Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.07

Giuseppe Scarpat, Lucio Anneo Seneca. Anticipare la morte o attenderla. La lettera 70 a Lucilio. Antichità classica e christiana, 35.   Brescia:  Paideia Editrice, 2007.  Pp. 114.  ISBN 978-88-394-0742-9.  €12.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ioana Costa, University of Bucharest (
Word count: 1151 words

The recent volume of Professor Giuseppe Scarpat is a meticulous approach to one individual letter: Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium, 70. The book is a perfect example of opus philologicum in that it is a philologically exhaustive analysis of a defined, limited text (28 paragraphs) and, in perspective, may become part of a complex edition of the Seneca's Epistulae.

The works of Giuseppe Scarpat illustrate the two stages of embracing classical philology, the examination of each and every detail (word, letter, sign) and the synthesis of different topics as a rapid scrutiny of some titles will show: two volumes devoted to individual letters, 65 and 70 (La lettera 65 di Seneca, 1965, reprinted in 1970, and the present volume, La lettera 70 a Lucilio); the first book of Letters to Lucilius (Lettere a Lucilio. Libro I, 1975, reprinted in 2001); a volume that connects Seneca's philosophical thought to Hebrew and Christian environments (Il pensiero religioso di Seneca e l'ambiente ebraico e cristiano, 1977, reprinted in 1983); a huge work, in three volumes, on a particular chapter of Septuagint: The Wisdom of Solomon (Libro della Sapienza, 1989, 1996, 1999) and another volume, on an equally difficult chapter of the Septuagint, The Fourth Book of Maccabees (Quarto libro dei Maccabei, 2006).

The introduction (almost one third of the volume, pp. 11-39) presents the historic background. Seneca was an authentic Stoic philosopher and the letters he sent to Lucilius, although not a systematic treatise of philosophy, were condensed and enjoyable lectures on Stoicism; these letters are closely connected to Roman life and, even if they are fictitious as epistolary acts, are mostly real in their content. Lucilius apparently is the perfect receiver: as Seneca's entire epistolary oeuvre had only one recipient, the sender was not compelled to use captationes beneuolentiae. Seneca's Epistulae ad Lucilium are more likely to be meditations to himself, just as Marcus Aurelius wrote (eis heautón).

Life and death are evaluated one amidst the other. The second paragraph of the 70th epistle includes a meaningful word: praenauigare is a verb that Seneca chose both for the image of the boat floating in time and for the unexpected presence of a rare term. Praenauigare seems to be the only verb able to express the idea that we do not live and do not know how to live, just as someone who navigates along the shore knows nothing about the land is passing by. All human fears and worries are the fruits of imagination; the solution is the only certitude of mankind, death. Everybody dies of mors propria (Epist. 69,6), and consequently there is no ground to fear some unexpected events. Suicide is, in this respect, the natural end: the time of life is not wasted, but it simply does not belong to the person who dies. Suicide is the guarantee of freedom for the wise man. Seneca himself was on the verge of committing suicide on several occasions (see Epist. 78,2). He decided to live only for the sake of his old father. On the other hand, physical suffering inflicted by a painful malady cannot be the justification for committing suicide: as long as the illness is curable, death is not the proper solution. Under such circumstances, suicide becomes the recognition of defeat. Suicide is admissible only when there is a strong reason (illness or something else) that impedes someone from reaching the aim of life. The crucial question is whether death should be embraced or awaited (occupanda sit an exspectanda, Epist. 70,11); the character that is brought as answer is Socrates, the magister who offers the perfect paradigm of attitude in the last moments of life.

The philosopher that leaves life by his own choice is completely free; for him, belief in life after death is of no importance (aut in meliorem emittitur uitam, Epist. 71,16). Scarpat, in article on Ovid, considered that these assertions of Seneca were rooted in Pythagorean philosophy; here (p. 23) this is seen more plausibly as a polemic insinuation against the Christians in Rome, who were ready to die for their beliefs in order to attain a perfect life after death.

The dominant characters of Epist. 70 are Socrates and Cato; they exemplify different modalities and reasons for leaving life, but are perceived as strong models and, in many respects, are displayed as Stoic personalities. They are accompanied by the sordida exempla, a series of characters memorable for the unexpected and brutal way they died. The famous heroes of the Romans are reduced to symbols and are cited in a plural form: Catones Scipionesque. Exitus illustrium uirorum are balanced by accounts of humble people (bestiarii, gladiatores meridiani, pueri), but are equivalents of the praised heroes.

For the wise man, there are no grounds for fear, as he has the power to annihilate any sort of pain (exile, illness, suffering, death) by leaving life, so that the pain does not exist. The topic of death is not only part of the Stoic philosophy: history itself seems to increase the appetite to examine death. The final chapters of Tacitus' Annales are impregnated by a gloomy pressure of terror and suffering (p. 38). The only way out of this terror is interior freedom and, consequently, potential suicide: "the Stoic philosopher transfers his own desires from the individual level to the universal level: synchronization with the universal nature is the only ethical precept" (p. 39).

The central part of this volume is the text, translation, and commentary of Epist. 70. The Latin text is basically the Oxford edition: there are only nine divergences, explained in commentaries and/or translation: 70,2: praenauigamus, in Scarpat, vs praenauigauimus, in Reynolds; 5: illo vs illic; 8: commodaret [stulte]: vs commodaret.; 9: expectatione vs in expectatione; 18: meditatio rei vs rei meditatio; 19: excitat vs exigat; 19: commodo vs e commodo; 28: scilicet vs si licet; 28: Scarpat deleted [quemadmodum placet, si minus].

The rich commentary is extended with a few pages (97-104) centered on a single phrase: fortuna suspecta (Epist. 70,5). Other editions and translations offered bizarre interpretations, mostly pointless. Scarpat has rejected many of them. J. Bernardi (1869), H. Noblot (1957, reprinted in 1965), and U. Boella (1969, reprinted in 1972) suggest a sense of suspicion toward destiny while Ismael Roca Meliá (1986) offers a different interpretation: "como la fortuna comieza a ispirarle recelo". Scarpat investigates the meanings of the term suspecta, mainly in the context of Seneca's writings: a series of the passages suggest something dangerous or frightful that cannot be trusted. A letter sent by Pliny to Trajan refers to a locus suspectus that was inappropriate for an aqueduct. Scarpat's translation of the phrase is: " fortuna comincia a diventare inaffidabile".

The final part of this volume is the apparatus: bibliography (editions and translations; studies) and index of quoted passages.

Is a rare joy to read a book that goes deep in the territory of an ancient author's text and never praenauigat uerba.

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