Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy

Seneca on the Danger of Self-Deception and Self-Flattery

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jer. 17:9)

At the beginning of his dialogue De tranquillitate animi (“On Tranquility of Mind”), Seneca the Younger1 has his interlocutor Serenus, in discussing his weakness of will in doing what is good and right, comment on the dangers we face through flattering ourselves about our own achievements. As often, Seneca, who was (spuriously) claimed in antiquity to have corresponded with the Apostle Paul, is an astute observer of human nature.

I imagine many people could have achieved wisdom if they had not imaged they had already achieved it, if they had not dissembled about some of their own characteristics and turned a blind eye to others. For you have no reason to suppose that we come to grief more through the flattery of others than through our own. Who has dared to tell himself the truth? Who even when surrounded by crowds of toadying sycophants is not his own greatest flatterer? (De tranquillitate animi 1, trans. C.D.N. Costa)

  1. In the image used with this post, Seneca is the middle figure, between Plato and Aristotle.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

3 replies on “Seneca on the Danger of Self-Deception and Self-Flattery”

Great post, Eric. Are you sure the correspondence is spurious? David Morgan (RIP) once told me that based on the inanities that were discussed in the “surviving letter” he was inclined to believe it was genuine, that a forgery would have included something that made Christianity look good and showed that Seneca was derivative, which the alleged corresopndence does not do. I have searched in vain for any scholarly discussions of the subject. Do you know of any?

Dear David,

To tell you the truth, I didn’t realized anyone argued for its genuineness until your comment. Since then, I’ve found one work that, I think, argues the same:

Title: Correspondence between Paul and Seneca, A.D. 61-65
Language: English
Additional Info: [text, transl. and commentary by] Berry, Paul
Series: Ancient Near Eastern texts and studies ; 12
Editors: Berry, Paul
Source: Correspondence between Paul and Seneca, A.D. 61-65; 1999
Publication Information: Lewiston (N.Y.): Mellen Pr. 1999, XV-134 p. fac-sim. cartes plan index
Ancient Authors/Texts: Epistulae Senecae ad Paulum et Pauli ad Senecam

But that’s the only sympathetic voice I’ve come across. I’m inclined to be skeptical for a number of reasons, one of which is that nothing is heard of such a correspondence until Jerome mentions it late in the fourth century (hence it is usually thought to be a forgery from some time in that same century). Such a thing is not unparalleled, hence the apocryphal correspondence between Jesus and Abgar of Edessa in Eusebius, Church History 1.13 (

As far as other scholarship on the correspondence, this may also be of interest:

Title: «Seneca» on Paul as letter writer
Authors: Malherbe, Abraham J.
Source: Essays in honor of H. Koester ; 414-421 1991
Ancient Authors/Texts: Testamenta
Epistulae Senecae ad Paulum et Pauli ad Senecam
Abstract: The author of the Epistulae Senecae et Pauli, while portraying Paul as an accomplished letter writer, nevertheless acknowledged that Paul did not measure up to Seneca’s standards, but invoked the traditional, theological, patristic argument to blunt the criticism.


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