Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.09.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.09.26

Margaret Graver, Anthony A. Long (trans.), Seneca, Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius. Translated with an Introduction and Commentary. The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca.   Chicago; London:  University of Chicago Press, 2015.  Pp. xxviii, 604.  ISBN 9780226265179.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Maarten van Houte, Utrecht University (


This translation of Seneca's Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium is the fifth installment in the University of Chicago Press series The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca.1 According to the website, the series does not provide the Latin texts and is "intended to be used by Latinless college students and by instructors in comparative literature, classics, philosophy, and drama courses as well as by more advanced students and professionals reading in Latin who wish to cite an authoritative translation."

There is no doubt that many will welcome a new English translation of Seneca's letters: while several selections of letters have recently been published,2 the previous complete (English) translation is nearly a century old.3 The last sixty years or so have seen a revival of both scholarly and non-scholarly interest in Hellenistic and Roman philosophy in general and Stoicism in particular, so a fresh rendering of Seneca's letters, his last, longest, and arguably most important work, seems especially opportune.

Like the other installments in the series, this one starts with a general introduction called “Seneca and His World” by the series editors (Elisabeth Asmis, Martha Nussbaum and Shadi Bartsch), which provides brief overviews of Seneca's life and Stoic philosophy, an assessment of the Stoic character of Seneca's work, and a rather detailed discussion of Senecan tragedy and its afterlife (so detailed, in fact, that I was briefly under the impression that it was the introduction to the translation of the tragedies). Overall, it is a useful introduction, though some of its claims are debatable: e.g., the remark (pp. xiii-xiv) that "Stoics were serious about (human) equality: they urged the equal education of both slaves and women" seems an overgeneralization. On p. xvi it is said that Cicero, in his On Duties, took Stoic cosmopolitanism to mean that there are "some very strict limits on the reasons for going to war and the sort of conduct that is permissible in it", but that he denied "that our common humanity entails any duty to distribute material goods beyond our own borders, thus displaying the unfortunate capacity of Stoic doctrine to support the status quo." Whatever one thinks about Cicero, the conclusion drawn from this, that "Cicero's On Duties has had such an enormous influence on posterity in this that it is scarcely an exaggeration to blame the Stoics for the fact that we have well-worked-out doctrines of international law in the area of war and peace, but no well-established understanding of our material duties to one another", seems both unfair (for various reasons, one being that Cicero was not a Stoic) and untrue (given, e.g., how the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis explains caring for and helping other people as something natural and good).

There is also an excellent introduction to Seneca's letters by the two translators, Graver and Long, which sketches the literary, socio-political and educational aspects of the work, and provides an overview of the Nachleben and changing influence of the Letters on Ethics through the ages. It also discusses Seneca's philosophical stance and his sources, and does so particularly well, evincing the views of modern scholarship of Seneca as both a self-professed and more or less orthodox Stoic and also a serious thinker in his own right.

The labels given by Graver and Long to each letter in the table of contents shows just how wide Seneca was casting his net when thinking about how to live like a philosopher: e.g. “Blushing” (11), “An Epicurean on his deathbed” (30), “God dwells within us” (41), “Noisy lodgings above a bathhouse” (56), “Heavy Drinking” (83). Even though the labels are not authorial, they are helpful and one wishes they had been used in the book itself as well, not just in the table of contents.

Graver and Long follow the text of the Oxford edition by Reynolds, and provide a list of where they opt for a different reading. Their aim (p. 24) has been "to convey Seneca's ideas exactly while also giving some sense of his ever-changing style and mood" and there is no doubt on my part that they have succeeded in doing so. As far as I have been able to check, they (a) manage to convey Seneca's ideas clearly and accurately, while (b) also striking the right notes stylistically. I will give an example of both, comparing their translation with Gummere's in the Loeb edition.

(a) In letter 31, Seneca argues that we can become equal to god (parem deo) by valuing nothing but the well-being of our soul. All other things will not contribute anything: Fama non faciet nec ostentatio tui et in populos nominis dimissa notitia; nemo novit deum, multi de illo male existimant, et inpune. (31.10) The Loeb translation of nemo novit deum is "no one has knowledge of God". This translation suggests, or at least accommodates, an interpretation of this phrase as expressing our ignorance of god in the epistemic sense, i.e. as an indication of negative theology in Seneca. I think this interpretation is off the mark: Seneca actually means to say that god is not famous or “the talk of the town” and that we should not strive for such fame either, as is indicated by what precedes the lines cited. Seneca there says that god has no property and is unclad – in other words, Seneca purposely denies god various indifferents commonly and erroneously held to be important, and nemo novit deum most likely also refers to such an indifferent, viz. fame or popularity.4 Graver and Long do capture Seneca's intention, therefore, in translating the underlined words as "no one has personal acquaintance with God."

(b) In letter 63, a consolatory letter, Seneca advises Lucilius not to mourn a deceased friend excessively, but rather to cherish his friends both when they are alive and in memory. Several passages clearly show his impatience with and disgust of how many people feel they should deal with loss (63.1-2, 9):

Illud, ut non doleas, vix audebo exigere; et esse melius scio. . . Quaeris unde sint lamentationes, unde inmodici fletus? Per lacrimas argumenta desiderii quaerimus et dolorem non sequimur sed ostendimus; nemo tristis sibi est. O infelicem stultitiam! Est aliqua et doloris ambitio. . . Feras autem hos qui neglegentissime amicos habent, miserrime lugent, nec amant quemquam nisi perdiderunt?

The Loeb-edition translates:

"That you should not mourn at all I shall hardly dare to insist; and yet I know that it is the better way. . . Do you wish to know the reason for lamentations and excessive weeping? It is because we seek the proofs of our bereavement in our tears, and do not give way to sorrow, but merely parade it. No man goes into mourning for his own sake. Shame on our ill-timed folly! There is an element of self-seeking even in our sorrow. . . But will you tolerate men who are most careless of their friends, and then mourn them most abjectly, and do not love anyone unless they have lost him?”

While there's nothing wrong with this translation, I think Graver and Long are more successful in getting Seneca's vehemence and urgency across, by choosing to break up the sentences into shorter, more direct ones:

"Not grieve at all? That I will not venture to ask of you, though I know it would be better. . . Do you ask, where do lamentations come from? What is the source of weeping beyond measure? We are trying by our tears to prove our sense of loss: it is not that grief forces us but that we are exhibiting grief to others. People are not sad just for themselves. Hapless idiocy! Even in grief there is competition. . . Some people are careless about their friends while they have them, then grieve terribly for them when they are gone. Will you put up with this? They have to lose people in order to love them!"

These are just some examples of how Graver and Long successfully manage to draw the reader in, working from what they think Seneca wants to say instead of just following the Latin word-for-word.

Many readers will also appreciate the notes they provide throughout the letters, which give further information on historical figures, quotations, philosophical theories etc., and also cross-references to passages in other letters and works. One minor point: I would have preferred these notes to be footnotes instead of endnotes.

The book is very well-produced and easy to use: for example, on the outside margin of each right page, it keeps track of which letter you are reading, which makes for quick browsing. A useful index and bibliography of editions, translations and secondary works are also provided. I have not found any typos or (grammatical) errors.5 In short, I would definitely recommend this book to students and teachers in philosophy or literature looking for an accurate, readable and well-annotated translation of Seneca's letters. ​


1.   Earlier volumes being Natural Questions by Harry Hine (2010); Anger, Mercy, Revenge by Robert Kaster and Martha Nussbaum (2010); On Benefits by Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood (2011); Hardship and Happiness by Elaine Fantham, Harry Hine, James Ker and Gareth Williams (2014). The Complete Tragedies (in two volumes) by Shadi Bartsch, Susanna Braund, Alex Dressler and Elaine Fantham will appear in 2017.
2.   E.g., B. Inwood, Seneca. Selected Philosophical Letters, Oxford 2007; E. Fantham, Seneca: Selected Letters, Oxford 2010.
3.   R. M. Gummere, Seneca: Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales. 3 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge (MA) 1917-1925.
4.   For a further discussion of this passage and its interpretations see B. Hijmans, “Two such opposed kings...”, Theta-Pi 2 (1972), 40-59.
5.   Apart from the remark on p. xvi of the general introduction that "Stoicism's influence on the development of the entire Western intellectual tradition cannot be underestimated." Perhaps they meant to say that it should not be underestimated or that it cannot be overestimated.

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