Tag Archives: seneca

How do you want to live (truly live) your life?

'Mort de Seneque'

Not actually Seneca, but usually called so. In the Louvre, my pic.

My friend and fellow ancient historian Katie posted a link to an article on brain pickings called ‘The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather than Living Long.’ Seneca was a very clever guy, and — as often happens when I read Stoics — his words are convicting. A lot of daily life is devoted to toiling at work rather than living in it, and then procrastinating, and then mindless relaxation.

But what is the point of life? And what are you going to do with yours? Are you going to escape your Facebook feed and Netflix to go and live your life, seeking deep and wide living instead of shallow and narrow living?

I fully intend to. So here are my top three goals in living:

  1. Attaining ‘purity of heart’ as discussed by fifth-century spiritual writer John Cassian in his Conferences. This is a goal that requires the study not only of spiritual guides and philosophers but also certain practices in daily life.
  2. Excelling as an academic. This is my ‘day job’.
  3. Becoming a writer.

Each of these requires its own disciplines and attentiveness, but they can all work together. Number 3, interestingly enough, can be worked through 1 & 2 to a degree, and number 1 manifests itself in the totality of one’s life, thus drawing 2 & 3 into its orbit. Because of the subject matter of my interest, 2 feeds into 1, and, when practised well, into 3 as well.

If I wish to write fiction, however, number 3 will require time other than what is spent on 1 & 2. Part becoming a fiction writer is reading fiction, so that part of my training as a writer is well under way. I just need to, well, write fiction!

But what about true leisure? Seneca would say that leisure time should be devoted exclusively to philosophy — that is, in my scheme, number 1. However, I think he is wrong on this point, and his own corpus of writings bears out his inability to live up to such a high, intense Stoic paradigm, given that he wrote tragedies as well as philosophy.

Instead, I follow Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines wherein he argues that we need real time to just relax if we are going to make it in the rest of our lives. Time to play a sport or make music or watch TV or read a novel or whatever — just because you want to. No ulterior motive.

If, in our leisure time, we were to make a balance between striving for high philosophical ideals and simply relaxing without slipping into entertaining ourselves to death or working ourselves to death, we would probably find a happy place in the middle between these two extremes.

So, now, go read the recommended article. Then go and truly live.

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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.

Sometimes the philosophers are talking straight to me

Having trouble gettings files of my wife on the blog; here’s Seneca instead. Not nearly as much of a looker.

My greatest of the temporal consolations (let’s leave the Divine out of the equation for now) is not a lovely garden or a good book or a warm cup of tea or a Slurpee or playing ‘guess the Emperor’. The greatest consolation I have in this life, that I can touch, hold, and see, is my lovely wife.

I left her in a train station in Stuttgart this morning. She is safely in Edinburgh now. We had a fantastic ten days together — reading together, walking around Tübingen together, visiting Heidelberg together, then seeing my cousin in Mosbach together, eating together, eating ice cream together, eating cake together, eating Schnitzel together, being together. After almost two months part, it was really wonderful to be together.

And I’m happier now than I was ten or so days ago, because the effect she has on me is more long-lasting than simply when she’s just around.

Yet I am, nevertheless, back in my undergrad accommodation in Tübingen. Things are eerily quiet right now; I should probably get to bed in a bit to exploit the fact! Anyway, you know the situation from earlier posts, and especially if we’re friends on Facebook. Not my favourite.

After leaving the lovely Jennifer at the train, I visited the Landesmuseum Württemberg in Stuttgart and read some Seneca. And here’s where the title gets relevant.

Letter 28 (Book III.7) of Seneca’s correspondence to Lucilius is about the fact that Lucilius will never shake off his sadness and depression and learn contentment by changing his location. The problem, says Seneca, is not where you are but, in essence, who you are.

The seeds and material for contentment are available to everyone everywhere. Certainly, quiet, rest, and leisure, retirement from the world, come highly recommended by this Stoic. But the truly wise man can be content anywhere, for that is a matter of inner circumstances.

He writes:

Whatever you do, you are acting against your interests and harming yourself with the movement, since you are jolting a sick man. But when you have eliminated this evil, every change of scene will be agreeable; you may be driven to the remotest lands and set down in some random corner of a barbarian region, but that place, whatever it is like, will be welcoming to you. … Can anything be as crowded as the forum? Yet you can live calmly there too if you need to. (28.5, 6, trans. Elaine Fantham for Oxford World’s Classics)

I can find contentment in less-than-suitable accommodation. I can find rest for my soul even here. Even with all-night parties. Even with people smoking in my kitchen. Even with my greatest consolation off in Edinburgh.

I will try.

Letters as Literature

Pliny the Younger

The idea of writing a post such as this has been floating around in my head for a good, long while now. Letters, epistles, epistolography, are often thought of as ‘sub-literary’ or ‘documentary’ ‘evidence’ for the study of the history of a particular period or person. That is to say, the value of the letter as a piece of writing is to be found in the information which the scholar or other interested party can mine from it.

The implication, on the other hand, that letters are actually literature says that letters are intrinsically interesting of themselves. That is to say, you can read the letters of Cicero or Pliny the Younger of Ambrose of Milan or Leo the Great or Boniface or Abelard and Heloise or Erasmus or J R R Tolkien or C S Lewis for themselves rather than for their content alone.

I am not arguing that letters are not useful documents — from them we learn the tastes and friendships and horrors of individuals as well as, quite frequently, the events of their times. So Cicero’s letters to Atticus of the latter part of 50 BC and through 48 BC provide the student of the conflict between Caesar and Pompey an interesting and informative angle on this highly important Late Republican series of events. Or the letters of Pope Leo the Great from 448 through 455 are important sources for the events leading up to and resulting from the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Nevertheless, what I am saying is that letters are more than simply useful documents. They are interesting documents. Without knowledge of Latin, certain varieties of artistry in the letters of Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61-113) can come to the fore concerning how he constructs his identity or the concerns of what good style and oratory are. The art of philosophy is readily apparent in many of the letters such as those of the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65) or the controversial philosopher-theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142).

If you can read letters in their original tongue, be it Latin or Greek, English or French, you can get a glimpse of their artistry in another manner. For Cicero the orator is not stylistically identical to Cicero the epistolary correspondent. Likewise Leo the Great. Not having read any of the letters of C S Lewis (1898-1963) as an adult, I cannot say for him, but I would be unsurprised if his letters differ from his essays and lectures in terms of style as well.

Furthermore, an investigation of the style of these letter-writers will reveal their use of literary devices, from devices of sound to puns to literary tropes. I, myself, have done an analysis Pope Leo the Great’s Letter 28, the ‘Tome’, and have found it full of rhetorical devices of balance and antithesis, thus mirroring the theological content of the letter.

Of course, my reference to Leo’s ‘Tome’ brings up another issue surrounding the literariness of letters. All letters, whether real ones such as Cicero’s or fictive ones such as C S Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm, are written with a particular audience in view. Many of these, however, including many of Cicero’s, have a wider immediate audience than the ‘intended’ recipient — most famously, the letters of Paul the Apostle (AD 5-67) have found themselves in almost every language on earth in the hands of people living in places the Apostle did not know even existed. Certainly, Paul did not think of the Papuan living in the 21st century when he wrote. Yet he was also undoubtedly thinking beyond the Corinthians of his own day as well.

Thus does Leo write his ‘Tome’ to Flavian of Constantinople yet put enormous rhetorical effort into it, not only in the devices employed but also in the cadence and rhythm of the words, consistently using a prose rhythm known to us best from Ammianus that will last throughout the Middle Ages, but also the prose metre known to us best from Cicero. This consciousness of a wider audience in the letters of people such as Cicero or Pliny or Leo or Erasmus leads to more careful artistry in both the original copy as well as in polished versions presented for publication.

This careful literariness in so many of the famous epistolographers of history should make us pause when we read them, then. How are we to say that this is a less ‘mediated’ version of the character we are reading? Pliny has polished his letters and arranged them to produce a particular vision of himself. Leo has similarly polished his letters and sought to uphold certain values throughout. Who knows what that pope would fear and wonder in the dark nights of Vandal invasions of Rome?

All of this is to say — read some published letters. They run through a range of subjects from oratory to philosophy to poetry to any other piece of literature to art and architecture to theology to politics to daily life to economics. They do so with a certain style that raises them above mere ‘documentary’ evidence for the past.

Recommended Letter Collections (chronologically)

Ancient

M. Tullius Cicero. I would recommend them all, but they are legion, so read D R Shackleton Bailey’s Selected Letters (Penguin Classics) instead. Online: The complete letters in English at the Perseus Project.

L. Annaeus Seneca. A nice sampling of Seneca’s letters is in the Penguin Classic Letters from a Stoic translated and selected by Robin Campbell.

Pliny the Younger. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. Translated by Betty Radice (Penguin Classics). This corpus is short enough that you can read them all; furthermore, there is much to be said for reading an entire collection of letters as its author/editor intended.

Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose’s letters vary greatly in subject matter; therefore, to get a sense of the man, read the selections gathered in the Translated Texts for Historians volume, Political Letters and Speeches as well as the small sampling in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Ambrose volume, available online.

Pope Leo I (the Great). No translation exists of all of Leo’s letters, but the bulk can be found in the NPNF volume, available online, and a somewhat different selection in the volume from The Fathers of the Church, translated by Edmund Hunt.

Medieval

Boniface. I’ve not read all of Boniface’s letters, but I found those I did read to be of interest. There is a recent edition by Ephraim Emerton, and they are also available through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Peter Abelard. There is a Penguin Classic, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated by Betty Radice, where I first met these two star-crossed (and on his part castrated) lovers/monk and nun.

Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch, as a ‘Renaissance’ humanist, takes up many of the perceived ideals of epistolary writing found in Pliny and Cicero. A selection is available through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Modern

C S Lewis. Letters to Children. This I own and enjoyed in my youth.

—. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. This is an interesting series of fictive letters to a correspondent called Malcolm. An interesting project from a literary standpoint.

—. Letters. Walter Hooper has edited all of them, I think; but there must be a ‘selected letters’ out there for the faint of heart!

J R R Tolkien. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: A Selection, ed. Humphrey Carpenter.

—. Letters from Father Christmas. This amazing volume contains letters Tolkien wrote in the person of Father Christmas to his children. It is a delight!

There are, of course, many more bodies of correspondence out there to be discovered. I just know very little about them or have not read them at all, so I am not keen to recommend them. Add your own recommendations in the comments!