William Brown

Liar, Liar, Rome on Fire! Seneca’s Philosophy of Deception

1¶ In our surviving accounts of the Neronian period (AD 54-AD 68), we find a Rome brimming with deception in the highest political offices. The Roman historian Suetonius, among his many accounts of the Emperor Nero’s deceptions, describes Nero’s pastime of dressing up as a commoner and secretly creating mischief throughout the city of Rome.[1] Another historian, Tacitus, similarly recounts Nero’s plan to covertly assassinate his mother, Agrippina,[2] and, if rumors of his culpability for the Great Fire of Rome are true, he would have deceived the public by shifting the blame to the Christians.[3] But deceptions of these sort aren’t unique to the emperor. Suetonius mentions that the centurion tasked to assassinate Nero was “pretending he had come to [Nero] to provide aid,”[4] and Tacitus describes Caius Calpurnius Piso’s conspiracy to assassinate Nero as “in silence.”[5] It would be only natural for modern philosophers of deception to study the reign of Nero—both its thinkers and history—in order to understand not just the history of the philosophy of deception, but also whether modern theories can effectively map onto other intuitions about the moral significance of deception.

2¶ Yet, Neronian conceptions of deception are rarely (if ever) discussed by philosophers post-Kant.[6] Deception is often understood within Kant’s deontological framework, since Kant spends so much time and effort criticizing deception, especially lying.[7] Kant’s justification for his prohibition on lying is the Categorical Imperative, the second formulation of which states that the “nature [of rational beings] points [rational beings] out as ends in themselves.”[8] This emphasis on rational nature as the ultimate end mirrors Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s[9] characterization of right action as action in accordance with reason.[10] And considering Seneca is the most prominent philosopher of the Neronian period, analyzing his position on deception would both shed light on Neronian and Stoic philosophies of deception and provide another alternative to Kant’s approach. While Seneca claims that God and the Stoic sage does not deceive, Seneca states that it is permissible for mortal men to deceive in at least two circumstances: when speaking with people who are not one’s friends and when deceiving the listener would improve the listener’s well-being. And, rather uncommonly, he claims that recipients of deception are responsible for not being deceived by deceivers.

3¶ Before we get to Seneca’s arguments, however, we must define “deception.” Unfortunately, Seneca does not provide a thorough definition, and he tends to equivocate between Latin words for “deception.” One word he uses is “mentire,”[11] which Lewis and Short define as “to lie or speak falsely about.”[12]Mentire” is translated as “lie” by Stewart in On Benefits[13] and Gummere in two of Seneca’s Epistles to Lucilius,[14] though Gummere also calls it “deceit” in another letter in the volume.[15] One other deception-word Seneca uses is “mendacium,”[16] which Lewis and Short define as “a lie, untruth, or falsehood,”[17] and Gummere translates as “deceit”[18] and “lie.”[19] Yet another word Seneca uses is “decipere,”[20] which Lewis and Short define as “to beguile, elude, deceive, or cheat.”[21] Gummere translates it as “deceive,”[22] alongside Stewart.[23] The final word I will mention—though there are certainly more deception-words Seneca uses in his works—is “fallere,”[24] which Lewis and Short define as “to deceive in swearing; to swear falsely,”[25] and both Gummere and Stewart translates it as “deceive.”[26]

4¶ Seneca’s deception-words may at first seem that he employs a rich vocabulary, with each word specifically indicating the kind of deception he discusses in each passage. Yet, Seneca never explicitly defines any of these deception-words. Lewis and Short’s definitions barely differentiate these terms, and neither Gummere nor Stewart appear to have a convention of translating these deception-words into English. And for good reason; in Epistle 79, Seneca equivocates between “decipere” and “mendacium.” He writes, Quae decipiunt nihil habent solidi. Tenue est mendacium,[27] thus referring to the same deceptions as [q]uae decipiunt and mendaci[a]. Additionally, Seneca uses both “decipere” and “mendacium” when referring to self-deception,[28] perhaps indicating he does not distinguish between the two words, at least insofar as they apply to self-deception. Seneca similarly use different words for saying that God does not deceive ([Deus] neminem fallit)[29] and that the Stoic sage does not deceive (nec summis ambulat digitis eorum more qui mendacio staturam adiuvant).[30] And if the sage imitates God and is His true progeny,[31] then both “fallere” and “mendacium” can be used to describe kinds of deception which both God and the sage do not put forth. And finally, when Seneca states that one should deceive others if it benefits their well-being, and he uses both “decipere[32] and “fallere,”[33] further blurring the distinctions between these different words for deception in his writing. It seems that, unless the context specifies a more specific word, “deception” is an appropriate translation for all of these deception-words.

5¶ Of course, proving that Seneca never intended there to be distinctions between the different words he employs for “deception” is difficult. But we can conclude that the evidence of their distinction in Seneca’s philosophical works is slight at best. So, I will proceed by largely equivocating between all these deception-words, though certainly a more in-depth study of the distinctions between Seneca’s and his contemporaries’ uses of deception words would be fruitful in fleshing out his distinctions. I will thus supply this definition for “deception”: “to cause to believe what is false.”[34] As for Seneca’s moral position on this definition of deception, the best evidence we have can be found in Seneca’s philosophical writings, especially the Epistles to Lucilius, On Anger, On Clemency, and On Benefits.

Withholding Information from Non-Friends

6¶ And it seems that Seneca justifies deception in two instances, which I will discuss in order: withholding information from non-friends and deceiving when deception would increase the well-being of the listener. The first is discussed in Seneca’s third letter in his Epistles. Previously, Lucilius had warned Seneca “lest [Seneca] speak of everything pertaining to [Lucilius]” with Lucilius’ friend.[35] Lucilius would not have explicitly forbidden Seneca from discussing confidential information with his friend unless he wanted to hide information from his friend. Perhaps his friend is a gossip around town. Or perhaps his friend is one of those benevolent klutzes who try to fix issues, but necessarily end up making them worse. Or perhaps his friend worries too much, and Lucilius does not want him to feel stress about Lucilius’ personal problems.

7¶ Regardless of the reason for Lucilius’ deception, Seneca scolds Lucilius not for attempting to deceive, but attempting to deceive someone Lucilius calls an amicus.[36] Seneca writes,

8¶ “Thus if you call that one with this particular word [that is, amicus] just as you use it with the rest of the public—how we call all candidates for elected office ‘good men,’ or how we greet those we meet ‘sir’ if we don’t remember their names—go ahead. But if you think anyone to be a real friend to whom you do not trust as much as him, you are greatly mistaken and don’t know enough about the strength of true friendship.”[37]

9¶ Seneca contends that true friends should be completely truthful with one another. This means not withholding information as Lucilius asked Seneca to do in his previous letter.[38] Thus, Seneca strongly admonishes against deceiving one’s friends so much that even the thought of withholding information from Lucilius’ “friend” caused Seneca to question whether this “friend” was a friend at all.

10¶ But Seneca also claims that there are certain things which we should not share with others. While it appears he says at first that we deceive simply out of a tradition (consuetudo)[39] independent of what we morally ought to do, I argue he also makes an ethical claim about deceiving non-friends. And we can begin by pointing out that in Letter Five, Seneca argues that “life should be a mean between bonos mores et publicos.”[40] The word “mores” can mean both “tradition” and “character,”[41] and I think here that Seneca uses a play on words. “Publicos mores” implies the “tradition” meaning of the mores, since these publicos mores are the same precepts he calls “consuetudo” earlier,[42] which Seneca does not appear to harbor a strong moral attitude toward one way or the other. However, “bonos mores” uses the term “bonus,” which elsewhere Seneca uses to refer to the philosophical good.[43] Thus, Seneca claims, we should find the happy medium between our culture’s traditions and our moral obligations, so we might be virtuous but not obnoxious. Thus, he makes the case that we ought to follow the mean between tradition and sagacious action.

11¶ This mean parallels the mean Seneca sets up in Letter Three. There, Seneca says,

12¶ “Some people, who speak so much to friends, speak to anyone they meet—right into their ears—and unload whatever burdens them. Others dread sharing knowledge of their greatest cares, and they will [avoid doing so] if they are able, lest certain people entrusted [with this knowledge] press for all their closer secrets. Neither should be done. To trust everyone and to trust no one are both vices. I say the one is more honest, the other more cautious.” [44]

13¶ Here, he calls for us to take a mean between the “more cautious” tradition of restraining from sharing freely with others and the “more honest” practice of sharing everything. Thus, Seneca advises Lucilius to keep certain things private from the public.

14¶ This position, if put into practice, entails that Lucilius may deceive the people around him. Let us say Lucilius developed depression and does not want to tell the friend mentioned in Letter Four about it. The friend asks if Lucilius is feeling okay. Perhaps Lucilius changes the conversation in a clever way. Perhaps he lies and says he is feeling great. Or he could not say he did not want to talk about it. The latter option would betray to any reasonable listener that Lucilius does not feel well, so that is ruled out. So, for any of these remaining options, Lucilius would be causing his friend to believe wrongly, fitting my definition of deception. In the lying case, Lucilius would clearly cause his friend to believe falsely, while if he changes the conversation, his feigned contentment throughout the conversation would deceive his friend into thinking Lucilius is fine. Seneca thus encourages—or at the very least allows—deceiving non-friends.

Deception Improving Well-Being

15¶ Thus, we have covered one of the two kinds of justified deception for Seneca. Now, I will discuss Seneca’s permission to deceive the listener, if that deception would increase the listener’s well-being. There are four examples of deception which I cite as evidence. The first is that doctors are justified in deceiving patients in order to better cure them. Second, deception is justified when soothing the wrath of others. Third, princes are justified in deceiving their subjects when punishing criminals. And fourth, benefitters are justified in deceiving receivers in order to make the benefit more effective.

16¶ We begin with doctors and patients. Seneca tells us in On Anger[45] about a physician who had to perform surgery on the prince’s daughter. The young girl would have squirmed if she had seen the knife, and one wrong cut could mean death. Thus, the doctor hid the knife behind a sponge, so she did not squirm, and she behaved much better than she otherwise would have. Again in the On Clemency, Seneca points out that sometimes “the cure will be better—and better administered—should [the physician] deceive [the patient] with a soft cure and with deceptive remedies.”[46] Seneca’s tone is far from critical; he appears to encourage and support such deceptions in the medical field. In fact, he uses these narratives as examples of clearly morally appropriate deceptions to justify the next two examples of deceptions which Seneca approves.

17¶ The story of the prince’s daughter is used in the On Anger to justify deceiving others in order to stop them from being angry. Seneca heavily implies that anger is like a disease,[47] drawing a strong connection between the curing of medical patients through deception and the curing of angry people through deception. By saying that “quiet cures the beginning of disease,”[48] Seneca indicates that we deceive by giving angry people peace and quiet. Anger tends to remain after it has taken ahold of us, because as we get more and more angry, we want more and more to remain angry.[49] By being quiet, we convince them that we do not intend to soothe them of their anger, because it appears as though we are doing nothing to soothe them. In fact, however, we replace angry feelings with feelings of shame or fear, or we just make the angry person forget about his anger. [50] Seneca thus encourages the deception of an angry person in order to soothe him from his anger.

18¶ We also see Seneca parallel the princes’ obligations to doctors’ obligations in On Clemency, where Seneca encourages the emperor Nero to be more merciful in his punishments by deceiving his subjects in Rome. Here, Seneca compares Nero to a physician, who must cure his subjects’ tendencies to wrongdoing in the same way as a physician must cure his patients.[51] And just as a physician sometimes gives soothing treatments which deceive the patient, so, too, do good princes sometimes dole out soothing punishments which deceive the wrongdoer.[52] For instance, consider a criminal who committed a minor crime that deserves punishment, but if his peers learned about his crime, his dishonor would be a greater punishment than the crime demanded. And if this particular criminal’s honor is damaged, the chances of him spreading discontent among the people would be enormous. Seneca might think in that circumstance that deceiving the criminal’s peers would be justified, for the ruler would thus have an appropriate punishment for the crime, and the prince would secure peace in his city. In this way, Seneca claims that rulers are justified in deceiving wrongdoers, if deception will cure the wrongdoer’s bad nature.

19¶ The final example I will draw upon is found in the On Benefits, where Seneca claims that benefitters are justified in deceiving the recipients of their benefits, if deception would increase the effectiveness of these benefits. He tells a story about the famous academic skeptic Arcesilaus,[53] whose sick friend could not afford proper treatment, but who was too ashamed to accept Arcesilaus’ money. So, Arcesilaus left money under his friend’s pillow as his friend slept, so that his friend might “happen upon” the money, instead of being given money and making him feel ashamed. This shame would have made the gift less sweet, and by acting in secret, Arcesilaus greatly increased the value of the benefit. Thus, as Seneca says, “Occasionally, the same one who is helped must even be deceived, so that he might have it and not know who he accepted it from.”[54] Thus, if deception makes the benefit more pleasant, Seneca argues that the recipient of a benefit must be deceived.

20¶ Reflecting on the four examples I have discussed: doctors helping sick patients, one’s fellow man curing one’s anger, a prince rehabilitating criminals, and a benefitter helping the recipient of his benefit, a common thread among each of these examples Seneca discusses is that each allows—or even requires—people to deceive others when the others’ well-being would be increased via deception. It even seems that this rule takes precedence over the earlier rule to not deceive friends, since Seneca heavily implies that Arcesilaus was justified in deceiving his friend through that benefit. Thus, Seneca firmly cements himself with Plato[55] and against Kant,[56] claiming that some deception is justified, so long as it increases the well-being of the deceived person. And his addendum in favor of deceiving non-friends and against deceiving friends falls in line with Aristotle.[57]

21¶ One criticism of my position that Seneca allows—and even sometimes encourages—deception comes from Seneca’s claim that God and the sage do not deceive.[58] If God and the sage, who act in accordance with the highest of virtues, do not deceive, deception must not be in accordance with the virtues, according to this criticism. Thus, it is claimed, Seneca must not believe that deception is virtuous. And in a sense, this criticism is right; the sage and God would never deceive, indicating deception itself is not a virtue to be cultivated. However, recall earlier when I mentioned Seneca’s advice to find a mean between tradition and perfect virtue.[59] Here, Seneca recognizes he cannot hold ordinary men to the ethical standard of the sage or God, partly due to the social backlash a perfectly virtuous person would be subject to.[60] Thus, Seneca distinguishes between the standard of virtue for God and the sage and the standard of virtue for ordinary men, concluding that ordinary men can be justified in deceiving, even though God and the sage could not.

Obligations to Not Be Deceived

22¶ So, we have determined Seneca’s ethical attitude toward the deceiver, but Seneca also claims that receivers of deception should not be deceived. He advises most benefitters to “choose who you give to; if you are deceived, blame yourself.”[61] At first, this claim appears to victim-blame. Why should we blame the deceived person? Shouldn’t we blame the deceiver instead? Certainly, if someone has been deceived, Seneca admits that one should show mercy if the deceived person does something wrong.[62] To explain this apparent contradiction, I will address one of Seneca’s epistles, where he says that “deception is thin; it is transparent, if you would inspect it carefully.”[63] Yet few people train their minds enough to detect deception as effectively as they ought, despite how easy that training is.[64] When these people are deceived, their very rationality is compromised. Our ability to use formal logic may be top-notch, but if the premises we reason with become distorted, our conclusions become unsound. And since reason is the only way to determine and achieve the good,[65] Seneca would regard any mental state which seriously hampers our ability to effectively reach a reasonable conclusion to be a great harm. So, if deception so drastically harms the only means to attain Seneca’s conception of virtue, and if the ability to not be deceived is so easy to develop, moral agents should develop the ability to not be deceived. If one is deceived, one did not develop that ability to not be deceived. Seneca thus does not blame the subsequent actions deceived people perform; he places his blame instead on their lack of effort in developing the abilities necessary to fortify their reason against deception. Unlike the previous positions Seneca had taken on deception within friendships and deception to increase well-being, this vein of thought seems largely untrodden. We certainly see Kant[66] and Aristotle[67] heavily valuing reason as a valuable end, but neither discuss whether one ought not to be deceived in order to preserve one’s reason.

23¶ Thus Seneca verifies our initial sense that the Neronian period would be fruitful for investigation into its philosophy of deception. Seneca contends that, while deceiving is wrong for ordinary men to do to their friends (and wrong for the Stoic sage and God in all circumstances), deception is justified for ordinary men like us, particularly when we deceive non-friends and when we deceive others in order to increase their well-being. Seneca also, particularly uniquely, places a burden on recipients of deception to not be deceived and cultivate the talents necessary to see past the smoke and mirrors their deceivers place in their way. Further investigation into these principles—especially Seneca’s burden on recipients of deception—may open up new channels of discussion in the philosophy of deception. In particular, it prompts us to ask whether our rational nature require us to ensure not just our arguments’ validity, but also their soundness.   That is, if we reason without true premises, does that harm our rational agency in the way Seneca implies? Do we lose the virtue of rationality and gain the vice of irrationality? Do we merely lose part of our virtue of rationality, and if so, how significant is that loss? Or does our rational nature merely demand we reason validly and not be affected by false premises?

[1] Suetonius, On the Life of the Caesars, Bk. XII 26.

[2] Tacitus, Annals, Bk. XIV 3-5.

[3] Ibid., Bk. XV 44.

[4] Suetonius, On the Life of the Caesars, Bk. XII 49.4. centurioni…in auxilium se venisse simulanti

[5] Tacitus, Annals, Bk. XV, s. 54. taciturnitate omnia cohibita sint

[6] Immanuel Kant, AD 1724-AD 1804. Central figure in deontological ethics. His “Categorical Imperative”—Kant’s meta-rule which determines whether an ethical rule ought to be adopted–has influenced countless philosophers’ stances on ethical quandaries. For more information on Kant’s philosophy, see Rohlf’s entry on Kant in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[7] Kant discusses deception and lying in many of his philosophical works (Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, The Metaphysics of Morals, and On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy, just to name a few). For a condensed version of Kant’s position, see Mahon, The Truth About Kant On Lies.

[8] Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, s. 2.

[9] L. Annaeus Seneca, c. BC 4-AD 65. Tutor to Emperor Nero and earliest surviving Latin Stoic philosopher. For more information about Seneca’s philosophy, see Vogt’s entry on Seneca in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[10] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Ep. 42, s. 11.

[11] See Seneca, On Benefits, Bk. IV 7; Moral Letters to Lucilius, Ep. 78.14; Ep. 42.2; Ep. 111.3.

[12] Latin Dictionary, “mentior, itus,” II.

[13] Bk. IV 7.

[14] Ep. 78.14; Ep. 107.2.

[15] Ep. 111.3.

[16] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Ep. 79.18; Ep. 111.3; Ep. 115.9.

[17] Latin Dictionary, “mendacium, ii,” I.

[18] Moral Letters to Lucilius, Ep. 111.3.

[19] Ibid., Ep. 79.18; Ep. 115.9.

[20] Seneca, On Benefits, Bk. I 1.9; Bk. III 11.1; Moral Letters to Lucilius, Ep. 4.9; Ep. 33.3; Ep. 50.4; Ep. 79.18; On Anger Bk. II 29.2; Bk. III 39.4; On Clemency Bk. I 17.2; Bk. II 7.2.

[21] Latin Dictionary, “decipio, cepi, ceptum,” I.

[22] Moral Letters to Lucilius, Ep. 4.9; Ep. 33.3; Ep. 50.4; Ep. 79.18.

[23] On Benefits, Bk. I 1.9; Bk. III 11.1; Of Anger, Bk. II 29.2; Bk. III 39.4; On Clemency, Bk. I 17.2; Bk. II 7.2.

[24] Seneca, On Benefits, Bk. II 10.1; Moral Letters to Lucilius Ep. 3.3; Ep. 82 1, 4.

[25] Latin Dictionary, “fallo, fefilli, falsum,” II.A.

[26] Stewart, On Benefits, Bk. II, s. 10; Gummere, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Ep. 3.3; Ep. 82.1, 4.

[27] s. 18.

[28] “Decipere” can be found in Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius Ep. 4.9 and Ep. 50.4; “mendacium” can be found in ibid., Ep. 115.9.

[29] Ibid., Ep. 82.1.

[30] Ibid., Ep. 111.3.

[31] Ibid., On Providence, bk I 5. Trans. “Indeed, a good man differs from God insofar as man is subject to time. He is God’s disciple, emulator, and true progeny, who is educated by that magnificent parent, a difficult and far from lenient demander of virtue, like many strict fathers.” Lat. quidem bonus tempore tantum a deo differt, discipulus eius aemulatorque et uera progenies, quam parens ille magnificus, uirtutum non lenis exactor, sicut seueri patres, durius educat.

[32] Ibid., On Anger, Bk. III 39.4; On Clemency, Bk. I 17.2.

[33] Ibid., On Benefits, Bk. II 10.1.

[34] Mahon points out that this definition is too broad philosophically, and I agree. However, I chose this definition for its breadth, so that if Seneca had a definition of deception, I would not crowd it out from my definition. I also wanted to ensure that my definition would encompass the readers’ definitions of deception, so that I would not leave out a part of deception which might factor significantly into the reader’s definition. For an in-depth discussion of the definition of deception, see Mahon, “The Definition of Lying and Deception,” s. 3.

[35] Ibid., Moral Letters to Lucilius, Ep. 3.1.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 1-2. Itaque si proprio illo verbo quasi publico usus es et sic illum amicum vocasti, quomodo omnes candidatos bonos viros dicimus, quomodo obvios, si nomen non succurrit, dominos salutamus, hac abierit. Sed si aliquem amicum existimas, cui non tantundem credis quantum tibi, vehementer erras et non satis nosti vim verae amicitiae.

[38] Ibid., 3.

[39] Ibid., Eng. “tradition makes [your cares and thoughts] secret.” Lat. consuetudo fecit arcana [curas cogitationesque tuas].

[40] s. 5. temperetur vita inter bonos mores et publicos

[41] Lewis and Short, Latin Dictionary, “mos, moris,” II.B.

[42] See footnote 30.

[43] That is, an ethical good. As opposed to its use in a less technical sense. For its philosophical use, see Seneca, On the Blessed Life, bk. IV. For its non-philosophical use, see Lucan, Civil War, Bk. II, line 513.

[44] s. 4. Lat. Quidam quae tantum amicis committenda sunt, obviis narrant et in quaslibet aures, quicquid illos urserit, exonerant. Quidam rursus etiam carissimorum conscientiam reformidant, et si possent, ne sibi quidem credituri interius premunt omne secretum. Neutrum faciendum est. Utrumque enim vitium est, et omnibus credere et nulli. Sed alterum honestius dixerim vitium, alterum tutius

[45] Bk. III 39.

[46] Bk. I 17. Lat. quosdam molli curatione decipiat citius meliusque sanaturus remediis fallentibus

[47] Bk. III 39. Eng. “We will not risk the beginning of anger with oration. He is deaf and insane; we will give him space. The remedy will be in the rest. Just as we do not feel the pulse of swollen eyes to cause the rigid eye to move, nor with the rest of the vices, while they boil. Quiet cures the beginning of disease.” Lat. Primam iram non audebimus oratione mulcere. Surda est et amens ; dabimus illi spatium. Remedia in remissionibus prosunt. Nec oculos tumentis temptamus vim rigentem movendo incitaturi, nec cetera vitia, dum fervent. Initia morborum quies curat.

[48] See Footnote 41.

[49] Ibid., Bk. I 8.1.

[50] Ibid., Bk. III 39.4.

[51] Bk. I 17.1-2.

[52] See Footnote 40.

[53] Ibid., On Benefits, Bk. II 10.1.

[54] Ibid. Lat. Interdum etiam ipse, qui iuvatur, vel1 fallendus est, ut habeat nec, a quo acceperit, sciat.

[55] Republic, Bk. III 414e-15c. Here, Plato discusses his “noble lie,” where he claims that the philosopher-king should lie to his people for the greater good.

[56] Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, s. 1. Here, Kant discusses how lying, if universalized, defeats the very purpose of lying, making it an inconceivable universal law and thus a violation of his Categorical Imperative.

[57] Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. VIII 4. Here, Aristotle mentions that good friends are trustworthy, as opposed to mere “friendships of utility,” which might parallel Lucilius’ relationship with his “friend.”

[58] See Footnotes 26 and 27.

[59] See Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Ep. 5.

[60] Ibid., Moral Letters to Lucilius Ep. 5.2; Ep. 14.7-8.

[61] Ibid., On Benefits, Bk. III 11.1 Lat. Cui des, elige ; ipse tecum, si deceptus es, querere.

[62] Ibid., On Clemency, Bk. II 7.2.

[63] Ep. 79.18 Lat. Tenue est mendacium; perlucet, si diligenter inspexeris.

[64] Ibid., Ep. 80.2-3.

[65] Ibid., Ep. 124.4.

[66] See the Categorical Imperative’s Formula for Humanity in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, s. 2.

[67] Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. I 7. Here, Aristotle argues that the function of a man is to reason, and since a thing is good if it performs its function, Aristotle claims that human reason is an important human good.


Annotated Bibliography

Andrews, E. A., William Freund, Charlton T. Lewis, and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary, Founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary. Rev., Enl. and in Great Part Rewritten by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975. Perseus. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Lewis and Short, along with being the Latin dictionary I used most in my translations, also provided definitions for the most commonly used deception-words in Seneca’s philosophical writings. Because their definitions for each deception-word appeared extremely similar, it helped me conclude that Seneca does not use different deception-words to distinguish between different kinds of deception.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W. D. Ross. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

I cite Aristotle’s position on truthfulness to friends to indicate that Seneca’s position that we ought to not deceive friends–as well as potential permission for deceiving non-friends–parallels Aristotle moreso than Kant. I also cited his justification of rationality-as-a-virtue in order to show where Seneca departs from other mainstream philosophers in his claim that recipients of deception ought not to be deceived.

Braden, Gordon. “The Rhetoric and Psychology of Power in the Dramas of Seneca.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 9.1 (1970): 5-41. JSTOR. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

I used this source to find more passages in the original Seneca where Seneca discusses God and the sage, their ethical similarities to each other, and their ethical differences from ordinary men.

Kant, Immanuel. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. N.p.: n.p., 1785. Project Gutenberg. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Immanuel Kant’s position in the philosophy of deception is partly outlined in here. Kant’s philosophy of deception is used to frame Seneca’s position in the history of the philosophy of deception.

Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Mary Gregor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Immanuel Kant’s position in the philosophy of deception is partly outlined in here. Kant’s philosophy of deception is used to frame Seneca’s position in the history of the philosophy of deception.

Kant, Immanuel. “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns.” Berlin Press (1799): n. pag. Bgillette.com. Dr. Brandon Gillette, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kansas. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Kant’s position here directly attacks the position Seneca takes in the On Anger, On Clemency, and On Benefits, where he claims that people are justified in deceiving others when that deception would increase the well-being of the receiver of the deception. This is thus used to place Seneca within the larger history of the philosophy of deception.

Lucanus, Marcus Annaeus. The Pharsalia of Lucan. Ed. Edward Ridley. London: Longmans, Green, 1905. Perseus. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

I used De Bellum Civile to find a contemporary of Seneca who used “bonus” in a non-philosophical way to compare to Seneca’s more technical use.

Mahon, James E. “The Definition of Lying and Deception.” Stanford Encyclopedia of

Philosophy. Stanford University, 30 June 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Mahon discusses here in more depth appropriate definitions of deception. I used this to find an appropriately broad definition of “deception.”

Mahon, James E. “The Truth About Kant On Lies.” The Philosophy of Deception. Ed. Clancy W. Martin. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. N. pag. Philpapers. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Mahon’s summary of Kant’s philosophy of deception helped to summarize and clarify the (sometimes complicated) Kant in an easily consumable medium.

Plato. “Republic Book III.” Plato: In Twelve Volumes. Trans. Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978. N. pag. Perseus. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

I cite the noble lie in Plato’s Republic to indicate that Seneca’s position that deception is justified if it increases the well-being of the receiver of deception falls more in line with Plato than Kant.

Rohlf, Michael. “Kant.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 25 Jan. 2016. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.

I cite this article to direct readers unfamiliar with Kant to a resource which can shed more light on his philosophy.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Ad Lucilium Epistles. Ed. Richard M. Gummere. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1925. Perseus Digital Library. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Seneca’s Epistles contain over a dozen letters which address the philosophy of deception, including Letters 3, 4, 33, 45, 46, 48, 50, 78, 79, 82, 107, 111, and 115, plus a myriad of other letters which concern topics indirectly related to Seneca’s philosophy of deception. These letters help identify deception-words in Seneca’s works, identify God and the sage’s duties to not deceive, explain Seneca’s conception of the philosopher’s mean, and discuss the relationship between friendship and deception.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Minor Dialogs Together With the Dialog “On Clemency” Trans. Aubrey Stewart. London: Chiswick, 1889. Wikisource. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Among these works, I draw on the On Anger and On Clemency. Stewart’s translation helped to identify passages of interests in which to address the Latin. Stewart’s lack of variety in translating Seneca’s variety of deception-words supports the argument that there is little significant philosophical difference between the different deception-words in Seneca’s philosophical writing. I also used her translation of De Providentia to flesh out the relationship between God and the Stoic sage and her translation of De Vita Beata to identify an example where Seneca uses “the good” in a philosophical sense.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Moral Essays. Ed. John William Basore. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1935. Perseus Digital Library. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

This work is a compilation of several of Seneca’s moral essays. From these, I specifically address the On Benefits, On Anger, and On Clemency. Passages from these works comprised a major portion of my primary sources. All were useful in determining the deception-words Seneca uses in his philosophical writing and that Seneca permits–and perhaps even encourages–deceiving in order to increase the well-being of the deceived. On Benefits was useful in particular for placing responsibility on the deceived person to not be deceived. I also drew upon the De Providentia to help understand the relationship between God and the Stoic sage and the De Vita Beata to give an example of Seneca’s use of “the good” in a philosophical sense.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Epistles to Lucilius. Trans. Richard Mott Gummere. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1925. Wikisource. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Gummere’s translation is used to help identify interesting passages to examine in the Latin. Gummere’s translation of Seneca’s deception-words do not betray any distinction between those deception-words and thus helps support the argument that there is little philosophical difference between the different deception-words Seneca uses.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. On Benefits. Trans. Aubrey Stewart. N.p.: n.p., 1887. About.com. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Stewart’s translation was used to help identify areas of interest to this paper so that I could more efficiently address the Latin. Her translation also does not betray any differences between the different deception-words Seneca uses in his philosophical writings, supporting my argument that Seneca does not distinguish between these deception-words in his philosophical writings.

Tacitus, Cornelius. “Books XIV-XV.” The Annals. Trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Perseus Digital Library. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

I used this translation of Tacitus to identify examples of deception in The Annals so I could analyze them in the Latin.

Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. “Books XIV-XV.” Annales. Ed. Charles Dennis Fischer. 18th ed. Oxford, UK: E Typographeo Clarendoniano, 1981. N. pag. Print.

Tacitus describes examples of deception which help justify the Neronian period as a time period fruitful for historians of the philosophy of deception to study. Specific anecdotes I mention include Nero’s secret murder of Agrippina, Nero’s rumored role in the burning of Rome (and subsequent lying about the culpability of the Christians), and the deception surrounding the Pisonian conspiracy.

Tranquillius, Gaius Suetonius. “Vita Neronis.” De Vita Caesarum. Ed. Maximilian Ihm. Trans. J. C. Rolfe. Loeb ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1913. 85-188. Penelope. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Suetonius describes some of the deceptions of the Neronian period which I use to justify the period’s relevance to the study of the history of the philosophy of deception. Particularly, I mention Nero’s late-night hijinks while disguised as a commoner and the centurion tasked with murdering Nero pretending to be trying to aid the dying Nero. I also used Rolfe’s translation in order to identify passages of interest where I can examine the Latin.



2 thoughts on “William Brown”

  1. William – You have staked out an interesting topic here and offered cogent arguments about Seneca’s notions of deception. At the beginning of the paper, I thought you would be addressing Kant more than you did. It might be useful to develop a bit more the Kantian frame of the paper to make clear why classicists should care about Kant here. For a classics audience, that will require some added, but very beneficial, work, I think. The Platonic and Aristotelian references at the end are also quite relevant to your argument. I would bring a bit more of that into the body of the paper. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read your paper, about Seneca himself and his role in De Clementia. Is a mirror deceptive? not deceptive? neither? The relationship of Seneca to the emperor seems to lurk in the background here. I am not sure how much of that you would want to bring in, but something to consider. The section where you discuss the vocabulary of deception I think can move in part into the notes. Your focus can be on what you define with the English word “deception,” and you can then show the variety of Latin words that can embrace.

  2. William, I read your essay with great interest and learned a lot about Seneca’s thoughts on deception from your analysis. I especially enjoyed your explication in paragraph 22 of Seneca’s attitudes toward people who are deceived. There were times, though, when I became a bit confused. In paragraphs 3 and 4, Latin verbs are sometimes rendered in English as nouns. You write in paragraph 3, for example, that Gummere translates mentire as “deceit,” and you seem to state in paragraph 4 that the words fallere and decipere could best be translated into English as “deception.” Perhaps you could rephrase so that verbs in Latin stay verbs in English, or you could explain why they make better sense as nouns in English. I also noticed that in paragraph 14 you repeatedly refer to the person deceived by Lucilius as his “friend.” But in the final sentence of the paragraph you write, “Seneca thus encourages…deceiving non-friends.” Perhaps you could clarify whether the person deceived by Lucilius is or isn’t his friend in the Senecan sense. Finally, I wonder about your use of the word “benefitter” throughout your paper. Is this a philosophical term? If not, would “benefactor” be a better word?

    Overall, I found your paper very engaging, and I thought that you did a good job of illuminating Seneca’s points of view. I’m looking forward to meeting you at the conference.

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