BMCR 2022.12.15

The stylus and the scalpel: theory and practice of metaphors in Seneca’s prose

, The stylus and the scalpel: theory and practice of metaphors in Seneca's prose. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 91. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. xvii, 266. ISBN 9783110673579 $149.99.



This thought-provoking book owes its picturesque title to a painting, “The death of Seneca”, by the Caravaggesque 17th century painter Matthias Stomer (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy, Inv. Q1057). Stomer’s work depicts Seneca’s last moments and is inspired by the well-known Tacitean account of the philosopher’s death (Ann. 15,60,2-64). Stomer’s painting condenses two sequences of Tacitus’ narrative into a single scene: Seneca, represented as an old, emaciated and bearded man, offers an ankle to a surgeon-like figure, who is lancing it with a scalpel; meanwhile a scriptor in the background, holding a stylus, is writing Seneca’s last words under dictation. These two objects (the scalpel and the stylus) struck the imagination of Gazzarri, who rightly observes that according to Stoic doctrine the human soul is materially affected by the language, because both words and human soul are physical bodies, and, as such, can act and be acted upon. Thus, the stylus, which in Sen. Ep. 65,2 is a metonymic representation of writing, “stands out as the ultimate scalpel” (p. 5), being a material tool capable of modifying the physiology of the soul and treating its diseases.

Gazzarri’s book, which, as the subtitle indicates, deals with Seneca’s style, and, more particularly, with the theory and practice of metaphors in his prose works, is divided into two parts (Part I: Theory: Seneca’s Rhetorical Strategies Between Stoic Tradition and Modern Linguistics; Part II: Practice: The Text and the Body), each consisting of three chapters. The first chapter demonstrates that Seneca, like Aristotle, attributes to metaphor a cognitive potential: as Gazzarri rightly observes (p. 31), Seneca argues that, if it could be managed, it would be better to get rid of words and rely entirely on images (Sen. Epist. 75,2: si fieri posset, quid sentiam ostendere quam loqui mallem). Since for Seneca (Ben. 4,12,1) images (imagines) and metaphors (translationes) can be usefully employed to make something clear and visible (demonstrandae rei causa), Gazzarri concludes – and I agree with him – that metaphors, far from being stylistic accessories and mere means of ornamentation, have, in Seneca’s view, a strong cognitive relevance, because they can provide immediate illustrations of moral or logical concepts. As is well known, and as Gazzarri himself points out throughout the chapter, Seneca shares several assumptions of the stylistic theory of the Stoics. Like the ancient Stoics he believes that telling the truth (ἀληθῆ λέγειν) is equivalent to speaking well (εὖ λέγειν), and like them he considers clarity (σαφήνεια) and brevity (συντομία) virtues of style[1]. However, while aiming for clarity to some extent, the style of the early Stoics (particularly that of Chrysippus) appeared to Roman readers such as Cicero obscure and unsuited to the ear of the people[2]. For Chrysippus, in fact, telling the truth without mincing words was more important than being clear and comprehensible to the people[3], who, in the elitist view of the Stoics, were a mass of fools. Seneca seems to agree with Cicero’s judgement[4], and Gazzarri persuasively argues that the massive use of metaphors in Senecan prose represents an attempt to reform the style of the Stoics by making it immune to Cicero’s charge of obscurity. The chapter also contains useful observations on Papirius Fabianus as a model of σαφήνεια for Seneca.

The second chapter contains an interesting discussion of the main modern theories on the cognitive potential of metaphor and a helpful summary of some key concepts of the Stoic theory of knowledge. In the footsteps of Bartsch 2009, Gazzarri argues that metaphors are for Seneca a means for deconstructing reality and thus can help the reader to see things as they really are. Seneca’s deployment of imagines and metaphors would then contribute to the creation of a “visual language” that continuously requires visual engagement on the part of the reader, in an attempt, as it were, to overcome the verbal limits of language itself. The chapter also offers an intriguing comparison between Lucretius’ illustrative style and Seneca’s.

In the third chapter, Gazzarri argues that metaphors, as a means for deconstructing reality and dividing a macro-phenomenon into smaller, distinct units, are a valuable educational tool for Seneca, because through images and metaphors – that is to say, through discrete and iconic presentations of fragments of more complex realities – the reader acquires the skills necessary to deal with the most abstract and fundamental principles of Stoic philosophy (the decreta). Gazzarri rightly connects metaphors to the pars praeceptiua philosophiae, i.e., the protreptic part of philosophical teaching[5], which conveys particular precepts (praecepta) and prepares, also through rhetorical devices, for the reception of the decreta, which, on the contrary, are to be imparted through a less elaborated style.[6] The ‘visual’ quality of the prose that conveys the praecepta produces motus animorum moueri nolentium, i.e., ‘pre-emotions’[7], and aims to arouse the desire to learn; the teaching of the decreta instead appeals exclusively to the reason of the reader and can do without images and metaphors.

In the fourth chapter, Gazzarri analyzes the specific patterning strategies through which the metaphors are arranged in groups in order to engage the reader by means of a variety of sensory stimuli, which act physically on his soul and can help to heal it, functioning as a therapeutic tool. In this chapter Gazzarri introduces interesting concepts such as “reversible metaphor” (pp. 143-156).[8]

The last two chapters offer a sensible analysis of the influence of medical conceptions on Seneca’s figural language.

Gazzarri makes extensive use of previous bibliography and relies heavily on seminal works such as Traina 1974/2011[9], Armisen-Marchetti 1989 and Setaioli 2000. Nevertheless, his arguments are thought-provoking and often original, and his idea that Seneca’s metaphors are therapeutic and concretely ‘surgical’ is striking. All in all, the book under review is the most interesting contribution to the study of metaphor in Seneca since Armisen-Marchetti’s book.

I will now append a few brief remarks:

Gazzarri’s characterization of Seneca’s style is in tune with those given in two important works which are not included in the extensive bibliography that closes the volume (pp. 237-256): Trillitzsch 1962 and Calboli 1999. According to Trillitzsch’s definition[10], Seneca’s style would be the outcome of multiple influences: the stylistic and rhetorical doctrines of early and middle Stoicism, the Roman declamation of the early imperial age, and the paraenetic style of the so-called diatribe; all these components would be held together and harmonized by Seneca’s figurative and poetic language. Calboli[11], for his part, claims that Seneca is a follower of the ὁμοπαθεῖν doctrine[12] and that his style is ‘iconic’, insofar as it tends to adapt to each different situation and the details it wants to emphasize, overcoming the nature of the linguistic sign, which, for Saussure and modern linguistics, is arbitrary. In Seneca’s prose Gazzarri (passim) recognizes the same components as Trillitzsch, and, like Calboli, he sees the hallmark of Seneca’s style in the effort to “bypass the limits of human narration” (p. 235) and to “create a literary ‘zero-degree’, i.e., a narration able to flesh out the core of res as much as possible, as if showing the material notion signified by each” (p. 8).

Pp. 110-111: the interpretation of Posidonius’ Telosformel (Posidon. F 186 E.-K. = F 428 Th.) given by Gazzarri (“for Posidonius, life itself consists in and of contemplation”) is questionable: see Pohlenz 1948-1949, I, p. 237; II, pp. 121-122; Kidd 1988, II, pp. 672-673.

P. 111 n. 49: that Posidonius “notably diverges from Stoic orthodoxy” and “follows Plato in arguing in favor of the human soul’s being divided into the faculties of reason, emotion, and desire” is far from certain: see Tieleman 2003, pp. 198 ff. and passim (Tieleman’s brilliant book is unknown to Gazzarri).

P. 127: Gazzarri’s definition of lallatio as a synonym for gestatio and his description of it as “a form of ‘passive gymnastics’ that involved caring for one’s internal organs by means of passive stimulation” do not seem to have any basis. The word lallatio is never attested in classical Latin, and lalla, lallo, lallus have a very different meaning from gestatio.[13]

P. 138 n. 31: I cannot agree with Gazzarri’s claim that Cornutus’ Ἐπιδρομή (= Nat. Deor.) depends on the Posidonian theory of history: cf. Zago 2012, pp. 228-240.

P. 193: the text of Sen. Epist. 75,7 printed by Gazzarri (quando, quae multa disces?) is unacceptable. Read with Beltrami 1916, followed by, among others, Reynolds 1965, quando tam multa disces?.

P. 209: the text of Nicolaus of Rhegium’s Latin translation of Galen’s De causis contentiuis, 2,4 (CMG Suppl. Or. II, p. 134) should read as follows:

quando enim perustus quis fuerit a sole, transmutari aiunt necessario nostrum innatum spiritum et fieri calidiorem se ipso, infrigidato autem a frigore alterari secundum frigiditatem; paruis autem hiis fientibus nondum egrotare nos, si uero in tantum euertatur a crasi que secundum naturam particula, ut iam noceatur actus eius, egritudinem esse eius secundum discrasiam factam, causam coniunctam habentem spiritum calefactum immoderate uel infrigidatum uel sicc<atum uel humect>atum.

 P. 228: the text of Cornut. Nat. Deor. 31 (SVF 1,514) should read as follows: […] καὶ τοξότης δ᾽ ἂν ὁ θεὸς παρεισάγοιτο κατά τε τὸ πανταχοῦ διικνεῖσθαι καὶ κατὰ τὸ ἔντονόν τι ἔχειν καὶ τὴν τῶν βελῶν φοράν.[14]


Works cited

Armisen-Marchetti, Sapientiae facies. Étude sur les images de Sénèque, Paris 1989.

Bartsch, Senecan Metaphor and Stoic Self-Instruction, in S. Bartsch, D. Wray (eds.), Seneca and the Self, Cambridge 2009, pp. 188-217.

Beltrami (ed.), L.A. Senecae Ad Lucilium Epistularum moralium Libri I-XIII, Bononiae 1916.

C.O. Brink, Horace on Poetry, II, The Ars Poetica, Cambridge 1971.

Calboli, Il giudizio di Quintiliano su Seneca, in I. Dionigi (ed.), Seneca nella coscienza dell’Europa, Milano 1999, pp. 19-57.

I.G. Kidd, Posidonius, II, The Commentary, Cambridge 1988, 2 vols.

A.D. Leeman, Orationis ratio, Amsterdam 1963, 2 vols.

Pohlenz, Die Stoa, Göttingen 1948-1949, 2 vols.

L.D. Reynolds, L.A. Senecae Ad Lucilium Epistulae morales, Oxonii 1965, 2 vols.

Setaioli, Facundus Seneca, Bologna 2000.

Traina, Lo stile drammatico del filosofo Seneca, Bologna 2011 (third reprint of the fourth edition; first edition 1974).

Trillitzsch, Senecas Beweisführung, Berlin 1962.

Zago, Sapienza filosofica e cultura materiale. Posidonio e le altre fonti dell’Epistola 90 di Seneca, Bologna 2012.



[1] Cf. Diog. Laert. 7,59 (SVF 3, Diog. Bab. 24); Pohlenz 1948-1949, I, p. 53; II, p. 31; Leeman 1963, I, p. 277; II, p. 477; Setaioli 2000, pp. 111-217.

[2] Cf. p. 33 of Gazzarri’s book; see also Traina 1974/2011, pp. 122-124.

[3] Cf. Plut. Stoic. Repugn. 28,1047b (SVF 2,298).

[4] Cf. Sen. Ben. 1,4,1, an interesting passage that Gazzarri does not cite but which would have corroborated his argument.

[5] Sen. Epist. 95,1: haec pars philosophiae quam Graeci paraeneticen uocant, nos praeceptiuam dicimus.

[6] Cf. Sen. Epist. 75,1: sermo […] inlaboratus et facilis. Seneca discusses praecepta and decreta, also from a stylistic point of view, in Epist. 94 and 95, on which see Setaioli 2000, pp. 111-120. Gazzarri’s third chapter owes much to these pages by Setaioli.

[7] Sen. Ira, 2,2,5; see pp. 91-92 of Gazzarri’s book.

[8] In Gazzari’s words (p. 156) a metaphor “is ‘reversible’ […] because the whole strategy makes it possible for the figural level to be activated, but then redirected again towards the literal. We have therefore a cognitive circle that moves from the literal to the figural and then reverses to the literal again”.

[9] Gazzarri (p. 6) rightly calls Traina’s book “a masterpiece”.

[10] Trillitzsch 1962, p. 2.

[11] Calboli 1999, pp. 45-50.

[12] Cf. Hor. Ars, 101-107 and Brink 1971, ad locum.

[13] Lallationi was conjectured by Hemsterhusius at Quint. Inst. 1,10,32; Hemsterhusius ascribed to lallatio the meaning of lallus (i.e., ‘lullaby’), but the word never appears in classical Latin, and in Quintilian’s passage the transmitted reading (adlectationi) is probably sound.

[14] There are several misprints and other minor errors in both Greek and Latin. Most of them (e.g., διασροφή, p. 89 n. 5 l. 13; μακράνθροπος, p. 103 n. 34 l. 3; καθάρσις, p. 137 n. 26 l. 4; p. 187 n. 52 l. 13; non enim da natura uirtutem, p. 137 n. 29 l. 5; conuersare, p. 209 l. 24) are harmless, but the typo περιέπεσον for περιέπεσεν (p. 197 l. 5) and the polar error decreta for praecepta (p. 119 l. 9) are insidious.