Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Monday, March 1, 2010

Seneca the Elder

The importance of Lucius or Marius Annaeus Seneca (called Seneca the Elder) for literary criticism is largely historical. He represents his age in taste and opinions, and he has preserved for posterity records of many oratorical works that would otherwise be lost. He gives the reader an idea of what was appreciated by a connoisseur shortly after Cicero’s time and an anthology of texts embodying those values, but he also represents an attitude toward literature that is less historically bounded.

For Seneca literature is characterized by the Horatian formula that passed naturally through Augustine into the Christian Middle Ages and that continues to be taken seriously by many contemporary critics: it should delight and also instruct. In Seneca the hedonism of literary delight (which risks frivolity and triviality) and the semi-Stoical moralizing that characterizes his instruction may seem specific to the writer’s era, but many of his received ideas persisted through Victorian British pedagogues to our own day.

It can, however, no longer be said that education is centered, as it was for Seneca, in language skills of reading, writing, and speaking. Excellence in that evolutionary anomaly of our species, the manipulation of verbal symbols, was once the most highly regarded of abilities not in the ancient Mediterranean alone, but in China and India, and in the oral cultures of West Africa and Polynesia. Only in our own day has education lowered its ambition to the merely vocational.

The elder Seneca – sometimes called Seneca Rhetor (though he was not a professional orator) to distinguish him from his more prominent son, the philosopher and tragedian, was born to an equestrian family in Cordoba in Spain ca. 54 B.C.E. The city was thoroughly Romanized, the most important in the province, and supported a high level of cultural life, but Seneca was sent to Rome to complete his studies. Rhetoric, logic, and literature formed the basis for the educational system, and as a young man Seneca had the opportunity to hear most of the leading orators of the day, anecdotes and specimens of whose work he was to record much later in life.

He seems to have spent much of his career tending his Iberian estates, though few details are known of his life. His son describes him according to the conventional ideals of Roman manhood after the model of Cato (whom the father regarded as an oracle). Seneca is said to have been old-fashioned and stern, a pious man and a patriot. The fragment that is all that survives of his historical work and several passages in his rhetorical texts indicate that he considered Roman society as much degenerated from earlier times, but this belief, too, is a moralizing commonplace and does not necessarily reveal any personal attribute beyond respectability. Seneca the Younger tells of his father’s dissuading him from vegetarianism, and the elder man did seem to have been distrustful of systematic philosophy, though less so of Stoicism (in the history of which his son was to play an important role).

Seneca’s rhetorical work was composed toward the end of his life putatively as instructional material for his descendants. Though this claim is yet another conventional topos (cf. Lord Chesterfield or Ben Franklin), the place of the volume in the school context is clear – it claims to reproduce, after all, the author’s own education. The proper title for the whole is Oratorum et rhetorum setentiae divisiones colores, an apt description of the work. It consists of a chrestomathy of passages (of a sort popular until quite recently) from declaimers of Seneca’s youth whom he thinks to be superior to those of later times and thus especially valuable examples for imitation by the young. Both the prodigious feat of memory implied by this task and the didactic intent are intrinsic to Seneca’s concept of the work. He approached it, however, with the nostalgia of an old man for his school days and the affection of a connoisseur for his collection, though his tone sometimes shifts to condescension, as he notes at one point that the topic of rhetoric has become for him tedious and that it is in any event “no serious matter.”

Each volume of the book – more commonly today treated as two separate works, the Controversiae and the Suasoriae – begins with a preface that moves informally among a number of topics but that generally tells something of the styles and personalities of the speakers, followed by the anthology of excerpts from their speeches.

The Controversiae consisted originally of ten books, each of which included passages from speeches dealing with six to nine legal cases. These cases were, for the most part, unlikely and artificial, often including curious or sensational details and posing in riddle-like conundrums. For example, the law provided that a rape victim could require that her attacker marry her or that he be put to death. What, then, of the case of a rapist who has two victims, one of whom demands his execution and the other his hand? Another case involves a soldier who, having lost his own weapons, takes those that had been dedicated at a hero’s tomb. Having fought bravely, should he still be convicted of sacrilege? A third case supposes that a youth was disinherited by his father for aiding his uncle financially. Later, the father himself falls into distress and the son offers him aid as well, thus angering the uncle and causing him, too, to disinherit his loyal relative. Should this filial son indeed lose all rights to inheritance?

For each case, Seneca gives the relevant law, then the “theme,” or case particulars, and then lines or passages representing each side. Then follow several possible divisions, called by Seneca the “bare bones” of the case – that is, the outline or principles of arrangement of the materials (often conventional, for instance, the contrast of pure equity and law).

Next are examples of colores, ways of approaching the facts that are favorable to the speaker’s point of view. Last comes a section of miscellaneous material. Such fanciful legal cases had been used in schools at least since the time of Aeschines’ academy in Rhodes in the fourth century B.C.E. The aim of the cases was not so much to develop legal acumen as ingenuity, pure verbal display for its own sake, an aesthetic use of language. In fact, Seneca decries the replacement of the “glorious art” of declamation by sordid business – which is to say, more pragmatically focused discourse.

sententiae are sometimes pithy, moralizing epigrams, but more often they are simply lines striking for their wit, their wordplay, and their novelty – little verbal firecrackers. The reader may then understand why Seneca offers such brief one-liners for the most part – he was more interested in bons mots than in discovery of truth or great thoughts.

The Suasoriae are generally thought to have been written somewhat later. They are excerpts from persuasive speeches (related to deliberative oratory as the Controversiae are to forensic) of advice to or analysis by historical or legendary figures, often allowing picturesque or exotic material. Such examples as these, too, had been used in schools for centuries, especially for younger students. Such exercises are discussed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and in the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum. Certain of them were already classic set pieces, some to be used into the twentieth century in tradition-minded German and English institutions. These exercises included such dilemmas as Alexander wondering whether to sail the ocean in search of further conquests or the three hundred Spartans who opposed Xerxes debating whether they should retreat with the other Greeks. In this volume the description of the theme is followed only by related sententiae.

To appreciate these texts, one must understand the place of rhetoric and of that form of rhetoric called declamation in ancient culture. The extent to which rhetoric provided the vocabulary and many of the assumptions and values of literary theory, not only in antiquity but through the Renaissance, virtually until the Romantic revolution, is a subject demanding further work. Today, of course, the term rhetoric suggests either the pedagogy of composition or public speaking, narrowly conceived. That oratory to Seneca was merely the central genre of literature as a whole (as tragedy was to Aristotle) is evident in his willingness to cite examples from comedy, lyric poetry, and even history as declamatory models.

Declamare originally signified simply to speak loudly or emphatically, but the word came to indicate speech in which rhetorical display was cultivated for purely aesthetic ends, while it needs to answer the utilitarian ends of deliberative speech (as practiced in the assembly or the senate), forensic speech (from the law courts), or epideictic speech. This last type is the clearest antecedent of declamation, but its early uses are typically to demonstrate “praise and blame,” generally with a clear aim of moral edification, if not a clearer one of patriotism or piety. Epideictic speech, though, evolved to a species of “art oratory,” appreciated for its own sake under the name declamation. Seneca was intimately familiar with declamation, for, as he tells his readers, it had been born “after him.” Though similar exercises had been part of education centuries earlier in Greece and Rome, declamation became a popular form of public entertainment in the time of Seneca’s youth. Figures of speech and thought, Gorgianic sound effects, and “Asiatic” excesses became highly prized for their own sake (as well as attacked), and such prominent Romans as Ovid, Maecenas, and even Caesar Augustus took the declamatory stage. Competitions became the rage, and “stars” such as those Seneca describes arose.

One factor in this trend toward artistic rather than functional uses of rhetoric is surely political. The emergence of the Empire brought about a situation in which to risk offending the ruler by voicing controversial opinions might prove unwise. Further, court reforms had made the old style of speeches in legal cases obsolete. Some of Seneca’s regret for the grand old days of oratory may be republican sentiment prudently camouflaged. Nevertheless, the same sort of suspicion with which the old Greeks such as Aristophanes regarded the sophists and rhetoricians of an earlier age persisted in conservative circles of the Roman world. The professors of rhetoric had at one point been banished (most were Greeks, for the profession had been thought rather an improper calling for a citizen). In spite of the ambivalence with which declamation was still viewed, it came to be at the core of the educational curriculum, a means of continuing education for adults (this trend, too, was still alive through the nineteenth century with its Athenaeums, Chatauquas, and the like), as well as being thought a pleasurable pastime in itself.

These, then, are the kinds of speeches Seneca records and comments on. He reproduces the social ambivalence toward the subject: in one preface he comments that academic pursuits such as declamation are amusing when lightly touched but become tiresome when dwelt upon and analyzed. He is a curious blend of the dilettante and moralist as he insists both on self-fulfilling amusement and character-building as proper ends of declamation.

Many of Seneca’s offhand comments support the view of literature as frivolous escapist entertainment. At the outset of the Controversiae he compares himself to a producer of shows, noting that novelty is a virtue in theatrical productions, gladiatorial exhibitions, and declamation. His own critical method is far from technical or theoretical; rather it is descriptive and digressive. Seneca never passes up an opportunity to note odd or interesting personal characteristics of his speakers, often giving attention to foibles that seem irrelevant to their work. His inquiring curiosity, while universal, is desultory rather than systematic, somewhat similar to the sensibilities of Montaigne or Robert Burton. Seneca is unfailingly attracted to individualism; unique qualities of style in a given speaker are what draw Seneca’s interest, not excellence in a traditional mode.

The same equation of character and style, however, can also lead to a moralistic view of rhetoric. Seneca’s expressed impatience with his own project, which he calls at one point “trivial dallying,” is consistent with his attacks on scholasticism and excesses of style. In this spirit he sees speakers of his own day as too devoted to verbal luxury; for him the tricolon is “this new sickness” and he cites with approval Cicero’s condemnation of overblown rhetorical display. He contrasts declamation as an art form with oratory and calls the former insubstantial, though he feels that the skills gained in the practice of declamation can heighten one’s abilities not merely in speaking but in all other arts as well. This very notion, of course, has been assumed throughout most of European education (as well as in China and elsewhere as well) in the placement of linguistic skills as the foundation of all education.

This educational role is linked with the positive side of Seneca’s equation of style and character. He quotes with reverence Cato’s famous definition that gives morals primacy: “An orator is a good man, skilled in speaking.” Thus, while the decline in declamation corresponds to a more profound deterioration in society, the educational remedy is available. Seneca supports memory training as a healthy discipline and thinks its neglect simply one sign of a general softness. Luxury, Seneca declares, destroys intellectual capacity. Bad character brings not only laziness but also an inevitable inability even to select worthy models, models both for writing and for behavior.

Seneca’s influence is difficult to trace. There are few direct mentions of him in the centuries following his own time, and it is often impossible to distinguish what may derive from Seneca from what derives more generally from the rhetorical tradition in which he participated. In his arguments for a more tempered rhetorical style he anticipates Quintilian and neo-Ciceronianism. For all his fondness for rhetorical ornament he advises moderation and condemns the wilder excesses of declamation and the cultivation of labored ingenuity as the basis for rhetorical education.

As anecdotes the controversiae have an independent history, many gaining popularity as miniature short stories for their strange and ironic twists of plot. Eleven of the narratives in the influential collection Gesta Romanorum are identical with stories in Seneca, though many were retold by various ancient authors. Among later writers who imitate Seneca or acknowledge his influence are Montaigne, Ben Jonson, and Abraham Cowley.

Seneca’s greatest importance in literary history consists in his preserving evidence of the literary opinions of his time and class. The samples of declamations he regarded as so highly entertaining are little read today, but his psychological theories have much in common with some ideas current today in educational policy-making and in popular attitudes toward literature. As a critic Seneca was highly impressionistic, taking no position in most of the controversies of his day and eschewing technical labels for stylistic characteristics, preferring to use terms like “tumultuous,” “solid,” and “excited.” For all his cautions against excessive scholasticism in literature, he dwells today almost exclusively in academe. He vividly records both the now faded taste for verbal ornament and the sober Roman morality that were alike characteristic of his day.


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