Skip to main content

Medical vocabulary relating to skin and its diseases (such as cutis, ulcus, scabies, papula, verruca, and naevus) found in Seneca’s philosophical prose is often used metaphorically. This figurative use reveals that morality is discussed in physical and visible terms, highlighting the importance of aesthetics in his moral doctrine. Dermatological diseases externalize the corruption of the soul and are often contrasted with beautiful bodies that are aesthetically perfect and, by analogy, morally “healthy” (VB. 27.4). This paper aims to explore the functions of the skin metaphors in Seneca’s prose writings, and to elucidate the strong focus on aesthetics in the philosopher’s understanding of Stoic ethics. These issues are approached following metaphor theory, a method of analysis in cognitive linguistics adopted by Lakoff and Johnson (Lakoff and Johnson 1980 [2003]; Fauconnier 2005; Mocciaro and Short 2019). It is proposed that medical language relating to the skin is employed figuratively by Seneca to indicate or conceal the states of moral health, following two main metaphorical concepts: the skin as a protector and the skin as a reflection.

The skin is metaphorically seen by Seneca as a protector of the individual, indicated by words such as munio in Ben. 4.18 and Clem. 1.3.5, velamentum tui in Ep. 102.25, and respuo in Q. Nat. 6.24. He considers it to be a liminal organ that separates the internal from the external plane, indicating that the skin is what ultimately demarcates and defends the body, hence the mind. The philosopher blurs the realms of abstract and concrete, indicating the skin as the protector of the soul which, concretized into a physical entity, can safely reside contained within the body. On the other hand, pathologies of the skin (such as scabies, ulcera, verruca) provide for Seneca a physical representation of vices. The flesh, and more specifically the skin, acts as a mirror of the soul, physically exhibiting the repulsive qualities of immorality, as indicated by words such as speculum and imago in Ir. 4.36.1, and observo in VB. 27.4. This aesthetic component demonstrates that, through the use of skin metaphors, Seneca engages with the ideas of “spectacle” and “what can be seen” —a trend that accompanies all Neronian authors as noted by Dinter 2013, 8-9.

Finally, as dermatological illnesses are considered by Seneca to be prominent indicators of unethical behavior, immorality reveals itself by permeating every level of the affected up to the skin, in connection to the Stoic idea of corporeality of the soul. The skin is the ultimate, most pervasive and visible manifestation of the hidden (moral) disease. An apparent reversal of the concepts of superficial and deep, therefore, is illustrated in the relationship between skin and moral vice, with the skin at the same time acting as a shield from outside forces and revealing the extent of disease.