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The Fool's World in Seneca's Epistle 58

Sam McVane

About the only scholarly consensus on Ep. 58 of Seneca’s Epistulae Morales is that it is perplexing. This paper concerns one prominent nexus of questions: What is Seneca’s attitude towards the Platonic ideas recounted here? Does he ascribe to them? Or merely use them for his Stoic purposes? Scholars have argued that Seneca adopts a Stoicized Platonism in Ep. 58 (e.g. Donini [1979]) or a Platonized Stoicism (e.g. Setaioli [1988], Sedley [2005]). Inwood considers this mere “intellectual opportunism” where Seneca makes a Stoic point through a Stoically unacceptable Platonic idea (2007: 131-132). And lastly, Boys-Stones (2013) takes the seeming incoherency of Seneca’s description of Platonism as a deliberate illustration of the inadequacy of approaching philosophy in the Platonic, dialectical mode. This paper will argue that Seneca uses a Platonic framing to set up a pseudo-Platonic description of the faulty worldview of the ignorant fool in an inventive yet still fundamentally Stoic way. In this, Seneca uses adapted “Platonic” ontology to make a unique point about Stoic psychology.

This argument begins with the point, now widely accepted among Senecan scholars (e.g. Rist [1989], Inwood [2005], Rhydam-Schils [2013], Graver [2008]), that, while innovative, Seneca still holds to the basic tenets of Stoicism. In Ep. 58, Seneca explicitly distances himself from the Platonism discussed until §22, where the ideas at hand “begin to concern us” (incipient ad nos pertinere; 2). What he goes on to say uses Platonic language and imagery, but need not be Platonic. This paper will focus on Seneca’s description at §26 – 27 of the ephemeral imaginaria that populate the non-wise's world. Although here Seneca alludes to Plato’s account of the physical world as mere unreal “images” of the incorporeal yet truly existent Forms, his language and the Senecan-Stoic context suggest that this “world” of “figments” (imaginaria) is not the actual world, as it is in Plato, but rather the world as it appears to the ignorant, who, because of their faulty ideas about the world, misinterpret what they perceive and hence, in an important sense, inhabit a world that is “real” only in their minds. Both the ignorant and the wise inhabit the same physical world, but what the ignorant man “sees” and responds to is different from what actually is.

Two features of Ep. 58 §26 – 27 stand prominently in my investigation. First, Seneca seems to limit the world of imaginaria to the ignorant. He identifies the imaginaria as “what please the senses” (quae sensibus serviunt; 26.5-6) and “what fire us up and provoke us” (quae nos accendunt et inritant; 26.6-7). And he sums up this situation with “we weak and fluid men endure among empty things” (inbecilli fluividique inter vana constitimus; 27.4-5). But according to Seneca, it is not the real object itself that causes us to act emotionally, but our own belief about it (e.g. Ep. 59.4.5-6). And, relatedly, second, within the broader context of the Senecan corpus, imaginaria means “(mental) figments”, not “like a (Platonic) images” (cf. Inwood [2007], Sedley [2005]). The two other instances of imaginarius in Seneca identify real entities that are not quite what they are called (Ep. 20.13, Const. 3.1). In Ep. 58, Imaginaria identifies the erroneous idea an ignorant man has of something that he responds emotionally to (such as, e.g., that it is a good thing and not, as the Stoics hold, indifferent). It is not wrong to translate imaginaria as “like an image”, but for Seneca an “image” (imago) is precisely this sort of mental image that doesn’t correlate with reality (e.g. Ep. 13.12, 58.15, Tranq. 12.5). In using imaginarius this way, Seneca picks up on the Stoic idea of “figments” (φαντάσματα), which exist only in the mind. Thus, Seneca brilliantly uses the Platonic ontological framing of Ep. 58 – between what is real and unreal – to make the Stoic point that we fools, like the delusional man, live in our own imaginary worlds.

Session/Panel Title:

Truth and Lies

Session/Paper Number

62.3

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