulless [vi&., dead]. Again, how do I divide ensouled things? So that I can say this: some have mind, some merely have soul — or this: some have impulse, move, and relocate; and some are fastened in the ground, nourished by roots, and grow. Again, into what species do I divide animals? They are either mortal or immortal.


16. Now I return to the topic I promised you: how Plato divides all the things that are into six senses. The first ‘what is’ is not grasped by vision, by touch, or by any sense. It is thinkable. What is in a generic way, e.g., generic human, is not subject to being seen. But a specific human is, such as Cicero and Cato. Animal is not seen; it is thought. But its species, horse and dog, are seen.

17. Plato puts second among things which are that which is outstanding and surpasses everything. He says that this ‘is’ par excellence. ‘Poet’ is a common description — for this name is given to all who compose verses; but among the Greeks it has yielded to the fame of one. When you hear ‘the poet’ you understand ‘Homer’. So what is this [which Plato says ‘is’ par excellence]? God, of course, greater and more powerful than everything else.

18. There is a third genus of things which ‘are’ in the proper sense. They are countless but located beyond our view. What, you ask, are they? It’s a bit of Plato’s personal baggage; he calls them ‘ideas’; they are the source of everything we see and all things are shaped by reference to them. They are deathless, unchangeable, immune to harm.

19. Listen to what an ‘idea’ is, i.e., what Plato thinks it is. ‘An idea is the eternal model of those things which are produced by nature.’ I will add to the definition an interpretation so that it will be clearer to you. I want to produce an image of you. I have you as a model for the painting, from which our mind derives a certain disposition which it imposes on its work. In this way the appearance which teaches me and guides me, the source of the imitation, is an idea. Nature, then, contains an indefinite number of such models — of humans, fish, trees. Whatever is to be produced by nature is shaped with reference to them.

20. ‘Form’ will have fourth place. You need to pay close attention to the account of what ‘form’ is. Blame Plato, not me, for the difficulty of the topic: there is no technicality without difficulty. A moment ago I used the example of a painter. When he wanted to render Vergil with colors, he looked at Vergil himself. The ‘idea’ was Vergil’s appearance, a model for the intended work. The form is that which the artisan derives from the appearance and imposed on his own work.

21. You ask, what is the difference between idea and form? The one is a model, while the other is a shape taken from the model and imposed on the work. The artisan imitates the one and produces the other. A statue has a certain appearance — this is its form. The model itself has a certain appearance which the workman looked at when he shaped the statue. This is the idea. If you still want a further distinction, the form is in the work and the idea outside it — and not only outside it but prior to it.

22. The fifth genus is of those things which ‘are’ in the ordinarily accepted sense. These begin to be relevant to us; everything is here — humans, herds, possessions. The sixth genus is of those things which ‘as it were’ are, such as the void, such as time.

Plato does not count the things we see or touch among those that he thinks ‘are’ in the strict sense. For they are in flux and constantly engaged in shrinkage and growth. None of us is the same in old age as in youth. None of us is the same the next day as he was the day before. Our bodies are swept along like rivers. Whatever you see runs with [the passage of] time. None of what we see is stable. I myself, while saying that those things are changing, have changed.

So far as I know, the greek ιδεα is simply translated into Latin as forma, so that the differentiation of the two (vi&., idea vs. form) is not Plato, but Platonism. Inwood himself comments that “the ideas” are taken by Seneca

as distinctively and personally Plato’s. […]

The emphasis here [in Seneca’s passage] is on the forms as models for making something and so the role of the Timaeus 28a and other passages which emphasize that forms are what one ‘looks to’ in making or doing something may be suspected here (e.g., Euthyphro 6e, Cratylus 390e, Hippias Major 299e, Republic 472c, 477c, 484c). The ‘ideas’ govern only natural kinds on this theory, not artefacts (such as the bed or the shuttle) and the examples offered here are biological kinds (humans, fish, trees). Puzzles about the scope of the theory of forms raised by, e.g., the Parmenides are not considered here. The example of painting is only an analogy for the meaning of ‘idea’ here, though it is one familiar from Platonism. Cicero uses painting as well as sculpture at Orator 8-10 to capture this sense of idea, which Cicero translates as forma, a term avoided by Seneca here.  [Inwood, 125-126]

The Platonism on display is Middle Platonic, not simply an exposition of Plato himself (whose thought, of course, developed over time). The graded nature of the world here is not the same as that within Neoplatonism. Indeed, “no mapping of the modes onto actual Platonic doctrines is close enough to inspire confidence” [Inwood, 124]. Apparently a great deal of attention given to this passage is with an eye to scrying out whether there was a Platonic handbook behind it; the history of Platonic handbooks or manuals being of interest independent from our passage.

The language of being here, as Inwood notes in the comments, strongly suggests top-down causality.

The reference to color, if it is really referring to race (and not merely qualities), is “highly unusual” for this in antiquity, as Inwood notes. [see Inwood, 119]

Letter 65:

[10] Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: […]

2. […] As you know, those of our school, the Stoics, say that there are two things in nature from which everything comes to be, cause and matter. Matter is passive, suitable for anything and bound to remain idle if no one moves it. But cause, i.e., reason, shapes matter, turns it wherever it wishes, and generates from it a wide range of works. So a thing must have a source of becoming and an agent of becoming. The former is its matter and the latter its cause.

3. Every craft is an imitation of nature, and so apply what I was saying about the universe to the artefacts which humans make. A statue had matter, to yield to the artisan, and an artisan, to give a shape to the matter. So in the case of the statue the material was the bronze and the cause was the workman. The same state of affairs holds for all things — they consist of that which becomes and that which makes.

4. The Stoic view is that there is one cause, that which makes.

Aristotle thinks that cause is said in three ways. The first cause, he says, is the material itself, without which nothing can be produced. The second is the workman. The third is the form, which is imposed on each work as it is on a statue. For Aristotle calls this the form. ‘A fourth cause,’ he says ‘accompanies these: the purpose of the entire product.’

5. I will explain what this is.

[11] The bronze is the first cause of a statue; for it never would have been made if there had not existed the material from which it could be cast or shaped. The second cause is the artisan. For the bronze could not have been shaped into the configuration of a statue unless skilled hands were applied to it. The third cause is the form. For the statue would not be called the ‘spear-carrier’ or the ‘boy tying up his hair’ unless this shape had been imposed on it. The fourth cause is the purpose of making it. For if there had been no purpose the statue would not have been made.

6. What is the purpose? It is what motivated the artisan, what he sought in making it. Either it is money (if he produced it for sale) or glory (if he worked for renown) or piety (if he made it as a temple offering). Therefore this too is a cause on account of which it is made. Or do you not think we should count as a cause that in whose absence the artefact would not have been produced?

7. To these causes Plato adds a fifth, the model, which he himself calls an ‘idea’. For this is what the artisan looked to in making what he planned to make. And in fact it is not relevant whether he has an external model to which he can direct his gaze, or an internal model which he himself conceived of an placed there. God has within himself models of all things and he has grasped with his intellect the aspects and modes of every thing which is to be done. He is full of the shapes which Plato calls ‘ideas’ — immortal, unchanging, and untiring. So humans pass away, of course, but human-ness itself, with reference to which a human being is shaped, persists. Human beings may struggle and die, but it suffers nothing.

8. So, on Plato’s view, there are five causes: that from which, that by which, that in which, that with reference to which, that because of which. Last of all is that which comes from them. For example, a statue (since I have already begun to use this example). The ‘from which’ is bronze, the ‘by which’ is the artisan, the ‘in which’ is the form which is fitted to the matter, the ‘with reference to which’ is the model which the maker imitates, the ‘because of which’ is the purpose of the maker, and ‘what comes from them’ is the statue itself.

9. The cosmos too, according to Plato, has all of them: a maker (this is god), a ‘from which’ (this is matter), a form (this is the configuration and order of the visible cosmos), a model (i.e., what god looked to in making this vast and most beautiful work), and a purpose because of which he made it.

10. You ask, what is god’s purpose? Goodness. So, to be sure, Plato says, ‘What was the cause for god making the cosmos? That he is good. [12] A good person does not begrudge any good thing, and so he made it as good as possible.’

All right, then, you be the judge and give a verdict, proclaim which one seems to say what most closely resembles the truth, not which one says what is truest — for that is as far above us as is truth itself.

11. The swarm of causes which is posited by Plato and Aristotle includes either too many or too few. For if they decide that the cause of making something is anything whose absence means that the thing cannot be made, then they have stated too few. Let them include ‘time’ among the causes; nothing can be made without time. Let them include place; if there isn’t a place for something to be made it surely won’t be made. Let them include motion. Nothing is either done or perishes without it; there is no craft without motion, no change.

12. But what we are now looking for is a primary and generic cause. This should be simple, since matter too is simple. Do we ask what cause is? To be sure, it is reason in action, i.e., god. For all those things you people have cited are not many distinct causes; rather, they depend on one, the active cause.

13. Do you say that the form is a cause? The artisan imposes it on his work. It is a part of the cause, not the cause. The model too is not a cause but a means necessary for the cause. The model is necessary for the artisan just as the scraper and the file are necessary. Without these the craft cannot make progress, but still they are not parts or causes of the craft.

14. He says, ‘The purpose of the artisan, because of which he proceeds to make something, is also a cause.’ Granted that it is a cause, it is not an efficient cause but a subsequent cause. But there are countless causes of this sort, and we are asking about a generic cause. But they weren’t using their customary sophistication when they said that the entire cosmos, i.e., the finished work, is a cause. For there is a big difference between the work and the cause of the work.

[…] [13] 19. Do you ban me from an investigation of nature, drag me away from the whole and confine me to a part? Shall I not investigate the principles of all things? Who gave them form? Who made distinctions among things which were melded into one and enmeshed in passive matter? Shall I not enquire who is the artisan of this cosmos? How so great a mass was reduced to lawlike structure? Who gathered the scattered bits, who separated what was combined and brought shape to things lying in unsightly neglect? Where did this great light come from? Is it fire or something brighter than fire?

20. Shall I not ask these questions? Shall I remain ignorant of my origins? Am I to see these things just once or am I to be born many ties? Where am I to go from here? What residence awaits the soul when it is freed from the laws of human servitude?

[…] [14]

23. To return to my point […] [t]o be sure, all things are formed from matter and god. God regulates those things which surround and follow him as guide and leader. But the active principle, i.e., god, is more powerful and more valuable than the matter which submits to god.

24. The place which god occupies in this cosmos corresponds to mind’s place in a human being. Matter there corresponds to the body in us. So let the inferior serve the better. […]

The anachronisms about ascribing certain things to Plato are obvious to anyone who knows the Platonic texts, but the passage is interesting for what it shows. It is also interesting that “Plato’s doctrines are alleged to include Aristotle’s” [Inwood, 140].

It should also be noted that here we see a transition from Plato’s theory of forms to the Middle Platonic theory of forms as “ideas in the mind of God”.



Marcia L. Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, vol. 1: the Stoic Tradition in Classical Latin Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 126.

Amazon.com here, Google Books preview here.


So see the compelling arguments throughout chapter two of Stephen Gersh, Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism, The Latin Tradition, vol. I (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1986)


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