Reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for the soul, if it be great, naught is great.—Seneca, Letter 8.
Over half a decade ago I invited Peter Sloterdijk to a workshop; twenty-four days later, I inquired if the invite was received. I went ahead and planned the workshop without him. Not long before the workshop I heard from his 'assistent,' who was volunteered by Herr Prof. Dr. Sloterdijk to take his place. I felt bad for the 'assistent,' who confessed to having lack of time to prepare. I declined to put him on the program. But I did ask him to convey to Prof. Sloterdijk the thought that "he needs to realize this is no way to treat a colleague who (for example) may write his obituary one day."* (Not nice, admittedly, but it captured my outrage.) Much to my surprise, Sloterdijk answered the following week that there must have been a confusion because he had already written me a letter to inform me of his absence. After a round of apologies, we left it at that.**
By 'celebrity philosopher' I mean to convey a philosopher whose name is familiar beyond her own academic milieu; possibly her ideas and works are discussed not just in professional venues, but also in a wider context. So, I am not talking about somebody who offers a 'philosophy' to media-stars nor does a 'celebrity philosopher' have to possess mass fame. In our day, my old teachers, Daniel Dennett and Martha Nussbaum are paradigmatic celebrity philosophers. When I label somebody a ‘celebrity philosopher’ I do not intend to convey a judgment of quality one way or another.
As it happens, Seneca was remarkably widely read in the sixteenths through eighteenth centuries, where he was welcomed by ambitious readers looking for an intellectual interlocutor compatible with the best in Christianity and the revival of commerce. Perhaps, too, he felt like good company in an age of extreme turmoil and imperialism and global forces. But that Seneca writes for such readers is also puzzling in at least two respects. First, in the very same letter, Seneca urges his recipient to become independent of the "gifts of fortune," and he emphasizes severe epistemic uncertainty [non evertit fortuna, sed cernulat et allidit. One would think that one's posthumous reception is extremely vulnerable to fortune, so not worth bothering with.
Now, here we might wonder, in what manner Seneca thinks he might circumvent oblivion. Surprisingly enough, part of the answer is shown (not said) in letter 8, where Seneca artfully reveals himself a master of flattery: he makes his readers look and feel smarter than they are. Recall that Seneca's early letters follow a 'template,' in which the closing lines of the letters quote a wise-seeming authority. This is repeated in letter 8: the persona ‘Seneca’ quotes two maxims that he remembers from his 'student' Lucilus. In context, we learn that despite Seneca’s earlier advocacy of a focus on canonical authors, maxims to-live-by are, in principle, available anywhere to discerning judges; the move signals a kind of egalitarian ethos . Seneca emphasizes this throughout by not merely quoting, as he says, from “his own school.” This is already flattery because here Seneca does not really mention the discriminative judgment required to recognize a possibly worthy maxim when one utters it. (Something he had emphasized explicitly in the virtues required to become a wise (recall); recall also Letter 3). This is an innocent form of flattery.
Seneca also exhibits more artful flattery. Both maxims attributed to and quoted from Lucilus, (i) “What Chance has made yours is not really yours” and (ii) “The good that could be given, can be removed,” follow naturally and straightforwardly from the positions that Seneca has already expounded earlier (e.g., letters 1, 2 and 4). Like a parent of a very young child, Seneca praises his student for saying something which is really a second-hand image of Seneca’s teaching. While Seneca’s moral psychology relies on such imitation (recall), such second images of philosophy can also be problematic in complicated ways (recall) as anybody who has tried to explain what we do to a fellow traveler (or family member) can attest.
While Seneca does not state that Lucilus is like a child, letter 8 is structured around a contrast that is very unfavorable to Lucilus. For, the ‘action’ of the letter consists in Lucilus having declined ‘the persona’ Seneca’s invitation extended in letter 7 to come live him in true friendship. And Seneca makes clear that in doing so Lucilus is not (yet) capable of properly emendating his soul toward (wondrous) greatness (see the epigraph above). Lucilus’s continued need for popularity from the crowd [turbam], and his rejection of living with his conscience [conscientia] reveals his is incapacity to be a true friend to himself (letter 7) and, by the logic of contrariety, but also his inconstant small-mindedness. To follow the crowd is to give oneself over to the bad kind of fortune (ibid). That is, Lucilus continues to exhibit a practical contradiction between what he says and what does.
So, Seneca shows that the ‘persona’ Seneca is a flatterer. While it is okay to insult many readers, future teachers and scholars need to be made, in part, complicit in one’s evaluative framework. I may have taught Sloterdijk that such flattery is an important pre-condition to having a literary afterlife. Flattery works, of course, if it is plausible. Dennett’s folksy prose makes his reader believe that they, too, can sail along; Nussbaum, an expert on Seneca, generates a moral community between her and her readers by using the first person plural.
Let me conclude by hinting at the second puzzle about Seneca’s future orientation. Above in my rendering of negotium I emphasized the transactional and economic nature of Seneca's orientation to his future audience. In the letter, Seneca himself uses economic and medical terms along side each other--he is providing medicine to the future. Now the time of one's life, dying, is our only intrinsic property (recall), so it is not clear how one can really be related to a particular place that is beyond one's lived time (without having, say, a Spinozistic doctrine of eternality). The answer to this puzzle is to be found in Seneca’s moral economy that is organized along an axiology that exhibits how giving to true friends generates surplus. By reading with judgment and leaving open the possibility that we are improved by his words, we open a door to wonder, that is, we share in life.
*I wonder where I learned this, so I welcome suggestions from our learned readership.
** While we can be found being interviewed on the same CD, we have never met in the flesh.