BMCR 2016.06.13

Metaphorical Coherence: Studies in Seneca’s Epistulae Morales. Studia Graeca et Latina Ludensia, 20

, Metaphorical Coherence: Studies in Seneca’s Epistulae Morales. Studia Graeca et Latina Ludensia, 20. Lund: Lund University, 2015. 84. ISBN 9789163794254. (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Along with the ongoing rise in interest in and attention to Seneca’s philosophical and dramatic works, the study of his Letters has also become increasingly popular. This volume, which focuses on the Letters, is Aron Sjöblad’s contribution to the discussion of imagery (metaphors and similes) in Seneca’s prose works. Sjöblad focuses on addressing how individual metaphors within the Letters interact with each other and thus, how they are better understood as a collective system rather than as stand-alone rhetorical objects, an approach that sets his work apart. By examining the coherence of Seneca’s metaphorical system, he argues that we can gain a richer, more nuanced understanding of both individual metaphors and the system as a whole. This interpretation is a logical one to follow, especially given the main topic of Seneca’s Letters, Stoic philosophy, a system in which the coherence of individual parts is a fundamental tenet of the conceptualization of the universe. The breadth of examples and orderly approach neatly accomplish what Sjöblad has set out to do in this volume: to re-categorize individual metaphors within a conceptualized, coherent system.

This book is divided into four chapters: three studies of specific categories of metaphor, each accompanied by its own brief conclusion, and a short general conclusion to the work as a whole. Each chapter is divided into four sub-sections, devoted to specific types of metaphor or aspects of Sjöblad’s argument. Sjöblad refers to the categories of metaphor as “source domains,” a term adopted from the linguistic and philosophical study of metaphors and other imagery, particularly that of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson;1 the things which each metaphor describes are called “target domains.”

The first chapter deals with Seneca’s use of the human body as a source domain and how the body can serve as a comparison for the soul. The “body-soul metaphor” (23) incorporates depictions of physical movements, posture, health or disease, movements in a mental or “abstract metaphorical landscape” (34), and potentially violent encounters with enemies ( e.g., Fortune) within that abstract landscape. One strong observation in this chapter is that words and phrases within a simile or metaphor can act both concretely and abstractly. One particularly striking example Sjöblad uses demonstrates how Seneca contrasts bodily weakness and mental strength via his friend Claranus “wrestling with his own body” ( cum corpusculo suo conluctantem, Ep. 66.1), wherein “the body itself is the enemy, and the image that Seneca conjures up is that of two wrestling bodies, one of which is the metaphorical body of the soul” (30). Sjöblad’s observations and analysis are here, as elsewhere in the volume, both insightful and concise.

The second chapter begins with a more detailed treatment of Lakoff and Johnson’s metaphor theory and then examines a number of metaphors that Sjöblad groups together under the concept of a defended inner space, especially as it pertains to the soul. This generalized source domain allows Sjöblad to tie together a collection of seemingly disparate metaphors that both “share the idea of an inner space that needs to be protected from the outer world” and represent the “many-faceted nature of the threats to the ‘inner space’” (59). Within this broad source domain, the specific metaphors range from those depicting the soul as a fortified city under attack, the fear of uncontrollable external influences ( e.g., death, the crowd’s influence, the non-rational mind), commerce, the stage/drama, and slavery. These metaphors at first seem too different to fall into the same category, perhaps in part due to the chapter’s title, which focuses on the “fortress of the mind” metaphor. Sjöblad, however, makes a fairly convincing argument that they can be considered as parts of a single source domain by showing how the distinctness of the human mind/soul can be portrayed spatially. He gives a clear explanation of how issues of buying/selling, drama, and slavery are part of the “inner space” of the soul: because of the distinction between the self – and specifically the mind/soul of the aspiring Stoic philosopher – and the outside world, anything from external sources (the acquisition or trade of material possessions, the projection of a character, the control acted upon a slave) is a danger to apatheia (51) or ataraxia (57) and, therefore, highlights the inner/outer dichotomy.

The third chapter looks at the similarities between two categories of metaphor that use the image of a road or path, which Sjöblad calls the iter ad sapientiam metaphor and the iter vitae metaphor. This chapter is quite strongly developed. He gives an explanation of purpose (section I), an examination of the iter ad sapientiam (Section II) and iter vitae (Section III) metaphors, and finishes with an analysis of the common source domain (Section IV). Sjöblad sets out to resolve a potential inconsistency in Seneca’s metaphorical system, the issue of suicide, given death and wisdom as the respective end points of the iter vitae and iter ad sapientiam metaphors.2 By explaining the bounds of each, wherein the iter ad sapientiam encompasses ideas of moving uphill or leaving the “right” path, while the iter vitae can represent the end of life as the end of a journey, Sjöblad concludes that “it seems as if Seneca is making the point that wisdom is achieved when the soul leaves the body, whether this happens by suicide or by natural death” (73). The fourth chapter, a short conclusion that sums up the previous chapters and explains how they might be considered together, concludes the book’s argument.

The main purpose of this book is to suggest and demonstrate the value of re-categorizing the metaphors in Seneca’s Letters. Because Sjöblad sets out to do something new with this approach to metaphor in Senecan prose, he often cites the most relevant sections of prior scholarship (especially that of Steyns, Smith, Tietze, Armissen-Marchetti, and Bartsch) without interacting with it to a great degree.3 It is just this innovation, however, that makes more interaction unnecessary. His incorporation of metaphorical theory—especially the “conceptual metaphor” (8) as described by Lakoff and Johnson—is the most significant addition to the study of Senecan prose and metaphor. The analysis of metaphors from the Letters, however, may be too concise. While each metaphor listed does illustrate the larger idea of its chapter and subsection, an explanation of how each relates to the others is often most clear in the conclusion at the end of the chapter. These conclusions are also concise, but are very efficient in their statement of the main argument and its relation to other chapters within this book as well as to how the argument contributes to current scholarship.

Something the author does not note explicitly are occasions when an individual metaphor refers to more than one source domain. In an example quoted from Ep. 89.1, Seneca writes, rem utilem desideras [sc. Lucili] et ad sapientiam properanti necessariam, dividi philosophiam et ingens corpus eius in membra disponi, a sentence that touches on both the road metaphor (indicating the progress ad sapientiam) and the body metaphor ( in membra). Although Sjöblad does compare the methodology of the body-soul metaphor and the road metaphor, no outright analysis of the overlap in this particular example occurs (63). However, the collection of multiple examples of each kind of metaphor within a source domain allows the reader to see exactly the point Sjöblad is making: because a single example may contain multiple source domains, the metaphorical system is coherent and must be understood in this way in order to truly comprehend its extent and the subtlety in Seneca’s use of these images.

Sjöblad’s writing style is clear and direct. Factual errors are few and far between, consisting mostly of minor typographical issues.4 All Latin quotations are translated and the English text, based on R. M. Gummere’s Loeb editions,5 has been altered by Sjöblad, though his methodology in this regard is somewhat unclear. In places, the alterations are very minor; in two places in the volume, Sjöblad’s changes result in different translations of a single passage ( e.g., Ep. 7.2 on pages 33 and 47).6 Though the force of the argument is not lost, one might expect to find consistent translations in a volume concerning coherence. Ultimately, these issues are minor and do not detract from the argument or the volume.

By incorporating the idea of the conceptual metaphor, along with the ideas of source and target domains, Sjöblad convincingly addresses Senecan metaphor as a system of interconnected parts. While this method need not entirely change the way we read the Letters as a whole, it does provide another approach to metaphor that is both informative and useful. For those interested in connections between Seneca’s worldview and his practice of writing philosophy, Sjöblad’s demonstrably connected yet widely varying collection of metaphors is a valuable resource. This volume is sure to inspire further scholarship on metaphor in the Letters and in Seneca’s wider corpus of philosophical writing.

Table of Contents

1. The Metaphorical Connection between Body and Soul in the Epistulae
Conclusion of Chapter 1
2. Seneca’s Fortress of the Soul and Related Metaphors
Conclusion of Chapter 2
3. The Relation between the iter ad sapientiam and the iter vitae Metaphors in the Epistulae
Conclusion of Chapter 3
4. General Conclusion
Select Bibliography
Index Locorum


1. See Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago.

2. For which, see Lavery, Gerard B. (1980) “Metaphors of War and Travel in Seneca’s Prose Works,” Greece & Rome, 2 nd series, 147-57.

3. These five sources comprise the bulk of previous research to which Sjöblad refers: Steyns, D. (1906) Étude sur les Métaphors et Comparisons dans les Oeuvres en Prose de Sénèque le philosophe. Ghent.; Smith, Charles S. (1910) Metaphor and Comparison in the Epistulae ad Lucilium of L. Annaeus Seneca. Baltimore.; Tietze, Victoria S. (1985) The Imagery of Morality in Seneca’s Prose Works. Hamilton, Ontario.; Armissen-Marchetti, Mireille. (1989) Sapientiae Facies. Études sur les images de Sénèque. Paris.; Bartsch, Shadi. (2009) “Senecan Metaphor and Stoic Self-Instruction,” in Seneca and the Self, edited by Shadi Bartsch and David Wray, Cambridge, 188-217.

4. I found only a backwards quotation mark (23 n. 59), a missing space between a semicolon and the following word (61 n. 92), an error on a middle initial Gerard B. (not M.) Lavery (80), and an extra ‘s’ at the end of a verb (26).

5. Gummere, Richard M. (1917, 1920, 1925) Seneca: Epistulae Morales, volumes 1-3. Cambridge, Mass.

6. The difference is noticeable, though the variations do not seem to change the emphasis of the line at all: Inimica est multorum conversatio: nemo non aliquod nobis vitium aut commendat aut imprimit aut nescientibus adlinit (7.2) is translated on page 33 as “Consort with the crowd is harmful. There is no person that will not make a vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us without our notice therewith,” but on page 47 as “To consort with the crowd is harmful. There is no person who will not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us without our knowing therewith.”