Severitas

Herman Saftleven landscape

Herman Saftleven: Landscape with Roman Ruin

Severitas: a justifiable and necessary strictness

For Roman society, severitas was an absolutely necessary social control. To display too much indulgentia would make one seem weak, especially if you were the (male) head of household, a leader or politician, you had to be strict and yet fair and moderate. Even mothers well-stereotyped for their indulgent natures had to practice severitas if they wanted to raise up worthy sons and modest daughters for their houses.

But Seneca says that the opposite of severitas is not clementia, because virtues cannot be in opposition to each other. For Seneca, the opposite of severitas is  saevitia, cruelty, because for severitas to be true it must be justifiable and necessary.  Cicero, on the other hand, thought that sometimes both severitas and saevitia were required for control, though I don’t think he would have elevated cruelty to a virtue.

All the philosophical discussions of severitas reveal a very important thing about severitas– it is a very delicate virtue indeed. If it isn’t applied with the utmost control and delicacy, it becomes cruelty, crudity and oppression. So should it be a virtue for modern Roman pagans at all?

The thing is, if we have no ability at all to be strict with ourselves, it’s likely we won’t get much done. Setting a schedule and sticking to it, eating one cupcake and not the whole tray, saving money for a future purpose instead of spending it all on a whim– these are all perfectly necessary applications of severitas. Likewise exercising when required, practicing, and doing chores that are repetitive but necessary.

One area where the issue of severitas versus cruelty versus indulgentia comes up a lot is parenting. We want to be kind to our kids, give them great things and experiences, but we also want them to grow up to be responsible, healthy adults. And so we don’t let them eat a gallon of ice cream and stay up until 2 am on a school night. It seems very cruel to the kid at the time, but later they’ll thank us for our severitas.