Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.11.40

John Henderson, Morals and Villas in Seneca's Letters: Places to Dwell.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2004.  Pp. 189.  ISBN 0-521-82944-5.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Amanda Wilcox, Williams College (
Word count: 1977 words

In Morals and Villas, Henderson offers intensive readings and re-readings of three letters from Seneca's Epistulae Morales (12, 55, 86), a whirlwind tour of the remainder of the collection, and observations that sketch an argument about what Seneca is up to in this, perhaps his last, work. In recent years, Senecan studies have been energized by contemporary theoretical concerns, and the results of these inquiries are starting to appear. Still, given Seneca's rhetorical subtlety, the breadth of his concerns, and the sheer volume and variety of his works, much remains to be done, and there is much that philological acumen, a nuanced knowledge of Roman culture, and a knack for asking the unexpected question can reveal. Accordingly, Henderson's contribution is a welcome event. Senecan scholars should read it, and most will find that it repays their efforts. However, this book is less likely to succeed with the audience which stands to benefit most from Henderson's learning and which may be most receptive to his irreverent approach, namely, young scholars in search of inspiration and guidance for their own research and advanced undergraduate students in need of an informative and accessible guide to the Letters. The complexity of the book's organizational scheme, Henderson's unorthodox prose style, and his elliptical mode of argument present hurdles that may prove insurmountable for many readers.

Morals and Villas comprises a brief introduction (1-5) plus twelve chapters, three of which (chapters 2, 6, and 7) contain a Latin text and English translation of Letters 12, 86, and 55. Two appendices, bibliography, an index of passages discussed, and a general index round out the volume. Initially, the book appears to hew to a familiar organizational scheme for a one-author, one-work study, that of accompanying the reader through Seneca's collection in the same order in which she will encounter it as a reader. So Henderson's first chapter takes us briefly through the first eleven letters of the collection, in preparation for a more prolonged examination of the twelfth letter (the last letter in book one) in chapter two. But in the following chapters, this scheme is first radically compressed and then abandoned. Henderson whizzes through books two through twenty (Letters 13-124) in the next two chapters (3 and 4), and then in chapter five, he turns back for a slightly longer look at letters 84-88. His text and translation of letter 86 follow in chapter six, which precedes the same operation performed on letter 55, in chapter 7. The last five chapters are devoted to interpretation of these two letters, with chapter eight focused on letter 55 and the remaining four focused mainly on letter 86. At the opening of chapter five, Henderson justifies this scheme by quoting Seneca, whose recommendation it is (Epp. 84.3): "'We must,' as they say, 'make like the bees': go all around the garden for suitable flowers, then back home to sort out the combs, and "stuff their cells/rooms with sweet nectar"." Henderson reminds us of this procedure at the opening of chapter 7: "This will be a sample of 'Making like the bees'."

By investigating thoroughly three letters thematically linked by their descriptions of villas, Henderson excavates and explicates a nexus of Senecan imagery. Seneca constructs his philosophical arguments through elaborations of metaphor, so by investigating Senecan "places to dwell," Henderson can at least partially illuminate the substance, not just the figures, of Seneca's thought. Henderson's investigation demonstrates, too, the working of Seneca's method, that is, how Seneca's letters engage their readers in the processes they recommend. Early on, Henderson declares, "[T]o read [the Letters] is to react in the light of the reading experience, and to project the result into reading further. The unending work of indoctrination here, is, so I claim, performatively to inculcate reading habits (mores)" (29). Further on, at the outset of chapter six: "Everything we have learned about the Letters has told us to respond by working through the intimate exchange with the writer and his presumptions about the reader. We always undergo manipulation; we always have the manipulator's self-manipulation before us, as mirror of the terms for our own engagement" (53). The Letters presuppose at least a doubled mirroring, then, of writer, his (manipulated) self-reflection, his presumed reader, and our own reading selves. This scheme is further complicated by the introduction of Vatia's villa, and Scipio's, as stand-ins for, or mirrors of, their owners. Henderson writes: "[T]hat calibration between show house and inspected alterity exposes the adjudicating letter-writer's self to the inspection of the correspondent. For describing Vatia inscribes Seneca" (71). Like the villas they describe, the Letters "generate their significance from interaction" (67). So, too, do the representations and manipulations of self-reflection that the Letters carry out.

But much of Henderson's argument and many of his most interesting insights defy summary. In chapter one he reconstructs the literary/ethical/political genealogy that Seneca sketches in Letter 11 (17-18): Seneca represents himself and his nephew Lucan as the heirs of Cato the Elder's traditional Roman austerity and Scipio Africanus' heroism, and also, respectively, as the heirs of their descendants, Metellus Scipio and Cato [Uticensis]. So Lucan is heir to a political assassin, and Seneca to a martyr. This is a stemma ripe for further interpretation, but only the consideration of Seneca's heirship of Scipio [Africanus] gets developed in the chapters that follow. Seneca contends (conveniently, given the circumstances of his own final years) that voluntary retreat, modeled on Scipio's exile at Liternum, can be where true heroism lies. But Seneca's tendentious praise of Scipio's retreat in Letter 86 is preceded by a critique, in Letter 55, of ignoble pragmatism and decadence masquerading as philosophy, the Epicurean ruse as represented by Vatia's villa. Vatia's embrace of philhellenic culture and leisure is presented as pseudo-philosophical posturing by a living corpse whose devotion to his cleverly engineered waterways and perennially stocked fish ponds, distinctively Roman pleasures, reveals that his true allegiance is to physical pleasure and political self-preservation.

Plane trees crop up repeatedly in the Senecan texts and in Henderson's discussion: Seneca's knotty and leafless old trees with their parched branches and squalid trunks (Epp. 12.2), Vatia's avenue of plane trees divided by a stream (Epp. 55.6, a "fig-leaf of 'Philosophy'" [81]), Pliny's shady grove (platanon opacissimus, 85). Significantly, among the loci Henderson treats, only Scipio's villa at Liternum does not feature this emblem of Hellenic philosophy. Instead, it has an olive grove. Halfway through, Letter 86 abruptly turns from its description of the hallowed house, grounds, and especially the baths of Scipio, to a disquisition on gardening featuring the advice of the villa's current owner Aegialus on how to transplant olive trees, even ancient ones. Henderson explains this apparently radical change in subject by appeal to the "double shift" that Stoic philosophy must undergo in order to accommodate not only Latin language but a genuinely Roman perspective (149). To be a Roman hero like Scipio, who wore out his body with rustic labor and only used his cramped, dark bathhouse every nine days, we must not lounge around in the Garden like Vatia but put our backs into the task, and our minds to the practical knowledge, of actual gardening.

It is an index of my own preoccupations (but also an indication of how much of what a reader is able to access in this book depends on what she brings to it) that I was more intrigued by Henderson's offhand connection of Seneca to Pliny (85), Seneca's nearest successor in literary prose letter-writing, than his more elaborate evocations of Vergil's Georgics as a model and foil for Seneca. Likewise, Henderson makes a fascinating gesture toward a Senecan predecessor in the book's final chapter, showing how Seneca's work of moral programming via metaphors shared by gardening and genealogy (e.g., roots, stocks, grafting) is paralleled and forecast by Cicero's construction of his own moral authority in the De Officiis. As Henderson says, "Here is Rome regenerating Rome on the page, big time" (168).

This book rewards persistence, but it remains a difficult read, for all Henderson's facility with his sources. As chapters one through four sped past, I found myself constantly referring to my text of the Epistulae Morales to elucidate Henderson, rather than the other way around. Moreover, Henderson's efforts to signpost his progress are often either too oblique to lend much assistance or so barefaced that they do not elicit much gratitude. Moreover, the effort that Henderson's prose requires of his reader makes this book seem bigger than it is, in spite of the fact that Henderson alerts us to its restricted scope on page two: "Three goes, in all. In fact, a start and two shots are all. Actually, a start, a zip past (a) folly, and one ideal habit(u)ation, all told." It is nevertheless startling to realize just how little ground Morals and Villas covers. The insistent repetition of key passages does thoroughly (at times numbingly) demonstrate Seneca's instructions for reading as a process of constant rereading, involving re-vision, appropriation, and inhabitation of the texts by which one tries to live. But the pressing and repressing of so few passages made me wish that Henderson had expanded his reach. To resist attempting a comprehensive study of so various and complex a work as the Epistulae Morales may have been wise, but, even by adopting a fuller, less elliptical style of explanation, Henderson could have added significant depth, weight, and credibility to his findings and his characterization of Seneca's overall project. To me, Henderson's reading of Seneca seems on the mark, but given the large number of Epistulae Morales that he ignores, it could easily not be. How is a reader who is not already steeped in Seneca to judge? Henderson presumes too much either on the credulity of his readers, or on their previous preparation. He appears to take for granted not only that his readers already know Seneca, but also that they have a fairly complete mental outline of Roman political history from the second Punic War to Nero. He also assumes that they know Latin. Because his translations follow full texts of letters 12, 86, and 55, at first they appear to be there to assist the reader whose Latin in not up to Seneca, but these renditions are too ludic to serve that purpose. Greek words and phrases are not consistently transliterated (or translated), which not only wards off Greekless readers, but also adds yet another typeface to pages already busy with italics, capital letters, small capitals, hyphenation, and mathematical symbols. A précis of Seneca's literary and political career and the place of the letters in it would be an immensely useful means for the reader to orient herself, and a natural supplement to the "tour" through the book's contents that the introduction does provide.

With his massive stylistic idiosyncrasies, compression of the argument, and elision of step-by-step argumentation, Henderson risks alienating his potential readers just as, in many generations, Seneca has. Yet the thinking of many a reader could be enriched by Henderson's minutely detailed appreciation of Senecan poetics, as well as his commendable determination to analyze an integrated Seneca, whose philosophy is inseparable from his "epistoliterary" form or his metaphorical expressions of meaning. Henderson's core audience of professional Latinists will probably continue to bear with his eccentricities; despite them, he is an extremely perceptive and powerful interpreter of Roman culture. There are many readers, however, who may not fully benefit from his work, among them a potential audience of scholars working on the reception of Seneca in later periods. If Henderson could attain the balance between insouciance and instructiveness that would open his lively readings of the Romans to those who arguably need them most--readers with less Latin and far less Latinitas than Henderson has--whose encounters with classical scholarship so far may have left them unconvinced of its vitality or relevance, then he will have achieved something really remarkable.

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