The Metaphors of Conscientia in Seneca’s Epistles

Attila Nemeth

Citation with persistent identifier: Németh, Attila. “The Metaphors of Conscientia in Seneca’s Epistles.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019).


In his philosophical works Seneca masterfully applies an inherited stock of imagery to illuminate some Stoic technical terminology in a context that is more meaningful and familiar to his Roman and later readers. However, in certain cases in Seneca’s moral letters, his metaphors do not seem to be simply ornamental or clarifying. Instead, they organize a whole system of concepts indicating something which appears to be an essential theoretical component of his philosophy. Here I give a brief outline of how my interpretation of some of these metaphors look beyond themselves and stretch their boundaries by echoing or anticipating the same subject in the Moral Letters, and consequently, how they draw separate texts together in a meaningful way and engineer certain innovations in the orthodox conception of the Stoic philosophy of mind. This presentation is based on the results of my research carried out at CHS in a two-month research period, which culminated in a paper currently under review.


A number of steps are needed to arrive at some philosophical conclusions concerning how Seneca utilizes literary form in his philosophy. After a general introduction of Seneca’s usage of metaphors (Part 1), it is the literary context, which needs to be scrutinized to lay the grounds for a new approach (Part 2). For example, an upshot of attributing a structural design to the epistles is that it resolves the age-old question whether they are or are not fictive letters:  if we think of Seneca’s epistles as elements of an edited literary composition,[1]  this still remains compatible with the hypothesis that the individual letters (at least some of them) originated in a real correspondence stimulated by the great distance between the two protagonists of the collection. But more relevantly, if we take the letters as Seneca’s literary formulation of philosophy, the major consequence is that not all the philosophical work happens in philosophical language, as Shadi Bartsch has pointedly put it.  Or as Seneca himself remarks: “there is a place for literary talent even in philosophy (Ep. 75.3).”[2] Therefore, if form and philosophical meaning are so essentially connected in his epistles, it appears reasonable to press some of Seneca’s metaphors for their theoretical content.

Consequently, in Part 3, I scrutinize the literary method of moral self-improvement. The metaphors of the secretum and exemplum in a number of epistles demonstrate the different functions of (a) the literary voice of Seneca – that is, the presentation of his persona in the letters –, and (b) the author of this voice – that is, the author of the Epistulae morales. The dynamics of these different possible readings of Seneca’s voices creates two exempla – a methodological means for self-transformation – for his readers: on the one hand, Seneca, the text-internal proficiens who is also learning from his program of textual studies, invites us to do the same based on his fictive epistles loaded with Stoic ethical teachings; while on the other Lucius Annaeus, the composer of an education in epistolary form, urges his readers to become authors themselves and to bring forth their ideas into the world. That this should really happen, Annaeus makes clear in Ep. 84.2:

Nec scribere tantum nec tantum legere debemus: altera res contristabit vires et exhauriet (de stilo dico), altera solvet ac diluet. Invicem hoc et illo commeandum est et alterum altero temperandum, ut quidquid lectione collectum est stilus redigat in corpus.

We ought neither to write exclusively nor read exclusively: the first – writing, that is – will deaden and exhaust our powers; the second will weaken and dilute them. One must do both turns, tempering one with the other, so that whatever is collected through reading may be assimilated into the body by writing. (Ep. 84.2)

If we accept the distinction I have drawn between the two different exempla (the texts internal voice of authority; and the historical figure of the author who, by writing, creates that voice) and apply it to Seneca’s chosen metaphor for the process and methodology of moral self-improvement – that is, to making one’s secretum even more consecrated through the power of a visualized and conceptualized exemplum, who could be both Seneca and Lucius Annaeus – then the methodological metaphor appears to be both an internal and a practical requirement. The readers of the epistles achieve their goals if they concentrate on both their internal self-transformation in juxtaposition to their chosen moral exemplum, and also accordingly on bringing “order and composure” to their everyday existence. There is, I think, a further idea lurking underneath the obvious ethical implications of this requirement.  Since a complete transformation of oneself into a moral sage is a rare thing, like a phoenix – born only every five hundred years (Ep. 42.1) – literary transformation becomes an alternative, more accessible form of personal metamorphosis into what is exemplary. We can become an exemplum at best, including Annaeus, in our literary constructions of ourselves.  In Ep. 84, Annaeus indeed speaks in many suggestive metaphors about this literary self-transformation through the activities of reading and writing.[3]

In a recent article on Ep. 84, Margaret Graver describes this transcendence of self through the medium of writing as a textual externalization of the locus of one’s identity. It is an artistic achievement which “surpasses and ultimately replaces one’s unstable and fleeting sentience within the body with an externalized self that is more consistent and more admirable as well as more stable.”[4] Following Foucault, and expanding the idea of self-scripting to its furthest possible extent, Graver thinks that the message of Ep. 84 is that a talented Roman writer can and should create such an external self in his work, which can exercise influence even after the author’s bodily career has ended.  This sort of self ‘re-embodied’ in a different material medium exists as long as there is a copy of his written work, and Graver claims that it consequently creates a new ontological category for the self. This is a beautiful idea and interpretation, which, however, relies on an ontological distinction in Seneca’ literary representation of the self which Graver did not consider.

In Part 4, I focus on the characteristics of self-dialogue – what second-order thought processes do and do not imply – to arrive finally in Part 5 to scrutinizing the relationship between Seneca’s notion of moral conscience and the self. In my investigation Seneca’s notion of conscientia reveals itself as a natural, isolated faculty in the rational soul. It forces the rational mind into an involuntary conversation with itself,[5] whether or not it is willing to reflect on itself or improve its own moral standards by meditating on Stoic philosophical principles with the help of an exemplum. Consequently, the moral conscience differs in this significant aspect from the second-order desires of meditatio, which are voluntary, and also in the further respect that its judgements automatically determine the emotional disposition of the soul. For this reason, the capacity to feel voluntary second-order desires merely appears as a coordinate ability in relation to conscientia, an element within the functional scope of moral conscience in Seneca’s philosophy of mind. Since it is clear that for these reasons the voluntary capacity of second-order reflection and the involuntary faculty of moral conscience are incompatible, it appears reasonable to claim that Seneca’s conception of conscientia was the foundation of Seneca’s ontologically novel conception of the self.

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*I had the opportunity to stay and conduct research at the Center for Hellenic Studies between March 22 – May 22, 2019, for which I will be eternally grateful. This two-month period was an intellectually vivid and memorable time, which not only helped me to gain a lasting momentum, but to obtain a new perspective on a number of different things, for example, alternative working methods, different intellectual communities and even on myself concerning my strengths and weaknesses. Gaining these perspectives are invaluable in determining my career, and naturally, they have come hand in hand with the work I managed to carry out within this timespan, for which I would like to thank everyone at CHS, making this experience wonderful.

[1] Cf. Lana 1989-90, p. 269.

[2] Cf. Bartsch & Wray 2009, p.8; also cf. Gunderson 2015, p. 7.

[3] Also cf. Henderson 2004, p. 8.

[4] Graver 2014, p. 270.

[5] I have found one example in the Letters which seems to make this involuntary character of conscientia even more evident: “Others are reluctant to confide even in those who are closest to them; they press every secret to their chest, and would keep it even from themselves if they could. (quidam rursus etiam carissimorum conscientiam reformidant et, si possent, ne sibi quidem credituri interius premunt omne secretum)” (Ep. 3.4.  But they cannot keep their secrets from themselves, because conscientia reveals itself involuntarily. Note the wording, pressing omne secretum towards the inner locus of secretum. There is another passage that makes the same point in a different way at De Ben. I 25.2: “…but if we have the appropriate feelings our awareness of them will be visible in our facial expression (si, quemadmodum debemus, adfecti sumus, conscientia eminebit in voltu).”

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