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‘They are ignorant that they are wise’: Confidence and Virtue in Seneca

Sam McVane

Columbia University

The Stoics notoriously argued that it was possible for someone progressing (a proficiens) towards wisdom and virtue to achieve these utterly distinct states without being aware of it (SVF 3.539-541). Seneca clearly alludes to this position when he writes in the Epistulae Morales that the most advanced proficientes lack only this awareness, for “they are ignorant that they are wise” (scire se nesciunt; Ep. 75.9). Yet Seneca justifies this paradox with something not found in earlier Stoic texts: such ignorance results from the proficien’s “untested confidence” (inexperta fiducia) in his own wisdom. While scholars have shown great interest both in Seneca’s sage (e.g. Inwood (2005), Williams (2015), Setaioli (2007)) and Seneca’s focus on philosophical progress (e.g. Hachmann (1995), Allegri (2004)), the notion of fiducia and its importance for wisdom and virtue have gone largely unnoticed (cf. Hengelbrock (2000) 45-46). This paper will argue that Seneca’s claim that wisdom requires ‘confidence’ (fiducia) introduces a Stoic innovation concerning both the nature of the sage’s wisdom and virtue and also the Stoic practitioner’s transition from foolishness to wisdom.

This argument begins with a survey of the notion of ‘confidence’ in Seneca’s prose works. Only the sage has true confidence (Ira 1.20, Ep. 87.35), and the sage’s confidence consists in her awareness and knowledge of her ability to live well and remain virtuously unperturbed despite whatever happens to her (Ep. 24.12, 44.7, 95.71). Of particular importance, Seneca denies that someone can have true confidence if his imperturbability has never been tested by misfortune (Tranq. 6.2, Ep. 13.1), at the same time as he makes confidence the final stabilizing support for wisdom (Ep. 44.7, 94.46).

Thus, conscious awareness of one’s good state of mind, i.e. confidence, is required for true, full-blooded wisdom, and confidence only arises from seeing the stability of one’s state of mind successfully tested (Ep. 75.9, 71.34, Const. 10.3). But in this, Seneca breaks from earlier Stoics, who do not require awareness of one’s wisdom for its actuality. He thus avoids in fact the resulting paradox, even as he exploits it at Ep. 75.9 to emphasize the unique, ‘in-between’ state of this maximally progressed fool. And Seneca’s notion of confidence as an awareness of one’s own state of mind represents an underexplored strand of Seneca’s innovative attention to the self (cf. Bartsch and Wray (2009), Edwards (1997), and Traina (1974)).

While this account of Senecan confidence, then, helps explain Seneca’s enigmatic description of the highest ‘grade’ of philosophical progress, it also justifies his oft-noted, idiosyncratic arguments for the value of a life of struggle over a life of ease (cf. Inwood (2007) 178-180, Asmis (2009)). So, for example, Seneca’s arguments in the De Providentia that god does right by both us fools and the sage precisely in testing all of us with the challenges of an adversarial fortuna (e.g. §4) take on greater validity and persuasive force if such trials form an essential component of the sage’s virtue and its inculcation in us fools. Equally, while Seneca recognizes in Ep. 66.49-53 that, strictly speaking, the sage’s actions in comfort and travail are equally good, we can make sense of his preference to praise those good actions tested by hardship on account of the fact that such hardship better inspires confidence in the sage’s virtue both for himself and those who witness him. As he often does, Seneca thus combines substantive philosophy with his Roman ethos of admirable virtus and exemplarity.

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The Philosophical Life

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