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More than Meets the Eye: Public Attention and Moral Conduct in Seneca

Erica Bexley

According to prevailing opinion (esp. Rosenmeyer 1989: 52; Roller 2001: 63-126; Bartsch 2006: 204-16), Seneca holds contradictory views about the moral value of public attention: on the one hand, he regards it as having a corrupting effect (e.g. Ep. 94.69; Tranq. 15.6); on the other, he insists that the presence of witnesses – real or imagined – promotes good moral conduct (e.g. Ep. 11.8-10; Ep. 32.1; Ep. 43.3-4). This paper re-evaluates Seneca’s views and argues that they are in fact internally consistent. Seneca achieves this consistency not by juxtaposing public and private spheres, but by distinguishing between various levels of superficial or disguised behavior. The key to understanding Seneca’s theory is how far the public gaze manages to penetrate an individual’s soul: complete exposure to public scrutiny ensures good morals, while superficial exposure does not because it does not count as truly public.

Seneca defines public attention mainly via its intrusiveness. The gaze of others confers moral benefit because it sees right into a person’s innermost self (in pectus intimum introspicere possit, Ep. 83.1) and penetrates the soul’s central sanctuary (Ep. 11.9; Ep. 41.2). Proof of good character is the ability to live with one’s doors wide open (aperto ostio vivere, Ep. 43.4). Only those who hide nothing from others’ view, or even from their own internal judgement (nihil mihi ipse abscondo, De Ira 3.36.3), are able to maintain upright conduct. In Seneca’s work, the phrase in publico vivere (Ep. 43.3; Ben. 7.1.7) does not mean living in the limelight, but implies the fundamentally moral act of submitting oneself to public scrutiny.

However, individuals who maintain a façade or a ‘public face’ fail to derive any benefit from the attention they receive. Seneca often likens these people to actors wearing masks (Ep. 80.6-8; Ep. 120.22; Tranq. 17.1; Clem. 1.6), by which he implies not just performance, but also that the public’s gaze cannot penetrate beyond this surface. The paradox of the masked actor is that no matter how many people he appears before, he always keeps his real identity hidden; the stage artist is only ostensibly public, and the attention he receives merely superficial. Consequently, Seneca warns Lucilius not to court acclamation like a performer in a theatre (Ep. 29.12), since the true Stoic reveals himself entirely, and instead of wearing a mask, he exhibits his mindset on his actual face (ipse animum ante se ferens vultus, Ep. 11.10).

Seneca also associates superficial behavior with showiness (ostentatio: Ep. 99.16; Tranq. 17.1; ostendere: Ep. 94.70; Tranq. 15.6) and a desire to be conspicuous (conspici cupiunt:  Ep. 5.2). The implication is that many people court public attention not for moral improvement but simply in order to be seen. For instance, Seneca claims that people wear purple only in order to show off (quis eam, quam nulli ostenderet, induit purpuram? Ep. 94.70). Like the mask, the purple garment symbolizes a costume, something that enables individuals to conceal themselves. Such crafted forms of self-display are antithetical to genuine self-revelation, and the gaze they attract goes no further than their surface (e.g. Tranq. 17.1). It follows that public attention per se does not corrupt attention-seeking individuals; rather, it merely fails to reform them because it cannot permeate their façade.

Far from offering two contradictory views, Seneca uses a sliding scale of superficiality to explore the moral value of public scrutiny. Close analysis reveals that there is more to Seneca’s theory than initially meets the eye.

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Problems in Ancient Ethical Philosophy

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