What Did Seneca Know About Babies?

Not much, to judge by E. M. 22.15, where Natura addresses those dying old:

‘Sine cupiditatibus uos genui, sine timoribus, sine superstitione, sine perfidia ceterisque pestibus; quales intrastis exite.’

“I engendered you without desires, without fears, without superstition, without treachery and the other curses; go out as you were when you came in.”

Very eloquent, but since when are babies born sine cupiditatibus? They have very little else in mind except a few basic desires: to be fed, held, kept clean and warm, and allowed to sleep, all with very little notice and the expectation of immediate obedience. What was Seneca thinking when he wrote this?

I’ve been leafing through the Epistulae Morales, rereading the two dozen or so I’ve read before and dipping into others. Time to read them through? Perhaps not: there are an awful lot of them.

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2 Responses to What Did Seneca Know About Babies?

  1. Bob Zisk says:

    His use of cupiditates, I think, is a little different – more specialized, restricted in scope – than yours. The types of “desires” which you specify are probably not what Seneca had in mind here. What you call desires are rather the bare instinctual drives, the bases for further differentiation and development out of this sense of, what modern neurologists might call proprioception and exteroception, and which, I think, correspond more closely with what Seneca elsewhere calls constitutionis suae sensus.

    Hierocles uses for this type of response the analogy of an inverted tortoise righting itself. Interestingly neurologists such as Sherrington use similar examples, e.g. the image of a frog on its back trying to get onto its feet, or the posture of a frog fixated on a fly.

    Cupiditates (most often in the plural) refers here – it would seem – to passions or strong desires, emotions – in short, activities which involve developed faculties of rational choice and/or volition. The bare drives which you seem to include under cupiditates in all likelihood would have been considered by Stoics examples of OIKEIWSIS or self awareness common to all animals, and which, for humans are the sine qua non for the cultivation of knowledge – whether it be of good or of evil, of virtue or of vice.

    “The first thing appropriate to every animal from the moment of birth is its own constitution and the consciousness of this.” (Chrysippus in Diogenes Laertius, VII.85)

    “It is wrong for man to begin and end where the non-rational animals do. He should rather begin where they do and end where nature has ended in our case.” (Epictetus, Discourses, 1.6.20)

    Placet his, inquit, quorum ratio mihi probatur, simulatque natum sit animal—hinc enim est ordiendum—, ipsum sibi conciliari et commendari ad se conservandum et ad suum statum eaque, quae conservantia sint eius status, diligenda, alienari autem ab interitu iisque rebus, quae interitum videantur adferre. id ita esse sic probant, quod ante, quam voluptas aut dolor attigerit, salutaria appetant parvi aspernenturque contraria, quod non fieret, nisi statum suum diligerent, interitum timerent. fieri autem non posset ut appeterent aliquid, nisi sensum haberent sui eoque se diligerent. ex quo intellegi debet principium ductum esse a se diligendo. (Cicero, De fin. III.16)

  2. Chris Weimer says:

    Perhaps his understanding of cupidas is not the same as the quid necesse est? Children must have food, drink, sleep, and warm comfort, but so do all humans. I doubt he was specifically referring to a total loss of eating anyway, at least until death. Eating is a natural necessity, no human blame here. Compare the sentence prior to that one about the fault of man v. nature.

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