BMCR 2005.05.10

Wort und Wandlung. Senecas Lebenskunst. Mnemosyne supplementa, 252

, Wort und Wandlung : Senecas Lebenskunst. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 1 online resource (236 pages).. ISBN 9789047413998 $119.00.

‘Do what I say, not what I do’: this has always been a part of Seneca’s message to his readers, who have not always found it easy to accept. How can someone recommend poverty and be at the same time one of the richest men of the Roman Empire, for example? And how many books, how many scholars conclude he is a brilliant but completely hypocritical thinker and writer? I think here of the quite recent edition of the prose works by Paul Veyne.1 Nevertheless, some avoid this presentation, without trying to escape these problems: I always have on my mind M. Griffin and I. Hadot’s studies2 when I prepare a course on Seneca, and now I will think of M. von Albrecht’s book as well because it is a very sensitive study which illuminates the reading of Seneca and offers many ideas to its reader, student or scholar. On the one hand, it is a precise and refined study of Seneca’s thought and style based on texts; on the other hand, it’s an impressive demonstration of the influence of this writer through the centuries.

This book concentrates on the idea of metamorphosis (Verwandlung), which is studied mainly in the epistles and in the tragedies, though the Quaestiones naturales are not forgotten, as so often happens. First, the metamorphosis of words whose meaning is changed by Seneca, then the metamorphosis of the person through words, whether this change is positive, as when Seneca uses the epistolary form to transform his reader, or negative, as when the tragic heroine incites herself (the two examples are Juno and Medea) to find the strength to commit a crime.

After a short introduction presenting a biography of Seneca and the main ideas of the author (from now on M. v. A.), the book is divided into nine chapters. The first five deal with Seneca’s thought together with his style, with a different theme each time, which corresponds to the first idea of metamorphosis, the change of meaning of common words. Then there is a chapter based on a parallelism between the prose works and the tragedies (especially Hercules Furens and Medea) which insists on the metamorphosis of the person through words. The last three chapters focus on Seneca’s influence on later writers, first Christian ones, then Montaigne, and finally the German authors from Gryphius on.

M. v. A. chooses first an extract of the first epistle to Lucilius about the preciousness of time. After a fine literary comment, he insists on some points — the unclassic taste for repetition with an abuse of synonyms, the metaphors, the use of asyndeta, the aggressive color of Seneca’s style, and finally gradatio. The main idea is to present Seneca as an anti-Cicero, the first writer who reinvents Latin prose after the great man of Arpinum. The second chapter is a commentary on an extract of epistle 28, which starts with a condemnation of traveling and constitutes a defense of earnestness, which in this letter means first always to refuse to try new places, new food, or new books. M. v. A. shows how Seneca uses some devices — references to famous philosophers, choice of sententiae, change of meaning for common words — to create a change within his reader.

The third chapter deals with money and the concept of wealth, concentrating on two points: first the use of metaphors created with words which are borrowed from the vocabulary of economic life, a world common to Seneca and to his public, and then the philosophical value of wealth. The two ideas are joined in a third as M. v. A. insists on the philosophical metamorphosis of the concepts of ownership and wealth.

The fourth chapter presents Seneca in his relationship to Socrates. The parallelism, already made by the ancients especially because of Seneca’s suicide, is developed by M. v. A., who wants to prove the Roman philosopher has been much more faithful and respectful than many disciples of Plato. Seneca has chosen dialogue for his philosophic exchanges and writings, even if he has modernised it in preferring the exchange of letters and of books to the physical presence. Seneca has well seen that dialogue is fruitful to the pupil, who learns something from his master, but also to the master, who is changed too. The victory over jail and death is a second common point; the knowledge of oneself, of the true liberty and true nobility is the third one. But Seneca is a Roman, and he incorporates in his philosophical system some Roman characteristics, such as looking for glory and the spirit of rivalry. M. v. A. quotes epistles (24, 70, 71, 104 for example) and the De uita beata to reenforce his demonstration.

Chapter 5 is titled ‘On teaching and learning’ and is based on a commentary on epistle 108. This last chapter is particularly worth reading because Seneca gives some clues about his own apprenticeship in philosophy. M. v. A. is interested in showing the different levels of reading and insists on some literary devices like metaphor and comparison, with the theme first being food, material food (it is well known that Seneca was a convinced vegetarian as a youth), and then of course spiritual food. The connection with medicine is well underlined before another important theme is introduced: the images used to explain the roles of the teacher and of the pupil. They are borrowed from the juridical vocabulary and the army’s world mainly. The process of learning is described with words borrowed from workers and sailors. Seneca defines what the teacher and the pupil should do, making us aware of the wrong attitudes both have sometimes, for example when the pupil comes to improve his mind, not his spirit. The following part of the chapter is a discussion of a short extract of epistle 95. M. v. A. analyses the way in which Seneca uses his numerous exempla (Laelius, Scipio, Tubero, Cato Minor, et al.), focusing on style used as the servant of the philosophical education.

The sixth chapter deal with the tragedies and their place in the works of Seneca: in one of these moments where M. v. A. shows how well he masters the bibliography (see pp. 99-100), he first reminds us the tragedies have been sometimes underconsidered as a mere presentation on the stage of the philosophical ideas which are exposed in the prose works or, sometimes, as more interesting than the dialogues and epistles. We have a parallel study of the prologue of Hercules furens and of the praefatio of the Quaestiones naturales : M. v. A. offers first a literary comment of the prologue (Juno’s laments) insisting on the antitheses, amplificatio, the use of cosmological vocabulary, and the catalogue of Zeus’ lovers. By doing so he suggests Seneca is a bridge between Ovid and Lucan. He shows how Juno uses exempla, refers to allegorical divinities the way Virgil and Ovid did, and follows a gradatio in such a way that she is preparing herself to bring Hercules into more trouble. The praefatio of the Quaestiones naturales shows an opposite change — it is a positive metamorphosis — but M. v. A. also uses this text to underline the great interest which Seneca showed his whole life long in cosmology. While ethics is only an instrument, a fight against oneself, cosmology is an end — the contemplation of the universe and the knowledge of its rules is the end at which the wise man aims, to be really like god. The example of Medea preparing herself to kill her own children reinforces the idea which had been developed with Juno’s monologue: how rhetoric can be used to create a negative change, because Medea incites herself, remembering her preceding crimes, to invent some new ones. M. v. A. chooses the concept of induction to describe the way the incitement present in words becomes a physical excitement, i.e., furor. Seneca also invents something new, which explains his influence on the following centuries.

M. v. A. then introduces the last part of his book, a presentation of Seneca’s influence: the caesura and the continuity are underlined by the titles, Das verwandelnde Wort I and II (‘The transforming word’). In the seventh chapter whose theme is the presence of Seneca in the Christian tradition, a first problem concerning the use of Seneca by the Christian writers is, as M. v. A. underlines, to avoid the confusion between the influence of Stoicism and Seneca’s own influence. What makes Seneca seductive to the Christian writers — his critic of pagan cults, his strong trend to monotheism, his preference for interiority — is well shown, with references to epistle 41 and to the Spanish baroque writer Quevedo (1580-1645) among others, as well as what remains a strong difference, i.e., Seneca’s conviction that someone can change by the effect of his own will and not by the effect of divine grace (no need to say Augustinus could not agree). A second part of this chapter, where M. v. A. uses epistle 6, deals with the idea of metamorphosis, suggesting a parallelism with Paul’s epistles: the sharing of good things, the importance of physical presence, and the idea a community exists because its members desire the same things are all points common to Seneca and the Christian tradition. The last part of the chapter insists on the style of preaching: there are some parallelisms between Ignatius of Loyola’s Exercises and Seneca, because they both want to change their reader, and between Seneca and Gracián (a Spanish Jesuit, 1601-1658), for the baroque touch in style. The conclusion shows that Seneca and the Christian writers share a strong will to choose the Good, and to try to unify words and deeds.

The following chapter focuses on Seneca’s influence on Montaigne. After a short biography, M. v. A. shows in a very subtle way how close the French writer is to the Roman one, even when he quotes him only to slip apart and arrive at a different conclusion. He sometimes borrows Seneca’s vocabulary but not the idea. The common points are numerous: friendship with oneself, wisdom without posing, internal freedom, the idea that to be good or bad is a matter of will, the unity of body and soul, critics against tradition whether literary or philosophic or pedagogic, intellectual freedom towards other authors. There is indeed an intellectual and stylistic meeting between Montaigne and Seneca, but M. v. A. does not forget to underline the differences: the influence of Epicureanism on Montaigne and his strong individualism.

The last chapter is about Seneca in the German literature and follows a chronological order. At first the Middle Ages, where scholars show a good knowledge of the Roman philosopher, with an insistence on the undogmatic character of his wisdom, on the choice of a sententia, only a phrase, to make the reader think, and finally the use of the De clementia. The fifteenth century is a time where Seneca’s influence on the poets, especially with the re-appearance of Latin dramas, is very strong. One of the most important examples of this influence is the Humanist Celtis (1459-1508) who translated Seneca, presented lectures on him and secured the representation of his plays. This influence on the German dramatic writers seems to vanish in the following century, while Calvin tries to use the De clementia in his debates with Catholic princes. The 17th century is a very good one for Seneca: there is a strong connection between this writer and baroque. Seneca’s influence is present in many fields, like drama (through the English comedy), ethics, natural sciences. Opitz, Gryphius, von Lohenstein are the most famous examples of this influence. On the other hand, and because of the Classicizing reaction with Lessing, Seneca is not very influential on the German theater of the 18th century, but remains very appreciated as a philosopher. The situation is somewhat the same in the 19th century, but Goethe’s strong interest in natural sciences and astronomy gives an advantage to the Quaestiones naturales. The second important writer who has been deeply influenced by Seneca, talking about style, is Nietzsche. The 20th century is a time of renewal for Seneca’s influence on the theater, with the example of Peter Hacks (who wrote a play on Seneca’s death), but this last part of the chapter starts actually with a novel, Und wenn du willst, vergiss, of Georg von der Vring (1889-1968), who is better known for his poems. M. v. A.’s presentation of Seneca’s presence in the German literature pays the usual debt to big authors and is very original because it opens other less famous paths of influence.

To conclude, M. v. A.’s clear style makes reading this book easy and pleasant; the bibliography is very complete and up to date; and some footnotes give precious indications on the doxography (see 4 p. 84-85 ; 1 and 6 p. 99 ; 1 p. 193) . The presentation is almost perfect: I give in a footnote the few typos I could find in order to help achieve a perfect second edition.3


1. Cf. P. Veyne, Sénèque. Entretiens, lettres à Lucilius, Paris, Laffont ‘bouquins’, 1993: see the preface which may be seen as a general criticism of Seneca but more than that, of the Stoa.

2. See M. Griffin, Seneca, 1976, which is quoted in some footnotes (see no. 1 p. 11) but forgotten in the bibliography, and I. Hadot, Seneca und die griechisch-römische Tradition der Seelenleitung, Berlin, 1959.

3. See p. 120 oblitterentur, p. 124 Grundätzlich probably for Grundsätzlich, 183 the French translation ‘ergotistes’ for Krittler (‘ergoteurs’ is the right word in French), p. 190 GIück, p. 191 Selbstbeob/achtung, p.210 HegeIschen.