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The Blushing Sage: Somatic Affective Responses in Seneca’s Epistulae Morales

Chiara Graf

University of Toronto

Much of the scholarship on the Senecan self has traced the relationship between the compromised position of the proficiens and the idealized (if almost unattainable) subjectivity of the sage [e.g. Bartsch (2015), Long (2009), Edwards (1997)]. In his relentless efforts to improve himself, the proficiens follows a teleological progression towards sagehood, generally envisioned in spatial terms as a straightening and a movement forward [Rimell (2017)]. In this paper, I examine the implications of somatic affective responses--namely, blushes (EM 11) and sudden bouts of tears (EM 99)—for this model of subjectivity. Unlike the passions, which stem from incorrect rational judgements, these feelings, housed in the body, are ethically neutral [Graver (2007), 85-108]. Furthermore, they are immune to practices of disciplinary self-care, and they recur in both sapiens and proficiens. Thus, I argue that, though the linear path of the proficiens is recalled frequently throughout the Epistulae Morales, somatic affective responses temporarily render irrelevant the binaries which define this trajectory (e.g. sapiens vs. proficiens, virtue vs. vice). They constitute a fluid and ethically neutral para-logic, which points towards alternative ways of categorizing the Senecan subject.

I begin with Seneca’s discussion of blushes in the eleventh letter of the Epistulae Morales. Seneca opens the letter by describing a conversation he has had with Lucilius’ friend, who epitomizes Stoic ethical progress. However, Seneca notes that, even after this friend has achieved sagehood, his tendency to blush will remain. Indeed, of blushes, as well as such nervous reactions as excessive sweat, trembling knees, and chattering teeth, Seneca claims, “haec nec disciplina nec usus umquam excutit, sed natura vim suam exercet et illo vitio sui etiam robustissimos admonet” (“neither training nor practice can ever shake off these things, but nature exercises her own power and by that fault alerts even the most valiant men to her presence”) (EM 11.2-3). The blush operates distinctly from reason, knowledge, and discipline, and blurs the line between proficiens and sapiens by remaining obstinately fixed in the otherwise forward-moving subject. Furthermore, Seneca attributes to the blush the classic Roman moralizing rhetoric of both virtue and vice, alternating between the language of vitium (EM 11.1, 11.2, 11.6) and pudor (EM 11.4). In its radical ethical neutrality, the blush renders the binary between virtue and vice irrelevant.

Next, I discuss Seneca’s treatment of tears (EM 99). Seneca characterizes tearsas an inevitable force that overtakes all men, wise or not, and regardless of any active efforts to restrain them; like tears, they exist outside the control of reason and discipline. Furthermore, Seneca criticizes the Epicurean philosopher Metrodorus for couching his discussion of tears in terms of virtue and vice (EM 99.28). According to Seneca, this grafting of the affective realm onto a rigid ethical binary precludes the paradoxical mix of pleasure and pain, which Seneca claims is inherent to tears (EM 99.19, 99.21)—if pleasure were good and pain were bad, the two feelings could not coexist, as they do in weeping. Thus, somatic affective responses such as tears must exist outside the ethical framework that defines much of Seneca’s philosophical work. Unhinged from this framework, tears operate in a paradoxical and non-linear manner; they serve as persistent reminders of the elements of the Senecan subject outside the control of Stoic practices of self-improvement.

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Ethics and Morality in Latin Philosophy

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