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Classics Speaker Series: Catharine Edwards

Friday, October 20, 2023 at 4:30pm to 6:00pm

Goldwin Smith Hall, G22
232 East Ave, Central Campus

Breathing freely: body, mind and personal identity in Seneca’s philosophical writing
Seneca, in Letter 54, describes vividly the terrifying grip of an asthma attack, an experience he has suffered repeatedly.  That intense feeling of shortness of breath he strives to turn to account, he claims, treating it as a rehearsal for the end of his life.  Elsewhere, too, we find Seneca drawing on episodes of bodily ill health or infirmity which are made to serve as crucial opportunities for self-improvement on the road to psychic well-being.  Such physical, embodied experiences are necessarily deeply personal in nature.  The route to self-transformation in Seneca’s Stoicism, insofar as it is rooted in such individual experiences, seems equally personal and specific. Indeed Margaret Graver (2014) and Gretchen Reydams-Schils (2020) have emphasised how central to Seneca’s Stoicism is a first-person view of lived reality. 

And yet other letters (notably 65, which will also be a particular focus of my discussion) seem to take a significantly different approach, as Seneca envisages becoming his best self, his mind (animus) attaining its full potential, when his body is, so far as possible, forgotten. Brad Inwood (2007), Graver (2014), Reydams-Schils (2005, 2010) and Williams (2016) have highlighted the part played by transcendence in Seneca’s work. What implications, I want to ask, might these apparently opposing tendencies have for ideas of personal identity in Seneca’s Stoicism?

Catharine Edwards is Professor of Classics & Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and was President of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies from 2015-18. Her many publications on Seneca include ‘Self-scrutiny and self-transformation in Seneca’s Letters’ Greece & Rome 44 (1997) 23-38, ‘The epistolographic self: the role of the individual in Seneca’s letters’ 227-49 in M. Niehoff and J. Levinson eds. Self, self-fashioning and individuality in late antiquity (Tübingen 2019) and ‘Visualizing Pain: Psychotherapy, Emotion, and Embodied Cognition in Seneca’s Letters’ Classical Antiquity 40.2 (2021) 221–48. Her edition of selected letters of Seneca was published in the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series in 2019.

Reception will follow.

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cascal, cashum, classicsevents

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Ryan T Belle

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Catharine Edwards

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Birkbeck College, University of London

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