BMCR 2007.08.42

Seeing Seneca Whole: Perspectives on Philosophy, Poetry and Politics

, , Seeing Seneca whole : perspectives on philosophy, poetry, and politics. Columbia studies in the classical tradition, v. 28. Leiden: Brill, 2006. 1 online resource (xviii, 222 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9789004150782. $139.00.

Table of Contents

However resistant one might be to the notion of interaction between literature and the historical, socio-political climate in which it was produced, it is difficult to deny that Seneca—poet, philosopher, politician and imperial tutor—demands a coherent and interdisciplinary approach to do justice to his output. Recent scholarship has tended to shed new light on selected genres of Seneca’s writings, especially tragedy and philosophy.1 By contrast, the present volume, based on a Seneca conference in 2004 and edited by Katharina Volk and Gareth Williams, is, to my knowledge, the first to bring together scholars and ideas on Seneca’s output in general in a bid to ‘see Seneca whole’. The aim of the volume is to explore Seneca from a broad range of perspectives. The ‘wholeness’ that Volk and Williams envision, therefore, is not so much thematic (certain genres get much more coverage than others—see below) as conceptual: the application to Seneca of the ‘whole’ range of theoretical and interdisciplinary approaches (xiv).

Given the range of ideas expressed in this volume, it would be beneficial to summarise each paper in turn.

The first two contributions provide fitting, ‘panoramic’ introductions to Seneca in general. Richard Tarrant (pp. 1-17) puts together some of the most pervasive aspects of Seneca’s thoughts and writing style. Particularly valuable here is the discussion of the perennial enigma of why Seneca accentuates the negative in his writings (pp. 5-11): is he influenced by the genre of declamation? Is he simply fascinated by the gruesome? Or does he find negative foils most effective in directing us towards proper behaviour: i.e., are the wise man and his wisdom too remote and unappealing to provide a useful role-model?

James Ker (pp. 19-41), taking on board the pervading opinion of the ancients, insists on our viewing the Senecan corpus whole: different genres and themes, then, are merely different sets of materials on which the same author exercised his talents. In fact, Seneca can be seen to downplay generic boundaries in his works by avoiding intertexts with obvious generic predecessors and by creating connections between his own works in different genres. Particularly interesting here is Ker’s brief overview (pp. 40-1) of a new approach to Seneca that argues against the charge of hypocrisy in his dealings with money: if we view Seneca as a politician who just happens to be a philosopher (rather than the other way round), we can discern a ‘language of economics’ that governs all his writings.

The first focused contributions take up Seneca’s special brand of Stoicism in his philosophical works. John Cooper (pp. 43-55) teases out two peculiar features of Seneca’s pose as philosophical instructor in the Letters to Lucilius. First, Seneca differs from Greek Stoic authorities by setting himself up as a moral advisor who is himself aiming at self-improvement: he is a fellow-struggler, rather than an expert. Secondly, Seneca’s Stoic teaching is seen to embody an apparent contradiction: at one time, he states that, in order to have a sound Stoic mind, one must understand the reasons behind the philosophy; at other times, however, he appears to undermine this fundamental position by being dismissive about engagement in Stoic logic problems.

Katja Vogt (pp. 57-74) analyses the complexities of anger as an emotion for the Stoics, and assesses Seneca’s treatment of it in De Ira. Seneca is seen to be in agreement with the general Stoic viewpoint—that anger is a desire for a future outcome (revenge), rather than a pain—and yet he admits a painful aspect to the emotion by setting out three potential stages of anger, the first of which is resentment towards a perceived wrong.

Jula Wildberger (pp. 75-102) tackles the Stoic theory of cognition, whereby the Stoic student needs to acquire ‘grasping impressions’ of truth in order to become wise. Wildberger demonstrates that, although Seneca is fully aware of this theory, he does not deal with it directly in the Letters to Lucilius, but instead concentrates on the before and after: what hinders us from having grasping impressions in the first place, and what prevents us from retaining them for very long. Seneca deals with the former by leading the student away from false opinions and getting him to perceive things more closely, so that he can then set appropriate action in motion. Seneca deals with the latter issue by strengthening the student’s mind to reject false but convincing impressions, and thus avoid ‘weak’ assent.

Wolfgang-Rainer Mann (pp. 103-22) concentrates on an instance of intertextuality between Seneca’s twelfth Letter to Lucilius and Virgil’s Aeneid. The death of Dido at the end of Aeneid 4 raises, but leaves unresolved, the issue of whether or not a mortal can die before their allotted time: an inconclusive debate is aired between the gods, the epic narrator and Dido herself. From the Stoic viewpoint, however, things are more clear-cut: Dido is correct in her interpretation that she has lived out the life allotted to her; she is like the wise Stoic who holds life as worthless and sees death as part of Fate’s design. When her words are transferred to the character of Pacuvius in Letter 12, however, tragedy is transformed into farce. Set up as a negative foil for the Stoic student, Pacuvius, with his daily rehearsal of his own funeral rites, is shown to be a fool still obsessed with life: he mouths Stoic doctrine, but fails to understand its significance.

In the last contribution devoted to the Letters to Lucilius, John Henderson (pp. 123-46), in his own inimitable style, provides a densely packed sequential reading, developing the conceptual connections between physical and moral journeying explored in greater depth in his 2004 book.2 Henderson focuses on a particularly memorable sequence in Seneca’s travelogue and argues that it can be read as a metaphor for the journey of the Stoic student. Seneca first draws to our attention places of high sensory pleasure—Baiae (Letter 51), Vatia’s villa (Letter 55) and the bath-house (Letter 56)—which are meant to act as negative foils, a guide to where not to locate body and moral self. In Letter 57, by contrast, Seneca takes a journey through the crypta Neapolitana, the tunnel that connects Naples and Puteoli. Seneca’s struggle through the dark, muddy, dusty and claustrophobic tunnel becomes a metaphor for the struggling, Stoic student. But this dank tunnel creates, paradoxically, a moment of enlightenment: Seneca’s overcoming of fear (esp. of death) in this non-pleasurable environment encourages the Stoic student to release himself from the everyday thrills (and vices) of sensory perception.

Turning to a different branch of philosophical instruction, Gareth Williams (pp. 147-73) provides a very close analysis of the Consolatio ad Helviam Matrem, and argues that the work goes far beyond its localised purpose of comforting a mother’s grief. Seneca extends the notion of exile into many modes of social estrangement, and ambitiously aims to detach Helvia (and the reader) from reliance on any external circumstances by consolidating an ‘inner core of self-sufficiency’ (p.149). An important part of this teaching is to encourage the reader to abandon local affinities of place and invest instead in the idea that we are all living under the same cosmos. In doing so, Seneca opens up the Consolatio to wider, political implications. By viewing Rome in the context of the constant migration of peoples in and out of cities, Seneca challenges the solidity and fixity of Roman imperium and provides the reader with philosophical protection against aggressive Roman power.

Williams’ contribution ends by assessing the political nature of Seneca’s literary output, and the final two contributions develop further the complex interaction between Senecan literature and Neronian politics. In a short but very effective piece, Spencer Cole (pp. 175-82) argues that, far from mocking the construct of imperial deification, the Apocolocyntosis actually attempts to rescue its reputation, at an early stage in its development, by distancing Claudius from Augustus. A distinction is made between Claudius, who is never referred to as divine and whose apotheosis is ordered, and Augustus, who is referred to as a god and whose apotheosis is earned through merit. Consequently, the work serves a didactic purpose by placing before the young Nero models of good and bad imperial behaviour with regard to (the politics of) deification.

In the final contribution, Katharina Volk (pp. 183-200) turns her attention to Thyestes and looks again at the problems of timing that surround the solar eclipse, whereby different characters at different points during the play describe the eclipse as a current event. Volk offers two new means of interpretation. First, on a philosophical level, it is noticeable that, whereas all other characters in the play attribute the sun’s disappearance to the earthly atrocities of Atreus, the Chorus alone take up a philosophical viewpoint in understanding the eclipse in terms of Fate and the periodic destruction of the cosmos. Thyestes, then, gives voice to and leaves unresolved two opposing explanations for natural phenomena—fate v. human fault—and this is seen to be consistent with Seneca’s Stoic posturing elsewhere. Secondly, on a political level, Volk argues that Atreus, delighted at the eclipse, effectively assumes the position of the new Sun god. This might allude critically to Nero’s own fascination with and assimilation to the Sun god in his later years (the play is therefore assigned to the last years of Seneca’s life).

Overall, as I trust the summaries above indicate, this is a very good and diverse set of papers. The only real reservation I have is, in fact, anticipated in the introduction by the editors themselves (xviii). A reader expecting Senecan ‘wholeness’ in this volume may be disappointed by a certain thematic imbalance: there is a concentration on philosophical material, which gravitates around the Letters to Lucilius, at the expense of tragedy, the Natural Questionsand, more generally, the political Seneca in his Neronian setting. I also felt, at times, that certain ideas could have been developed to increase the sense of ‘wholeness’. For example, Vogt’s comments on Seneca’s ‘stages of anger’ are very interesting, but I would like to have known whether or not this system carries through to the angry tyrants in his tragedies.

But no set of papers can achieve everything that an individual reader, or indeed Seneca demands. The volume certainly succeeds in its aim to offer interesting snapshots (xviii) and ‘[shed] fresh light on, and [ask] stimulating questions of, particular works, parts of works and the shape or construction of the Senecan oeuvre as a whole” (xv). For anyone serious about Seneca, especially his Stoicism, there are rich pickings to be made here.


1. For Senecan philosophy, see in particular, P. Veyne (2002), Seneca: The Life of a Stoic, London, and B. Inwood (2003), Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome, Oxford; also new commentaries on De Otio and De Brevitate Vitae by G. Williams (Cambridge 2003), and on select Epistulae Morales by B. Inwood (Oxford 2007). For Senecan tragedy, see in particular the recent Duckworth ‘Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy’.

2. J. Henderson (2004), Morals and Villas in Seneca’s Letters: Places to Dwell, Cambridge.