The Letters of Seneca

As part of the grandeur of my PhD, I’m reading a vast swath of Latin letters, as this post and this other post on Cicero’s letters attest, not to mention this brief discussion of a passage from Pliny’s letters. My adventures have taken me as late as St Boniface (d. 754), as far from Rome as Severus of Antioch (who wrote in Greek, not Latin, and is only preserved in Syriac, mind you), and as Carthaginian as St Cyprian. Today, I polished off Selected Letters by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, selected and translated with introduction and notes by the intrepid Elaine Fantham.

My fondness for Professor Fantham stretches back five years when she, in discussing U of T’s Classics department’s new locale, told my MA Latin Poetry class that one could observe the stained glass of bare-breasted women ‘with an Edwardian sensibility.’ Also, one day while discussing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she sagely said, ‘There is nothing better than reading the ancient texts themselves.’ This was my first encounter with her scholarship outside the classroom, and I am impressed.

Fantham’s selection is lucidly and intelligibly translated in a modern yet philosophical idiom. This, combined with the fact that here we have the largest selection of Seneca’s letters yet translated into English, is reason alone to purchase this particular volume. Nevertheless, Prof. Fantham gives the reader a brief introduction to each letter, usually a couple of sentences or a small paragraph that outlines the contents, making the structure clear and thus the text easier to follow. When helpful, these introductions to individual letters give references to secondary literature for those interested in pursuing a matter further, whether a question of philosophy or philology.

Mind you, I was already very pleased with the scholarship by reading the main introduction to the volume. Some scholarly introductions are boring. Others, while helpful and interesting, can be excessively long, such as Dorothy L Sayers’ 67-page introduction to Dante’s Inferno. And sometimes introductions to popular-level translations are not scholarly at all and leave the reader wanting more. Fantham’s is a good length, covers all the necessary bases of history, philosophy, and philology, and is readable. If you are looking for a brief introduction to Seneca and his world, look no further. Elaine Fantham proves herself well-versed in early imperial Roman history, the Latin literature of that period, and the ins and outs of Stoic philosophy and its milieu.

If you were planning on reading Seneca’s letters anyway, this is the translation I would recommend.

But why read Seneca’s letters?

I have to admit that sometimes L Annaeus Seneca talks about death too much. There is really only so much on the subject of the Stoic despisal (is that a word?) of death that a person can stand to read. Nonetheless, this repetition of the theme is part of the collection as a whole. The letters to Lucilius have chosen moral philosophy and personal growth in virtue as their theme. I, personally, believe they represent one end of a real correspondence; yet even if they represent a fictive correspondence in which Lucilius was never a real participant, the form and genre of the letter collection is present.

What this means is that the reader takes the place of Lucilius in receiving Seneca’s epistles, epistles that were (alleged to have been) sent over a period of years, as Lucilius grew in his strength of virtue and knowledge of the Stoic way of life. It is, at a certain level, a programme of training in moral philosophy. And repetition is a key element in the instilling of ideas in the mind, for it helps forge pathways in the brain. This is the background behind the Greek philosophical concept of the maxim, wherein one simply repeats a short, memorable phrase often and in certain situations and that transforms one’s thinking in the direction one wishes.

So Seneca talks about death a lot. This is because the noble death is an important aspect of Stoicism — this is a philosophy that approves of suicide when necessary. Yet it is selfless enough that Stoics will put off their own deaths when they see that dying would put undue strain upon their loved ones. However, when the time comes, Seneca is willing to die at the command of Nero.

But death is not the only Stoic subject at hand. Seneca discusses the liberal arts and literary style, he discusses contentment and luxury and food and sport and exercise and fear and endurance and duty and leisure (otium) and friendship and so forth. Part of what the epistolary form allows Seneca to do is provide shorter discourses on these subjects that a larger treatise does not — although Seneca’s moral essays tend also to be short.

What the letter also allows Seneca to do is shift between subjects at will. Any thought or occasion is opportunity to go off on a philosophical tangent. The tight structure of the essay or logical framing of the dialogue does not as easily allow for this, although Plato’s Symposium makes the different interlocutors opportunities for different subjects — but even they stay on theme to an extent. Seneca can discuss morality and style in the same breath.

Finally, the epistolary genre allows Seneca to begin conversationally and easily weave into the discourse incidental matters and anecdotes. ‘Just the other day I was visiting my old villa …’ and then he goes on to give a philosophical discussion of old age.

Today’s era may not be overfond of moralising, but Seneca does it well. Sometimes the text can be heavy reading, but I did not find myself kicking back against the Stoic too hard for the moralising, although I had a constant, lively engagement with him in my mind. This ‘moralising’ is better termed exhortation, and so I shall close this post with Professor Fantham’s words from the close of her introduction:

We have lost the art of exhortation and, worse, the willingness to learn from exhortation. But at least these letters represent encouragement to good behaviour without the bribe of either human or divine approval; if their power consists in denying the reader easy comfort, they are also fascinating in the variety of their topics and illustrations, and often brilliant in their compelling and immediate personal voice. (p. xxxiv)

PS: This post here is also about Seneca’s letters.

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