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The Pleasures of Flattery and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion in Seneca’s Natural Questions

Chiara Graf

University of Toronto

This paper will trace the relationship of Seneca the Younger to a mode of thought that has come under recent scrutiny in the humanities, referred to as “paranoid reading” (Sedgwick 2003) or “the hermeneutics of suspicion” (Felski 2015). According to Sedgwick and Felski, paranoid reading is built upon the assumption that the apparent meaning of a text is less “true” than its hidden meaning, which lurks below the surface. The same assumption lies at the heart of the Stoic therapies promoted by Seneca the Younger, who maintains that, in order to live an ethical life, we must push through the deceptive appearances of objects, which generate a variety of treacherous emotions, and grasp the reality that lies beneath (e.g. Ep. 24.13, 76.30; see Berno 2015). In uncovering the true hidden nature of things, reason extirpates the affects that lie on the surface. Seneca often uses flattery as an example of pleasurable language that must be proven false by rational paranoid processes (Ep. 45.7, 59.13; see Roller 2001: 95ff). However, this paper will treat a passage that complicates this hermeneutic approach: Seneca’s excursus on flattery in the preface to Book 4a of the Natural Questions. I argue that, in this passage, Seneca draws out a number of the contradictions and shortcomings inherent to paranoid reading.

First of all, in this passage, Seneca repeatedly emphasizes the idea that flattery brings with it a certain pleasure even when it is exposed and rejected: habent hoc in se naturale blanditiae: etiam cum reiciuntur placent (“blandishments have the following natural quality: even when they are rejected they are pleasing”) (Nat. 4a. Praef. 4, see also Nat. 4a Praef. 6). This idea calls into question a fundamental assumption of both paranoid reading and Stoic hermeneutics: the idea that a knowledge of the truth is enough to nullify the treacherous feelings generated by deceptive appearances. Next, I ask why the uncovering of hidden truths does not successfully extirpate surface-level affects. Seneca often frames the search for truth as a sober rational process. However, as Felski argues, the very process of discovering truth itself paradoxically holds a dramatic and spectacular allure (Felski 2015, 108). Indeed, Seneca describes the rejection of flattery in terms that evoke the thrill of the theater (4a. Praef. 6) and the gladiatorial games (Nat. 4a. Praef. 3-5). The fantasy of the rational hermeneutic process proves to be as affectively charged as the deceptive images it hopes to debunk. Thus, though much of Seneca’s philosophy depends upon a straightforward distinction between the surface-level, affective, and false on the one hand and the hidden, rational, and true on the other, Seneca also raises the question of whether such a distinction can be cleanly maintained.

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Philosophy in a Roman Context

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