Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia.


Seneca & evening examination



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Seneca & evening examination

The first text I would like to analyze comes from Seneca's De ira ["On Anger"]


All our senses ought to be trained to endurance. They are naturally long-suffering, if only the mind desists from weakening them. This should be summoned to give an account of itself every day. Sextius had this habit, and when the day was over and he had retired to his nightly rest, he would put these questions to his soul: "What bad habit have you cured today? What fault have you resisted? In what respects are you better?" Anger will cease and become controllable if it finds that it must appear before a judge every day. Can anything be more excellent that this practice of thoroughly sifting the whole day? And how delightful the sleep that follows this self-examination--how tranquil it is, how deep and untroubled, when the soul has either praised or admonished itself, and when this secret examiner and critic of self has given report of its own character! I avail myself of this privilege, and every day I plead my cause before the bar of self. When the light has been removed from sight, and my wife, long aware of my habit, has become silent, I scan the whole of my day and retrace all my deeds and words.

I conceal nothing from myself, I omit nothing. For why should I shrink from any of my mistakes, when I may commune thus with my self? "See what you never do that again; I will pardon you this time. In that dispute you spoke too offensively; after this don't have encounters with ignorant people; those who have never learned do not want to learn. You reproved that man more frankly than you ought, and consequently you have not so much mended him as offended him. In the future, consider not only the truth of what you say, but also whether the man to whom you are speaking can endure the truth. A good man accepts reproof gladly; the worse a man is the more bitterly he resents it"
We know from several sources that this kind of exercise was a daily requirement, or at least a habit, in the Pythagorean tradition. Before they went to sleep, the Pythagoreans had to perform this kind of examination, recollecting the faults they had committed during the day. Such faults consisted in those sorts of behavior which transgressed the very strict rules of the Pythagorean Schools. And the purpose of this examination, at least in the Pythagorean tradition, was to purify the soul.

Such purification was believed necessary since the Pythagoreans considered sleep to be a state of being whereby the soul could get in contact with the divinity through dream. And, of course, one had to keep one's soul as pure as possible both to have beautiful dreams, and also to came into contact with benevolent deities. In this text of Seneca's we can clearly see that this Pythagorean tradition survives in the exercise he describes (as it also does later on in similar practices utilized by the Christians) .The idea of employing sleep and dream as a possible means of apprehending the divine can also be found in Plato's Republic [Book IX, 57le-572b] . Seneca tells us that by means of this exercise we are able to procure good and delightful sleep: "How delightful the sleep that follows this examination--how tranquil it is, how deep and untroubled. " And we know from Seneca himself that under his teacher, Sotio, his first training was partly Pythagorean. Seneca relates this practice, however, not to Pythagorean custom, but to Quintus Sextius--who was one of the advocates of Stoicism in Rome at the end of the First Century B. C. And it seems that this exercise, despite its purely Pythagorean origin, was utilized and praised by several philosophical sects and schools: the Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics, and others. There are references in Epictetus, for example, to this kind of exercise. And it would be useless to deny that Seneca's self-examination is similar to the kinds of ascetic practices used for centuries in the Christian tradition. But if we look at the text more closely, I think we can see some interesting differences.

First, there is the question of Seneca's attitude towards himself. What kind of operation is Seneca actually performing in this exercise? What is the practical matrix he uses and applies in relation to himself? At first glance, it seems to be a judiciary practice which is close to the Christian confessional: there are thoughts, these thoughts are confessed, there is an accused (namely, Seneca) , there is an accuser or prosecutor (who is also Seneca), there is a judge (also Seneca), and it seems that there is a verdict. The entire scene seems to be judiciary; and Seneca employs typical judiciary expressions ("appear before a judge", 'plead my cause before the bar of self", etc.) . Closer scrutiny shows, however, that it is a question of something different from the court, or from judicial procedure. For instance, Seneca says that he is an "examiner" of himself [speculator sui] . The word "speculator" means that he is an "examiner" or " inspector"--typically someone who inspects the freight on a ship, or the work being done by builders constructing a house, etc. Seneca also says " totum diem meum scrutor"--"I examine, inspect, the whole of my day. " " Here the verb "scrutor" belongs, not to judicial vocabulary, but to the vocabulary of administration. Seneca states further on: "factaque ac dicta mea remetior"--"and I retrace, recount, all my deeds and words". The verb "remetiri" is, again, a technical term used in bookkeeping, and which has the sense of checking whether there is any kind of miscalculation or error in the accounts. So Seneca is not exactly a judge passing sentence upon himself. He is much more of an administrator who, once the work is finished, or when the year's business is completed, now draws up the accounts, takes stock of things, and sees whether everything has been done correctly. It is more of an administrative scene than a judiciary one.

And if we turn to the faults that Seneca retraces, and which he gives as examples in this examination, we can see that they are not the sort of faults we would call "sins". He does not confess, for example, that he drinks too much, or has committed financial fraud, or has bad feelings for someone else--faults Seneca was very familiar with as one of Nero's ring. He reproaches himself for very different things. He has criticized someone, but instead of his criticism helping the man, it has hurt him. Or he criticizes himself for being disgusted by people who were, in any case, incapable of understanding him. Behaving in such fashion, he commits "mistakes" [errores] ; but these mistakes are only inefficient actions requiring adjustments between ends and means. He criticizes himself for not keeping the aim of his actions in mind, for not seeing that it is useless to blame someone if the criticism given will not improve things, and so on. The point of the fault concerns a practical error in his behavior since he was unable to establish an effective rational relation between the principles of conduct he knows, and the behavior he actually engaged in. Seneca's faults are not transgressions of a code or law. They express, rather, occasions where his attempt to coordinate rules of behavior (rules he already accepts, recognizes, and knows) with his own actual behavior in a specific situation has proven to be unsuccessful or inefficient.

Seneca also does not react to his own errors as if they were sins. He does not punish himself; there is nothing like penance. The retracing of his mistakes has as its object the reactivation of practical rules of behavior which, now reinforced, may be useful for future occasions. He thus tells himself : 'See that you never do that again; ' ' Don't have encounters with ignorant people;' 'In the future, consider not only the truth of what you say, but also whether the man to whom you are speaking can endure the truth;' and so on. Seneca does not analyze his responsibility or feelings of guilt; it is not, for him, a question of purifying himself of these faults. Rather, he engages in a kind of administrative scrutiny which enables him to reactivate various rules and maxim in order to make them more vivid, permanent, and effective for future behavior.




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